There are four things Susan Taylor and Helen Gurley Brown have in common:
1. They came to represent women’s growing voices and independence;
2. As bold, iconic women, they edited bold, iconic magazines;
3. They and their public images came to be inextricably linked with those magazines;
4. Neither one actually founded or owned those magazines.
Cosmopolitan, which Gurley Brown took over in the mid-‘60s and edited for nearly 40 years, actually debuted in the late 1880s as a general interest magazine titled The Cosmopolitan, and had several iterations before she transformed it into, more or less, the publication we know today. And despite Taylor’s magnetic presence, inspirational writing and business savvy leading many to believe she was, in effect, the essence of Essence magazine, the premier periodical targeted to black women pretty much since its inception, the magazine wasn’t her idea.
In fact, Essence, like Good Housekeeping and Better Homes and Gardens and most of the other legacy women’s magazines, was started by men.
Yes, Essence, the magazine that gives black women space to know and see themselves, learn about their worlds, and grow from the experience like no other publication before and hardly any since, a publication single-mindedly devoted to that mission since day one, owes its existence to guys – four of them, actually.
The truly remarkable thing is that they were all black men, with zero publishing experience and about as much cash between them. What they had was little more than a gut notion that there was money to be made by catering to an untapped market.
Edward Lewis, who ended up spending 38 years with that start-up, recounts its journey to cultural multi-platform brand in his memoir The Man from Essence: Creating a Magazine for Black Women. It’s neither a particularly salacious tell-all nor a grippingly dramatic yarn, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t plenty of drama along the way.
Lewis, Jonathan Blount, Cecil Hollingsworth, and Clarence Smith were young, bright men trying to make a way for themselves in corporate America in the late ‘60s. They were among a band of like-minded brothas brought together by Russell Goings, an older black professional already in the loop as a vice-president at investment banking firm Shearson, Hammill and Company. Goings’ message to the group was simple: black people needed to be part of American business if black people were to achieve the full-blooded American dream. He was preaching the gospel of “black capitalism”. a popular notion especially in the early part of Richard Nixon’s first term as President. Goings’ charge was even simpler: come up with a money-making idea, and my firm will help you make it happen.
Blount, remembering his mom looking at images of white women in mag after mag, suggested starting a magazine targeted to black women. Goings thought that might be a good idea. So did Lewis, Hollingsworth and Smith. Goings convened a follow-up meeting with the four of them (a fifth participant came along, but soon dropped out). With not much more than an idea and enough seed money to open an office, The Hollingsworth Group was formed in 1969 with the purpose of launching a magazine just for the sistas.
That magazine would be called…Sapphire.
The brothas thought Sapphire would evoke the tough, resilient and sparkling qualities of both black women and the jewel. Fortunately, better heads (virtually all of them black and female) prevailed and another title was chosen, what with Saphhire also being the name of a stereotypical character from the Amos ‘n’ Andy series. The new title, stumbled upon by chance by the magazine’s first editor, Ruth Ross, was Essence.
The magazine debuted in May 1970, and was indeed nothing like anything the publishing world had seen. There was serious fiction, a celebrity profile, lush photography (courtesy of Gordon Parks, who would be a controversial figure during the magazine’s early years, and his son), and a cover story on interracial dating. But it all was geared to the perspective of the emerging black woman. Lewis and his team bet on the current and potential buying power of the black female market, and garnered just enough support to get their vision of the ground.
Just barely, that is. As with any start-up, funding was a constant worry (at a critical moment, Essence accepted, not without some consternation, $250,000 from – yes – Playboy). That editor who gave the magazine its name lasted exactly one issue. Power struggles between the four founders ensued and got ugly, with Lewis coming out on the other side as publisher and CEO (and Blount and Hollingsworth out of the picture, although they would harbor beef for years). Getting on newsstands was a challenge – heck, so was getting it to the printer on time. And for what probably seemed like the longest time at the time, editorial leadership stayed in flux.
Eventually, Essence hit its stride. As editor-in-chief during most of the ‘70s, Marcia Ann Gillespie solidified the magazine’s voice, and gave opportunities to rising young writers like Terry McMillan. Major consumer brands slowly but steadily came on board as advertisers, thanks in large part to Smith, who as sales director crafted a pitch to explain what the magazine was about and who it was for – in short, a narrative of the “Essence Woman” – that worked on Madison Avenue.
Taylor, who joined the staff early on as a beauty writer, rose to the editor’s chair in the early ‘80s, and went on to embody everything Essence stood for, becoming the glamorous, spiritual face of the brand as it branched out into syndicated TV, awards galas and eventually the highly successful Essence Music Festival. It also became a bit of a publishing conglomerate: in the ‘90s, it bought the entrepreneur-targeted Income Opportunities, launched the sister magazine Latina and strongly considered buying Vibe.
As it grew and became a mature, established business, Essence proved its founders’ bets were right: black women comprised a significant market with money to spend, and the right product with the right approach could virtually own it.
Eventually, the keepers of the big bucks would come for Essence itself. In the mid-‘80s, Lewis blocked a takeover attempt by John H. Johnson, the legendary publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines, although Johnson did succeed in becoming the largest individual shareholder. In 2000, Time Inc. bought 49 percent of Essence, right around the time Taylor finally wearied of being the editor and moved into the specially-created position of publication director (Smith, who had various other business aspirations, would be bought out in 2002). In 2005, Time bought the remaining 51 percent, and this highly successful black business was no longer even a little black-owned.
This generated more than a few shock waves throughout black America. Similar shudders reverberated when Berry Gordy sold Motown to a holding company in 1988 and when Robert Johnson sold Black Entertainment Television to Viacom in 2000. And let’s not forget the irony of a business born during the “black capitalism” era, and chronicling black women’s lives and times through the post-civil rights years, cashing out to the biggest publishing conglomerate in the land. But perhaps Essence’s “black capitalism” roots really did bear fruit: Lewis reports he and the other shareholders did quite well for themselves by the sale; after satisfying a contractual provision, Lewis and Taylor both left the company in 2008.
Essence has remained the standard for black women’s magazines, even as competitors ranging from the younger-skewing Honey and Heart & Soul to Oprah Winfrey’s O, The Oprah Magazine have nipped at its heels over the years (one could argue that the current iteration of Ebony, with its mix of female-centric sections, celebrity profiles and newsy features, is an unabashed attempt to slice away some of Essence’s readership). But while forests continue to give their lives in the name of Motown bios and analyses, and Johnson’s historic work has been well recognized, relatively little has been written about the growth of this iconic black brand.
Or, to be precise, the growth of this iconic black business. The brand itself marked its 25th anniversary with the coffee-table collection Essence: 25 years Celebrating Black Women (Harry N. Abrams, 1995), full of classic photography and passages from its back pages and with a brief summation by Taylor of the magazine’s birthing. But the emphasis there was on the style, soul and accomplishments of black women as portrayed in its pages, and how much it all meant to its core audience.
That’s to be expected; no one reads a magazine just because its founders had a lot of pluck. And all the pluck in the world wouldn’t have mattered if the magazine didn’t speak to its readers in a direct, personal way. As Taylor wrote in her introduction to the coffee-table book about her first encounter with Essence, as a young mom seeing the premiere issue on a newsstand:
… and I’d almost swear it leaped into my arms. I bought the magazine, hurried home, and devoured it from cover to cover; then reread it slowly, savoring every page, every image of chocolate-mocha mix-caramel-café au lait, and licorice-black beauty flaunted, every unapologetic truth told, every righteous take on the issues from our perspective. There were articles on careers and relationships, on travel, on women in the struggle. There were fashion and beauty, food and culture, news and poetry. Essence was more than just another women’s magazine. Essence was me.
The Man from Essence, on the other hand, is less celebration and more explanation of how a magazine with such an impact came to be. Lewis is quick to salute Smith’s hustle and determination, and give Taylor, Gillespie and the other pivotal editors, writers and photographers their due for taking the original gut notion and building a magazine with a fiercely loyal readership. He also praises Goines, whom he calls “the godfather of Essence”; more stories about Goines and other black corporate trailblazers would surely be enlightening. Aside from a few autobiographical side passages, if there was any impulse for Lewis, who stayed with the magazine the longest of the founders, to indulge in personal, score-settling vindication, he and co-writer Audrey Edwards kept it mostly in check (although he did title his introduction “The Last Man Standing”).
The story Lewis tells here, of an idea born in heady times resulting in both healthy returns for its investors and deep meaning for its customers, is just as significant, if not quite as picturesque, as the magazine itself. By going into detail about the magazine, The Man from Essence shows how businesses can become brands, and how disparate consumers can become an engaged community. Sometimes these days, it seems entrepreneurs think those things happen a lot quicker than they actually do. The kind of entrenched value Essence has achieved takes time, money, talent, perseverance, and some occasional, timely good luck.
Lewis and the people who built up Essence had all of that, plus one crucial distinction: a sense of purpose for what they were doing, a belief that their company, even as the bottom line was always a concern, was more than just dollars and cents. No women’s magazine since Essence was launched, and precious few titles of any other stripe since then, can say that, and point to both its history and its catalogue as living, breathing proof.