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Magazines Search Their Glossy Souls

Pity the poor editor who must choose, in these trying times, whether to run that really great feature on handbags.

November 07, 2001|PETER CARLSON | WASHINGTON POST

Amid the scramble to cover war, terrorism and anthrax, one heartbreaking side effect of the Sept. 11 attacks has received scant public attention: the self-doubt, hand-wringing and existential angst among the editors of America's fluffier magazines.

Newsmagazine editors know how to respond to horrific tragedy. They cover it. But what do you do if you're the editor of Vogue or Field & Stream?

The consensus seems to be: You agonize in print about the cosmic meaninglessness of your magazine, then you urge readers to fight terrorism by continuing to do exactly what they were doing before--particularly those activities that the magazine covers. That process has produced some of the most bizarre and entertaining editor's columns in American magazine history.

"This issue was supposed to be a music special," Vogue Editor in Chief Anna Wintour wrote in the November issue. "But after Sept. 11, that idea suddenly felt all wrong. For a moment it was as if, in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, we wanted 'to stand at moral attention forever."'

So Vogue stood at moral attention. How? By publishing "a heartfelt salute to American fashion." The salute consists of a cover photo of Britney Spears posed atop the flag, along with photos of models wearing clothes by American designers while waving a flag or waving two flags or sitting on a flag or wearing a flag pin on a blouse that's cut almost down to the navel.

That'll show those Taliban burka-mongers who's winning on the fashion front!

At Harper's Bazaar, "these tragic events made us, like everyone around the world, reassess what is valuable and important," wrote Editor in Chief Glenda Bailey. What's valuable and important? Handbags and shoes.

"Our aim is to share the thrill of finding the ultimate handbag or the perfect shoe; the one that fits you, suits you, and reflects your personal style."

Maxim, the magazine of guy humor and nearly naked babes, also wrestled with existential doubt. "It feels so wrong to 'get back to work' after what's happened, particularly when your job is putting out a sexy humor magazine," wrote Editor Keith Blanchard. "Our staff met in the early, shellshocked days ... and we talked about how much easier it would be to just throw in the towel."

But they concluded that's "exactly what [the terrorists] want." So they vowed to carry on. And they produced an issue packed with such terrorist-tormenting articles as "Touch Her Anywhere!" and "Win Sex With His Fiancee!"

Maxim's spinoff mag, Stuff, agonized, too: "Everything that was funny before--well, it's not so funny anymore," wrote Editor in Chief Greg Gutfeld. But he decided to honor America by publishing "S-E-X in the USA," a profusely illustrated story revealing "where to find the hottest women in the country."

"Our suggestion: Enjoy America's bombshells at home while others are enjoying America's bombshells abroad."

On Sept. 11, Field & Stream Editor Slaton White got a call from a tormented fisherman who wondered: "How can I go fishing after what happened this morning? It just doesn't seem right."

Go fish, White urged. "Because if we refrain from doing the things we love, then the bad guys have won. It's that simple.

Hunting and fishing are quintessential American activities, and going out on the water or into the field is, I believe, one way to demonstrate to ourselves and to the world that we won't bow to terror."

At Bon Appetit, Editor in Chief Barbara Fairchild urged readers to cook up a Thanksgiving turkey like the one on the cover. "I know that thinking about a meal like this right now may be almost impossible for some of you. But working in the kitchen with fresh ingredients, doing familiar tasks and enjoying the aromas can have a healing effect and therapeutic value."

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