Plot Twist

This essay appeared in the collection Fast Fierce Women, edited by Gina Barreca

by Sally Koslow

Had my great-grandmother had not lived in Minsk, she might have read McCall’s, which began in 1873 and lasted for 124 years. Along with Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, Redbook, Woman’s Day, Family Circle, and Better Homes & Gardens, it was one of the venerable Seven Sisters magazines. I was its last editor-in-chief.

To be honest, when I took over McCall’s, its glory days were in the past, when girls played with Betsy McCall paper dolls, not video games. But it was still a swell job for the editor of the high school newspaper in Fargo. I’d grown up with the McCall’s reader and, as a wife and mother, in many ways, was her (my meat loaf secret: applesauce). Magazines had taught me how to dress, spot skin cancer, and handicap the marriage prospects of Prince Charles.

At McCall’s I loved publishing disease-of-the-month articles that saved people’s lives; sharpening flaccid manuscripts; hiring smart people—women, mostly; popping in at celebrity cover shoots. The perks were appealing: dis- counts at posh hairdressers, tropical retreats, first-class travel to Paris, White House visits, and TV appearances.

When the time came for McCall’s to get a facelift, I worked with a big- shot designer, followed by a presentation to about twenty of the company’s business wonks. I unveiled each board, then waited for a response in a room so quiet I heard someone suck an Altoid.

“Great job,” said the company’s new president. (Let’s call him Ira, because I hate that name.)

“You all know Rosie O’Donnell.” Ira flashed a wolfish grin. “When she endorses a product, it flies off the shelf. If she had her own magazine, her celebrity friends would be on the cover.”

Ira eventually invoked the name of Oprah, whose eponymous magazine was one of the biggest triumphs the industry had seen. Both he and Rosie clearly had Oprah-envy, writ large. Ira asked for opinions. Each sycophant around the conference table praised the idea—until they got to me.

“You can’t compare Rosie to Oprah,” I observed. “Any woman can articulate what Oprah stands for—how to enhance your self-esteem, live your best life, show gratitude. It’s a relatable message and natural magazine material. Rosie? She’s sharp and funny (and acerbic!) but not the same golden goose.”

Some genius then blurted out, “What if we gave Rosie McCall’s and changed its name to Rosie?”

Quicker than you can say throw-the-bitch-under-the-bus, Ira struck a deal—with Rosie as an investor—to do just that. I was kicked upstairs to a nook with glass walls where I felt as exposed as a monkey at the zoo. I need not have worried about colleagues passing by to gawk, however. They avoided me altogether.

No sane person goes into the magazine industry expecting lifetime employment, but my situation was bizarre. Ira gave me the title of “editorial director,” which turned out to be the Potemkin Village of jobs, with virtually no responsibility.

I refused to quit. It wasn’t my fault that Ira was the crazy uncle who gave Rosie a magazine. There was also money on the table, and I had a child in college and bills to pay. If I resigned I’d get no severance, and probably no unemployment insurance. I filled my endless days with fake-work.

Did I mention I hated this job? No problem because, soon, it ended. I slunk back to job hunting.

Friends urged me to throw myself into one of my “hobbies.” I’d raised two sons while I worked 24/7. Full stop. I had no hobbies. But in order to see people other than my husband, I enrolled in a writing workshop. My initial submission was a piece of fiction about a Chanel sample sale.

I, who’d liked nothing better than writing seven-word cover lines, surprised myself by finding the bandwidth to write a 355-page book about a midwestern magazine editor who gets shunted aside by a hotheaded celebrity. It sold to Putnam in a preemptive bid from an editor whose claim to fame was discovering Peyton Place in the slush pile.

I decided that perhaps the universe was sending me a message, and— plot twist!—I switched gears. Subsequently, I’ve published four more contemporary novels, a historical novel, a nonfiction book, and many essays. Another novel and some kids’ books are in utero.

Now, when I want to catch my breath, I stop in the middle of a paragraph, walk to the park—and think, This is sweet, this book-writing thing.

Why didn’t I start it sooner?

Plot Twist 155