Ridgefield notables: Betsy Talbot Blackwell, magazine innovator

Betsy Blackwell

Betsy Blackwell

Jack Sanders

Betsy Talbot Blackwell was one of the 20th century’s top women’s magazine editors, leading Mademoiselle from 1937 until her retirement in 1971, and quadrupling its circulation. She refashioned not only her publication, but the field of women’s magazines.

“Her attention to the college and young career women was so successful that other fashion magazines like Vogue, Glamour and Harper’s Bazaar, began to imitate Mademoiselle’s youthful format,” The New York Times once reported.

Blackwell considered Mademoiselle a magazine of “good taste at a moderate price” rather than a “deluxe luxury magazine with emphasis on Paris fashion,” she told The Times.

Betsy Talbot was born in Verona, N.Y., in 1905. Her mother, Benedict Talbot, was a well-known fashion stylist for such retailers as Macy, Gimbel, Saks, and Lord and Taylor. Late in life, she lived at The Elms Inn on Main Street where she died in 1974.

When still a teenager in 1923, Betsy Talbot began writing about fashion and soon was assistant fashion editor at Charm magazine.

In 1935, she joined Mademoiselle, then new, and was editor of four sections, including fashion. Two years later, she was named editor in chief. Under her leadership, circulation rose from 178,000 in 1939 to 540,000 in 1953.

She brought innovation to her magazine. For instance, “she took plain young women to New York, where she put them in stylish clothes, restyled their hair and makeup and then put their pictures in her magazine,” said the Los Angeles Times. “The idea that an ordinary girl could be turned into a fashion model soon made Mademoiselle must reading for young women across the land.”

She also introduced fine writing, publishing the works of such authors as Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Joyce Carol Oates, Dylan Thomas and Eudora Welty. She was among the first to publish Gloria Steinem and other leaders of “women’s liberation.”

She created the “college issue,” in which she would bring in a group of college-age “editors” each summer to create the September issue. Among the many interns who worked on these issues was the poet Sylvia Plath, whose novel, “The Bell Jar,” was modeled after her experiences under Blackwell.

She was the first and only woman on the board of directors of Street and Smith, the magazine publishing company, and was once the only woman director of the Hanes Corporation. She was also a director of the Columbia University School of General Stud ies.

She was married to James Madison Blackwell III, a Wall Street lawyer, who died in 1961. Ten years later, she moved to West Lane to be closer to her son, James M. Blackwell IV, then a Newsweek executive and Ridgefield school board member. She died in 1985, age 79.

—Jack Sanders