When I was a junior editor at Glamour, most of the contact I had with Ruth Whitney – the magazine’s editor-in-chief for 31 years, who died June 4 – was through the comments she wrote on idea memos and every piece of copy that went into the magazine. “Let’s do it,” she’d write in her schoolteacher’s elegant script, or “This is so tired,” or simply “No.” As far as I could tell, no one ever challenged Ruth on those edicts: She commanded a deference that I, at 22, had never before seen accorded to a woman.
It wasn’t uncommon to pass an editor called to Ruth’s office actually jogging down the hall, possibly applying lipstick along the way. “She snapped fairly selectively, and when she did, it was absolutely justifiable,” recalls Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief and former Glamour writer Kate White, who learned that lesson firsthand when she wrote a chirpy little piece in praise of mood rings.
But it wasn’t only within the confines of her own office that Ruth was regarded with reverence. Even in the gossipy, competitive sorority of the women’s magazines, her peers perceived her as uniquely unassailable. “Ruth wasn’t the editor you wanted to beat,” says Good Housekeeping editor-in-chief Ellen Levine. “She was the editor you wanted to be.”
“She had a message for women, and you couldn’t fault her on the numbers,” says New Woman editor-in-chief Judith Coyne, Ruth’s longtime executive editor. “She had bragging rights.” If Ruth could cover women in the military and the battle for equal pay in a magazine called Glamour, other editors no longer had the excuse “You can’t do that in a women’s book.”
Tall and regal in the creamy pantsuits she wore to lunches at Michael’s, Ruth always seemed utterly sure of her mission. As she walked through the halls of Glamour with a small smile on her lips, she’d often swing one arm back and forth in a surprisingly girlish gesture, her fingertips brushing against the wall. To me, it was the walk of a woman relaxed in her power, confident of her reign, and probably lost in some thought that would turn out to be what every editor hopes for: the Next Big Idea.