Back to School Memories: Mademoiselle's "College Issue," Sylvia Plath and Me

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It always amazes me when Staples starts running that "most wonderful time of the year" ad because kids are going back to school and their parents are so happy.  As we whose kids are grown and gone know, those summers are irretrievable treasures.   I was thinking about all that and suddenly, oddly in fact, remembered my own favorite "back to school" memory.  

That memory wasn't school supplies or new shoes or even new clothes.  It was the wonderful fantasy of ambition that came with the Mademoiselle Magazine August College Issue.  My friend Kalyn, of Kalyn's Kitchen, remembers too.  "I do vivldly remember that issue every year.  I would look carefuly through every page, determining if my own back-to-school wardrobe was up to par."  

"There were clothes, of course.  Beautiful clothes, in fact. Very "college girl" looking (remember the full "60s madness" came toward the end of the decade; there was plenty of time before that to imagine a lovely, civilized college life.)  In fact, I left for freshman year with a camel hair suit, a dress-coat suit dress and other similarly "collegiate" wear.  But this issue, of a magazine that used to publish short stories from Pulitzer-winning authors all the time - along with the cosmetics, the clothesthe circle pins and the shoes, that featured B. Smith as the first African American model on a women's magazine cover and awarded Pulitzer Prize winner Gwendolyn Brooks one of its Ten Young Women of the Year award - this issue included the "guest editors."

Chosen by essay and other submissions from "college girls" around the country, it seemed to me the ultimate honor.  To come to New York and work for a month on this issue of the magazine; to be taken to elegant lunches and dinners and meet all sorts of writers and photographers and to have the experience of publishing a real and respected magazine - well - what could be better?  In addition, there were single and group photos of each editor in some lovely outfit, along with her name and college.  Back then the women's colleges (aka the Seven Sisters) were the female equivalent of the "Ivy League" since women were not then admitted to those schools.  So to appear in Mademoiselle as a student from Smith (where I ultimately went) or Wellesley or Mount Holyoke: that would be amazing beyond measure.

The list of those who participated is pretty amazing too.  ABC News' Lynn Sherr portrays her guest editor experience in both her book and The Huffington Post. The inimitable Betsey Johnson was a guest editor in 1964, the year I graduated from high school.   Of course the most famous Mademoiselle alum was the tragic Sylvia Plath, whose book The Bell Jar describes much of that summer -and her descent into depression. Between its beginning in 1939 and its end in the late 70's, other alumnae included Joan Didion, Francine du Plessix Gray, Gael Greene, Ali McGraw, Ann Beattie, Mona Simpson and Linda Allard (from Ellen Tracy.)   

For me, the College Issue of Mademoiselle was a window on possibility.  Yes these were "pretty girls" but they had won their places as writers or designers for their work, not just their looks.  They were chosen from college, not from a runway, and they were in places doing things that, in the mid-sixties, were rare for any young woman to do.  If you don't believe me, rent Funny Face.  

It's probably tough to imagine now, but then I had professors were taunted for teaching "only" women and no one wore pants anywhere but to class in the middle of the week and we were being educated as much to raise smart kids and contribute to the community as to have our own careers; many were "pinned" by junior year and engaged not much later.  Women with fewer opportunities married even younger.  I was discouraged (NOT by my parents but by others) for wantingto go to New York and be a writer or a playwright or just something... intellectual - smart - and successfully "New Yorkish."  I'm convinced that rushing off early in August, whether at the beach or at home, to buy and pore through this landmark publication, helped me to get past all that "you want to do WHAT???" with the confidence and determination that helped to build the life I've been so lucky to live and, incidentally, to raise sons who expect nothing less from the women in their lives.


Cynthia Samuels also writes at her personal blog Don't Gel too Soon and is Managing Editor, Causes, at Care2 

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