Gloria Stavers, '16 Magazine,' and the roots of rock journalism
With absolutely no fanfare, fawning memoir, VH1 special, or even People magazine blurb, the most important milestone in rock journalism turned 50 this year. Not Rolling Stone, which turned 40, but 16 Magazine. "The magazine for smart girls," boasted the spine of its May 1957 debut. Elvis Presley waved from the cover.
16 Magazine was founded in 1956 by French native Jacques Chambrun, literary agent to Grace Metalious, whose scandalous book Peyton Place made him wealthy. Chambrun recognized a youth market in publishing, so he bought a failing magazine and revived it with partners Desmond Hall and George Waller. The trio called their company The Girlfriend-The Boyfriend Corp. and settled in at 745 Fifth Ave. in New York City.
The periodical's early stories were written by Chambrun and company under female pseudonyms, primarily "Georgia Winters," a feminization of Waller's first name and Hall's middle name. Winters remained the name on the publisher's masthead until 1964, when "she" was kicked downstairs by Gloria Stavers.
"Gloria Stavers and 16 Magazine basically invented rock and pop-culture journalism as we know it today," posited someone who should know, music critic emeritus Dave Marsh, in his intro to 1997's Who's Your Fave Rave?, the 40th anniversary book written by former 16 editors Randi Reisfeld and Danny Fields. What Marsh doesn't say is that Stavers basically also invented the female rock and pop-culture journalist.
As editor of 16 for nearly 20 years, Stavers shaped more musical careers than any other woman of her day. As a writer of popular culture, she was unparalleled. Once Stavers left 16 Magazine in 1975, reading and writing about rock & roll changed forever.
Hollywood and Vinyl
16 Magazine's first issue resembles one of those 1950s Hollywood scandal sheets minus the dirt. Plenty of Elvis coverage, snaps of Hollywood stars like Natalie Wood and Debra Paget, a quiz asking "Are Your Parents Delinquent?" and a feature on the Million Dollar Quartet. How honed in was 16 on its audience in its first issue? Those iconic photos of Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash at a piano in Sun Studios were 16's exclusively.
16 Magazine inflated dreams, young girls' dreams to be precise, and no one paid more attention to that than Gloria Stavers, a North Carolina native who'd bolted from a nowhere marriage in Ithaca, N.Y., but found modeling in Manhattan an unstable profession. Fashion did, however, provide her the opportunity to learn about glamour photography, a skill that paid off when Chambrun gave her stewardship of the magazine. By the end of 1958, she reigned as editor-in-chief of the bimonthly magazine with a readership of 250,000, all without the benefit of a journalism degree or college.
Using a combination of her own observations and the heartfelt letters that poured in to the office, Stavers shaped the magazine's content by developing stars, and not just pre-existing ones like Elvis and Ricky Nelson. New television seasons in the late 1950s and early 1960s provided new crops of stars annually – 77 Sunset Strip's Edd "Kookie" Byrnes, The Rifleman's Johnny Crawford, and Dr. Kildare's Richard Chamberlain traded on popularity achieved through cooperation with 16.
"The producers of the TV shows were Gloria's friends," Danny Fields points out. "It was like a conspiracy to build sellable, interchangeable pieces of shit, and she was part of it. At the same time, she knew the world was changing, and she was having an affair with Lenny Bruce. What's odder than that?"
Author of a book on his friend Linda McCartney, a record executive for Elektra Records who was instrumental in the signing of both the Stooges and MC5, not to mention longtime manager of the Ramones and firsthand witness to the birth of punk, Danny Fields is rock royalty of the highest order. His tenure as editor of Datebook initially made him Stavers' rival, but by the punk decade, he'd joined her and Reisfeld at 16.
By the early 1960s, the 16 formula was set. The combination of TV, film, and pop stars supplied a never-ending array of faces and talents to choose from. Stavers gave the magazine street cred with a gossip column that matched those of the New York dailies and L.A. trades for scoops and insider info. "GeeGee's Gossip" (Gloria and Georgia?) featured a new photo of Stavers every month; the April 1963 issue identifies the editor as Georgia Winters, presenting Ray Charles with 16's first Award for Outstanding Achievement.
Readership meant everything to Stavers, and she surveyed hers endlessly. Full-page ballots and two-page spreads polled 16 readers for their picks of rising stars. Chambrun hired elderly women to tally the fan mail, which Stavers read obsessively. She had her finger on all pulses. That's when 1964's cultural shock wave upended the world.
May 1964 is the ground zero issue for 16 Magazine. It's the first issue that the Beatles' name appears on the cover.
Also on the cover are James Franciscus of Mr. Novak, Patty Duke, Elvis, Bobby Rydell, and 13-year-old Kurt Russell! None of the mop-tops are pictured, but the following month, all four are on the cover, where one or the other of them will stay for the next several years. By 16's fall issues, the Fab Four and anything with a British accent adorned the magazine's cartoonish covers.
"Gloria knew the big waterwheel in the sky had changed," agrees Danny Fields. "That the North Pole became the South Pole, and the South Pole became the North Pole. It was unmistakable, and in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, she saw that the Beatles, Herman's Hermits, the Dave Clark Five were the new thing.
"She was conscious of Bob Dylan, too."
Stavers' intuitive perception of this sea change occurred almost immediately. Not just because she included posters of Dylan and profiled Chris Hillman of the Byrds while also running obituaries of Lenny Bruce and Robert Kennedy but because she attached her name to the personality already associated with 16. The February 1964 issue finds reader letters addressed "Dear Miss Winters," but by May 1964 – the first issue with the Beatles – letters were now addressed "Dear Miss Stavers." One contest notes that "Georgia Stavers" chose the winner.
Suddenly Stavers' name sat in larger font than the titular Georgia Winters, now downsized to "consulting editor." Stavers wore her editor-in-chief title at "America's most imitated magazine" like a crown. She kept on for the next 11 years.
16's embrace of the British Invasion bands led directly to the overthrow of America's Brylcreem set. From the May 1964 issues on, the clean-cut 1950s look rapidly vanished from the cover as exotically shaggy heads of increasingly long hair took hold. The traditional female stars suffered their last gasps in 1964, too, rapidly eclipsed by the dolly birds on the arms of the Beatles and other Brit rockers.
These imported Carnaby Street darlings sported a vastly new look from the American teen queens. London Look hair hung straight, silky, worn with bangs and a teased puff of hair atop the head. Lips were slicked in pale, paler, palest of the innocent pinks. Short skirts and simply designed frocks from designers like Mary Quant boasted a revolutionary girlishness that contrasted to the sophisticated Hollywood look. The October 1964 issue cries, "Got a Problem? Let Connie Francis Help You With It!" Already, Connie's dark lips and heavy make-up look hopelessly outdated.
The October 1964 cover also depicts TV star Paul Petersen plugging his ears against the Fab Four. Inside are photos from Shelley Fabares' wedding to "Only Sixteen" author and future Monterey Pop impresario Lou Adler, with Petersen and Annette Funicello in attendance. Content focuses on which of the Dave Clark Five were married (Rick and Lenny!) and what the Beatle girlfriends – Jane Asher, Pattie Boyd, Maureen Cox – were really like (nice).
Subsequent features such as "At Home With the Rolling Stones" offered an intimacy rarely seen in newsstand interviews of the time and was doubtless arranged to give Brian Jones enough time to put away the hookah and hashish before welcoming 13-year-old girls to his bachelor lair. How much more subversive could 16 get?
'Dear Concerned Elton Fan ...'
From the mid-1960s on, Stavers sat at the top of her game, the most powerful editor of a music publication selling more than a million copies monthly, the highest-profile female music journalist who by all accounts slept with select subjects in the magazine like Jim Morrison, Mitch Ryder, and even Mickey Mantle.
When the Monkees came along, she midwifed their birth as teen idols, just as she would David Cassidy and Donny Osmond the following decade. Stavers deftly translated the oddball into idols for her readers – Leonard Nimoy as Star Trek's Mr. Spock, Jonathan Frid as Dark Shadows' vampire, Alice Cooper – though the 1970s presented its own problem when the hugely popular Elton John flew out of the closet.
"Letters started coming in," remembers Danny Fields. "'My brother read in Rolling Stone that Elton John confessed to being a bisexual. Please say it isn't so because you're 16 Magazine, and we know you'll tell us the truth about this horrible thing they're making up because they're jealous of him because he's so cute and cuddly.'
"So many letters came in on Elton that they had to clear out an extra office to make room for the mail. I made up a generic letter like that: 'My brother says ... say it isn't so' and answered it in 16. 'Dear Concerned Elton Fan, it looks as if Elton did say this in Rolling Stone, here's the quote. He did say, "I am a bisexual."' "And I said, 'Well, if we love Elton for his adorableness and cute songs and wonderful personality and kindness to his fans, rally around him when things get difficult, because that's when he needs his fans the most.'
"It was making me puke to say that, because I didn't go to 16 to write about a fat little bald queen. But I said, 'You must support him. Just because a person is bisexual is no reason to not love him for his wonderful music.'"
The magazine's defense of Elton John was radical, but according to Fields, "It made no difference. Elton John stopped getting mail. Completely. Went from Number 1 mail getter to none." If only by coincidence, that's when 16's problems began. The teen market looked less predictable than ever, and sales had already dropped to 500,000 monthly.
"Elton slipped. The boss died. His elderly friend inherited the magazine, then he died, then it went to the old friend's daughter, and she was a horror. Gloria was gone; she'd left in a final fight with Mr. Chambrun. The magazine was sold and sold and sold to a bunch of conglomerates, and at each one, 16 become less important. There was nothing that made it special to those companies. It was a legacy that slipped through their fingers."
Gloria Stavers left behind a Pandora's box of secrets when she died of lung cancer in 1983. Chief among them was her meteoric ascendancy to editor of 16 Magazine.
"Gloria was a courtesan," states Fields flatly. "The euphemism for it is runway model. There's no other word for it, and 'runway model' means courtesan. She lived that life, where you'd get $500 to go to the ladies room. Chambrun gave her the magazine. And she's overlooked by history, because what she did is considered trivial and juvenile.
"But it wasn't. It was important."
Then why did Gloria Stavers leave 16 Magazine in 1975 after devoting so much of her life to it?
"What does it matter?" shrugs Danny Fields. "When you divorced your husband, did you remember the last fight? It was over the roles the two of them played – circulation was dropping, who they were to each other, what he was entitled to complain about, blah blah blah. Didn't matter. She came down one day after meeting with him and said to me and Randi, 'I'm outta here. Take over. Jacques is happy with the arrangement. I'm gone.'
"And she was gone."