Essay

The Washington Post's Style Section Faces Life at 40

Some of the early shapers of the Style section: Jim Truitt, left, Elsie Carper and David Laventhol. Style replaced The Post's For and About Women section on Jan. 6, 1969.
Some of the early shapers of the Style section: Jim Truitt, left, Elsie Carper and David Laventhol. Style replaced The Post's For and About Women section on Jan. 6, 1969. (The Washington Post)
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By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Style section woke up this morning and realized something: It's 40 years old.

Actually, we've known this day was coming for a while and until the last minute chose to ignore it. Ugh. Forty? (Only?) We will now not torture you with amazing, retrospective Style clips from The Post's morgue. (The last time we did that, when we were all of 25 years old, some writers weren't included and there was a snit.)

Other ideas also seemed dull: An anniversary cocktail party, perhaps at the Newseum? An oral history on washingtonpost.com, with video? (Self-immolation on washingtonpost.com, with video?)

We're taking a huge risk here just bringing it up. Hey, kids, look at us, we're OLD. Cocky young media critics stand at the ready to Tweet about how washed up we are -- who even reads it anymore, blah, blah, blog. This morning, we feel a little like a Real Housewife of Orange County in our gated community, wearing our low-cut cougar top, spilling our chardonnay. Did you notice Style's been on a crash diet lately? Does this essay make us look fat? Be honest.

Wait, don't.

But do pardon us, for a brief reminisce:

On the Monday morning of Jan. 6, 1969, Post readers (some of you were there!) woke up to find their For and About Women section replaced with . . . with what, exactly? We're still working on that.

The first Style section had a lead story about a woman on the lam from the FBI. (Good stuff, didn't finish it.) Below that was a short fashion story and photos about jewelry headlined "Rings . . . have taken a vicious new twist" written by Judith Martin, who would later become Miss Manners. Also on Day One came the first of many counterculture columns by Nicholas von Hoffman, a piece about military wives who'd newly located their antiwar feelings. And of course there was a story about the goings-on of the television industry. (How could there not be?)

As told in Ben Bradlee's 1995 memoir, Style was his baby, and it set out to be a "section that would deal with how men and women lived -- together and apart -- what they liked and what they were like, what they did when they were not at the office. . . . We wanted to look at the culture of America as it was changing in front of our eyes. The sexual revolution, the drug culture, the women's movement. And we wanted it to be interesting, exciting, different."

Style was a hit!

Only it wasn't. Not at first. Bradlee wrote that it was the only big fight he had with Post publisher Katharine Graham. " 'Dammit, Katharine,' I heard myself say . . . 'get your finger out of my eye. Give us six weeks to get it right, and then if you don't like it, we'll talk.' "

Weeks became years. Allegedly, Style has gotten it right, off and on, through many years, writers and editors. Style showed up in a newspaper that was a sea of numbers, dull and gray, Cabinet members and undersecretaries in horn-rims. It did parties, it did profiles, it did criminals, it did first ladies, it did movie stars, it did the sad stuff, the weird stuff -- and won Pulitzers for covering the arts. Readers loved it unless they hated it. The stories have always been "too long." (There was an entire in-house study of that in the late '80s, which seemed to have affected Style not a whit, until the rise of the Internet and the death of the American attention span.) The stories were "too mean," too this, too that. All of these complaints still happily apply.

Our last remaining forebears -- almost all of whom have taken the Voluntary Retirement Incentive Program recently -- tell stories about the old days of Style that seem outlandish, brazen: The booze in the desk drawers? (Trite, but probably true. Why just today, the new guy produced a bottle of Seagram's found in the desk of the former occupant. Only it was tiny, and full.)

Stories written on typewriters, sent to composing by pneumatic tube? (Astonishingly true. Whenever they make us move, an old sheaf of six-ply paper emerges.) Crying jags in the bathrooms? (Still true! But because the Adderall has worn off, not the coke.) Editing sessions that lasted until midnight, with everyone sitting on the floor of the editor's office with their shoes off? (Sounds like a John and Yoko bed-in when described.) The divas screaming at copy editors about deleted commas? (Who? Whom?)

Then it gets more apocryphal: The early Style editor who left here in a straitjacket? (Prove it.) The writer and editorial aide who had sex on a desk? (Careful, the stapler.) Drug use in the stairwell? (Now it's all we can do to score a Diet Pepsi on the fourth floor.) The catfights among the "star" writers? (Get this: You used to get to be a star for writing in the Style section twice a year. Those who lived it say it felt like stardom -- a self-delusion Tom Wolfe once described as "competing for a tiny crown the rest of the world wasn't even aware of: Best Feature Writer in Town.")

There's a kind of longtime Washington Post reader who is only too smug about informing us how great Style was in the 1970s, or the '80s or the '90s (the early '90s, they sniff, like oenophiles distinguishing vintage). We are certain that by the end of Style's first week, someone complained that it was better on Monday and Tuesday. At a Style staff meeting a few years back, art critic Paul Richard, who's been here since the Earth cooled, said that anyone who tells you Style was so much better back-when should be condemned to crank the microfilm and forced to read it, day in and day out.

We did that. It's acres and acres of TV Columns, book reviews, party reportage, Hill scandals, artistic outrages, whiny essays about weather and noise, stories about breakout movie stars nobody remembers. There's a lot of good stuff. Some days, if you land on the right Style section, every single story was good.

Didn't finish it.

Once the Style section caught on, every newspaper in America chucked its recipe-and-society pages for its own Style-like 1970s section, all competing for Best Feature Writer in Town. These came with names like Trends, Living, Life, Life/Arts (which sounds like "lie farts" in a daily story meeting -- "What does lie farts have today?"), and other names that sound like they could be high-fiber breakfast bars: Accent, Tempo, Current, Options, Today, FYI, The Way We Live, View, Every Day, and the worst, You.

So, this morning, the Style section stands at the mirror, creasing its forehead, squinting its eyes, sucking in its cheeks. Forty is not old, it's seasoned, smart.

So what's next?

Who (whom?) can say?

More and more, newspapers have given up on the anything-goes feature section. It's been folded into the celebrity wires, health alerts, consumer fretting. (The real trend? For and About Women.)

We're not having sex on the desks, but damn if we aren't still here.


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