It was one of those great American acts of rebranding that Washington Post readers either noticed or didn’t; cared about a lot or not at all. Maybe you’ve read passing references to its glory days, first in the memoirs and later in the obituaries. Or perhaps you saw its early history briefly reenacted at the beginning of the Steven Spielberg movie a year ago, when Post publisher Katharine Graham (played by Meryl Streep) meets with editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) over breakfast on a June morning in 1971 and once more complains to him about the Style section.
“I’m not sure I entirely blame the president on this one, Ben,” Mrs. Graham says. “Would you want Judith [Martin] to cover your daughter’s wedding? . . . Her pen is so sharp. . . . She compared Tricia Nixon to a vanilla ice-cream cone.”
Bradlee chuckles. “She did, yeah.”
“I just — are you sure we’re striking the right tone here, Ben?”
“Oh, we’re gonna do this again?”
“The new Style section,” she groans. (Styyyle.) “Sometimes that stiletto party coverage can be a little mean . . .”
“I’m handling it,” Bradlee says. “I’m looking for a new editor.”
“Yes, are you? Because I know I’ve talked to you about this before. You are losing female readership, you know, and I think you might want to focus more on what women . . .”
“Katharine,” Bradlee says, turning serious. “Keep your finger out of my eye.”
She kept her finger out of his eye, and the Style section persisted — then and now, changing as journalism itself changed, adapting to a digital media landscape that nearly laid waste to the ancient art of feature writing. Style debuted in the paper 50 years ago this week (on Monday, Jan. 6, 1969), replacing a section called For and About Women. Decades later, Style has evolved (or devolved, some will hasten to note) as the home to some of the most memorable journalism The Post has ever published.
Were the pens really that sharp?
At the time, it certainly seemed so: Sally Quinn, a socialite turned novice reporter, became Style’s first breakout star — thanks to a gimlet eye and deadline party coverage that left in the juicy stuff. Quinn had a talent for overhearing or witnessing or getting others to tattle on powerful people who spoke or behaved just a smidgen beyond the pale: Julie Nixon remarking to another woman at a White House lawn event in 1970 that Princess Margaret (and just about everyone else) looks fat in midi-length skirts; then-White House adviser Hamilton Jordan at Barbara Walters’s dinner party in 1977, comparing the ample cleavage of the Egyptian ambassador’s wife to the Great Pyramids.
Imagine Twitter long before there was Twitter. People used to save their best quips for Style’s roving reporters.
Later, as Style flourished, some of the section’s writers traded the stage-whispering for more direct uses of the scalpel: Henry Allen, the section’s smartest and most elegant observer of American culture, wrote a 1988 campaign dispatch that called the state of New Hampshire “[A] fraud. . . . From the air, at primary time, the hills of New Hampshire look like the forehead of Frankenstein’s monster. . . . They sell the rest of the country maple syrup, lottery tickets and Yankee sagacity the way Indians on reservations sell moccasins, bingo and environmental wisdom. They never shut up about how closemouthed they are.”
And Stephanie Mansfield, who profiled movie stars in an era before publicists ruined all the fun, wrote that Kirk Douglas, in person, resembled “an underripe California nectarine.” (Lauren Bacall: “The voice sounds like someone trying to wax ’n’ buff a gravel pit.” Tom Selleck: “His shoes are suede, his face is suede, his mustache is suede.” Cher: “[P]orcelain skin dusted with Gold Medal flour and her lips a pale lavender. The embalmed look . . . the bored, blank stare of a heavy-metal prom queen.”)
Tom Shales, TV critic nonpareil, was so harsh on Kathie Lee Gifford’s Christmas specials — “Please, one might have prayed, in the name of all that’s holy: Let it stop, let it stop, let it stop” — that she eventually gave up making them. Robin Givhan, who arrived in the mid-’90s and redefined fashion criticism, translated the disdain that greeted Florida Secretary of State’s Katherine Harris’s garish use of the mascara wand (a side debacle in the 2000 election debacle) and Dick Cheney’s callous choice of heavy outerwear at a solemn, snowy 2005 remembrance of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Bradlee wrote in his 1995 memoir “A Good Life,” that the For and About Women section seemed, to him, out of sync with the times.
“Women were treated exclusively as shoppers, partygoers, cooks, hostesses and mothers, and men were ignored,” he wrote. “We began thinking of a section that would deal with how men and women lived — together and apart — what they liked and what they were like. . . . 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.”
Then, as now, a good Style piece should be unpredictable and edgy. Bradlee wanted more voice in the stories, with the reporting to back it up. New Journalism was in the air — and in magazines such as Esquire, New York and Rolling Stone — but the form had yet to catch on in the daily papers, which preferred to play it straight.
Bradlee’s editors worked on several prototypes throughout 1968. The Vietnam War, “Hair,” the Chicago convention riots, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy assassinations — all of it had to have been thrumming in the subconscious as they thought their way through possible concepts. They fiddled with it until it started to make sense on the page; a section with a knack for making the town seem more vital and less drab: Who we are, how we look, where we go, what we do, what we talk about (whisper about, giggle about), how it feels to be in the middle of it — of all this. Watergate, the Reagan Revolution, the Clinton years, the 9/11 era, the Obama elegance, the Trumpian chaos.
Once they had it, what would they name it? Bradlee recalled his disdain for the passive suggestions, such as Living, Scene or Trends: “I liked the word ‘Style,’ ” he wrote. “I like people with style, with flair, with signature qualities. . . . And so, three weeks before kickoff, Style it was.”
There is no such thing as a casual dip into Style’s 50-year archives — and no way to get a complete sense of its hits and misses. One can log in to look up something specific and wind up reading a dozen other articles, losing the afternoon. Perusing the first decade of Style, one can also see why other newspapers rushed to replicate it, coming up with their own groovy, New Journalism feature sections.
Ask Post staffers or longtime readers to recall their favorite Style pieces, and the hall of fame immediately threatens to collapse under the weight of so many nominees, some as recent as last week. It’s like walking into someone’s house and finding every inch of wall covered in dusty, framed examples of past glories. That’s fine, except when you’re caught up in the 24-7 mania of digital-first journalism. Talking about the old Style section can seem like a sure way to get left behind in the past.
Still, the writers! It’s astonishing, the talent and the names. The women whose reporting and writing defined so much of what the section would become. The gentleman poets on the staff. The science geeks, the weirdos. The patient, small group of Style writers and editors who, over a generation or more, helped the section see a world beyond white, status-quo Beltway narratives. The fabulous babes of Style’s heyday (not always female) who prowled the parties and came back with the real dirt. The critics — conspicuously erudite or always humble, buttoned-down or reliably slobby.
The archives trigger all sorts of memories: A million and one Oscar nights. A trillion and one inaugural balls. The late fashion editor Nina Hyde and her New Year’s Day “List,” launched in 1978 and still an annual tradition. The personal journalism — Lonnae O’Neal Parker on her mixed-race cousin’s ability to pass as a white woman; Roxanne Roberts on her father’s suicide.
The knockouts: Paul Hendrickson on Hemingway’s sons. Gene Weingarten on Bill Clinton’s father. Henry Allen on car salesmen, on Batman. Martha Sherrill on John Kennedy Jr. starting his own magazine. Libby Copeland embedding with the young guidos and guidettes of the New Jersey shore, long before MTV thought of it. The late Marjorie Williams on anything and anyone — no point in ever writing about them again, after she did.
The nervous but rollicking feel of the place. Back in the old building, Style occupied a swath of territory next to the main newsroom, a few stair-steps down, sort of like entering the rec room of a split-level home. There, per legend, writers’ egos grew to disproportionate diva status, voices raised over the slightest edits. On computers that were the comparable size of convection ovens, one editor’s story suggestion to a reporter was met (according to Style lore) with this icily messaged reply: assignment declined.
A comprehensive in-house study in the late ’80s fretted that Style had grown predictable and petulant; flabby with stories that were too long and writing that was too mean or too self-indulgent. At another point, in late 2000, then-Style boss Eugene Robinson (who now writes a column for the op-ed pages) sent an important memo that reminded and reinvigorated his staff: The worst Style can do, he said, is become boring.
Mrs. Graham died in 2001, and 13 years later, Bradlee died, too. Style moved to another floor and became part of a combined, more efficient features department. In 2015, the department migrated to K Street with the rest of the newsroom.
We reconfigured, reconceptualized and most of all reacted — as the rest of the world does — to the Internet. The action now always starts with something that has just been seen or said online.
The Internet is great, except when it ruins everything you love: bookstores, showbiz, radio stations, shopping, local newspapers, presidential elections. Finding our path in a digital future hasn’t been easy. A decade ago, the Style department endured waves of anxiety, worry, staff reductions and flared tempers. The paper’s future seemed precarious — until, one afternoon in summer 2013, it suddenly didn’t.
In one of those great American acts of irony, Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos bought The Post from the Graham family. With some stellar nerd engineering and a lot of hard work, the Internet wasn’t as scary anymore. Finally, The Post had turned a page.
Why isn’t Style more like it used to be? Back in 1973, say, or back in 1979, or back in 1988? Back in 1994, or in 2005? Back when everybody liked it better.
The best reply to this is always the same: Why isn’t anything like it used to be?
Style is still very much around — six days a week in print, combined with the Arts section on Sundays — and readers near and far still ask: What is Style anyhow? A fashion section with politics in it? A lifestyle section with a creepy fixation on the power class? A culture section obsessed with lewks and feels? A place to thoughtfully parse last night’s “Dancing With the Stars,” Kanye West’s meltdowns and Beyoncé’s latest transmissions?
Readers question Style’s identity most when they are especially drawn to a hard-hitting piece on media or #MeToo or politics (Ben Terris getting an inside look at the marriage of George and Kellyanne Conway, for one recent example). It appears online with the label “Style” on it, which is a word they equate with softness and frivolity.
It’s a valid concern: When our media critic (Margaret Sullivan), gender columnist (Monica Hesse) and chief film critic (Ann Hornaday) so routinely interpret the day’s most salient talking points, does the heading “Style” somehow ghettoize their efforts in readers’ minds? When we break news of sexual harassment by prominent male chefs and network news anchors, are we sending out the wrong message by categorizing it under Style? Has Bradlee’s name for his vibrant, infinitely topical features section outlived its original meaning?
In moments like this, it can seem as though we’ve made the long orbit all the way back around to For and About Women — only it’s evolved into a better and more inclusive concept: For and About Anyone, Everyone. That’s what we ask readers to see when they see the word Style.
Are you sure we’re striking the right tone here, Ben?
That debate continues, day in and day out, with some magical thinking that Mrs. Graham and Bradlee and all the others might possibly be watching. Even when the tone seems like it’s all over the place, after 18,263 Style sections (approximately), we click “publish,” and hope the answer is yes.
Hank Stuever, who is also 50, joined The Post as a Style reporter in 1999. He became the section’s TV critic in 2009.
Memorable pieces from 50 years of Style
“The Law of Twelve, Which Makes Washington Whirl, and the Boy from Pocatello” by Sally Quinn, June 23, 1974
“New Hampshire is a Fraud” by Henry Allen, Feb. 11, 1988
“Clark Clifford: The Rise of Reputation” by Marjorie Williams, May 8, 1991
“The First Father: William Jefferson Blythe and the back roads of fate” by Gene Weingarten, June 20, 1993
“He Speaks” by Martha Sherrill, September 7, 1995
“White Girl?” by Lonnae O’Neal Parker, Aug. 8, 1999
“The Couch That Warped Space-Time” by Hank Stuever, Feb. 23, 2000
“Dick Cheney, Dressing Down” by Robin Givhan, Jan. 28, 2005
“A Butler Well Served by this Election” By Wil Haygood, Nov. 7, 2008