This presentation was delivered at the Auckland City Art Gallery on 12 May 2021 by my wife, Jenny Lynch, as a tribute to her mentor – fellow New Zealand Woman’s Weekly editor Jean Wishart
She was a publishing icon. An editor whose magazine became the top selling women’s publication per head of population in the world.
She was also an astute businesswoman. She became the first woman in the country to sit on the board of a listed company– NZ News. And the first woman in its 124-year history to be elected to the council of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce.
Above all she was someone who became a valued friend — I use that word advisably — to thousands upon thousands of New Zealand magazine readers during much of the latter part of last century.
I’m talking about Miss Jean Wishart, New Zealand Woman’s Weekly editor from 1952 to 1985.
I have a personal reason to be grateful to Jean. She gave me my first job in journalism in 1957 and ‘rescued’ me 17 years later after the closure of a magazine on which I had worked. I became her assistant editor in 1977 and in 1987 editor of the Weekly itself.
At the time of my introduction to the Weekly, Jean had been editor for five years. But her association with the magazine went back to her school days. She had been a Pixie, the name given to youngsters who contributed to the Weekly’s children’s pages. Seeing her stories and sketches in print undoubtedly sparked what at the time was an unlikely ambition.
In the1940s and into the ‘50s most girls saw their ultimate future in terms of marriage and babies. With perhaps a stint in such occupations as nursing, teaching or office work while they waited for Mr Right to come along.
But journalism — well! Serious journalism was largely a male domain. Misogyny ruled in newsrooms and, with magazine jobs at a premium, the most an aspiring girl reporter could hope for was a post on a newspaper’s so-called women’s pages writing fluffy stuff deemed appropriate for gentle female interests.
Jean was determined, however. She had set her heart on the Woman’s Weekly — which offered a greater range of story opportunities — seeing it not just as a stop-gap but a long-term career.
After leaving Epsom Girl’s Grammar at 18 she took a course at Miss Greenwoods Shorthand and Typing School. Then in 1938 she got a clerical position at the Weekly in the hope of eventually stepping up to journalist duties.
And she did just that! During the 1940s the enthusiastic feature writer pounded out stories on a variety of topics. Visiting theatre royalty Sir Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, the plight of local pensioners and the challenges facing Kiwi war brides in America all got the Wishart treatment. She also unearthed a war time scandal — mountains of potatoes left to rot on the Auckland city dump while cash-strapped housewives paid high prices for potatoes in the shops.
In those years Jean regularly stayed late in the Weekly’s city office. This meant she could have gone without a proper dinner. No handy takeaways or dial-a-pizza then. But she didn’t. Her supportive mother Florence saw to that. Mrs Wishart cooked a hot meal in the family home in Epsom, covered it with a plate, then newspaper, and caught a tramcar to town to deliver it still warm to a grateful Jean.
How proud Mrs Wishart must have been in 1952 to see her daughter finally achieving the editor’s chair. But to begin with Jean didn’t have things all her own way. The Weekly’s owner, NZ News also owned the Auckland Star. And Big Brother Star insisted on giving the little woman a helping hand. Jean told me that she wasn’t even allowed to choose her own cover pictures. Someone at the Star did that. She had no idea what the photograph would be — perhaps a glamorous woman wearing a flowing scarf or a child eating an apple — until that week’s issue rolled off the presses.
But this unsatisfactory state of affairs didn’t last. NZ News soon recognised that it had a real gem on its hands. By the time I joined Jean’s editorial staff of five — management was lauding the Weekly as ‘a little goldmine’ and ‘the best little sixpence-worth’ in New Zealand.’
Approximately 100,000 enthusiastic readers handed over their sixpenses each week to get their 88-page fix of newsy local stories, self-help features and gossip — squeaky clean by today’s standards. They also expected to find news of film stars and the royals, fashion from Paris, short fiction, knitting patterns, horoscopes and advice to the lovelorn.
In other words, as Jean put it, a magazine ‘choc-full of goodies.’
Four women had edited the Weekly before Jean. Each had brought her own personality and passions to the job. One bombastic dynamo, Hedda Dyson — she wore a hat in the office and smoked like a chimney — had regaled readers with diatribes on everything from Stalin’s ambition on the world stage to bringing up children.
But Jean did not want to be that kind of editor. She had no wish to push herself forward or impose her own views. She aimed at identifying readers’ interests, needs and wants — and responding accordingly.
With this in mind she swung an axe to the long-established social pages. Clearly mother-of four from Balclutha couldn’t have cared less whether Mrs Archibald Pope-Pugh had hosted a tennis party at her elegant Epsom home. Or whether Miss Alison Yates-Jones had chosen an ice-blue satin gown with bustle back and beaded shoulder straps for the Marsden Old Girl’s Association dance in Wellington.
Chit-chat of this sort was an anachronism. For a magazine to succeed it had to move with the times, she said. It must also appeal to the widest possible audience.
Jean, a tall, beautifully groomed woman with an attractive speaking voice mixed an appropriate element of reserve with a warm approachability. While none of her staff would have dreamed of addressing her as anything other than Miss Wishart, she was a relaxed boss. If we completed the days work before quitting time at five she didn’t mind if we left early.
However, she wasn’t always quite so approachable to members of the public wanting to meet her in person.
Jean’s office in the far corner of Weekly’s open plan newsroom on the fourth floor of the Star building had a glass front. This was a decided drawback. By contemporary standards security in the late 1950s was lax. Cranks of one sort or another could march in off the street and demand to see the editor. Usually, the receptionist stopped them from doing so. They would be advised to put their concerns in writing or simply told a lie — the editor wasn’t in.
But lying did not always work. An eagle-eyed visitor emerging from the lift could see Jean through the glass partition. Mrs Potts was one such nuisance. She had decided that sex caused cancer and she wanted Miss Wishart to convey this alarming information to Weekly readers. Well, Miss Wishart wasn’t going to do anything of the kind. But Mrs Potts was persistent. She kept turning up. Came the day when Jean spotted Mrs Potts before Mrs Potts spotted Jean. She did the only thing she could do. Casting dignity aside she dropped to her knees and hid behind her desk until the coast was clear. All of us — Jean included — had a good laugh.
We were a happy team. I loved the Weekly. Jean had given me opportunities most teenage girls could only dream of. As well as writing, often on subjects of my own choice, I had become teen pages editor, meeting pop heartthrobs such as Johnny Cash — he had a terrible complexion — and local idol Johnny Devlin. It was heady stuff and I couldn’t imagine ever leaving. But in late 1959 I succumbed to the lure of the great OE.
By today’s standards the newsprint Weekly I left behind was a quaintly old-fashioned lttle mag. But New Zealand was quaintly old-fashioned too. This was the era of the six o’clock swill, sly grog dens, limited shopping hours and deserted nighttime city streets. It was said you could shoot a cannon down Queen Street and never hit anyone. Licensed restaurants were a rarity and Cona filter coffee served with dollops of whipped cream was the height of sophistication.
Girls wore elasticised corsets known as ‘easies’ (or alternatively ‘passion killers’), and kept their stockings up with suspenders attached to garter belts. Mothers like mine were dab hands at home dressmaking — the Weekly ran a pattern service — and no woman would consider herself properly dressed unless she pulled on a pair of gloves when heading to town.
It would be 17 years before I saw the Weekly — and Jean — again.
In 1959 the magazine had been selling close to 150,000 copies each week — a staggering figure. But Jean hadn’t been about to rest on her laurels. During the1960s she undertook a series of fact-finding tours to investigate the ins and outs of overseas magazine production. She looked at everything from story content, cover design and photography to printing, promotion advertising and distribution. She wanted to find out what worked in some of the world’s top women’s titles, what didn’t and what — with approval from the board of NZ News — could be adopted by the Weekly.
Her longest trip took her away from the magazine for almost three months.
The establishment of the Test Kitchen under the direction of the redoubtable Tui Flower in 1965 was one of the most significant outcomes of her travels (Tui would later see herself as Jean’s rival for leading lady status. She insisted her office be the bigger than Jean’s.).
Initially Jean had seen herself as a low-profile editor, but her globe-trotting exploits changed much of that. For along with her magazine visits she wrote travel stories about her experiences in England, America, Australia Hong Kong, Rhodesia and Austria.
These were the years in which she established what became known as the signature Miss Wishart ‘look’ – tailored jackets and skirts, soft blouses, sometimes with pussycat neck tie bows, immaculately styled hair. There was a secret to the hair. In the ‘60s trendy women often boosted back-combed styles with what were known as falls or switches. Jean went one better. She wore a full wig. No, she hadn’t gone bald. It was simply for convenience.
Jean’s travel schedule was often full-on. There would have been little opportunity between flights and appointments for so much as a quick comb-up. Although by the mid ‘70s she had put extensive travel tours behind her, she had clearly seen the value of wigs both as a contributor to good grooming and a time-saver. They became a fixture.
When I rejoined the magazine in 1976, this time as service features editor, it seemed like a homecoming of sorts. Jean was still the same Jean, warm, friendly, poised — seemingly ageless.
But her style of editorship had changed. Dramatically. She had become a distant figure to all but her most senior staff. No longer could she be glimpsed behind a glass panel. She had a sturdy office door. And it was usually firmly shut. Not just to the likes of the irritating Mrs Potts. The only contact some staffers had with her was a formal ‘good morning, Miss Wishart’ as they passed her in the corridor.
This shocked me. It wasn’t the warmly welcoming Jean I had talked to when she interviewed me for my new job. What had happened? I concluded that she was over stretched. Her workload would have slayed a lesser woman.
The Weekly had grown. Enormously. The 1959 editorial staff of seven had expanded to 23. That was just the Auckland team. The cover price had risen to 25 cents, circulation to 230,000 and readership to over a million. In addition to editing duties Jean had become heavily involved in promotional activities and liaison with the magazine’s advertising department. She made no secret of the fact that she took material home with her each evening and sometimes worked on it until midnight.
Part of that work included her board responsibilities. A year earlier she had been elected to the board of NZ News. ‘Miss Wishart is not available — she’s in a board meeting’ was a regular refrain at reception.
Jean relished her involvement in what she called ‘ the business side of things.’ She told me that had journalism not beckoned, she might have become an accountant.
No disrespect to lady accountants but what a loss that would have been.
I also believe that she could have become a little wary. Every newsrooom has its share of rivalries and covert ambition. There are always people who think they could do the job better than the boss. She had earlier thwarted at least one attempt by a staff member to topple her from her lofty perch.
In 1977 I was appointed assistant editor. This brought me closer to Jean. We developed a great professional relationship, and I discovered the whys and wherefores of some of her editorial strategies.
Covers, for instance. Jean saw the Weekly cover as its advertisement. She said that anything from five to 20,000 sales could be won or lost depending on the impact of the cover. By the mid‘70s celebrity newsmakers had replaced the mostly anonymous cover girls. But choosing the right person for the cover picture was a tricky business. Someone who was top of the pops one year could be box office poison the next. Except for the occasional royal, solo males didn’t cut it. It was always best to team male celebs with female partners of some kind. Brides were ideal. But even a mother would do. Jean once roped in Elton John’s dear old mum Sheila for a cover picture with her famous son.
Although readers told Jean they liked to see locals on covers, newsstand sales told a different story. Some of the Weekly’s most unpopular covers had featured famous New Zealanders. She once ran a cover of record-breaking aviator Jean Batten. It had fallen flat. A cover of a Kiwi Olympic gold medalist also bombed.
While upfront about business matters, Jean seldom revealed anything about her life outside the office. What she told me about herself could be summed up in a couple of sentences. She enjoyed shopping (with an eye to a bargain), listened to Radio 1ZB, liked the Sportscraft fashion label and had difficulty finding shoes to fit because of her bunions. As a young woman she had owned a budgie so tame she took it with her to the movies hidden beneath her jacket.
I was absolutely in awe of her. The day she suggested I drop the usual ‘Miss Wishart’, form of address I was stunned. To call her Jean seemed dreadful, disrespectful somehow. I could barely get the word out of my mouth. I complied, of course, because this was a privilege granted to very few. But it took a while to feel comfortable with the change.
The many readers who wrote to Jean, however, had no such qualms. To them she was simply ‘dear Jean.’
For in her weekly editorials Jean opened up in a way that even those closest to her probably never experienced. Readers learned that she lived alone in a house on a corner section bordered on the street sides by shrubbery into which slovenly passersby regularly deposited litter. She loved gardening but her garden often defeated her. A large flax bush mysteriously collapsed overnight and she waged a constant battle against invasive kikuyu grass.
She was also a keen do-it-yourselfer as comfortable with a toggle bolt as a typewriter who thought nothing of installing a new sliding door track in her wardrobe or replacing a gasket on the lid of her chest freezer.
Like many people Jean had domestic set-backs. Her hot water cylinder blew its top, her television went phut, her vacuum cleaner exploded and burnt a hole in the carpet and she managed to shrink a new pair of trousers down to ‘pygmy-size’ in the wash. She complained of trouble finding simple everyday items in shops. She lamented the fact that nice honeycomb tripe was unavailable at her local butcher.
Revelations like these beg the question. Why was such an intensely private person, a virtual stranger to many of her staff, prepared to share so much of herself in print?
I think it came down to friendship. Jean saw herself and the magazine as the readers’ friend. And one way of engaging with readers was to talk about the kind of everyday things that they themselves might have experienced. After learning about her ailing flax bush people wrote in about their own floppy flaxes. And I have no doubt she would have received similar responses to stories about temperamental television sets, litterbugs and clothes ruined in the wash.
Encouraging ‘reader participation’ in the magazine’s content was another way Jean fostered what she called ‘a bond of warmth and understanding between the magazine and its readers.’ As well as inviting contributions to regular sections such as the chatty Over the Teacups, she aimed at involving readers in major features, surveys and fun competitions which sometimes offered unusual prizes. At one point, readers were invited to vie for a prize of …a flock of one hundred sheep!
She also welcomed feedback. Jean said that opening her mailbag was one of her most enjoyable tasks. All sorts of people contacted her about all sorts of things. In a single day in 1978 she got notes from a prisoner, a psychiatric patient and a hospitable someone in the provinces who said ‘if you’re down this way do call in.’ That same day a pot of jam arrived — no letter attached.
Some correspondence was not exactly welcome. A woman sounded off about the time it took to compose her contribution to the Readers Declare letters page. She interpreted the requirement for double spacing to mean double spacing between every letter of every word. Honestly!
People were also quick to point out errors they’d spotted. No publication is ever free from the odd glitch. But there must have been times when Jean gritted her teeth as she responded to gripes about misspelled words, photographs printed in reverse — that had happened to one of herself — even a picture of a garden plant that appeared to be upside down. Cover price increases of as little as 10 cents always brought grumbles. Jean didn’t dodge the complaints. She answered them — in print.
Most importantly, however, the contents of her mailbag provided clues to reading preferences. People told her what they liked. And what they didn’t.
And what they liked. What they really, really liked were the royals. Outsiders often sneered at the Weekly’sso-called love affair with the royals. Some people thought we had a hotline to the palace. ( We never denied it.) But Jean was astute. She knew what she was doing. Royal coverage paid off in spades. But it wasn’t a question of slapping a picture of any old royal on the cover and watching Weeklies fly off the newsstands. Jean, who designed all the covers herself, knew exactly which royals to choose. Some were enduring hits. Others simply fizzled out. The Queen Mother’s famous charm had earned her enthusiastic coverage over the years but by the time she’d reached her late seventies most editors were thinking more in terms of eulogies. Jean asked me to write her obituary.
Oh dear. My effort was binned long before the Queen Mum’s death at the age of 101.
Meanwhile Prince Charles had risen up the ranks of cover prospects as speculation mounted on who he might choose for his bride.
Jean was prepared. She kept a photo file of all the blue-blooded young women who flitted in and out of his life. She wanted to be ready for the announcement of THE one. And yes –she did have a picture of Lady Diana Spencer to put on the cover of our March 9th 1981 engagement special. The issue was a best-seller, eclipsed only by the wedding special when a print run of 300,000 failed to meet the demand.
For all that, the Weekly was by no means — as one snide male crtic put it ‘all about the royals, twin-sets and pearls and bring a plate.’
By the time of my return controversial subjects like the vexed question of abortion law reform were making an appearance on the magazine’s pages. But — and this is where Jean’s genius lay — she ensured that such topics were presented in a way that never overstepped the boundaries of good taste.
Later the Weekly became even bolder. We began running a series of ground-breaking questionnaires designed to throw light on such social ills as sexual abuse, wife battering and baby bashing — all three designed and collated by experts in their fields. The battered wives and sexual abuse surveys aimed at finding the nature and extent of the abuse and the kind of help if any the victims had received. The baby bashing questionnaire was directed at parents in a bid to know what had driven them to want to harm( or in some cases actually harm) their infants.
Jean acknowledged that she was taking a risk with the questionnaires. Ten years earlier she might have hesitated to run them. Conservative readers could have taken her to task for including such ‘unsavory’ material in a family magazine. But, as always Jean’s instincts were right on the button. The results were eye-openers — and the Weekly was applauded not only for electing to publish the questionnaires but for the valuable information the responses had produced.
As well as answering the questions, a number of people gave further details of their experiences. One exhausted woman confessed that she had felt like sticking her screaming infant with a fruit knife. To feel that they could talk frankly about such personal and painful events in their lives showed exceptional trust in the Weekly.
I believe that trust was largely down to Jean.
But, astonishingly, NZ News management, which by the mid 1980s was full of new brooms, had become twitchy. The Weekly’s circulation had stalled. New magazines had arrived on the market. Could the Weeklyhold its own in this increasingly competitive environment? Perhaps not … not with a 64-year-old woman at the helm.
When a football team fails to deliver its coach gets the bullet. When a newspaper or magazine hits the skids — and, of course, the Weekly was light years away from that dire situation — its editor comes under fire.
In April 1985 Jean was eased out six months ahead of her formal retirement date so that the magazine could be modernised and offer more for younger readers.
Characteristically, she made no comment about her premature departure. Jean always kept her feelings to herself. But she must have been deeply hurt. After more than 32 years in the editor’s chair — this!
The public had no idea of the true situation. And Jean’s spirits would have been lifted by the outpouring of good wishes she received. An Auckland reader wrote:’ Thank you dear lady for all your hard work. There has only ever been one magazine in our house and I and my family will be much the poorer for the loss of your guiding hand.’
Journalists from publications such as the Herald, the Auckland Star, the Christchurch Star and the upmarket Metro magazine, marked her ‘retirement’ with articles that looked back on her career and probed the personality of journalism’s most successful but enigmatic women’s magazine editor.
Enigmatic? Certainly. For years writers had cast their eyes over Jean in an attempt to figure out what made her tick. They had seen her as pleasantly poised, calm and controlled, shy and retiring, modest to the point of self-effacement and ‘a compelling amalgam of feminine attractiveness and mental capacity.’
In a nine-page feature sub-titled ‘However Did She Do it?’ Metro’s Carroll Wall homed in on Jean’s unfailing charm and gentle demeanour but suggested that under the sweet smile lurked the sharp, tough teeth of a tiger accustomed to getting its own way.
The Star’s Anne Fenwick described a dignified, ladylike woman whose single-minded devotion to her job could be likened to a love story.
And love story it was. I have no doubt about that. Jean Wishart was a very attractive woman. People wondered why she had never married. Clearly, she enjoyed male company. And judging from what I had seen of her working relationships, men enjoyed hers. It was said that she had had two serious suitors, one based in Sydney.
But Jean had turned her back on marriage. She had been married to her job. Besides, she already had a supportive partner — her mother, Florence. And it was to this understanding and resourceful woman that she turned to let off steam and share her triumphs, setbacks and plans for the future — in fact everything associated with the challenging and complex business of editing a top magazine.
Needless to say, Florence Sutton — she had remarried — was a guest of honour at Jean’s gala dinner send-off. And what a send-off it was. Champagne flowed and tributes too. Some of the greatest compliments coming from those who had hastened her departure. Later the Weekly ran a three-page accolade from senior writer Jack Leigh in which he described Jean’s light but firm editor’s touch, the care she had taken to provide the right balance of material in every issue and the artistic flair that had lent itself to cover design.
The editorial staff presented her with a cheeky mock cover starring herself, produced by senior photographer, Michael Willison. She absolutely loved it.
Jean said she was looking forward to the luxury of spare time and the chance to tackle more do-it-yourself projects around her home. I should note that she had designed her own house and had contributed much of the finishing work.
Shortly after she left the Weekly she was awarded an OBE for services to journalism. Then she settled into a life of quiet domesticity. As the years passed Jean became increasingly reclusive. We kept in touch — mainly by phone. I don’t drive and her place was awkward to get to by public transport. But in all those years of phone calls and Christmas card messages we never once discussed the current Weekly.
So how did the magazine fare after Jean? Initially, not well.
Jean had always said it was the kiss of death to make sudden dramatic changes to a magazine. She believed that magazines should evolve as society itself evolved.
But management of 1985, to its everlasting shame, hadn’t shared that view. Her successor was tasked with making changes. The Weekly went upmarket. It became sharper, slicker, glossier — better looking perhaps, but totally different. Readers objected. It wasn’t the magazine they had known and loved. Circulation plummeted.
When I became editor at the end of 1987 I had to try to restore something of the traditional Weekly. I tried. For seven years I tried. But the magazine would never again achieve anything remotely approaching the heights it had enjoyed under Jean’s leadership.
I last saw Jean at Auckland Hospital in November 2016 just days before her death. She was 96, frail, almost completely blind. But there was nothing wrong with her intellect. I sat on the side of her bed, and we talked about the ‘good old days.’ She was upbeat, warm, as engaging as ever.
There is a lot more I could say about Jean. And I say it in my memoir, Under The Covers: the secrets of a magazine editor. The book is about my own 32 years of life in print, but six of its 19 chapters are devoted to the Woman’s Weekly and Jean. I have dedicated it to her memory.
I was fortunate that the trustees of Jean’s estate granted me access to a vast amount of her personal memorabilia. That memorabilia now forms the Jean Wishart archive at the Auckland Central library.
Jean was modest, fundamentally shy — the last person in the world to blow her own trumpet. I make no excuses for blowing a trumpet on her behalf. Her contribution to New Zealand magazine publishing was unparalleled. And I want to make sure that it is remembered. She deserves nothing less.