Remembering Publishing Great John Mack Carter

Former Ladies' Home Journal, McCall's, Good Housekeeping Editor Dies at 86

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John Mack Carter, one of the industry's most influential magazine editors and the longtime voice of McCall's, Ladies' Home Journal and Good Housekeeping, has died at 86 following a long battle with Parkinson's. Mr. Carter was the only person in publishing history to helm all three titles.

John Mack Carter.
John Mack Carter. Credit: Hearst

Mr. Carter played a major role in launching Country Living, Victoria, SmartMoney and Marie Claire, but was mainly associated with women's magazines. In the early 1970s, he made headlines when women stormed his office at LHJ and held him hostage for 11 hours as they demanded changes in the publication. The experience helped change the magazine's editorial direction and Mr. Carter remained an advocate for women for the remainder of his career.

Over his six decades in publishing, he achieved many milestones, including blazing a trail by first putting celebrities on the cover of Good Housekeeping. He was inducted into the American Society of Magazine Editors Hall of Fame in 2000 and was president of the organization from 1990-1992. Gilbert C. Maurer, director and former Hearst chief operating officer, recalled Mr. Carter's "knack for perceiving unfilled needs in the marketplace was uncanny. And no one ever wrote a better cover line."

Over the years, Mr. Carter was a frequent subject in the pages of Advertising Age, including a profile written in 1999 by then-Ad Age Editor Scott Donaton when Mr. Carter was named to our Magazine A List. Here, we reproduce that column, headlined "Bluegrass Evangelist: The Life and Times of John Mack Carter":

Just weeks after I began reporting the goings-on of the magazine industry for Ad Age in (gulp) 1989, I attended the annual meeting of the Magazine Publishers of America. I had met only a handful of industry players at that point, among them the chief editor of Good Housekeeping.

As I walked around the Ritz-Carlton courtyard during the opening night's reception, that editor, John Mack Carter, reached out to shake my hand and pull me in close. "Do me a favor," John said in that distinctive Kentucky drawl familiar to millions of supermarket shoppers. "Stand here with me for a while."

It was soon clear why. As they made their way around the cocktail party, every editor, publisher and CEO stopped to pay their respects to the godfather of magazine publishing. And when they did, John Mack Carter introduced them to me.

I'm a skeptical person, but remain convinced (even now, as I write something nice about him) that John didn't do that simply so I would write something nice about him. He's press-savvy, sure, and well aware of his place in magazine history. But he's also a hell of a nice guy. Talented, too.

John's profile has been lower in recent years than it was then, and will dip a few degrees lower as he formally gives up his magazine development duties to serve as a consultant to Frank Bennack at Hearst, where he's worked for just shy of a quarter-century.

But don't expect him to slow down, even at 72. He's still got dibs on the private dining room at Hearst for power breakfasts, and there's still a line of people outside his office. Even away from the job, he rarely rests. Energetic and competitive, he skis, rollerblades and plays tennis, and has the compact physique to prove it. With more free time, he plans to buy a new plane and return to the cockpit.

"I look at this as a great opportunity to have a change and not have it forced on me," John told me last week, running a hand through his close-cropped grey hair as we spoke.

Not that much has been forced on him during a journalism career that began during World War II and spans nearly six decades. While still in high school, he worked part-time for a tiny weekly paper in Kentucky. "I learned about what people were really interested in, as opposed to what the textbooks said they were interested in," John said.

After graduating from the University of Missouri, he expected to return to newspapering but instead landed a $50 a week job at Better Homes & Gardens.

His fledgling magazine career was interrupted during the Korean War, when he was commissioned as a Naval officer. After the war, he found his way to New York and landed a job at Curtis Publishing as editor of American Home. He was hired away by McCall's, then the second-largest circulation title behind Reader's Digest. Curtis lured him back to edit another of the Seven Sisters, Ladies' Home Journal, which he did for nearly a decade.

In 1975, Dick Deems of Hearst dangled the Good Housekeeping job in front of John, who went over expecting to stay two years. Instead, he edited the monthly for nearly 20, picking up two National Magazine Awards and the Henry Johnson Fisher lifetime achievement honor along the way.

In 1994, John passed the reins to Ellen Levine and turned his focus full-time to magazine development (among the titles he's launched over the years: Country Living, Victoria and SmartMoney).

But it was as a women's magazine editor that John made his mark, overseeing some of the most influential magazines in the country at one of the most tumultous times in history. Although he supported women's lib, a group of feminists led by Gloria Steinem once staged a sit-in in his office at Ladies' Home Journal to protest the presence of a male editor at a leading women's title.

In later years, John came to be accepted, praised even, as "an honorary woman." Gloria Steinem raised a toast in his honor.

The secret of his success: passion. For magazines. For good journalism. Toss in, too, a love of risk and its rewards.

Most of all, John says, "You have to be an evangelist. You can't be an opportunist. You've got to be in it because you really want to make a difference."

Services for Mr. Carter will be held Oct. 1 at the Reformed Church of Bronxville, N.Y. and a wake will be held Sept. 30 at McGrath Funeral Home in Bronxville.

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