One of the more rewarding opportunities I’ve gotten in the past few years was the chance to be on the Board of Directors of Gift For Life. It’s an honor to be able to raise funds to fight AIDS, and the monthly conference calls amongst board members keep me updated on what is going on beyond my little microcosm. That was how I learned last summer that a mentor of mine, and far more importantly, a major presence in the gift industry, had died. Phyllis Sweed Bogdanoff, 83, was the grande dame of Gifts & Decorative Accessories — “the bible of the industry” — for some 35 years, starting in 1966, and was editor-in-chief when I started there in 1997 as a stationery editor.
The magazine was then housed in the New York Life Building, at 51 Madison Avenue, a gold-roofed Gothic behemoth. Once you know it, it’s always easy to spot in the skyline. Even though I’d worked at a few rather posh Manhattan addresses previously, it wasn’t until I started walking through its ornate lobby every morning that I felt I really worked in New York (at least, the New York I watched on TV growing up in Ohio). The offices were retro, in the dusty sense of the word, with office furniture and fixtures dating probably from the 1950s. I thought it completely charming. I loved staring out at 26th Street a few dozen floors beneath the enormous window that dominated my small makeshift office. In Phyllis’ corner office, the shades were always drawn, so you could only make out the general outlines of the enormous amount of free swag she received. I remember being called in my very first day. She proceeded to give me some of the best industry guidance I’ve yet to receive. “You’ll see a lot of magazines just throw press releases onto a page and say, ‘This is what’s new,’” she told me in a slightly clipped accent from behind slightly smudged glasses. “Never do that. Instead, tell a story.”
Only as I’ve been remembering Phyllis have I realized how much wisdom she shared, typically off the cuff. Once, after a gala in Los Angeles, where everyone had to talk to her — at that point, if you wanted publicity, you wanted Phyllis in your corner — I remarked to her, rather in awe, “Wow Phyllis, people really love you.”
She responded, “Sometimes people like you not for you, but for what you can do for them.”
At the time I thought this kind of trite, but these days I’m more inclined to believe compliments about Stationery Trends than those directed toward me personally. Any career success I’ve had is essentially the lucky result of crossing paths with a few people who believed in me (Phyllis being one of the first).
I found it quite endearing how Phyllis used to answer the phone “MissSweed,” all in one word with the emphasis on the first syllable, and equally maddening when she would throw a complicated story on my lap two days before deadline. I can still hear her saying, “Oh, just call Charles at XYZ and Jane at ABC, and the story will practically write itself.”
Now of course I realize my frustration was completely inappropriate, that that’s the nature of publishing — stories do occur at the last minute, with no mind to deadlines — and writing stories was precisely what I was hired to do. Ironically, such is Phyllis’ influence over my working style that there have been several occasions where I was assigning a story to a freelancer and as I outlined sources I wanted interviewed, had to stop myself from promising, “The story will practically write itself!”
So I only remember Phyllis with gratitude. I didn’t know it then, but she (along with then-Editor-in-Chief Quinn Halford and then-Production Manager, now Editor-in-Chief Caroline Kennedy) were doing far more for me than I was doing for them. Although so much in the industry has changed since that first day I sat in her office — my stories were assigned in picas, not words, using the once-cutting edge ATEX publishing system; the magazine old competitor’s have gone under, while new players have appeared; the Internet has completely changed how trends travel and often how product is wholesaled — the important stuff has stayed constant. This is an industry where friendliness is the rule rather than the exception, and has a lofty goal of honoring connections amongst friends and family as it makes life a little prettier.