Was Oprah Magazine a Famous Writer's Idea? Here's the Real Story


Success has a thousand fathers, while failure is an orphan, goes the adage. O, The Oprah Magazine -- one of the most successful new magazines launched in the past 15 years -- doesn't have quite that many fathers, but it does have a famous new would-be parent in Fear of Flying author Erica Jong.

In a blog entry for the Huffington Post, Jong claims that she suggested the idea for a magazine issue devoted entirely to Oprah Winfrey to Hearst sometime in the late 1990s. "I called up [editor in chief] Ellen Levine at Good Housekeeping, met with her and suggested that we do a whole issue celebrating Oprah," Jong writes. "I don't know if I suggested O magazine or if great minds think alike or if O was already in the works, but I have tons of ideas and give them freely. There are always more to come," she writes.

Jong says she doesn't mind if Hearst used her suggestion without giving her credit. "You can't copyright ideas, as I know from my cute lawyer husband," she writes. "So if I enriched Hearst and Oprah so be it. I never became a writer for the money. I am a poet first."

The Real Genesis Story

While admirable, her magnanimity appears to be misplaced. In fact, the idea for an all-Oprah magazine was born in late 1998 during a Good Housekeeping editorial meeting at the accidental prompting of Joanna Powell, the entertainment editor. Powell had written several cover stories about Winfrey and knew the issues in question were always big hits on the newsstand. "We were brainstorming about cover ideas in general and I said something to the effect of, 'Why can't we just put Oprah on the cover every month all the time?'" she recalls.

Levine, who has since been promoted from editor in chief of Good Housekeeping to editorial director of Hearst Magazines, immediately recognized in the joke a valuable idea and asked Powell to set up a meeting with Winfrey's representatives. Within a few months, work was under way.

While the idea may have been accidental, Powell can claim full credit for another key piece of the project: the magazine's name, which she put at the top of a list she drew up. "At first there was resistance to it," she says. "Some people thought it sounded too much like the Big O as in orgasm. But I was convinced that should be the name and eventually Oprah agreed."

Where does all this leave Jong? Powell says she never heard about a meeting between the author and Levine. Neither Jong nor Levine returned calls seeking clarification on when, exactly, the meeting took place. But if Jong's recollection is accurate, Levine either heard her suggestion but failed to see the potential in it at the time or heard her out keeping to herself the fact that Hearst was already working on something similar. A spokeswoman for the magazine would only say, "A great idea has many fathers, or mothers, in this case."

Originally published