As editor of the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly for 32 years, Jean Wishart became a virtual friend to thousands of New Zealand women who warmly responded to her editorials. The magazine absorbed all her working life of 47 years, and during that time she increased its circulation by presciently predicting what would entice readers. Her life and that of New Zealand’s premier women’s magazine were inextricably linked. Wishart began as an office girl at the Weekly but quickly rose to the role of editor of what became New Zealand’s most popular women’s magazine. Her reputation as an astute businesswoman led in 1975 to her appointment to the board of New Zealand News, the first woman to hold this position, and five years later she was the first woman elected to the council of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce. Her career spanned a sea-change in New Zealand women’s lives. This was reflected in the content of the Weekly, but changing values were always communicated in a non-confrontational manner.
Jean Boughton Wishart was born in Remuera, Auckland, on 8 October 1920, the only child of Florence Olivia Marianne Cadman and her husband, Robert Wishart. She attended primary schools in Remuera, Grafton and Parnell and had her secondary education at Epsom Girls’ Grammar School. Her love of newsprint may have originated with her father, a printer at the Auckland Star, who she implored to bring home slugs of lead type with words she wanted to print in her homemade magazines. Some of her stories were published in the ‘Pixie pages’ for children in the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly (NZWW), founded in December 1932. After leaving Epsom Girls’ Grammar School at the end of 1937, Jean attended Miss Greenwood’s shorthand and typing school in Newmarket. She had an ‘overpowering urge’ to write and sought a future in journalism.
In 1939, the tall, attractive and well-groomed 18-year-old Wishart began her first job in the office at the NZWW, typing, bookkeeping, delivering messages and writing the occasional article. The magazine cost three pence, had a circulation of 31,000, and was owned by New Zealand Newspapers Limited, which also owned the Auckland Star, the Lyttelton Times and the Christchurch Star. With the outbreak of war, the magazine was reduced both in staff and regularity (to a twice-monthly), and run by editor Hedda Dyson, ably assisted by Jean Wishart. For someone interested in all aspects of magazine production, it was an ideal start.
On 15 August 1945, VJ Day, Jean Wishart walked across Auckland to get the ‘“inside” story’ of the celebrations at a clothing factory where women workers had produced uniforms. There she found festivities in full swing, the workers dancing in the cafeteria bedecked in red, white and blue. The result was a full-page article in the NZWW celebrating the women’s war effort in words and photographs.1 This knack for celebrating a range of women’s lives in a visually appealing manner stood Wishart in good stead when she took up the editorship of the magazine in 1952, at age 32. By then the circulation had reached 90,000. The Auckland Star remained closely involved in the magazine’s production, with Star personnel, for example, choosing NZWW covers without consulting the editor. Jean Wishart was soon to the change the balance of power.
The shy and restrained Wishart dedicated her life to the NZWW, her huge appetite for work supported at all times by her mother, with whom she lived until 1967. Florence Wishart sometimes delivered home-cooked meals to her daughter, carried on the tram wrapped in newspaper to keep warm, when Jean was working late.
Journalist Carroll Wall suggested that underneath her immaculate appearance, the ‘unfailingly charming and smiling’ Jean Wishart concealed ‘the sharp, tough teeth of a tiger famous for getting its own way’.2 Wishart had a clear vision of the Weekly’s role, which was to build a large audience by discerning readers’ interests. One of her first moves as editor was to ditch reporting on the activities of the social elite, which Wishart recognised as an anachronism. Readers, however, had an endless appetite for news of young Queen Elizabeth, whose accession to the throne coincided with Wishart’s new role as editor. The Queen’s position as a young mother mirrored that of many New Zealand women as the baby boom got underway. On her 1953–54 visit to New Zealand, which the NZWW followed avidly, the Queen embodied both married motherhood and evening gown glamour. Thereafter, Wishart kept a close eye on the royal family, ready to respond to readers’ intense interest in their apparently fairytale lives.
The everyday lives of New Zealand women also deeply interested Wishart. She took every opportunity, from listening to popular radio to eavesdropping in shops, to discern their interests. The NZWW, 88 mostly black and white pages by 1957, encouraged readers to contribute to the magazine, including recipes, household hints, and funny anecdotes from daily life for the ‘Over the teacups’ page. The magazine included local stories produced by staff writers, fashion from Paris and London, and London ‘gossip’ gleaned by Edith Manners. Readers could escape into short fiction or the lives of Hollywood stars such as Elizabeth Taylor. Those more practically inclined could use the knitting patterns to produce clothing. ‘Agony Aunt’ Mary Miller was on hand to solve love problems, while ‘Maorilander’ predicted the future in the horoscopes. Children were also encouraged to contribute jokes, poems and stories to the ‘Pixie pages’. They earned merit points for contributions and ‘pixies’ who accumulated 50 points won a book prize. For sixpence a week, a woman received a variety of entertainment and insights.
Wishart was a talented artist and aspired to more creative control over the Weekly’s layout, which was in the hands of the compositors when she became editor. She decided to cut out the randomly scattered syndicated cartoons (apart from Gladys Parker’s popular ‘Mopsy’) and created a cleaner look. During the 1950s, full-colour covers, chosen by Wishart, were introduced. She wrote signed editorials engaging with readers, but mainly concentrated on determining the mix of features the magazine would present rather than writing stories herself. In 1958 Wishart realised it was time to pay attention to the emerging teenage readership, and appointed Jenny Lynch to begin the ‘Teenage pages’. Lynch produced a ‘scoop’ on Johnny Devlin, New Zealand’s own rock ’n’ roll star, in July 1958. By 1957 the NZWW had a staff of six and the circulation had reached 150,000 copies; it had increased to 160,000 by 1960, by which time it had eclipsed its nearest competitor, the New Zealand Listener.
Wishart was astute in moving with the times in a way that did not alienate the Weekly’s traditional readers, introducing changes gradually. A July 1964 full-page spread entitled ‘Beatlemania hits New Zealand’ targeted teenagers, while an August 1965 scoop on the first quintuplets born in New Zealand had broad appeal. Never complacent, Wishart headed overseas for three months in 1962 to investigate practices at other magazines. Nothing she found really matched her aspirations for the Weekly. The American magazines were monthly and the English magazines seemed to condescend to women.
The magazine’s circulation relied heavily on casual sales rather than subscriptions, so cover images and coverlines were essential in beguiling casual browsers and convincing them to buy. Wishart developed keen instincts for what cover images appealed to readers. Ann Fisher, acting as editor during Wishart’s absence in 1962, decided to reject a cover photo of the Queen Mother assigned by Wishart and replace it with one of pretty dresses for mothers and daughters. Wishart queried the decision on return, telling Fisher to ‘just wait until you see the circulation figures’. To Fisher’s chagrin, Wishart was proved right: circulation dropped.3 The 16 October 1967 issue’s coverlines are indicative of Wishart’s approach: ‘Pretty as a picture! Summer twinset. Knitting pattern inside. Teenage marriage: learning to live with love. Free! 16-page bonus booklet. Gardening to save money.’ Wishart knew the appeal of free patterns and advice booklets to potential buyers wanting to get something practical alongside the stories and entertainment. She aimed for a mix of human-interest stories, pressing social issues, and personally oriented self-help stories such as dealing with arthritis.
Wishart looked for columnists to inform and stimulate thinking readers. In 1964 she contracted Cherry Raymond, the well-known presenter of the Feminine viewpoint radio programme, to write the ‘Speaking frankly’ column for the NZWW. Wishart expected the column to address matters ‘of national interest’, and Raymond consequently tackled sometimes controversial legal and social questions which, she hoped, would enhance the position of women.4 Slipped in amongst the Weekly’s weight loss regimes, hairstyle advice, recipes, and reports on Coronation Street and Buckingham Palace, Raymond’s column forthrightly discussed sexually transmitted diseases, contraception and abortion, finance, and women’s legal rights. Raymond found a wider audience than she had ever reached before, and believed the column to be probably her most significant contribution to public discourse over her impressive career. She gave up the column in 1974. Other talented staff writers Wishart recruited included Audrey Gordon and Dorothy Moses.
Wishart’s appointment of Raymond was timely. The competition for women’s attention increased with the publication of Eve magazine (1966–75), thursday magazine (1968–76) and Broadsheet (1972–97). These competitors saw the NZWW as old-fashioned and hoped to appeal to the younger generation. In doing so they failed to match the universal appeal that Wishart had mastered, and hence the Weekly continued as they fell by the wayside.
Another timely appointment was that of pioneering food writer Tui Flower in 1965, and the creation of a test kitchen for recipes. Before setting up the kitchen, Wishart visited test kitchens at a number of overseas magazines to determine what might be needed. Flower used the kitchen to create practical and nutritious recipes, and became well known for her work in the Weekly and the Star and her recipe books. By the later 1970s and early 1980s, knitting patterns were on the way out, as younger working women preferred to buy easy care garments. Cooking advice for busy housewives and working women, however, remained a staple.
Many who worked for ‘Miss Wishart’ held her in awe, admiring her calm demeanour and ability to never raise her voice. While she liked readers to be informed, she shied away from controversy. To her readers she was simply ‘Jean’, and, through her weekly editorial, she shared details of her personal life which she rarely divulged to her staff. She encouraged readers to write in, and opening her mailbag was one of her favourite tasks. By 1976, when journalist Jenny Lynch rejoined the staff after a 17-year absence, she noted how Wishart had become more remote from the (much larger) staff, concentrating on her work behind a closed door. With no acknowledgement or encouragement from their editor, some staff felt disenchanted and left.
By the mid-1970s Wishart was moving into leadership roles beyond her editorial desk. From 1975 to 1985 she was a board member of New Zealand News, one of the three publishing conglomerates in the country that had wide interests in media, including television, and the Weekly’s current parent company. She also became the first woman elected to the council of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce, an association to further the interests of businesses, in 1980, a position she held until 1983.
With circulation remaining static in the 1970s, New Zealand News appointed a news editor to sharpen the news edge. Under restructuring, Wishart remained in charge of overseas and royal stories. The engagement of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in February 1981 took sales to 270,000 while the July Royal Wedding issue of 300,000 sold out. Turbulent times at New Zealand News led to staff changes and a diminishing role for the once all-powerful editor. In her 31 December 1984 editorial, Jean Wishart announced that she would be retiring the following year. In her April 1985 farewell speech, Wishart emphasised how fortunate she had been to first learn magazine publishing and then become editor of the NZWW. But most of all, she focused on the people who had worked as part of the team effort to produce the magazine. She was made an OBE in 1985.
Free from the demands of an intense working life, Wishart was able to spend more time on activities she enjoyed such as home improvements, in the house she had designed herself. She enjoyed gardening and provided care for her aged mother. An extremely modest and private woman, Wishart enjoyed a long, quiet life, living independently in her own home, until a week before her death on 16 November 2016, aged 96. Tributes poured in for the ‘legendary editor’, pioneering businesswoman, and friend of the many readers of New Zealand’s best-loved women’s magazine.5