Book Review: The Man from Essence: Creating a Magazine for Black Women
by Edward Lewis
Book Reviewed by Kam Williams
“I know what they say about meóthat I am too quiet and low-key, unassuming, even clueless. Not the one you’d expect to be the last man standing after the smoke has cleared and the body count taken. Yet here I am, in the position to tell a remarkable story as the only cofounder remaining on the masthead of a multimillion-dollar magazine I helped launch more than forty years ago with three other black businessmen…
The story starts in struggle with… trying to turn a business idea into a profitable magazine amid turmoil from within and racism from without… The story ends… when that magazine was sold 35 years later to the largest publishing company in the world for the highest cost-per-page… in history.”
—Excerpted from the Introduction (pages xv-xxii)
White from head to toe (including his trademark trench coat and even his hair), The Man from Glad was the iconic plastic wrap pitchman first introduced to TV viewers in 1965. Four years later, undeniably black Edward Lewis, The Man from Essence, was a member of the quartet of African-American visionaries launching a bold, new periodical billed as “The magazine for today's black woman.”
Despite the irony of four brothers being behind a publication aimed at sisters, the periodical proved phenomenally popular, soon blossoming into the premiere beauty and fashion magazine for its target demographic. And over the intervening decades the Essence brand has been extended to include an annual Fourth of July weekend cultural festival featuring everything from musical concerts to empowerment seminars.
However, the magazine has also experienced considerable behind-the-scenes turmoil, and much of that drama is the subject of The Man from Essence, a revealing memoir written by Mr. Lewis with the assistance of his former executive editor, Audrey Edwards. Inter alia, we learn that the four founders had no experience in the field of publishing, yet ultimately managed to flourish in part because they had identified a need just begging to be addressed.
But that path would be no cakewalk, since it took big bucks to underwrite their daring adventure, and banks were initially rather reluctant to invest in such a fledgling operation. Nevertheless, Lewis describes himself as being “nearly in tears as I stood onstage looking out at the audience in New Orleans’ colossal Superdome” during the maiden Essence Musical Festival in 1995.
He also talks, here, about the historic sale of 49% of the company’s stock to Time, Inc. in 2000, as well as the balance of the shares in 2005. In that passage he further recounts how the magazine’s legendary editor-in-chief, Susan L. Taylor, and other suddenly-disgruntled staff members began issuing demands in an avaricious attempt to share in the windfall profits deservedly earned by the magazine’s creators.
Lewis felt hurt after being labeled a “sellout” for handing the reigns of Essence to a media giant which might strip the cherished black institution of its “soul.” Still, the author got the last laugh, all the way to the bank, since the magazine has thus far remained fairly faithful to its founding principles.
A fascinating case study about how a solid work ethic enabled a poor kid from the NYC slums to prevail in his dogged pursuit of the American Dream.