Ellen Levine, 79, Dies; Editor With Keen Sense of Women Readers

Ellen Levine, Good Housekeeping’s first female top editor, whose keen sense of what American women wanted from a magazine also led her to success as Hearst Magazines’ editorial director and Oprah Winfrey’s partner in creating an instant newsstand hit, died on Nov. 6 at her home in Manhattan. She was 79.

The cause was complications of dementia, her son Peter Levine said.

Ms. Levine’s interest in journalism began early, as did her understanding of the trade-offs she might have to make to further that interest.

By the time she was in the 10th grade, working on the high school paper was the highlight of her day. Running things, however, was not an option.

“Life was different then,” Ms. Levine wrote in a letter to her Hearst colleagues when she retired as editorial director in 2016. “Having a female editor in chief was not permissible, so I partnered with a very smart boy from my class.”

Her interest in journalism accompanied her to Wellesley College, where she again joined the school paper, working with an older student whom she called a “knockout editor” and who went on to a celebrated career as a writer and filmmaker: Nora Ephron.

“These were people who asked questions,” Ms. Levine said of her fellow student journalists, speaking in a 2016 video interview produced by the college. “I love to ask questions. I drive people crazy asking questions.”

After graduating from Wellesley as a political science major in 1964, Ms. Levine was hired as a reporter by The Record of suburban Hackensack, N.J., to cover what was then called women’s news. She eventually oversaw food and decorating coverage for the paper.

She got a major professional lift in 1976 when, after marrying and starting a family, she was hired by Helen Gurley Brown, the groundbreaking editor of the Hearst magazine Cosmopolitan, on the recommendation of the head of the decorating department at Bloomingdale’s.

“Working for Helen changed everything,” Ms. Levine wrote in her 2016 letter. “She mentored me on dozens of issues, from how to compose a Cosmo caption to how to move up in our industry.”

Ms. Brown gave Ms. Levine her first shot at running a publication, a short-lived Cosmo offshoot. Then, in 1982, Ms. Brown helped her get hired as editor in chief of Woman’s Day, one of the so-called Seven Sisters magazines ubiquitous at supermarket checkout counters. Eight years later, Hearst named her editor in chief of Redbook, another of the Seven Sisters.

“One of the cover lines I pitched was ‘Why I Date Your Husband,’” Ms. Levine wrote of her suggestions for reinvigorating Redbook. “My years working for Helen Gurley Brown had taught me to draft catchy covers. It sold well.”

Hearst elevated her to oversee Good Housekeeping, a third Seven Sister, in 1994. Until then, as a 110-year-old handbook for the American housewife, its top editor had always been a man.

Ms. Levine massaged the magazine’s mix of diet, entertaining and relationship advice, broadening its appeal to working mothers with consumer-oriented reporting; articles about social and political issues; and coverage of career matters like pay equity. But she balked at adding the kind of sexually frank articles she had used to spice up Redbook.

“You do different things at different magazines,” she told The New York Times on getting the job. “It never does you any good to give readers something they don’t want.”

Ms. Levine’s Good Housekeeping emphasized health topics like smoking, heart disease, mental illness and prostate cancer. (Men’s medical problems were logical subjects, she said, because women were the “gatekeepers” of their families’ health.)

She was cleareyed about who her mass-market readers were, and about who she was.

“I’m not editing for the person addicted to high-fashion magazines,” Ms. Levine told The Times in 2003. ‘’I grew up in the suburbs, went to a public high school, got married at 21 and was a Little League mom.”

Friends and colleagues variously described her in interviews as generous, confident, demanding, shrewd, smart, provocative, competitive and funny. Betsy Carter, a novelist and former magazine editor, said that Ms. Levine’s nonstop curiosity had been “a gift” to her friends and that she had been “one of those people who are connectors” of others.

One fruitful connection involved O, the Oprah Magazine, a joint venture between Hearst and Ms. Winfrey’s Harpo Inc. Debuting in 2000, the magazine sold so well at the outset that it was widely deemed the most successful new title in decades. (It ceased print publication in 2020 amid a broader industry downturn.)

Ms. Winfrey described by email how she had challenged Ms. Levine and Cathleen P. Black, the president of Hearst Magazines at the time, when they first approached her with the idea.

“I asked what would be my ‘why’?” Ms. Winfrey recalled. Ms. Levine’s response was straightforward: “She said, ‘You love sharing written words.’ And so did she. She reveled in every page telling its own story.”

Ms. Winfrey called her “Queen Levine.”

Ellen Rose Jacobson was born on Feb. 19, 1943, in Queens. Her father, Eugene Robert Jacobson, was an entrepreneur and later an executive with the Sun Chemical Corporation. Her mother, Jean (Zuckman) Jacobson, was a homemaker.

The family settled in Englewood, N.J., when Ellen was a girl. She graduated from Dwight Morrow High School there in 1960 before entering Wellesley.

Six months after graduating from college, she married Richard U. Levine, a medical student on his way to becoming an obstetrician and gynecologist. He died in a bicycle accident in 2020. In addition to her son Peter, Ms. Levine is survived by another son, Daniel; her sister, Karen Jacobson; and five grandchildren.

Ms. Levine’s most public episode may have come in 1985 when she was appointed to the Commission on Pornography organized under the aegis of Attorney General Edwin Meese III. At the time, she was editor in chief of Woman’s Day and vice president of CBS Magazines, which then owned it.

President Ronald Reagan had directed that the panel revisit an earlier commission’s finding that pornography was not a social problem requiring government regulation.

After nearly a year of study, the Meese commission effectively reached the opposite conclusion, issuing a report that called for a national campaign against sexually explicit material and more vigorous prosecution of its dissemination, especially child pornography.

In a separate statement, Ms. Levine and two other female panel members — Judith Becker, a psychologist, and Deanne Tilton Durfee, the leader of the California Consortium of Child Abuse Councils — objected strongly to the exploitation of women and depictions of them as willing victims of men’s abuse, but they also warned against trying to restrict people’s rights to engage in legal activities.

Ms. Levine and Dr. Becker filed a formal dissent to the report as well. In it, they argued that the research presented to the commission did not support the panel’s finding of a link between pornography and crime.

“The data gathered,” they wrote, “is not well balanced,” adding that “no self-respecting investigator would accept conclusions based on such a study.”

In an interview, Ms. Durfee recalled Ms. Levine as “elegant and eloquent and totally undaunted” throughout the panel’s contentious proceedings, adding that she had been committed to rebuffing any commission proposal that might encroach on freedom of the press.

That stance prompted an association of independent magazine, book and newspaper distributors to recognize Ms. Levine with an award for “distinguished service defending the First Amendment,” citing “the strength of her conviction in taking a courageous and outspoken stand.”

The honor, the group said, had been “specifically developed for a person like Ellen Levine.”

Kirsten Noyes contributed research.