Farmer's Almanac isn't amused at fun by New York mag

January 03, 1991|By David Margolick | David Margolick,New York Times News Service

NEW YORK The two publications could not be more different. One is countrified, timeless, folksy; the other considers itself sophisticated, urbane, chic and caustic.

The one celebrates the rising and setting of the sun each day and can tell you precisely when they happen; the other records the rise of hemlines and the setting of trends. The one has the air of Lexington and Concord; the other, at least at times, reeks of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Could anyone actually confuse the venerable Old Farmer's Almanac, which celebrates its 200th anniversary this year, and New York magazine, a child of the 1960s?

For one week last month, they arguably might have. And therein lies a lawsuit.

On the cover of its annual Christmas gifts issue, dated Dec. 3, New York mimicked the almanac's distinctive front, complete with its familiar yellow color, antiquated typography, rococo scroll work, cameos and cartouches. The magazine even acknowledged its debt, if only esthetically.

"Design inspired by the original Farmer's Almanac," it stated near the table of contents.

Unappeased and unimpressed, lawyers for Yankee Publishing Inc. of Dublin, N.H., publishers of the almanac, went to federal District Court in New York and sued News America Publishing Inc., New York magazine's parent company, for trademark infringement.

It is an odd contest, one pitting 18th-century New England against the 21st-century megalopolis and the almanac's president, one Joseph B. Meagher, against one Rupert Murdoch, who heads News America.

By expropriating the almanac's distinctive motifs, its lawyers charged, New York had effectively stolen its "valuable good will."

Manufacturers of a host of products that would fit nicely into Leon Leonwood Bean's bathroom or the kitchen on Mrs. Pepperidge's farm ironing board covers, spice containers, calendars, kitchen towels and placemats had paid for the privilege of using the almanac's cover, the lawyers said, and so, too, should the magazine.

The similarities, almanac officials said, could lead some readers to confuse the two publications.

They contended that any affiliation with New York, which published what it described as "sophisticated material of a trendy nature," could tarnish a publication that purveyed "folksy material of perennial interest, stories of fact and fancy, interesting recipes and advertisements for homespun products."

Instead of its usual advertisements for woodworking patterns, tomato plants and potions for sinusitis, nail fungus and fatigue, almanac readers would have found pitches for Estee Lauder, Fortunoff's and Saab. The wholesome almanac shuns all liquor or tobacco advertisements; the Dec. 3 issue of New York touted Virginia Slims and a $2,500 bottle of Glenfiddich scotch.

The almanac's personals lists love psychics and evangelists; New York's personals that week featured "Gay female psychotherapist searching for Nirvana" and "Brainy pretty klutz seeks endearing brilliant clod."

"I could see some people picking it up and saying 'Boy, the Old Farmer's Almanac is trying to go modern here," said Judson D. Hale, the almanac's 12th editor since 1792 (and the nephew of the 11th). Nothing, he stressed, could be more untrue.

"We're out of the loop here," he said. "What's 'hot' here might be the soup in the country store next door, but that's about it."

A lawyer for New York magazine dismissed the case as a big-city type of strike suit a chance to make a fast buck in court. "Nobody looking at this thing would think it was the Farmer's Almanac," said Robert W. Fiddler of Fiddler & Levine in New York.

He belittled the idea that the almanac had been injured. "If anything, they're enhanced by virtue of the publicity given them," he said.

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