Unexpected granddaddy of youth culture

Walter Annenberg helped shape an era

For the Record

October 06, 2002|By Jeffrey M. Landaw | Jeffrey M. Landaw,Sun Staff

According to Russell Baker, the awful little guy in The Graduate got it wrong.

If he'd really known where the action was going to be, Baker wrote decades ago, he wouldn't have told Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin to get into plastics, he'd have told him to get into youth culture.

Walter Annenberg, who died Tuesday at age 94, was a square's square -- a cube -- who used his publishing empire to punish his enemies and reward his friends, including that embodiment of everything youth culture wasn't, Richard Nixon. But Annenberg understood the economic dynamics of youth culture better than most experts. You could say he helped create it.

In 1944, Annenberg was looking to crack the fashion market. Helen Valentine, head of promotions at Mademoiselle magazine, told him that teen-age girls were an under-served public. "There are a million of them," she said. "They have their own spending money, buy their own lipstick and makeup. Clothing lines are being designed for them and advertisers are ready to buy space, but there is no publication aimed at that market." So Annenberg founded Seventeen, hired Valentine to run it and found he had an immediate hit.

Quasi-adult desires

Seventeen never seemed much like Rolling Stone or the Village Voice -- it still doesn't. It wouldn't take liquor, beer or cigarette ads; during the 1960s, Annenberg's biographer Christopher Ogden observed, it "published little psychedelic art and few photos of long-haired bearded young men." Annen-berg's sister, Enid Haupt, Seventeen's publisher from 1954 to 1962 and its editor until 1970, said, "I love teen-agers, but when it comes to standards I'm an awful square."

But Seventeen's very existence showed that the times, they were a-changing. Young people had quasi-adult desires and purchasing power and no adult responsibilities to hold them back. From the 1950s on, adolescence began to change from a stage of life into a possible career. "An adolescence," Lionel Trilling wrote in The Liberal Imagination, "must not continue beyond its natural term." Before the end of the 1960s, that would sound like a voice from the Stone Age.

Moved with the times

Seventeen kept a discreet distance from the counterculture, but it knew how to move with its audience. Haupt shifted its focus, Ogden wrote, "from stories about kissing and petting to information on menstruation, drug addiction, homosexuality and teen sex and marriage." An earlier Annenberg biographer, Gaeton Fonzi, approvingly quoted a Seventeen columnist at the end of the Sixties: "Virginity is an outmoded ideal." When he discovered the youth market, Annenberg did a lot to make the counterculture possible; Haupt helped bring it into the mainstream.

If Annenberg hadn't discovered that kids had money, someone else would have. He alone can't be blamed for the fact that American pop culture sometimes seems to be stuck in junior year of high school. But he found a very effective channel for the changes that were taking place. So when you're arguing about seeing American Pie 2 or buying Eminem's latest, you know where to tip your hat.

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