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New York City Woman: Barbara Lovenheim ’62

Newspaper stories, magazine profiles, books—an illustrious publishing career encourages this writer to create an online magazine for women on the “right side of 45”

If you Google, “best dressmakers in NYC,” the first hit on the list is an article from NYCitywoman.com. Looking to learn more about the marriages of past US presidents? Try searching “first ladies, marriages.” Just below the inevitable Wikipedia entry is an article from NYCitywoman. The online magazine, as described by its founding editor Barbara Lovenheim ’62, is devoted to lifestyle issues for women who have said good-bye to their thirties. According to Lovenheim, research indicates that about 40 percent of the women who live in Manhattan are between 45 and 65 years old; two-thirds of them are college-educated, and more of these women work in high-powered jobs than in other cities. This market, she says, is underserved by major media.

Every month, Lovenheim, an experienced journalist and interviewer who has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, and The International Herald Tribune, and a team of freelance writers, assemble articles on a broad array of subjects of interest to this demographic: lifestyle ideas, changing bodies, caregiving issues, and economic challenges, such as career changes and retirement. Leavening these topics are fashion and beauty features, such as the dressmaker ratings, what the mother of the bride should wear, and what lotions are best for drying skin. The site includes a range of features—from newsy to quirky—such as profiles of lesser-known 19th-century first ladies. “We are not aggregators of content,” says Lovenheim with pride, “We create our own.” To do that, she draws from a team of writers, mostly female with whom she’s worked over a the years. She pointedly adds that she pays her writers; many Web sites do not.

A gracious speaker with a calm demeanor, Lovenheim grew up in Rochester, New York; she was an honors student who was rejected by Radcliffe, and decided to come to Barnard, lured by its affiliation and proximity to Columbia, its New York City location, and the theatre. An English major, she earned a master’s at the University of Wisconsin and a PhD at the University of Rochester. For the next 14 years, she taught English, first at Queens College, then at Baruch. Denied tenure at both institutions, she says now, “It was a blessing in disguise.”

She left the academic world in 1975, not long after The New York Times Book Review published her exposé about college professors who hired ghostwriters to write their books. From academia, she joined a large New York public relations firm. At first a secretary, she was soon given a promotion one Friday, only to find out the following Monday that the agency had lost a major money-making account, which effectively ended her new position and her pursuit of a public relations career.

Although she lost her “day job,” she had been contributing to Our Town, a community newspaper serving Manhattan’s Upper East Side, The Soho News, and The Village Voice. These assignments led to articles for the Times. Lovenheim joined a friend in London in 1979, and began writing for the new arts section of the International Herald Tribune, interviewing the famous such as Arianna Stassinopoulos (pre-Huffington), then a Cambridge graduate with a radio talk-show; opera diva Maria Callas; Billie Whitelaw, the favorite actress and muse of playwright Samuel Becket; and prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn, who said almost nothing for five long hours.

London was glamorous, but Lovenheim was earning very little money, and she returned to New York the following year. There were more assignments from the Times and the new arts page of The Wall Street Journal. In addition to arts coverage, she also included social issues among her story ideas.

In 1986, Newsweek published a study by Harvard and Yale demographers indicating, “that a single woman [over a certain age?] had a better chance of being killed by a terrorist than getting married.” The comment ignited a blaze of media attention; New York followed up with Lovenheim’s cover story, “Brides at Last: Women Over 40 Who Beat the Odds,” that led her to a book contract. Beating the Marriage Odds: When You Are Smart, Single, and Over 35, was published in 1990. Lovenheim smiles when she recounts her own love story. She met John Grimes, a now-retired ABC radio news correspondent, when she was 50; they remain together today.

The year 1990 marked her fourth and final interview with actress Katherine Hepburn, a relationship that began with the first interview in 1983. Over the years Lovenheim wrote pieces about such high-profile figures as Robert Redford, Cher, and Woody Allen and Mia Farrow. Of her celebrity profiles, Lovenheim says simply, “I’m curious about people.” She wasn’t interested in their celebrity as much as the “how” of their lives: How they got into their fields, how they became successful, and how they did what they did so well. She says she was able to land these interviews because she had powerful newspapers and magazines behind her, and a good network of contacts through her freelancing. She also approached her subjects when she knew they had a new project—play, film, or other performance—in the works, and would find the publicity beneficial.

From newspapers and magazines, Lovenheim took her career in yet another direction, while remaining part of the publishing world. An inheritance provided her with the means to create and produce books and brochures for nonprofit organizations, such as the Museum of American Folk Art, Museum of Jewish Heritage, and the New York City Ballet. During this time, a chance introduction to two Holocaust survivors who remained hiding in Berlin with five other family members for almost three years during the Nazi regime, led her to another book: Survival in the Shadows: Seven Jews Hidden in Hitler’s Berlin was published in 2003. Lovenheim hopes that at some point, the book will become a film.

In 2010, she switched gears with the release of Breaking Ground: A Century of Craft Art in Western New York, for which she interviewed master craftsmen such as furniture maker Wendell Castle, metal sculptor Albert Paley, and ceramic artist Wayne Higby, all of whom made major contributions to the studio craft movement in this country.

For now, NYCitywoman.com remains Lovenheim’s focus, with the latest issue (as of Barnard’s publication date) including features such as “Party Math: How to be Your Own Caterer,” a feature that grew from one food writer’s advice to a widowed college chum who, after several years, decided it was time to throw a drinks party for 20 people; “Ageless Erotica: Pleasures that Never Grow Old”; and a profile of author and former Berkeley activist Barbara Garson who chronicled the lives of real people during this economic downturn in a recently published book, Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live in the Great Recession. The site also includes an extensive archive of past features, so you can still easily find the names of those great dressmakers and visit the best flea markets in New York City.

—by Annette Kahn
—Photograph by Dustin Aksland