Lois Long, the Matriarch of Social Influencers
Before Marilyn, before Madonna, and before Beyoncé, Lois “Lipstick” Long was America’s social icon. As Long graduated from Vassar and began her career in the mid-1920s, the effects of women gaining the right to vote and the prohibition of alcohol were changing how society viewed women in the public sphere.
Women had newfound power, jobs, and access to the final frontier of social life from which they had been traditionally excluded: bars. As Long’s popularity grew, she seemed to represent all the possibilities for the newly liberated woman: a well-respected writer and trendsetter, a divorced (and economically stable) working-mother, and a partying socialite sought after by the most exclusive brands and clubs.
As The New Yorker claimed, “she smoked; she drank; she stayed out all night. She worked for her own money and made no apologies for her lifestyle. She was the very embodiment of the New Woman.”
But, Long was more than just the epitome of the “New Woman.”
Rather than leaving men to dictate social norms, as they had done for decades with legislation and economic power, Lois used her platform to shape societies’ idealized image of the flapper. With a talent for capitalizing on her popularity, a magnetic personality, and her captivating writing style, Long emerged as the matriarch of the modern American social influencer.
Long started out as a copy editor for Vogue in 1922, eventually moving on to be a staff writer and drama critic for Vanity Fair. As Long honed her writing and fashion critiques, a stylistic shift was happening in American literature signified by the massive success of works like The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises. This new, opulent, and decadent writing sprinkled with satire captured the imagination of the American elite and those who aspired to it; a new lifestyle magazine, The New Yorker, sought to capitalize on this stylistic shift.
In 1925, Harold Ross, founder and editor-in-chief, hired on a group of writers and editors meant to save the somewhat floundering magazine, telling them “ideas should be literal and show how, unconsciously by their speech and acts, individuals of every New York type show up their hypocrisies, insincerities, false fads, and absurd characteristics.” Specifically, Ross realized a running commentary on “the great experiment of Prohibition” would be a key component to expanding readership of the publication among New York City’s elite.
In the early stages of The New Yorker, Ross struggled to find the right nightlife columnist; he was looking for a voice that could transport readers while implementing the newly popular, satirical style of writing. Long was the perfect match, with her unapologetically bold writing style, keen fashion sense, prowess in social networking, and a personality that allowed her to talk her way into any room. So, in addition to her fashion column “On and off the Avenue,” she stepped into the role of nightlife columnist, writing “Tables for Two” under her alias “Lipstick.”
“Tables for Two” was met with instant success. Her vivid descriptions, playfully sassy commentary, and blunt criticisms drew in readership from the city’s wealthiest who used her column as an early version of Yelp. Because speakeasies would move locations multiple times a year, “Tables for Two” was the must-read column for anyone looking to participate in city nightlife. Additionally, “Tables” became popular for middle-class New Yorkers who were unable to afford the luxurious flapper lifestyle but could afford The New Yorker and live vicariously through Lipstick’s weekly escapades.
The popularity of the column single-handedly saved The New Yorker, which had been hemorrhaging about $8,000 a week before Ross hired Long. Lipstick would share her weekly adventures featuring speakeasies all over the city: from the most upscale venues such as the 21 Club (an exclusively white, all-male club before prohibition) to rowdy dive bars in Greenwich Village to mixed-race clubs in Harlem. Though Long was secretive about her true identity (to maintain the integrity of her reviews, she claimed), Lipstick showed a complete disregard for discretion when it came to speakeasies themselves, often publishing the location and specific directions to speakeasies entrances.
Praising or scolding proprietors by full name based on her experience, her words could make or break an establishment. The “glory days” of weekly “Tables for Two” columns lasted until 1927, when Long decided to revealed her identity, sharing with her readers that she expected to be settling down more due to her upcoming marriage. Even after revealing her identity, “Tables” remained a frequent feature in the magazine, appearing a few times a month until the column stopped in 1930.
After her first two years as a Lipstick and fashion columnist, Long was promoted to fashion editor. The New Yorker presented a unique challenge for Long: the magazine did not publish photographs of the styles and clothes she was tasked with critiquing. Under these constraints, she combined her ability to transport readers and her keen fashion sense with her unapologetic sarcasm and wit. She has been credited with “invent[ing] fashion criticism. [Long] was the first American fashion critic to approach fashion as an art and to criticize women’s clothes with independence, intelligence, humor, and literary style.”
In addition to her duties as an editor, Long authored The New Yorker’s much-anticipated yearly pre-Christmas gift guide and regularly contributed to current events, fashion, and gossip columns through the late 1950s. Brands regularly requested that Lois herself be featured as a model for their advertisements. A true social influencer, Lois knew that anything she signed with her seal of approval reflected back onto her.
Several internal memos at The New Yorker show Long unwilling to compromise her reviews to please the requests of advertisers. She would write impassioned memos to her editors defending her critiques and often gaining their support, even if it meant losing advertising revenue. Long lived on her own schedule and stuck by it. Often dogged after by her editors for late articles, she was a master at talking her way out of disciplinary action. Knowing that she should capitalize on her popularity, Long sought out regular raises or advances from the magazine. She could not be slowed down, even as the Great Depression demolished global economic stability in 1929.
As her popularity bloomed, restaurants, department stores, and other socialites clamored to catch her eye. Long’s office at The New Yorker was regularly bombarded with beauty products and invitations (often left unopened) for the elusive socialite. As a prominent and well-respected voice in fashion, she was invited to judge the Pratt Institute of Design’s annual fashion show alongside the fashion editors of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar in 1931.
Party invites from the likes of Condé Nast were regular occurrences. Long could walk into any store, restaurant, or bar, give her name, and run up accounts. Using her charm, she would put off settling her bills for several months at a time. In 1931, Long was asked to host a radio show three times a week with content that mirrored her fashion, gossip, and nightlife columns, further expanding her audience, influence, and reach as a trendsetter and social icon. Her show lasted into the late 1940s. Around the same time, she was also recruited for a brief stint as a fashion consultant for Paramount Pictures in Hollywood.
Long was just as fiercely independent in her personal life as she was in her public life. Her first marriage to Peter Arno started as a whirlwind office romance. The two were once found in The New Yorker offices, passed out naked after a night of partying. Their daughter Patricia was born in 1929, and shortly after the couple divorved on June 30, 1931 with Long maintaining custody of their daughter.
An economically independent woman, Long asked for no alimony in their divorce, just money to help cover school costs and other expenses relating to raising their daughter. In spite of late checks from her ex-husband, Long raised Patricia as a single mother until July 31, 1938, marrying Donaldson Thorburn. After her husband returned from serving in WWII, the two collaborated on No Tumult, No Shouting, a book chronicling Donaldson’s wartime experiences.
After Thorburn’s death in 1952, Long remarried once again, this time to investment manager Harold Fox on November 26, 1953. Her decision to step down as fashion editor in 1968 corresponded with the death of her third husband. Unwilling to retire completely, she stayed on The New Yorker’s payroll as a fashion consultant until her death in 1974 at the age 72. Long insisted on not having a funeral. A few days after her mother passed away from lung cancer, Patricia threw a party celebrating her.
A pioneer and powerhouse, Lois “Lipstick” Long truly laid a path for other women and social influencers to shape American culture.