Natalie Akoorie is a reporter at the NZ Herald based in Hamilton.

Legendary Woman's Weekly editor Jean Wishart dies aged 96

Former Woman's Weekly editor Jean Wishart. Photo / New Zealand Woman’s Weekly
Former Woman's Weekly editor Jean Wishart. Photo / New Zealand Woman’s Weekly

The longest-serving editor of the New Zealand Woman's Weekly, Jean Wishart, has died aged 96.

Wishart was at the helm of the magazine from 1952 until she retired in 1985 earning her the status of "legendary editor".

She took the magazine from a readership of around 100,000 in the 1950s to 250,000 at its peak in the early 1980s, covering previously taboo topics such as feminism, abortion and rape.

Former Weekly editor Jenny Lynch, who was Wishart's assistant editor from 1976, called Wishart an "absolutely marvellous boss" and a "very gracious and lovely woman" who was actually shy.

"As a person she was very poised and beautifully groomed. She was very friendly and had a lovely speaking voice.

"She seemed to take everything in her stride. I never really experienced her losing her cool at all."

Wishart, who wrote for the Weekly as a child and started there as an office girl straight out of school before working her way to the top, was known to all who worked for her as "Miss Wishart".

But the readers knew her as "Dear Jean", and Lynch said Wishart's success lay in the fact she knew the magazine's target market.

"She kept abreast of what readers wanted. She always had a very full mailbag and she read letters and she had an almost psychic perception of the sort of material that readers wanted.

"She herself said she had a kind of a 'gut feeling' about readers and she gave them what they wanted."

Under Wishart's direction the magazine secured rights to some of the biggest stories of the era, including life with the Lawson quintuplets, born in 1965.

That same year Wishart revolutionised the way her magazine was run, setting up a test kitchen to try out reader recipes.

"It wasn't just a celebrity magazine. She covered all sorts of issues. Jean liked to produce a magazine that she liked to say was 'chock full of goodies'."

One of Wishart's first decisions as editor was to scrap the social pages which she called a "nonsense", Lynch said, and replace them with think pieces.

Wishart famously stated that it could be fatal to change a magazine too suddenly and the changes she did make were carefully considered and right for the time, according to Lynch.

"What she always said is that magazines evolve slowly over time in response to readers wishes and changes in society."

An endless planner, Wishart kept a file on the then eligible Prince Charles and the women he courted so that when an engagement was announced the Weekly would be ready to run an in depth article.

When Charles married Lady Diana Spencer in 1981 it was such a big story for the Weekly that Wishart sent a reporter and photographer to cover the wedding in London.

Lynch said deadlines were easier then and Wishart presided over a more gentle time in magazine journalism history.

According to the National Library of New Zealand Wishart was also a director of NZ News Ltd from 1975, and as an astute businesswoman she was a member of the council of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce.

Lynch called Wishart a "New Zealand publishing icon".

Wishart, who never married or had children, battled failing health recently despite living independently in her Meadowbank home until a week ago.

Lynch visited Wishart in Auckland Hospital on Sunday and the pair caught up about old times. She said Wishart's memory was very much in tact.

Wishart died in hospital this morning. Her funeral arrangements are still being made.

- NZ Herald

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