The archive of Jean Wishart

Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections recently acquired the archives of Miss Jean Wishart (1920-2016) who for over thirty years edited the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly. Wishart was a career journalist who lived and breathed the Weekly, making it the go-to read for generations of New Zealanders.

Wishart began her journalism career when she joined New Zealand Newspapers in 1939. She soon worked at the Weekly itself, and in 1952 rose to the position of editor. She had wanted to write and work in publishing—her father was a printer—and had even contributed to the magazine’s children’s section, the Pixie Pages. It must have been a dream-come-true to work at that very magazine and to take readership to record levels over her thirty plus years at the helm.

Image: From the Jean Wishart papers, a photograph of Jean Wishart, third from left, and colleagues with a cake to celebrate the readership of the New Zealand Woman's Weekly reaching 200,000.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 2438.

Although she was a writer from the get-go, Wishart had a talent for drawing and was keen on fashion (she was model-tall at over 5’9). She frequently combined the two in her day job, such as this Fashion Forecast from her archive. The Coralie Hat, she writes, “is the latest in chapeau for the cocktail party. Shot silk of mysterious peacock green and deep-sea blue is molded on a shell foundation to form it.” Unfortunately, we don’t have the record of what issue this may have been printed in.

Image: From the Jean Wishart papers, hand-written and drawn 'Fashion forecasts'.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 2438.

Royalty was a consistent big seller for the magazine and this gem in the Jean Wishart archive shows her hand-drawn mock-up of a 1985 cover of Diana, Princess of Wales. The feature article had been written as a Who’s Who of Diana’s designers and in Wishart’s instructions, she describes the text colours she wants (red, white and yellow) to be on a black background. She clearly enjoyed this element of being an editor. In a 1985 Metro article, she said part of the fun was putting together the magazine. While some editors were best at writing or PR, she was best at the desk putting the magazine together.

Image: From the Jean Wishart papers, a sketch of the planned cover and the final magazine issue.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 2438.

While previous editors wrote about controversial issues, Wishart took a different approach. She had a perceptive ability to know what her readers wanted, and that contributed to her success. She had her pulse on the needs and interests of her readers, listened to 1ZB radio to find out what New Zealand women wanted, and came up with insights through the mail she received from her readers. Her goal was to provide a magazine her readers would buy week after week, and she stuck with the familiar. There were stories about the royals, knitting patterns and cooking recipes, fashion and beauty tips, family matters and celebrity articles, and the occasional freebie. The free bonus pull-out book was a tactic to boost sales, whether it was knitting patterns or recipes. An issue with a free biscuit booklet was sure to sell out.

Image: From the Jean Wishart papers, bonus booklets from the New Zealand Woman's Weekly,
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 2438.

Yet while her mailbag held the key to future content planning, Wishart was cognizant of what was happening in the global magazine industry, and it wasn’t just the homely magazines such as Good Housekeeping and the English Woman’s Weekly. She also kept her eye on the glossies like Marie Claire and Vogue, and in the 1980s took an extended trip overseas to study the magazine industry across Europe and America, writing up detailed reports of her thoughts.

Of Good Housekeeping in the United States, she wrote: “They have several testing kitchens, one of which is exclusively used for developing new recipes. Often a dish will be cooked over and over again until the economics staff and the literary staff are satisfied that the recipe has been perfected. At Good Housekeeping I found that the editorial staff had very close liaison with the testing kitchen and food was invariably tasted by members of the editorial staff as average people, rather than professional cooks to see how it measured up in quality.”

In Paris, she was able to visit the offices of Marie Claire, then one of the most important women’s magazines in France. She wrote that in the morning she was shown through the departments by the editor but regretfully had to refuse his invitation to spend the afternoon there as well because, “I had only the one day in Paris and had already made an appointment with the International Wool Office for the afternoon.”

Of Harper's Bazaar she said the experience was like being Alice Through the Looking Glass. “The whole setup is larger than life but a fascinating insight into what goes on in the world of high fashion combined—strangely enough—with an intellectual level of feature material.”

Image: From the Jean Wishart papers, a newspaper clipping and travel itinerary.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 2438.

While her success was acknowledged with readers, it was also acknowledged at a corporate level. When elected to the board of New Zealand News, she became the first woman in New Zealand to be a director of a listed company. In 1980 she was elected to the council of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce, again the first woman to do so, and in 1985 was awarded an OBE for her services to journalism.

Image: From the Jean Wishart papers, a page from the New Zealand News annual report
directors group portrait, Jean Wishart is at the table, third from the left, 1983.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 2438.

Wishart retired from the Weekly in 1984, the year she was honoured with an OBE. At her farewell event, she was presented with a mock-up magazine cover with herself as the cover girl and in her speech (also in the archive) she commented on just what the editor’s job had meant to her. In choosing her successor, however, management took the opportunity to go with an editor who could take the magazine to a more upmarket readership. The tactic didn’t work. Readership fell as loyal Weekly readers stopped buying, and soon after, the magazine went back to the basics that the readers had loved for decades.

Image: From the Jean Wishart papers, a photograph of Jean Wishart at her retirement function, 1985.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 2438.

The archive contains a number of unique items in the career of Jean Wishart. From press passes to royal events, photographs, and even audio content. To end, however, here is a gem. These A5-sized Christmas cards were mock-up covers, with staff photographs inside. They were discontinued in the 1980s.

Image: From the Jean Wishart papers, examples of New Zealand Woman's Weekly Christmas card covers at the top, and the inside of a card below, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 2438.

This year, Auckland Libraries had former editor Jenny Lynch present a HeritageTalk on the life and career of Jean Wishart.

Auckland Libraries also has a full collection of the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly and the years 1932-1989 in particular can be viewed on microfilm at Research Central, temporarily based on the first floor of the Central City Library. When we are open again, come and see us if you are keen to wander through the microfilmed pages of this iconic New Zealand magazine.

Author: Joanne, Research Central

References and further reading

Jean Wishart. Papers. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 2438.
Jenny Lynch. Under the Covers: Secrets of a Magazine Editor, 2020.
Jenny Lynch. New Zealand’s Woman’s Weekly: 70 years, from pavlovas to prime ministers, 2002.
Metro article, by Carroll Wall, 'The Prime of Miss Jean Wishart',  February 1985. 
North and South article 'Living Treasures Jean Wishart', January 1990.