Batsford has just brought out a huge tome on Nova — ‘one of the most influential magazines in history’ — compiled by two of the magazine’s star art directors, David Hillman and Harri Peccinotti. It covers the ten years that the magazine existed, 1965 to 1975, and focuses on the brilliant and groundbreaking layouts it introduced. But somehow it is not quite the Nova that I loved when I went to work there as assistant editor in 1967.
For me, Nova was its editor, Dennis Hackett, who had been brought in to save the failing magazine soon after its launch. I don’t know what genius first thought of putting a tough Yorkshire newspaperman in charge of a women’s magazine but he had already made a name for himself on trendy Queen. These were the happiest years of my professional life. The staff was made up almost equally of men and women. We were easy with each other and driven by a desire to please Dennis and to win his approval — but in a collegial way.
It is almost impossible to explain to an audience who didn’t know what things were like before a revolution how they changed. Maybe it’s easier to say that Nova did for magazines what Mary Quant did for clothes. Women’s magazines in those days were mostly what have been called the knit-your-own-royal-family type, dealing with exclusively female issues in a cosy unchallenging way. But society was changing dramatically — both abortion and homosexuality became legal in 1967 — and Nova tackled these subjects head-on.
Dennis was all about ideas — this could simply mean looking at something in a totally new and unorthodox way. For instance, he was a Catholic and wanted to publish a piece on confession: his idea was that there should be a hole cut in one of the magazine pages through which the priest and the penitent would face each other. Another time he suggested printing the magazine backwards because he had noticed that readers often began at the end. His bosses wouldn’t agree to either idea.
Dennis thought outside the box. He hired a painter, Molly Parkin, to be fashion editor and the result was brilliant — black models, sports clothes, dishevelled girls lolling on a bed together. He hired Irma Kurtz, an open-minded American newly arrived in the UK, to write features (she later became the world’s most famous agony aunt). The unorthodox art director, Harri Peccinotti, was a key figure as I have already mentioned.
Dennis was never put off by expense. He sent me to Paris to interview the Vietcong negotiator, Madame Binh; to India to interview the Nizam of Hyderabad; and when a Roman society woman was nominated the best dressed woman in the world I spent a week there, shadowing her. The subsequent cover was headed ‘Princess Pignatelli plucks each hair out of her legs with tweezers… with that dedication you too might make the best-dressed list.’
When I wanted to imagine how the revolutionary Paris couturier Courrèges could revamp the Queen’s look, Dennis was mad about the idea and never balked at the cost. This cover story was called ‘What Paris Could Do for the Queen’ and involved photographing a Courrèges suit on a model who had the Queen’s measurements and — with help from Parisian experts — reimagining her hair and make-up. The images were all sent to the United States for retouching and the project nearly ended in disaster because Courrèges had refused to lengthen his skirt — even for the Queen — and the re-toucher forgot, so when the image of Her Majesty in a miniskirt arrived back in London it was immediately confiscated and released only when Dennis promised Buckingham Palace that we would modify it. The feature was syndicated all over the world.
I learned everything I know about journalism from Hackett — and he set the bar high. I remember leaning over his desk going through some copy I had written when he suddenly said: ‘If you think that’s the way to get your work published, you’re very much mistaken.’ I looked down, puzzled, and saw my blouse had come undone and my cleavage was under his nose… He used the piece. There was never another editor like Hackett.