“I was the quiet one,” is repeated like a mantra throughout “The Man from Essence.” This is how Edward Lewis describes himself in a quartet of Black men who founded Essence magazine in the early 1970s.
But the quiet one, a man imbued with shyness, is the one to write the book on the history of a breakthrough magazine whose troubled birth pains are part of the public record.
If the financial and personnel turmoil at Essence was often grist for the news cycle, only the insiders knew the actual details of the disputes and differences. Lewis illuminates these hiccups and perturbations as well as providing readers with his own biography, much of which is inseparable from the magazine’s rise and ultimate sale to Time in 2005.
In his acknowledgments, Lewis warns of the book’s subjectivity, writing, “None of the three men I went into business with consented to contribute to this book by agreeing to be interviewed.” Thus, he is the last man standing and left to impart his own version of how the magazine managed to overcome bickering, competition and internal contradictions.
One of the problems from the very outset of the publication was something Lewis relates again and again in the book: There were no Black women involved in the creation of a magazine designed for them. Nonetheless, Lewis, Clarence Smith, Cecil Hollingsworth and Jonathan Blount forged ahead with no collective awareness of what their dream entailed.
“We were popular with the ladies,” Lewis wrote of the four, “envied by working-class brothers and sometimes a little full or ourselves, fueled by a powerful sense of our new possibilities.” In the beginning there were five of them, but Anthony Janniere departed even before the magazine was fully conceived, leaving the Hollingsworth Group—a name of the one partner with business experience—to fend for itself. Lewis was the executive vice president in charge of finance; Smith was the vice president in charge of advertising; Hollingsworth was vice president in charge of circulation; and Blount became president after Janniere left.
It is amazing the magazine ever gained any traction given the succession of mistakes and missteps. With no Black woman to advise them, they settled on Sapphire for the magazine’s title. Not until they hired their second editor-in-chief, Ruth Ross, did they change the name to Essence at Ross’ suggestion. But Ross’ tenure, like several that succeeded her, was brief, and she was barely around long enough to witness the struggle the four men had in raising funds for the venture.
The men of Essence had a number of angels in the early stages, including Shearson, Hammill & Company, Freedom National Bank and several major banks on Wall Street, none more significant than First National City Bank and Chase Manhattan. Later, to keep them afloat in waters far short of the $1.5 million needed to be fully capitalized, would be a $250,000 loan from Playboy Enterprises, which would be among the magazine’s future headaches.
Interwoven through his telling of the magazine’s story, Lewis has alternate chapters on his life that in many ways mirror the fits and starts Essence experienced. Born in 1940 and raised in the Bronx by his mother, Lewis earned a football scholarship to the University of New Mexico after graduation from the DeWitt Clinton High School. He never got a chance to show his brilliance on the gridiron for the Lobos and was confused over why he was dropped from the squad. Many years went by before he learned why he was cut from the team. No spoilers here.
No longer in football gear, he became active in campus politics and student activism, so much so that he traveled representing the student’s chapter of the National Student Association. Soon, he had his undergraduate degree and a masters in political science when he was given an opportunity to study law at Georgetown University.
Being cut from the varsity football team was one unpleasant setback, flunking out of law school was even more traumatic, so much so that it took him a long time to tell his mother. But these were just momentary bumps in the road for a determined Lewis, and it wasn’t long before he found another chance to shine—this time on Wall Street in a job at First National City Bank.
Other than an occasional discussion about his personal difficulties, the failed first marriage and a series of angioplasty surgeries, the rest of the book is devoted to the good and bad deals of the company, to say nothing of the fast-changing personnel at the top of the magazine’s masthead. Editors and writers associated with the magazine over the years will certainly discover their names dropped here and there, though with only Marcia Gillespie and Susan Taylor given more than a line or two.
More than a line or two is expended on Ebony’s John Johnson’s attempt to take over the magazine, the interminable litigation by Blount and the magazine’s later successes, particularly with the Essence Musical Festival in New Orleans.
In 2008, Lewis ended his relationship with the magazine, and in 2014, among his many awards, he was inducted into Advertising Hall of Fame. Content in the warmth of his marriage to Carolyn Wright, the quiet man has spoken.
Edward Lewis will speak at the Booklover’s Breakfast on Feb. 6 at 8:30 a.m. at the Baltimore Marriot Waterfront Hotel.