Patricia Ryan, 75, of Boothbay, the first woman to be the editor of a major American weekly magazine, died Dec. 27 at her home.
She and her husband, Ray Cave, summered and then lived in Boothbay for more than 50 years.
During a 30-year career at Time Inc., she rose from the secretarial pool to become the managing editor of both People and Life magazines.
Quiet and self-effacing, gentle and considerate of others, Ms. Ryan’s caring manner masked a steely determination that girded her climb at the overwhelmingly male Time Inc. of her day. Before Pat Ryan, all top editors of the company’s many magazines — including Time, Life, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, Money, and People — were men, and that included most of all its junior editors as well. So were most of its hundreds of writers. Ms. Ryan, a trailblazer, who never complained of the difficulty of the path, helped make it possible for untold numbers of other women to follow her to the top in publishing.
She was handed the reins of People magazine in 1982 by then Time Inc. Editor-in-Chief Henry Grunwald. Not only was she the first woman asked to edit one of the venerable company’s prized weeklies, but she also would be following its celebrated founding editor, Richard B. Stolley. The eight-year-old magazine’s continued success was not a sure thing, and it was being entrusted to a woman. All eyes in the company would be upon her, and some were not friendly.
Pat Ryan could seem like one of the boys. She had spent 18 years at Sports Illustrated. Hired as a secretary in 1960, she soon caught the eye of SI’s managing editor, Andre Laguerre.
She was born June 18, 1938 in southeastern Pennsylvania, the daughter of Oonah and James E. Ryan. Her father was a noted trainer of racehorses, an Irish immigrant whose talents were sought by such renowned thoroughbred owners as the Mellons and DuPonts. Pat followed her father as he nurtured his charges and took them to run at premier racetracks throughout America.
The girl watched and learned, and learned quickly. She graduated from high school at 16, then went to New York to study at the Katherine Gibbs School, which trained women for secretarial work, one of the few career paths open to them. She later would graduate with a B.A. in history from Columbia University’s School of General Studies. She worked first as a secretary at the Jockey Club at Belmont Park racetrack on Long Island before landing a job at Sports Illustrated.
Then she got her first break. One day the grooms went on strike at Belmont. Laguerre, finding all his reporters were off on other assignments, sought out the young secretary with horse sense. He sent her to Belmont Park. Her first story appeared, and Pat Ryan’s career was off and running. She was soon promoted from secretary to reporter.
Her rise was steady, from reporter to writer to senior editor, eventually taking charge of the magazine’s “Bonus” section, the showcase for its best writing. There she distinguished herself for her patient handling of the magazine’s most rambunctious talent.
Despite her accomplishments, she was not an obvious choice to edit People. As Ms. Ryan herself admitted, she seldom watched TV, only occasionally caught a movie, and disdained most popular entertainment. The magazine enjoyed a strong reporting and fact-checking tradition and prided itself on its accuracy (it never has been successfully sued). Its journalistic ethic was the same as that of its sibling magazines Time and Life.
People remained, however, the Rodney Dangerfield of magazines. No matter how many profiles of doctors, artists, priests, scholars, etc. that it published — and such reporting comprised 60 percent of each issue — it was known only for the famous faces on its cover. People got no respect.
Pat Ryan was determined to change that. She wanted to deepen its reporting and expand its breadth. Under her leadership the magazine pushed into new territory. It reported on the parents of a Texas teenager accused of murder. It investigated sexual harassment on campus. It reported the struggles of a Catholic priest to operate a shelter in Nicaragua for children orphaned by that country’s civil war.
In 1985 it published the first of many cover stories on AIDS — one of the first mass-market magazines to do so — articles that may have done more than any others to alert the country to that rising scourge. It even devoted an entire issue to life in the Soviet Union, completely reported and photographed in that distant and then-menacing nation.
More serious articles didn’t mean Ms. Ryan neglected celebrity. In 1985 she also created the popular “Sexiest Man Alive” feature, which has become a profitable franchise for People — not to mention an annual fount of jokes for late-night comedians.
Her work was noticed. In 1984, along with TV newswoman Diane Sawyer and author Susan Brownmiller, Pat Ryan received the Matrix Award from New York Women in Communications “for demonstrating inspirational leadership in advancing the role of women.” In 1987, People received a National Magazine Award for General Excellence, the only one it ever has won, from the American Society of Magazine Editors.
The magazine became ever more prosperous. During her time at the helm, its circulation rose dramatically. Eventually it would become the most profitable magazine in history.
After leaving Time Inc. in 1989, she and Ray Cave, former managing editor of Time and her companion since the 1960s, retired to their home in Maine, where they soon married. They traveled widely, fished often, and watched every sunset. They were setting off to fish one morning last October on Canada’s Miramichi River when Ms. Ryan inexplicably fell down. Subsequent medical examinations discovered the cancer that eventually claimed her.
She is survived by Mr. Ray Cave; stepchildren, Jon and Catherine Cave; brother, Owen Ryan; and sister Oonah, a Catholic nun.
A memorial service will be held at a later date.
In lieu of flowers the family would like donations made to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, 132 Botanical Dr., Boothbay, ME 04537.
You are invited to share your condolences, memories, and photos with the family by visiting their Book of Memories page at www.hallfuneralhomes.com.
Arrangements are entrusted to Simmons, Harrington & Hall, Boothbay.