First Woman Time Inc. Editor Dies: 'She Generated Shock Waves to the Male-Dominated Hierarchy'

Robin Platzer
Pat Ryan with People colleagues Dick Stolley, Lanny Jones and Jim Gaines.

Colleagues remember pioneering, influential People magazine editor Pat Ryan, who called Mel Gibson "the sexiest man alive."

Pat Ryan, managing editor of People magazine (1982-87) and Life (1987-89) -- who once stared at young Mel Gibson's face on a cover and said, "Oh, hell, why don't we just call him the sexiest man alive?" -- died of cancer Dec. 27 in Boothbay, Maine.

After starting out as a secretary at Sports Illustrated, she became, according to a colleague, the first woman in America to run a huge weekly magazine, only 12 years after Newsweek's women had to sue their own employer just to get promoted out of the secretarial/researcher pool. Ryan was 75 (if past press reports of her age are correct).

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“She was a trailblazer and wonderfully kind,” former Time news director and People senior editor Howard Chua-Eoan tells THR. Ryan, who said she devoted only 60 percent of People copy to celebrities, also published extraordinary stories on social problems like drugs and a whole issue reported exclusively in the Soviet Union. Her People won the highest of news honors -- the National Magazine Award for General Excellence in the top-circulation category -- but she was also a brilliant and influential celebrity journalist, capable of tangling with the tough, rising breed of celeb publicists who fought to bend coverage to their will.

Ryan is partly responsible for Entertainment Weekly: She was a mentor to current EW editor Jess Cagle. Not only did Ryan encourage founding EW editor Jeff Jarvis to pitch his magazine idea to top brass, but she defied editors, putting her own job on the line to save Jarvis from getting fired for disrespecting Whittaker Chambers, a controversial Cold War figure who happened to have mentored Time Inc's top boss. Jarvis, an influential web-epoch pundit, says Ryan also warned him, "You’re not one of them. You’re an outsider. They’re going to use you to start [Entertainment Weekly] because they don’t understand it, and then they’ll get rid of you.” They did so soon after EW's 1990 launch -- and in 1989, after two years of running Life, Ryan herself was sacked for nasty political reasons, according to The New York Times. "I owe her my career," writes Jarvis.  

"Pat was consummate in reading people," says Los Angeles journalist Alan Carter, another of her mentees. "Most of the men in that position enjoyed the power; she struck me as someone who enjoyed the words, the people -- no pun intended."

" Pat hired me as the technology director at People," says Amy Zimmermann."The fact that Pat hired a female for the position generated shock waves to the male-dominated technology hierarchy -- which she thoroughly enjoyed doing. Pat was a magnificent mentor as well as an avatar in understanding and pushing for technology and its possibilities to benefit her staff. I have strong, wonderful memories of her and her handwritten notes remain posted on my bulletin board after all these years. Rest in peace, Pat Ryan, and thank you. A big tree has fallen."