We’re Golden

STANFORD magazine celebrates 50 years.

September 2023

Reading time min

We’re Golden

ORIGIN STORIES: The inaugural issue set a blueprint that reverberates today.

The progenitor of STANFORD began with a bang in 1899. Volume I of the Stanford Alumnus led with news of Jane Stanford’s infusion of $15 million, which vaulted the school from near penury to among the world’s richest universities. The Alumnus, however, spent more ink bemoaning the stunning stipulation of Mrs. Stanford’s munificence: that female enrollment be capped at 500. “In this matter of equal education for both sexes the University may voluntarily withdraw from its proud and honorable leadership to tag on the tail of the process,” it observed. “But the procession will go on just the same.”

It was a punchy beginning to a nearly seven-decade run. But by 1967, the Stanford Review—as it had been renamed—was no more. Once unique, the magazine—a product of the then-independent Stanford Alumni Association—was struggling for relevance against the university’s own periodicals: Stanford Today and the Stanford Observer. “It is better to go out on top than to slide downhill,” alumni association board president Robert Golden, ’41, wrote in farewell. “This association exists to serve the University, not to compete with it.”

‘I kept saying it was not becoming to a great university like Stanford not to have a showcase.’

That didn’t settle the matter for the Review’s design editor, Della van Heyst, a dynamic character who would establish a long record of delivering on new visions, including creating a vaunted on-campus publishing course for book and magazine professionals. Publications like the Observer served a purpose, she thought, but they were black-and-white affairs printed on newsprint. “I kept saying it was not becoming to a great university like Stanford not to have a showcase,” she says. Ralph Davidson, ’50, the new board president of the association, agreed. That he happened to be the publisher of Time surely helped.

Van Heyst began planning a magazine she believed would be worthy of the school and of alums’ coffee tables: one with perception, panache, and that subtle sign of magazine elegance—perfect binding, where pages are glued together to form a flat spine like books have, rather than the less snazzy saddle stitching, aka stapling. To help fund such flourishes, advertising staff brandished copies of a San Diego magazine called Oceans with a promise the incipient magazine would match its look and feel.

The Stanford Magazine (The fell off the title in 1989, Magazine in 1996) first rolled off the presses in the fall of 1973. The cover photo of a sandstone cornice corresponded to no story; Class Notes weren’t yet incorporated; and the issue’s five-page transcribed lecture about the guilty plea defies all contemporary ideas about reader attention spans. But in many ways, the first issue set a blueprint that holds 50 years later. There was in-depth exploration of research in a story on chimps in Tanzania co-written by famed primatologist and visiting professor Jane Goodall; a think piece on being American by Wallace Stegner, founder of Stanford’s creative writing program; and an illustrated history of the Stanford Band, which had somehow just opened its ranks to women the year before. 

One of the pleasures in perusing early copies of the magazine is a sense of how close and far the past can seem at the same time. Our feature on artificial intelligence this July had a far superior headline (“Me, Myself, and AI”) to our 1978 story on the same subject (“Artificial Intelligence”), but they both talked about beating the Turing Test. Other stories captured a past that feels more distant than a half-century ago. A 1974 piece on student jobs led off with a 6’5” sophomore paid $2.50 an hour to don a helmet, heavy gloves, and coveralls to snare feral cats in the ancient and narrow steam tunnels under the Main Quad. His tools: a flashlight, cat food, and a three-foot-long trap.  

Then as now, the magazine operated under cost constraints, so van Heyst—who served as editor in chief—took advantage of the publishing course to reel in expert advice. She remembers leaders from National Geographic stressing that three-word headlines were all readers could handle, as well as spicier tips from David Brown, ’36, the producer of Jaws, who also wrote cover blurbs for Cosmopolitan, the oft-titillating women’s magazine helmed by his wife, Helen Gurley Brown. “We’d say, ‘How would David Brown write this even though we can’t put sex in the title?’” van Heyst says. “We learned from absolutely the very best.” The real secret may, however, have been the irrepressibility of van Heyst herself. “She was like the player on a basketball team that makes everyone else better,” says Debby Fife, who edited the magazine for its first decade and a half.

A perennial goal—and challenge—for the magazine is to capture the full range of the Stanford community. In spring 1983, the magazine linked its profiles of astronaut Sally Ride, ’73, MS ’75, PhD ’78, and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, ’50, LLB ’52, to the 50th anniversary of the demise of Jane Stanford’s 500 rule: “[W]e have tipped the editorial balance a bit by running two articles about Stanford women who have broken barriers recently.” That earned a scoff from a reader unimpressed by an issue in which two out of five features were about women (and all five were written by men). “I hope you didn’t mean to suggest we have to wait another 50 years or for other fabulous firsts to read more by and about and for Stanford women,” she wrote.

‘We were given the full breadth of responsibility, accountability, and opportunity to write about Stanford.’

Ten years later, Stanford Magazine sparked administrative concerns (which van Heyst, in her Stanford swan song, disregarded) when it ran a cover package looking at gay life and history at the university. “We were saying, ‘Yeah, we’re an alumni association for all alumni, and that absolutely includes the gay community,’” says Bruce Anderson, ’79, a former reporter for Sports Illustrated who served as the magazine’s editor from 1991 to 1995. That may not sound revolutionary today, but 20 years before the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, when even holding a gay commitment ceremony in Memorial Church was historic, the topic was charged. No other issue in his time as editor generated nearly as much reader response, Anderson says, and some of it was raging. But in contradiction of the general rule that angry people write the letters, the large majority praised the story. 

Anderson was succeeded in 1996 by Bob Cohn, ’85, who left his perch covering the White House for Newsweek to return to campus. Early in his tenure, he rebranded Stanford Magazine as STANFORD. With the dawn of the World Wide Web, the word magazine didn’t seem as relevant, he says. (This, he knows, didn’t exactly bear out. Cohn is now president of the Economist, which still calls itself a “newspaper” despite publishing constantly online.) Cohn launched the magazine’s first website and its first email newsletter, ancestor to today’s Loop

Cohn also navigated the recurrence of the old battle for eyeballs that had doomed Stanford’s precursor in 1967. In 1996, the university revived Stanford Today as an insert to the magazine. The two entities even rotated who got the cover story. It was an odd hybrid that gave the university responsibility for news and left the magazine mostly with features. It ended in 1998 after alumni association members voted to merge with the university, and the magazine again resumed one voice. “It was an important development,” Cohn says. “We were given the full breadth of responsibility, accountability, and opportunity to write about Stanford.” 

Kevin Cool, who took the magazine’s helm in 2000, would lead it through the next two decades. When he thinks about the publication’s impact, he harks back to a 2011 cover story about Frost Amphitheater. Someone had noticed memorabilia for sale from a long-ago concert there by guitar god Eric Clapton, which was hard to imagine given the venue’s forlorn state. The subsequent article, “A Place in the Sun,” illustrated Frost’s forgotten history as a magnet for rock, folk, and jazz concerts through the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. It ended wistfully: “The memory of dancing to live rock on a sun-kissed afternoon with nothing but blue sky above you exerts a powerful pull.” The following year, the Frost Music & Arts Festival was formed, beginning a revival that culminated in a 2019 renovation. “To some degree, I think we can legitimately be credited with starting that ball rolling,” Cool says. “We’re all ‘of Stanford.’ And so I think it’s OK to take some pride in leaving some small mark on the university.”

Perhaps the most provocative story during his tenure was about an even older icon. Based on the in-depth research of Stanford physician Robert W.P. Cutler, “Who Killed Jane Stanford?” centered on a stunning revelation. The matriarch of the university had almost certainly been murdered, and the crime covered up. Letters to the editor were still running three issues later. 

The story of Mrs. Stanford’s murder has continued to percolate. Last year, history professor Richard White published Who Killed Jane Stanford?: A Gilded Age Tale of Murder, Deceit, Spirits, and the Birth of a University. Naturally, STANFORD reviewed it. “The legal scaffolding supporting the nascent university was precarious at best; the vaunted matriarch, beneficent and beloved, sometimes brandished her money as a bludgeon, propelled by the spirit voices of her deceased loved ones,” wrote Susan Wolfe, ’81. “It turns out there were many who had cause to wish her dead.” 

STANFORD has taken its share of criticism over the years too. And while we may not be perfect, at least we’re perfect bound.

Sam Scott is a senior writer at Stanford. Email him at sscott3@stanford.edu.

Vintage 1973 Collection

Stanford is 50! It turns out we’re not the only one. Walk with us down memory lane as we sample some of the wonders and horrors of the 1973–74 academic year on the Farm, and in the world around.

Start the Presses

Were Golden

89 Rodins Find a New Home

A Godfather Delivers a Ransom Payment

A Splashy Debut

The Winds of Freedom

SLE Club

‘Until the Birds Took Over the Singing’

The Poet and the Coup

Steps Toward Saving Salamanders Are Set in Motion

A Sequel for Supersonic Flight?

The First Stanford Astronaut Returns from Space

The End of the Nursing Education Era

Keepers of the Flame

50 Years After the Stanford Murders, Three of Four Families Have Answers

A Classic Is Released

A Young Lawyer Wins an Educational Equity Case

Joining the Force


The Axe Is Stolen One Last Time

Fit to Be Tried

For Commencement Speaker, a Watergate Special Prosecutor

Trending Stories

  1. The Weather Man


  2. 8 Tips for Forgiving Someone Who Hurt You

    Advice & Insights

  3. Should We Abolish the Electoral College?

    Law/Public Policy/Politics

  4. The Case Against Affirmative Action

    Law/Public Policy/Politics

  5. Bananas Are Berries?


You May Also Like

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.