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Profile: Kate White and Sam Baker, Wonder Women

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From the July 24, 2005 Newsday:

Talking with Kate White and Sam Baker: Cosmo editors turned mystery writers

99 ways to kill your boss


Emily Gordon is a writer in Brooklyn.

July 24, 2005

If Kate White, the editor in chief of Cosmopolitan, is ever murdered, the current intern won't be a suspect. Not only is the undergrad loving her summer at the fabled women's magazine, she's also devoured all of her boss' books - four mysteries to date, including the newest, "Over Her Dead Body" (Warner, $24.95). Meanwhile, White plans for a private chat with the intern about her own writing projects. The Prada-wearing devil with the miserable staff is nowhere to be found - except in the book. In White's serenely cheerful new novel, the editor of a celebrity rag is bludgeoned at her desk, and it's the assignment of a plucky freelancer named Bailey Weggins to figure out whodunit.

You might think researching and writing books is a lot for White to add to running a magazine, managing a staff and soothing riled stars (Donald Trump, Julia Stiles and Kate Hudson are some good-natured exceptions). But that wouldn't be thinking like a Fun Fearless Female. Just across the Atlantic, another Cosmo boss is making it look simple: Sam Baker, editor of the magazine's British edition, also has just published her first book, "Fashion Victim" (Ballantine, $21.95). In "Body," it's a ghastly entertainment-magazine editor who bites the dust; in "Victim," it's a New York designer. It's up to Baker's heroine, Annie Anderson, the new hire at a top fashion magazine, to lock up the case.

A reporter trained in hard news, Annie is more Hildy Johnson than Anna Wintour wannabe. Baker says fondly of her heroine, "I like that she's not perfect. Apparently she swears a lot! ... I wanted my characters to have real issues and real demons." On her quest for the designer's killer, Annie faces nasty crooks, a runway show in a chilly river and a very grouchy boss. Baker, who'd planned to leave the industry altogether, had just finished "Victim" when she got a call about the Cosmo job; "It was a weird kind of kismet," she says. As is the chance that both editors would publish mysteries simultaneously, which they didn't plan.

Back in New York, White reigns benignly over the same small, brightly decorated office where she once interviewed the legendary Helen Gurley Brown years ago for another magazine (coincidentally, they were wearing the same outfit). White, a veritable Forrest Gump of the magazine world, has worked for nearly every women's and family magazine you can name and hired writers like Mary Gordon and Jay McInerney. Eventually she landed what she calls "the most fun job in the world." Still, she says, "I think I have an outsider soul" - much like Bailey, whom White has put in a host of familiar but potentially deadly environments, from the wedding industry ("Till Death Do Us Part"), to the spa world ("A Body to Die For"), to, in this and her first novel, her own magazine-world turf.

As a result, White's readers get an excellent introductory course in magazine journalism - not to mention forensic theory, advanced lip-gloss technique and trenchant satire of the "bliss vs. buzz" and "pictures are the new words" debates White and Baker know so well. Similarly, in "Fashion Victim," there are high-fashion tidbits galore, from the seat-assignment class system at runway shows to the pernicious knockoff trade. Baker marvels, "One of the things that I find so clever about the fashion industry is that everyone thinks it's a lot of fluffy airheads, and meanwhile it's a $250-billion industry! Nobody takes them seriously, meanwhile, they make a -- [EG: i.e., shitload] of money!"

Baker (whose forthcoming second book bears the snappy title "This Year's Model") says gleefully of writing fiction, "During the day I spend the whole day taking unnecessary words out, and at night I put them all back in." She adores Carol O'Connell ("brilliant") and Jacqueline Susann's camp classic "Valley of the Dolls"; White, who's lately been reading Greek plays and poetry criticism, picks her favorite as Ruth Rendell ("She never cheats.").

Though she's added another great haughty-queen boss to the literature, Baker herself tries for gentleness: "I learned quite early on from one of my first bosses that you can get people to do things for you without fear - because they like you and want to please you," she says. White, whose Mona the Murdered Boss is no Strawberry Shortcake, agrees. She speculates that many notorious terrors are probably overstressed. And, she adds, "we've seen what happens to people like that - when it explodes on them, no one pities them at all. ... At the same time, at the front end, people don't know how to say, 'Look, you gotta stop doing that.'" The Cosmo staff has one of White's bosses from her teenage years to thank for their congenial workplace. "I was 16 years old, and I remember storming out one night from the office ... and thinking: I will never be that kind of boss!"

Baker, who in college was an avid reader of the magazine, remembers that "Cosmo said that even if you weren't born into having anything great, you could still have it. You can be that thing you want to be. If someone had said to me when I was 18, 'In 18 years you'll be editing Cosmo,' I'd have laughed."

When White was 17, her mother gave her a copy of Helen Gurley Brown's saucy how-to "Sex and the Single Girl" with these instructions: "Don't follow any of the tips in this book, but be like her."

Typically Cosmo, both women are having a fabulous time exceeding all expectations.

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