Liz Tilberis

Harper's Bazaar editor in chief, a legend in the world of fashion, dies of cancer at 51.


Janelle Brown
April 22, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

"Geniune," "gracious," "brave." These are not the first adjectives you
might expect to be used to describe the editor of a major fashion magazine,
but these are the words former cohorts of Elizabeth Tilberis,
editor in chief of Harper's Bazaar, use when speaking of her. In an
industry that often seems to be more concerned with the latest Manolo
Blahnik stilettos than with the people wearing them, Ms. Tilberis was known for
being a real human being.

So it is not surprising that the fashion world is now genuinely mourning
Ms. Tilberis, who died Tuesday morning after a long struggle with ovarian
cancer at age 51. Ms. Tilberis helped transform Harper's Bazaar from an
also-ran futzy fashion magazine into the most cutting
edge and experimental of the big fashion glossies, became a prominent
advocate for cancer research and managed to make surprisingly few enemies
in the process.

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Tagged as part of the British invasion of the New York fashion scene,
Ms. Tilberis was the editor of British Vogue before she migrated to New York in
1992 and took over the helm of fashion institution Harper's Bazaar. A year
later, Ms. Tilberis was diagnosed with ovarian cancer -- a disease she publicly
blamed on her use of fertility drugs in the 1970s -- and spent the next seven
years at Bazaar balancing chemotherapy and
revitalizing the 125-year-old magazine.

Perhaps the greatest revolution that took place at Harper's Bazaar under
Ms. Tilberis was a new focus on experimental photography and
fashion. Ms. Tilberis was perhaps the first mainstream glossy editor to
champion upcoming fashion photographers like Patrick
Demarchelier,
David Sims and Peter
Lindbergh
; She emphasized still-life art photography, and took the
relative risk of working with artists like Cindy
Sherman.
Under her lead, the magazine pioneered experimental typography
and minimalist art direction. Although Harper's Bazaar did not put a focus
on quality writing, art critic and former contributing editor Jim Lewis said, "Visually I always thought Bazaar was the most expensive, best produced
art magazine in the world."

Harper's Bazaar publisher Jeannette Chang explains, "Liz Tilberis has
always been about influence; she followed the guidelines of one art
director who told her 'astonish me.' She had an elegance, energy and
simplicity that just wasn't done in any other magazine. She was
controversial, yet she loved fashion."

Ms. Tilberis' dedication to her magazine was reknowned, and employees describe
how she continued to run Bazaar even while she was hospitalized. "She wasn't vain in a nasty way, but for someone who was so
conscious about how she looked, she was remarkably brave to come in to the
office when she was looking terrible. She would come in even when people
thought she shouldn't be there," recalls Dwight Garner, who worked as an
editor at Harper's Bazaar in 1995.

Although Ms. Tilberis was guilty of the same kind of breathy celebrity
name-dropping that permeates most of the fashion world -- including
prominently flogging her close friendship with Princess Di and her time
with Hillary Rodham Clinton -- her magazine was generally free of the kind of
hoity-toity nastiness found in other glossy fashion rags. She positioned
herself as the antithesis of Anna Wintour, the ruthless editor of Vogue. Ms. Tilberis described Wintour in her book "No Time to Die"
as "peremptory and rather tactless, unconcerned with 'the little people.'"

Ms. Tilberis, instead of hiding behind sunglasses and a snarky attitude, came
across as heartfelt, and the testimony of many of her former employees
reflects that. In a response typical of current and former employees,
Lewis describes her as "absolutely wonderful, incredibly warm. She was
really generous and from the get-go she would remember everyone's name."

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This attitude was certainly prevalant during her open battle with
ovarian cancer. Instead of struggling silently, she became a vocal chairwoman
of the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund, coordinated lucrative fund-raising
events and wrote "No Time to Die," a heartfelt book about her battle.
Although the book was also riddled with light banter about the celebrity
lifestyle, it was an unusual and inspirational step for a fashion
editor to confront her illness in public. Also unusual, she used the book
as a platform to harshly criticize the fashion industry for its lack of
interest in anything that is not beautiful and fabulous.

Ms. Tilberis did, of course, make her enemies, some of whom describe her as being
self-aggrandizing and overly concerned with the superficial -- which,
considering her profession, isn't particularly shocking. Chalk it up to the
larger-than-life personality necessary to make it in the fashion world.
"She holds a powerful position in my psyche," says Scott Baldinger, who was
a senior features editor from 1992 to 1994. "She was this dream image of your
mother protector -- glamorous, lovely. She had star personality and charm.
But you always felt very nervous about your status with her."

Although she was public about her illness, Ms. Tilberis' death came suddenly to
those who weren't closely tied to the magazine. In "No Time to Die" she wrote
of conquering her illness, and just a year ago, she seemed relatively
recovered. As Ms. Tilberis told the New York Times last spring, "When I was
first diagnosed, I was very melodramatic and I wondered if I'd make it to
the end of the year. Now I never think about it. When I wake up in the
middle of the night, I don't worry about cancer. I worry about Harper's
Bazaar."

Harper's Bazaar has yet to name her successor, but as Chang puts it, "The
staff here has followed her for years, and they will absolutely continue to
follow her direction."

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Ms. Tilberis is survived by her husband, artist Andrew Tilberis, and two
teenage sons. Ms. Tilberis' family has requested
that donations be given in her name to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund (1-800-873-9569).


Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Janelle Brown

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