British journalist Liz Tilberis (1947–1999) had an impressive career as editor-in-chief of British Vogue before arriving at Harper's Bazaar in 1992 to oversee a much-lauded redesign of the venerable American fashion magazine. Her career was tragically cut short by ovarian cancer, first diagnosed in 1993 but beaten back by aggressive chemotherapy that Tilberis detailed in her 1998 memoir No Time to Die.
Tilberis was born Elizabeth Jane Kelly on September 7, 1947, in Alderley Edge in Cheshire, England, near the city of Manchester. She was the first of three children in the family of Janet Stome Kelly, a cartographer, and Thomas Stuart-Black Kelly, an ophthalmologist. The family also lived in the Bristol and Hereford areas of England during Tilberis's childhood before settling in the city of Bath around 1959. The first-born and her siblings enjoyed a quintessential English upbringing, complete with horseback riding, piano lessons, and ballet school, but Tilberis loved art, design, and fashion. During her teen years at the Worcestershire boarding school Malvern Girls' College, she proved not particularly adept at academics, and did poorly on the national examinations required for college entrance in Britain. Reluctantly, her parents agreed to let her enroll in art school.
Kicked Out of College
Tilberis had somewhat of a rebellious streak as a teenager, and even refused the sacrament of confirmation, asserting she was an atheist. Just before she entered the art and design course at Leicester Polytechnic College, she discov-ered she was pregnant; she went to London for an abortion, and was horrified to realize the doctor with whom she had made the appointment knew her father professionally. As she wrote in her autobiography, No Time to Die, the doctor immediately informed her parents by telephone, "and to his everlasting credit Daddy gave his permission for the abortion and came to pick me up. It sent shock waves through my genteel family, but it was never spoken of again."
Tilberis's wild streak continued at Leicester Polytechnic, where she was expelled within weeks when her boyfriend was caught in her dormitory room—a transgression that, at the time, was deemed quite serious. Undaunted, she transferred to Jacob Kramer Art College in Leeds, and promptly began dating her tutor, Andrew Tilberis, whom she would marry in 1971. She spent the remainder of the 1960s immersed in her studies and pursuing tentative career options, even serving for a time as the fashion writer for the Bath Evening Chronicle. In 1969, a year before she earned her degree, she submitted an entry to a British Vogue essay competition in which the first prize was an internship at the magazine. She earned second place, but when the first-place winner decided not to interrupt her studies for the three-month internship, Tilberis won the chance to work at Vogue.
Tilberis's future husband was the son of a Greek immigrant family in London who ran a restaurant, and she and Andrew moved in with her future in-laws when she started at Vogue. At the time, the magazine "was like a finishing school, liberally populated with daughters of the aristocracy," she wrote in her autobiography. "They were dining in glamorous restaurants while I went home each night to Andrew's parents' in North London." Vogue was at the media epicenter of swinging London, where daring new ideas in fashion, art, and music were converging, and the jet-set lifestyles of some of the senior staff members were not that distant from those of the tastemakers and idle rich who were chronicled on the magazine's pages. It was a formidable atmosphere for a young woman with no real industry contacts or even genuine professional credentials, but "I succeeded by knowing the right answers but [also] when to keep my mouth shut, when to smile and how to do really good ironing," Tilberis recalled, according to the London Independent. She succeeded well enough to be offered a job as an assistant to Grace Coddington, a former model and Vogue's fashion editor at the time.
Advanced Up Masthead Ranks
One of Tilberis's first regular assignments at Vogue was compiling the "More Dash than Cash" pages, which gave readers tips on how to adapt the designer looks shown in the lavish editorial spreads to a lesser budget. She eventually advanced to Coddington's job, fashion director, and in 1986 was bypassed for the top job, editor-in-chief, when a fellow Brit named Anna Wintour (born 1949) returned from working at New York magazine to take the post. In early 1987 Tilberis decided to take a job with American designer Ralph Lauren (born 1939) in New York. She put her house up for sale, and began preparations to move her family, which by then included two young boys adopted after Tilberis tried, for several years, to conceive a child on her own. Two days after she informed her bosses at Condé Nast, the magazine publishing giant that owned the British, U.S., and several foreign editions of Vogue, they offered her Wintour's job, for the latter had decided to return to New York and take over American Vogue.
As editor-in-chief, Tilberis was finally able to give her creative ideas free reign at British Vogue. One of her first covers showed a teenaged Naomi Campbell (born 1970) wearing Chanel couture against a desert backdrop in what became the supermodel's first of dozens of Vogue covers. Over the next four years Tilberis steered the magazine into fresh discoveries in fashion and the arts, and scored a major coup with a cover featuring the woman who was the world's biggest celebrity at the time, Diana, Princess of Wales (1961–1997). It was the first magazine cover the British royal had ever sat for, and Tilberis and Diana became friends over the next few years.
In early 1992 Tilberis found herself the target of intense media scrutiny when she jumped ship to Hearst Magazines—the archrival of Condé Nast—to revitalize its flagship fashion magazine Harper's Bazaar. As the newest editor-in-chief, she moved her family to New York in earnest this time, but had a difficult first few months on the job; she was once seated by herself in the first row of the Paris couture shows, and the press speculated on the supposedly astronomical salary she had been offered to revitalize the flagging title, which had always lagged behind the U.S. edition of Vogue in sales, advertising pages, and fashion-industry influence. The first redesigned issue under Tilberis hit newsstands just before September of 1992, and its new typeface, uncluttered layout, and retro-styled cover model Linda Evangelista dressed in black under the headline "Enter the Era of Elegance" was hailed as a great success. Tilberis was credited with re-establishing the magazine's former reputation as an avant-garde image maker, and newsstand sales posted an impressive spike from the previous year's September issue and continued to jump over the next several months.
Press Fueled Rumors of Rivalry
Tilberis worked hard over the next year to keep the ad pages—the sign of a magazine's financial health—up, though they never neared the figures that Vogue posted. The New York fashion and advertising media liked to claim that Tilberis and her former boss, Wintour, were archrivals who poached photographers and models from one another for their respective titles. But the feud seemed to be largely a manufactured one; those who knew them claimed they had professional respect for one another, and each recognized that juicy media gossip about a supposed enmity only boosted their magazines' profiles and bottom line in the end. Certainly their obvious differences made both easy targets: Tilberis wore a size 14, refused to color her silver bob, and was much-loved by her staff; the rail-thin Wintour was almost always seen in trademark dark glasses, and was such a feared boss that years later she inspired a thinly disguised fictional account by her former assistant that became a bestseller and then a Hollywood movie, The Devil Wears Prada. Indeed, Tilberis was shocked to find herself the object of any media scrutiny at all when she came to New York. "Editing British Vogue was a bit like being a princess, sitting apart," she told Colin McDowell in an interview for the London Sunday Times. "Nobody outside the magazine cared a damn about you."
Harper's Bazaar won two National Magazine Awards for photography and design, thanks to Tilberis's revamping, and she herself won the Editor of the Year honor for 1993 from Advertising Age. As she wrote in her autobiography, she had reached the pinnacle of professional and personal success, and was about to host a major gala in her New York City brownstone for 250 guests in December of 1993 to celebrate the magazine's latest round of industry awards, when she learned she had ovarian cancer. Her doctor had wanted to admit her for surgery immediately, but Tilberis hosted the party anyway, telling no one but her husband and longtime friend Grace Coddington, and checked herself in for surgery the next day to remove her uterus, part of her colon, and one ovary. That was followed by a debilitating round of chemotherapy, but Tilberis continued to oversee the magazine by working out of her home and having her staff bring the layouts to her there for editorial meetings.
Tilberis believed that her cancer was the result of the nine fertility treatments she had undergone back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when she was given hormone-stimulating drugs to boost her chances of in vitro fertilization. She was not informed of any risks to her future health, and it was only a year before her own diagnosis that a research study found that women who underwent such procedures and failed to conceive were 27 more times likely to contract ovarian cancer. Her illness was briefly mentioned by the press as a past event, but in 1995 there was a recurrence, and she underwent more chemotherapy and then a bone marrow transplant that nearly killed her.
Cheered By Diana's Words
She wrote in her memoir that she was so sick she could not even swallow her own saliva at one point, and found herself "reduced to an almost animal level of survival … all privacy and dignity gone, trying to hold on to something that represented the routine of life I'd taken for granted." She also wrote in her book—published just a few months after Diana was killed in a Paris automobile crash—that one day the Princess of Wales telephoned her in the hospital, where her platelet count—vital to the blood's ability to clot itself—was still too low for her to be discharged; Tilberis was so cheered to hear Diana's voice that her platelet numbers surged enough for doctors to let her go home.
Tilberis's cancer returned twice more, in December of 1996 and again in July of 1997. She became an ardent spokesperson for the disease, and added a second job as president of the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund to her Harper's Bazaar duties. She hosted the charity's first major fundraiser in December of 1997 in New York City, a black-tie event that drew the biggest names in fashion and raised $750,000 in one evening alone. She died on April 21, 1999, at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City at the age of 51, working until the very last week of her life when, from her hospital bed, she went over layouts for the June issue with her staff.
Daily Mail (London, England), March 11, 1998.
Good Housekeeping, April 1998.
Harper's Bazaar, July 1999.
Independent (London, England), April 23, 1999.
Newsweek, April 6, 1998; May 3, 1999.
New York Times, August 23, 1992.
New York Times Book Review, April 12, 1998.
People, December 7, 1992; May 18, 1998.
Sunday Times (London, England), July 21, 1996; May 10, 1998.