Alice Head (1886-1981)

Born: Alice Maud Head

Sector: Media

Good Housekeeping has a special place in my heart. My mother has been a subscriber for as long as I can remember and growing up there were always copies floating around the house.  It was where I discovered the writing of Eva Ibbotson and found (theoretically) fool-proof recipes to try when I learned to cook.  Next year, Good Housekeeping will celebrate its British centenary and the woman who made sure it got off to a successful start was Alice Head.  

At the peak of her career in the 1930s Alice was one of the UK’s leading businesswomen and widely rumoured to be the highest-paid.  For fifteen years, she influenced the reading, conversations and spending habits of millions of women.  She was brilliantly well-connected, moving between the worlds of politics, literature and entertainment, lunching with Winston Churchill one day and Tallulah Bankhead the next.  Writers profiled her alongside John Gielgud, Amy Johnson, H.G Wells and Greta Garbo.

Now, nearly a century later, the only people interested in her are the biographers of her long-time boss, William Randolph Hearst, who scour her 1939 autobiography for insights into his life.  No one has written her story.  So who was Alice Head, how did she reach such a powerful position and why has ‘one of the most successful woman journalists in the world’ now been consigned, literally, to the historical footnotes?

Alice Head (1886-1981) Editor of Good Housekeeping 1924-1940
Alice Head, date unknown. Courtesy of the family of Alice Head.

Born in Notting Hill in 1886, Alice Maud Head was the middle child in a middle-class family.  Ada, her mother, had been a teacher.  Her father, Frank, was a successful building contractor and the archetypal Victorian dad, long on duty and discipline, short on affection and sympathy.  A strict Baptist, he banned playing cards and severely limited visits to the theatre but he loved magazines, subscribing to a dozen of the new monthly publications and letting each child have one of their own.  Alice spent her Sundays ploughing through the stories in the Strand, Woman at Home, Pearson’s, the Windsor and Girls’ Realm or escaping into the worlds conjured up by the novels of Louisa Alcott, Arthur Conan Doyle and Annie Swan. She could hardly have imagined then the roles these publications and authors would eventually play in her life.

When she passed her school certificate, Alice persuaded her parents to let her attend the prestigious North London Collegiate School in Camden.  By then the family was living in the leafy countryside of Acton and Alice’s journey to and from school took an hour each way on the North London railway.  With very high standards and loads of homework, it was a tough regime but Alice never regretted her decision. ‘The hardest day’s work since has been child’s play compared to any normal day at that school’, she later said.  Through her education, she developed a strong work ethic and a thorough approach that she maintained for the rest of her life.

From the age of 14, Alice wanted to be a journalist.  Alice’s headmistress was unimpressed with her plans to head to Fleet Street. ‘I might just as well have said I wanted to be a professional tight-rope walker or a channel swimmer’, she later reflected ruefully.  She was advised that, if this was the extent of her ambition, university was a waste of time and she would be better off learning typing and shorthand. Alice’s father was also less than enthusiastic, telling her she would scrape a living for the rest of her life and never earn more than £3 a week.  

Starting out
Despite their reservations, her parents paid for a course at Pitman’s Secretarial College and in October 1905, aged 19, Alice started her first job at Country Life on a salary of £1 per week.  Sales were booming thanks to contributors like Edward Lutyens, Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson and life was busy in the brand-new Lutyens-designed Covent Garden office.  Alice soon came to the attention of the editor, Peter Anderson Graham, when she quickly managed to find an errant copy of a poem in his haystack of a desk. He immediately promoted her to his personal secretary and she gradually had opportunities to submit articles, review books and write copy for the advertisement department.   

Also part of the same publishing stable was The Academy, a literary monthly magazine.  In 1907, it was bought by Edward Tennant who installed a new editor, Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, Oscar Wilde’s lover. He quickly poached Alice as his sub-editor.  The Academy published stories from the top names of the day including George Bernard Shaw, Marie Corelli and Marie Belloc Lowndes, with whom Alice built lasting relationships. But while the work was stimulating, the environment was toxic.  The assistant editor, T.W.H Crosland, was prone to dictating his columns while swigging brandy and flinging his clothes around the office and some contributors made unwelcome advances to the pretty 21-year old Alice.

Within 18 months, she quit and sought help from Graham who introduced her to George Riddell.  A lawyer, close friend of David Lloyd George and press baron, Riddell was now Managing Director of George Newnes Ltd.  He hired Alice to proof-read and sub-edit a book he was writing and, impressed by what he saw, made her editor of the magazine Woman at Home two months later.  At 23, Alice had already surpassed her father’s expectations.

Alice Head (1886-1981) during her period as editor of Woman at Home.
Alice M. Head in 1914 – from her autobiography

Woman at Home majored on fiction but also included columns on fashion, cookery, house furnishing, health and personal appearance. It had been launched 14 years earlier and Alice quickly set about modernising it.  She brought in new columnists including Mary Macarthur, a leading trades unionist, and made greater use of photography, adding a colour fashion supplement.   For those entertaining on a budget she suggested American ‘dollar luncheons’ and in March 1914 the magazine launched a ‘most ingenious’ loyalty scheme, helping women build a full trousseau stage by stage, starting with a camisole.

‘She was ‘the ablest editress in London’, said Annie Swan, who had previously overseen the magazine and became a close friend of Alice’s.  ‘We all loved her.’

Like Beatrice Gordon Holmes, Alice was hard at work in her Covent Garden office on that memorable Saturday in July 1917 when the Germans launched a daytime air strike. Four months later, a journalist friend, Mary Kennedy, rang her to say she had suggested her for the role of assistant editor at Nash’s Magazine, one of the leading literary magazines on the market, owned by William Randolph Hearst.  Its competitor, the Strand, was owned by George Newnes Ltd.   Alice was eventually offered the job and discussed it with Riddell. He could not come up with a comparable opportunity and reluctantly advised her to accept the offer but demand for a three-year contract.  Aged 31, Alice joined National Magazine Corporation but kept Riddell as an important mentor until his death in 1934.

The editor of Nash’s was J.Y. (James) McPeake, a 48-year old Irishman who paid authors well and offered long contracts to get the best material.  This strategy had enabled him to grow the monthly circulation to 220,000. When Alice’s beloved brother died three weeks before the Armistice she dealt with her grief by immersing herself in her new job, learning every aspect of the business – paper-buying, block-making, printing, advertising, publishing and publicity. Profits continued to grow and in 1920 McPeake decided to launch a UK version of one of Hearst’s most successful American magazines, Good Housekeeping.  However, soon after preparations started, he fell ill and for long stretches of time Alice was left in sole charge of both Nash’s and the launch.  Her thirteen years of experience and deep knowledge of the business were never more needed.

Building the Good Housekeeping brand
When the first edition of Good Housekeeping was published on the 22nd February 1922 the editor promised that ‘the burning questions of the day will be reflected each month in articles by women in the public eye….by women who can lead women and who are fearless, frank and outspoken.’  Whether this was written by McPeake or Alice is not clear but the magazine was an instant hit.  110,000 copies were printed and sold out in 24 hours.  A second print run of 43,000 copies also sold out and the magazine was profitable from its third month.  By the end of the year it was boasting of ‘treble the sales of any other women’s magazine at its price.’  

Then in September 1924, McPeake died quite suddenly, aged just 55. Alice was grilled in an interview by one of Hearst’s team and showed she was the right person to take charge of the young magazine and its devastated team.  At the age of 38, she became editor of both Nash’s and Good Housekeeping and Managing Director of National Magazine Corporation in the UK. 

Alice steered Good Housekeeping to sustained commercial success by creating a magazine that appealed to smart women who had money to spend, whether she was one of the millions who were single and earning her own living, like Alice herself, or married and in control of the household budget.  A typical issue included thoughtful and provocative columns by feminist contributors such as Clemence Dane, Rebecca West, Violet Bonham-Carter or Helena Normanton as well as the latest spring fashions by Lanvin. There were regular features on a wide range of careers from dentistry to stockbroking via photography, with an early column from Viscountess Rhondda in 1923 on ‘Women in Business’. These ran alongside reviews of vacuum cleaners and advice on what a woman should drink. The number of companies buying advertising space went from 98 in 1922 to 357 by the end of 1925.  

Fiction was core to the Good Housekeeping proposition.  Alice continued with McPeake’s strategy and D.H. Lawrence was not the only author who wished they wrote the kinds of stories that appealed to magazines ‘which really pay’ like Good Housekeeping.  Alice also worked closely with Ray Long, the editor of Cosmopolitan in the US, to strike joint deals for serialisation rights.  Sometimes she made mistakes – she always regretted turning down Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos – but generally she chose well from the hundreds of books and manuscripts she read every year and kept looking for new talent.  

Key to the success of the magazine were good relationships with literary and advertising agencies and here women were also making major in-roads. Nancy Pearn at Curtis Brown helped Alice secure a number of literary coups, notably six non-fiction essays from Virginia Woolf, published between December 1931 and December 1932 and now collectively known as ‘The London Scene’.  The year after Good Housekeeping was launched, the Women’s Advertising Club of London (WACL) was founded and Alice worked closely with women at senior levels in the industry, particularly Florence Sangster at Crawford’s Advertising Agency and Jessie Reynolds at Samson Clark.

Through the 1920s, Alice extended the Good Housekeeping brand. The Department of Furnishings and Decoration could ‘completely decorate or re-arrange your home under expert direction.’  The Fashion Department could help you solve your dress problem. A Shopping Service offered an early no-tech version of Amazon where, for a small fee, a member of the team bought a featured item from the relevant London store and arranged delivery, to ‘secure you many bargains and save you time’.  There was even a Good Housekeeping restaurant on Oxford Street.   The magazine became a trusted friend. receiving hundreds of letters asking for advice on every conceivable subject: dress, household matters, finance, etiquette and even how to get a child with a promising voice into a good choir.

Alice Head (1886-1981) Editor of Good Housekeeping
Alice later in her career, now in fur.. Courtesy of the family of Alice Head.

With any overseas trip to meet her boss meaning a long time out of the office, a strong team was essential. When Alice was promoted, she quickly hired an able business manager, Ivor Nicholson, who was a vital support and sounding board to her in first four years.   In September 1924, Dorothy Cottington Taylor, ‘a perfect dynamo of energy’, set up the UK’s Good Housekeeping Institute to test and recommend the latest labour-saving devices.  Lady Georgina Coleridge, who later succeeded Alice as editor of Homes and Gardens started her career working for Alice in 1937. Then as now, who you knew helped: Alice’s niece, Helena Normanton’s niece, Paul Graham Anderson’s daughter and the children of at least two friends all spent time working at National Magazine Corporation.

Life in Hearst-world
When Alice was made MD of National Magazines Corporation in 1924, she had only met her boss a couple of times. The following April she set sail for New York for a proper introduction.   Hearst was 62 by then, a tall man, 6ft 6 inches, with sharp blue eyes and, according to the actor David Niven, ‘shaped like an avocado, with sloping shoulders and a sizeable paunch’. He ran a media empire of 28 newspapers and a string of magazines, controlling a sizeable circulation. He had been in a relationship with the “Queen of the Screen”, Marion Davies for the last eight years but his wife, Millicent, refused to divorce him.   Hearst’s solution was to maintain two sizeable households: when Churchill travelled through the United States in 1929, Millicent and Marion hosted dinners for him on opposite sides of the country. 

William Randolph Hearst
William Randolph Hearst – from Alice’s autobiography
Marion Davies
Marion Davies – courtesy of the family of Alice Head

Hearst’s key passion aside from work and women was indiscriminatingly spending money on art and antiques.  Many of Hearst’s purchases, from Greek vases to entire de-constructed Spanish monasteries, never saw the light of day, remaining boxed up in level upon level of a huge Bronx warehouse, but some made it to San Simeon in California, jewels to be scattered around Hearst’s rather tacky crown, known then as ‘The Ranch’ and now as Hearst Castle.  Situated in enough land for a small country, 230 miles up the coast from Los Angeles, it had 165 rooms, a private theatre, multiple swimming pools and an open-range zoo with zebras and ostriches roaming around.   Sometimes he used it for business meetings, when it became ‘full of worried editors dodging the kangaroos’.  Furniture, paintings and tapestries from different centuries jostled for space in a style that could be described as pastiche, mash-up or mess.  

Alice became William Randolph Hearst’s personal shopper in the UK, arguably a full-time role in itself.  She assessed auction lots at Sotheby’s and Christies, bid on silver, furniture, paintings and tapestries and on one occasion received a telegram telling her to go to Tottenham Court Road and ‘inspect the giraffes for age size sex quality and price’. She was relieved when she arrived to be presented with a pamphlet not a ladder.  

Alice and Hearst made an odd couple, an upright Baptist, financially prudent with a strong work ethic and an adulterous spendthrift, following his passions to the point of obsession and beyond.   Despite, or perhaps because of, their differences, the two got on well from the start.  Hearst liked working with women and clearly trusted Alice, quickly letting her make major decisions for him. They maintained their transatlantic working relationship through endless telegrams and one or two face to face meetings in the US or Europe.   

Marion Davies, who had ‘the kindest heart and the most generous disposition in the world’, became a good friend of Alice. She stayed with her in Los Angeles and in the early 1930s was a guest at her ‘Beach House’ on Santa Monica’s gold coast.  This was a residential behemoth, three stories high with 110 rooms and paintings by Romney, Lawrence, Fragonard and Boucher on the walls. David Niven rented one of its four guest houses for a year and it was such a party house it was nicknamed ‘Cirrhosis by the Sea’.   Marion hosted large Saturday night parties and Sunday evening buffets and so Alice was hanging out with Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper, Carole Lombard and Norma Shearer

Alice loved her job and never stopped feeling a thrill when she held the mock up for each magazine edition ready to be approved for printing but she had a deep-rooted distaste of work for work’s sake and never felt guilty about mixing work and pleasure, relishing every opportunity to experience new sights and other worlds.  On her trips to the US, she tagged on visits to Tijuana (‘a very wild-looking place’), the Grand Canyon, New Orleans, Bermuda, Cuba and central and southern America. 

William Randolph Hearst and some of his guests on a Grand Tour of Italy between the wars.
Photograph from an Italian trip, with WR Hearst surrounded by women. Courtesy of the family of Alice Head

Hearst also made four grand tours of Europe between 1928 and 1936, where he, Marion, a large group of family and countless trunks of luggage travelled around in a multi-car cavalcade.  Alice joined parts of these trips, seeing the Loire Valley and the Riviera, Florence and Venice, the Black Forest and Oberammagau.  The paparazzi trailing in their wake focused on the famous members of the party while she was left in peace to soak up the history.

Living the single life
When Alice first started work she continued to live at home but she later moved into her own flat on Duchess Street near the BBC building at Portland Place and later moved to nearby Mansfield Street. Her flat was a refuge where she could find peace and quiet, have a quiet dinner with a friend or stay on top of her enormous workload. This continued to expand when National Magazines bought The Connoisseur, a magazine about fine art and antiques, in 1926 and launched a UK edition of Harper’s Bazaar in October 1929, edited by Joyce Reynolds.   

Alice was well-dressed rather than fashionable.  Her team at The Woman At Home nicknamed her ‘the Shepherdess’ for her propensity to wear light silks and big hats. By the 1930s, she was sporting a bob and had become a fan of fur.  She loved the theatre, was interested in food and regularly dined out at the Ivy, the Savoy, Claridges, the Ritz and the Carlton.  Like Viscountess Rhondda, she was a member of P.E.N. International. She joined the Embassy Club on Old Bond Street, a favourite hangout of HRH Prince of Wales, where guests in (compulsory) evening dress watched the hottest dance acts and then squeezed onto the floor themselves. She was happy to indulge herself but unlike her boss she lived within her means.

At first it was easy for Alice to keep a low profile: staff were not named in the front of the magazine as they are today and seldom were there introductory ‘Thoughts from the Editor’.  For the first couple of years after she took over Good Housekeeping, the Editor was still referred to as if male.  In 1932, Alice was asked to chair the annual dinner of the Newsvendors’ Benevolent Institution, the first woman to take this role since its foundation in 1839. She was incredibly nervous because she had managed to make it to the age of 46, including seven years in her Managing Director role, without having to do any public speaking. 

However, by the late 20s Alice was becoming more well-known, first forced to put her head above the parapet in 1928 when a column by Lord Birkenhead in Good Housekeeping about the proposal to extend the franchise to all women sparked huge controversy. In the early 1930s, she was profiled in two books of essays on notable figures of the day and counted among the 50 most notable women in the country. Alice became warier of social situations where, a couple of martinis to the good, she might be inclined to overcommit to a persuasive author or artist and she seldom had lunch with someone she didn’t already know.  She never married.  Many men were interested in her but she claimed ‘there weren’t many I cared about at all.’

Alice spent fifteen years moving between over-the-top glamour in the blazing sunshine of California and busy working days in the smog of London.  These two worlds came together in the medieval castle of St Donat’s Castle near Cardiff.  Hearst bought it sight unseen in 1925 and while the architect Sir Charles Allom was responsible for the restoration, which started in 1928, Alice was left overseeing the repairs, such as the laying of water mains and electricity cabling, a huge undertaking on top of her publishing job.  

When it was habitable, St Donat’s saw a host of visitors, among them Clark Gable and a young John F Kennedy, who came with his parents when his father was the ambassador to the UK.  Hearst himself only stayed there for a total of four months but Alice was free to use it herself and she had two or three weekend parties there ever year.  Her guests included many of the authors who contributed to The Woman at Home and Good Housekeeping as well as the actor Leslie Howard, George Bernard Shaw and Viscountess Rhondda.  She hosted David Lloyd George and his wife for the weekend in 1930 when he received the freedom of Cowbridge. Alice’s non-judgmental attitude to unconventional relationships is also evident here: another one of her good friends was Frances Stevenson, Lloyd George’s secretary, lover and eventually wife.

The late 1930s onwards
The economic depression of the early 1930s did not stand in the way of Good Housekeeping’s growth, which by 1933 had a monthly circulation of nearly 1m, but at an industry level, sales dropped and advertising revenue slowed.  By 1937, cracks were starting to appear in the foundations of Hearst’s publishing empire and his own debts totalled $126m as a result of decades of profligate spending and accumulated back taxes. The Hearst Corporation was no longer seen as a good business investment and could not access any more loans.  The only solution was to offload assets and sell any unprofitable businesses.   Marion even sold her jewellery and some of her own property assets so she could write Hearst a cheque for $1m.  While continuing to edit Good Housekeeping, Alice had to close Nash’s and write hasty cheques to creditors of Hearst who unexpectedly turned up in her office.  She spent weeks at St. Donat’s arranging for the sale of over £1m worth of antiques.  

When war broke out Alice decamped to Wales. A buyer was being sought for St. Donat’s itself (one was not found until 1960, when it became Atlantic College), but in the meantime Alice decided to run the magazine from there. She wrote a rare letter to her readers, signed simply ‘Editor’, where she explained how the magazine was being put together, reading proofs and sub-editing manuscripts from trestle tables.  

A year later, she had decided to call it quits and resigned, bringing to an end a 23-year working relationship. Her previous employer quickly offered her the role of editor of Homes and Gardens where Dorothy Cottington Taylor, Director of the Good Housekeeping Institute, joined her as associate editor until her death in 1944. Alice also had a seat on the Country Life board and was there to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 1947.

A letter from Alice Head explaining the move of the Good Housekeeping team to St. Donat's in Wales in 1939.
From a 1939 issue of Good Housekeeping

In 1945, Alice became the first woman to be Treasurer of the City Temple since the church was founded under Cromwell in 1640.   Dr Leslie Weatherhead, who was appointed as its minister in 1936, had written for Good Housekeeping and was famed as a charismatic speaker.  Alice decided to hear him for herself, queuing for an hour to get in to the church. She started attending regularly, returning to the faith of her family.  The church was badly bombed in the early years of the war and Alice was instrumental in raising funds for its reconstruction.  When she finally retired from the magazine world in 1949, aged 63, she continued to work for City Temple until the restored church was re-opened in 1958. 

Forced to leave San Simeon in 1947, Hearst moved in to Marion’s house, 1011 North Beverly Drive, where John and Jackie Kennedy spent part of their honeymoon and which was later used as a filming location for ‘The Godfather’ and ‘The Bodyguard’.   He died there in 1951. Alice and Heart’s respect for and loyalty to one another never wavered, publicly at least.  Hearst described her as ‘one of the most remarkable business women’ he had ever met. ‘She is a marvel.  She knows everybody and never forgets anything.’  He also walked the talk. Like countless other working women before and since, Alice was assumed to be a secretary by one weekend guest at St Donat’s, who asked her on his arrival to look up the return train times for him.  Hearst overheard him and his visit became the shortest trip on record: ‘Your train goes at 4pm today,’ he replied.  After Hearst’s death, Marion involved herself in philanthropic activities, particularly fund-raising for sick children.  Alice’s last transatlantic crossing in December 1960 was to visit Marion in the final months of her life as she battled stomach cancer. 

Interviewed on Woman’s Hour in 1976, five years before her own death in July 1981 aged 90, Alice still shows a lively sense of humour and great modesty. A female relative once said that she couldn’t work out how Alice had done so well when she had ‘no special gifts’ but clearly Alice was, as her obituary said, quietly but exceptionally gifted. She did everything we ask of a business leader today nearly a century ago, in a world far less supportive of women at work, where ‘people believed I couldn’t do it’.  She reached the top of her profession by combining thoroughness with innovation, delivering strong business results year-in, year-out for over thirty years.  She was ‘a pleasure to work for’, building strong teams of women and men who flourished under her leadership.

Alice’s discretion and loyalty were factors in her success but have also contributed to her being forgotten. Her autobiography pulled most of its punches and met with a lukewarm reception: ‘Ah, my dear, the real woman is not there’, her friend Annie Swan told her. She does not fit into the categories we seem keen to celebrate, nowhere described as rebel, a firebrand, difficult or dangerous. There seems to have been no ‘Devil Wears Prada’-style behaviour at work and her private life remained just that, so there has been little fodder for a racy biography or a ratings-busting Netflix series. Her low profile contributed to the decision by English Heritage to turn down an application made last year for a Blue Plaque. Still, a lasting monument to Alice’s life and work still sits on the shelf of every newsagent in the country: so next time you see a copy of Good Housekeeping, remember the woman who helped make it a success.

I would like to thank Alice Head’s great-niece and nephews for sharing their memories of her as well as photographs from her albums.

Note: A shorter version of this article appeared in the January 2022 issue of Good Housekeeping.

Sources include:

‘It Could Never Have Happened: The Autobiography of Alice M. Head’ (1939); Interview with BBC Woman’s Hour 3/5/1976

The Scotsman 28/11/1912; The Cork Examiner 3/9/1910; Gloucestershire Chronicle 29/01/1910; The Lichfield Mercury 27/2/1914; Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 29/11/1922; Western Mail 29/11/1940; 10/1/45; The Times 29/7/1981

‘Georgian Portraits’ by Percy Colson (1939) with an introduction to the essay on Alice Head by Emilie V Peacocke; The Letters of DH Lawrence Vol 6 March 1927- November 1928 (1991) ed by James Boulton and Margaret Boulton with Gerald Lacy; Bring on the Empty Horses’ (1975) by David Niven; My Life: An Autobiography by Annie S Swan (1937); The Letters of Annie S. Swan (1945); ‘A Gallery of Women’ by James Wedgwood Drawbell (1933)

‘The Last Country Houses’ by Clive Aslet (1982); ‘Revolutions from Grub Street: a history of magazine publishing in Britain’ by Howard Cox and Simon Mowatt (2013); ‘The Chief – The Life of William Randolph Hearst’ by David Nasaw (2000); ‘William Randolph Hearst – the Later Years (1911-1951)’ by Ben Procter (2007); ‘Modernism and modernity in British women’s magazines’ by Alice Wood (2020)

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