The landmark rock concert Woodstock was billed as “Three Days of Peace and Music,” but Harriet Fier stayed for four.
“I was such a little Girl Scout,” she recalled in a video remembrance of the event for The New York Times. “At the end of the thing, they said . . . this guy’s farm and everything is a big muddy mess . . . and could some people stay and pick up garbage? So I spent the whole next morning picking up garbage because I felt bad about leaving a big mess.”
Her role on the little-heralded Woodstock cleanup crew seemed, at times, to presage her career in the 1970s as an editor at Rolling Stone, whose atmosphere she said resembled “a circus” filled with famous and famously difficult writers. The co-founder Jann Wenner, a visionary of mercurial temperament, was often absent or preoccupied and found her a steady helmsman for his ship – “assertive and savvy.”
She catapulted in six years from the magazine’s night switchboard operator to second-in-command. “Jann liked her style, her looks,” Wenner biographer Robert Draper wrote. “Fier was a rock & roller and feminist who comported herself like a classy New York editor.”
Fier, who as managing editor from 1978 to 1980 helped lead the magazine as it evolved from a bible of youth culture to a general-interest, celebrity-centric periodical, died Feb. 21 at a hospital in Manhattan. She was 67.
The cause was complications from breast cancer, a disease she battled for 18 years, said her daughter, Laura Mantell.
Fier (pronounced “fear”) was a Brooklyn-bred graduate of Smith College who took a road trip West in 1971 after receiving her degree. Down to her last few dollars, she accepted a job answering phones at night at what was then the San Francisco headquarters of Rolling Stone, which had debuted several years earlier. She quickly impressed copy chief Marianne Partridge with her ambition and wit.
For a Christmas party, Fier designed a poster that read “Put the Christ Back in Christmas” and playfully mocked both pious religiosity and John Lennon’s quip about the Beatles being “more popular than Jesus.” It revealed her gimlet eye for politics and musical icons – a trademark of the magazine’s coverage in the era of Nixon and the rock counterculture.
She was promoted to the editorial ranks at a time when a corps of female employees – highly educated but many in low-level positions – held regular “consciousness raising” meetings. “She helped lead a remarkable women’s editorial takeover at the magazine,” recalled a former Rolling Stone writer and editor, David Felton. “Fier was key in convincing [Wenner] to trust and empower his talented young female staff.”
In an interview on Thursday, Wenner called Fier “a delight, fun to work with,” and said that he valued her not only for her editing skill but also for her steady management. As a features editor more than able to sling back a few drinks with “the guys,” she capably managed the egos of marquee writers, some of whom – such as Hunter S. Thompson – were known to take liberties with the facts and deadlines. She also helped assemble a special stand-alone section about outdoor lifestyles. Its success persuaded Wenner to launch Outside magazine in 1977.
Appointed Rolling Stone’s managing editor the next year, Fier had what Wenner biographer Joe Hagan called the editorial staff’s “most complicated and difficult task”: steering coverage as the magazine faded as the hip barometer of baby boom ideals in music and culture. New outlets such as the television sketch show “Saturday Night Live” began setting the anti-establishment conversation. The magazine market also was rapidly changing, with People becoming a publishing sensation.
Wenner, who had relocated Rolling Stone to the publishing capital of New York around that time, wanted to steer the magazine into general-interest terrain – aiming for what he called a “more sophisticated and cosmopolitan identity.”
Fier became known for her energetic battles with the magazine’s business-side management, which wanted to curb Rolling Stone’s long, epithet-strewn music and political stories in favor of more-mainstream personality profiles and make aesthetic changes for mass appeal.
The executives, who had rescued the magazine from near-bankruptcy, had Wenner’s ear. But to Fier, they were “shoe salesmen. They could be selling anything,” she told Draper. “They were mere moneymakers. They were the enemy.”
She balked at new accounting practices and at what she considered the management’s heavy-handed suggestions about colors and poses to be featured on magazine covers. A showdown ensued, and Fier lost.
Draper described her as someone who had once suggested “it would be politically and cosmically correct for the magazine to fold when Nixon resigned.” At the dawn of the Reagan era, her sensibility and the magazine’s no longer matched.
Wenner, she told the Baltimore Sun years later, “always had a finger on the pulse of the prevailing culture. Even during the Reagan years, Jann tapped into the acquisitive lifestyle of the ’80s. A lot of us were disappointed and think he wasn’t true to the cause of Rolling Stone. But we’re probably the dinosaurs – and he probably has his finger on the pulse of today.”
Harriet Fier was born in Brooklyn on June 6, 1950. Her father was an economics professor at Brooklyn College, and her mother was a homemaker. She graduated from Smith with a bachelor’s degree in political science.
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After her tenure at Rolling Stone, she spent four years at The Washington Post as an assignment editor with a mandate to bring the magazine’s panache to the Style section. She left the newspaper when she was recruited as executive editor of the East Side Express, a short-lived upscale weekly in Manhattan.
She was subsequently a senior editor at Time Inc., Simon & Schuster and Bantam Books. In 1989, she married Stephen Mantell and became his partner in a documentary filmmaking company based near their home in Chappaqua, New York. She wrote and produced videos for classrooms as well as heritage sites such as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate.
Mantell died in 2009. Besides her daughter, of Manhattan, survivors include a son, Will Mantell of Brooklyn; and a brother.
As Fier told friends, she had no firm direction after college and might well have attended law school if she hadn’t joined Rolling Stone, where getting a job in the early 1970s required little more than a certain alignment in the stars. Interview paperwork asked for an applicant’s sun, moon and rising signs.
“I didn’t know the difference, so I wrote Gemini on all three,” Fier told Draper. Her answer was apparently good enough – although she startled the woman who took her form. “Triple Gemini!” she shrieked. “How do you cope?”