FEATURE | Summer 2015
As senior editor of Ms., she shared feminist thought
and action through powerful storytelling
THE TEXT FROM MICHELE KORT’S SISTER, Melissa, on the last Friday in June read simply: “She’s gone.”
Ovarian cancer had finally succeeded in taking my friend of 40 years from me, you,
her family, her circle, the world. But Michele, senior editor of Ms. for the past 13 years, lived too full and rich a life for anyone to believe she was truly gone.
For one thing, we can always read her. Michele worked with words. A gifted editor, writer and interviewer, she authored untold articles and essays. (I made her read every- thing I wrote to the point where my first thought after being asked to compose this tribute was, How can I write it, if Michele won’t be able to edit it?) She edited books, including Here Come the Brides! Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage with Audrey Bilger, and wrote an acclaimed biography of singer-songwriter Laura Nyro, Soul Picnic, which she promoted around the country with readings that morphed into sing-alongs of Nyro tunes.
She also lives in those who knew her because of the kind of communicator she was. She wanted you to know what she knew. She wanted you to know feminism, politics, popular culture, sports of any stripe, fine art (she’d interned at the Whitney Museum in the early ’70s and graduated from UCLA with a BA in art history and an MBA in arts management). And she had one of those remarkable memories that could summon up something she read in a newspaper, book or magazine from two decades ago.
She joined Ms. as senior editor back in 2003, editing nearly ever feature article you have read in the magazine since then. “Whether it was features, investigative reporting, national or global news or tributes, what a difference Michele made for Ms.,” reflects Eleanor Smeal, publisher during Michele’s years at Ms. “She always got it done—no matter what the challenge an article presented—and she got it done beautifully. Her keen appreciation for the power of storytelling produced innumerable lasting clicks or connections, creating true involvement and understanding for readers of endlessly diverse backgrounds. She rescued many a draft and assuaged the fears of many a writer. Her wit and insight created just the right headlines. I can still hear her chuckle as she produced them,” adds Smeal.
In 2010, she added the Ms. Blog to her roster, which has reached more than 11 million readers since its inception, mentoring young writers, helping academic contributors impact a large, general readership and becoming a blogger’s most enthusiastic cheerleader when a post went viral (which they often did). As Ms. cofounder Gloria Steinem put it: “Michele was—and is still—a connector, a kind and devoted intelligence that connects the many different parts of a movement into an effective whole. By writing, by editing, by organizing and by sharing ideas, she wove the strands of action and thought into the whole cloth of a capacious and warming movement. God may be in the details, but the Goddess is in connections—and Michele created them.”
Then there were the many things she loved that she didn’t write about. She loved an empty space in a crowded parking lot, reading the sports section of the newspaper cover to cover and the sighting of (sometimes quite obscure) celebrities. She loved throwing huge get-togethers, where in the name of making sure no one felt alone she took her legendary party-thrower Aunt Miriam’s cue and brought strangers together with introductions that both inflated your importance (“I’d like you to meet one of the top writers in the country”) and might also include alarmingly personal details (“She had a really horrible boyfriend once but now she’s happy”). She loved the Ms. internship program and mentored dozens of young women over the years. She loved making guest appearances at university journalism classes and starting out every session with “If you’re a feminist, raise your hand.” She loved to say, “Being a feminist is not how other people treat you, it’s how you treat other people.” She loved private jokes, and she had at least one with almost everyone she knew.
And she knew many. A memorial was held for her on June 28 at the Santa Monica Synagogue. Melissa pointed out Michele’s knack for discovering musicians before everyone else. Her beloved nephew, Isaac Kort-Meade, recalled how she willed a dream of hers—sitting with him on a bench at his college campus—into reality. A throng of young relations agreed she was their coolest cousin. Miriam Cutler, her partner of almost 25 years, reminded us of the meaning of soulmate.
So many were in attendance that those who couldn’t find chairs lined the walls. It was a full house. Michele would have loved that, too.
Margy Rochlin is an award-winning writer living in Los Angeles. She received the PEN Center USA West Literary Award in journalism and is a regular contributor to The New York Times.
Reprinted from the Summer issue of Ms. To have this issue delivered straight to your door, Apple, or Android device, join the Ms. Community.
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