By Erik Meers
October 05, 1998 12:00 PM

Surrounded by packing boxes in her Manhattan office, Ruth Whitney flips through Glamour magazine’s November issue. Actress Halle Berry beams from its cover. “She’s beautiful—so healthy looking,” Whitney says. “We try to keep those skin-and-bone models out of the magazine.” Then she turns to a recent cover of rival Cosmopolitan tacked to her wall. “We’d be dead if we showed that much cleavage,” Whitney says, wagging a finger at barely clad Cosmo cover girl Cindy Crawford. “We try for someone our readers can identify with.”

It is the last day of Whitney’s 31-year reign as Glamour’s editor-in-chief, so it’s only natural that she might feel inclined to take a parting swipe at the competition—especially since she has devoted most of her career to making her magazine the most journalistically serious in the often fluffy women’s-magazine field. Under Whitney’s guidance, Glamour metamorphosed from what she calls a “white glove ladies’ magazine” into one that runs informative features on date rape, infertility and abortion alongside the requisite relationship and makeup tips. “We have style and substance,” says Whitney. The mix, which won her four National Magazine Awards, proved good for the bottom line as well: Since 1968 the glossy monthly’s circulation has risen 54 percent.

On this final day, though, more than professional pride informs Whitney’s trembling voice. (She suffers from a form of muscular palsy that makes speaking for long periods difficult.) In what she views as a galling irony, she will be replaced at Glamour by none other than Bonnie Fuller, the editor of nemesis Cosmo. “I couldn’t argue with the suggestion that it was time for me to leave,” says Whitney, 70, who agreed to resign after a gentle nudge last August from Si Newhouse, chairman of Condé Nast, Glamour’s parent company. But she disagreed vehemently about her designated heir. “You spend years building a magazine that is respected—she doesn’t have the track record for that kind of hard-hitting journalism,” Whitney says. “I’d hate to see it lost.”

Fuller, 42, who was previously with Marie Claire and spent her 18 months at Cosmo bolstering sales with such racy fare as “Your Secret Sexual Agonies,” insists that Whitney “has nothing to worry about. I completely appreciate Glamour’s great strengths—I see my job as building on them.” It won’t be easy. “Ruth set a standard for women’s journalism by which we all should be measuring ourselves,” says Good Housekeeping editor-in-chief Ellen Levine. “She’s so good, she’s off the charts.”

Whitney’s chart-topping caliber was evident when she was growing up in Oshkosh, Wis. The youngest of three children born to Leonard Reinke, a gravestone designer, and his wife, Helen, a homemaker, Ruth aced her studies, edited her high school newspaper and won a full scholarship to Northwestern University in 1945. While studying English there, she met journalism major Daniel Whitney—”one of those rare men capable of emotional and intellectual intimacy,” she says—on a blind date. They wed in 1949 and, after a brief stint in Chicago, settled in Irvington, N.Y. While Daniel worked as copy chief at an ad firm, eventually starting his own company, Ruth wrote sales promotions for Time Inc. (which now publishes PEOPLE) until she was fired. In 1952, “I was madly for Adlai [Stevenson], while everyone else was madly for Ike,” she says. “I got disenchanted and became a lousy employee.”

A smart career move, as it turned out. She landed a job as copy chief at Better Living in 1954 and skyrocketed to the top of the masthead at age 27. “The magazine was about to go under, which of course I didn’t know,” she says, laughing. Next came a decade at Seventeen, where she was made second-in-command a few years before her only child, Philip, now 35, came along. When Newhouse tapped her for Glamour’s top spot in 1967, “I was scared to death,” she says. But she blossomed, winning acclaim—along with some canceled subscriptions and a boost in newsstand sales—when Glamour became the first mainstream American women’s magazine ever to feature an African-American woman on its cover. “If six months go by and you’ve offended neither readers nor your advertisers,” says Whitney of her editorial philosophy, “you’re not doing your job.”

She took flak at home as well. Growing up, Philip rarely let her forget that she was, in her words, “the only woman waiting for the train each morning” in prosperous Irvington. Says Philip: “I got frustrated that Mom wasn’t home waiting with milk and cookies for me.” Now a vice president of consumer marketing at MONEY (owned, like PEOPLE, by Time Warner) and husband of TEEN PEOPLE managing editor Christina Ferrari, he adds, “I also learned incredible respect for working women.”

Whitney excelled at the balancing act. On the 5:10 train home each evening, she edited stories (in ink; she never learned to type). Back in the family’s eight-room modern house, she and her husband cooked dinner together. “My parents moved in synchronicity in the kitchen,” says Philip. “It was like ballet.” The dance lasted until February 1995, when Daniel died of prostate cancer. A devastated Whitney was back at work four days later. “It would have been easy to slide into depression staying home,” Philip says.

Which brings up the question: Whatever will Whitney do now? On the morning after her last day at Glamour, as she lounges on her balcony with her mutt Rico, she is asked whether she’s enjoying her new freedom. “No,” she says, adding that she may start consulting for other magazines. Her friends are pushing for it—but only partly for her sake. “I hope Ruth is going to do something,” says Marcia Ann Gillespie, editor-in-chief of Ms. magazine. “I hope she is. I pray. We need her.”

Erik Meers

Eve Heyn in New York City