The Composite Cosmopolitan Girl in 1939

The Cosmopolitan Girl

Her name was Isabel MacDougal of Greenwood, Mississippi, and, in July 1939, she became “The Cosmopolitan Girl.” Prolific author Faith Baldwin noted that she had been “selected by an impressive jury from among thousands of entrants,” in this “Autobiography of America — 1939.” Isabel appeared on the cover of the summer fiction issue of Cosmopolitan thanks to illustrator Bradshaw Crandell.

There had been state winners, some tall, some short, some blond, some brunette or redheaded. Of course, they were all white. Baldwin concluded that the composite Cosmopolitan girl was in her early twenties, 5’6” tall , weighing 120 pounds. “She has blue eyes, golden brown hair, and beautiful teeth. She is a member of a small family; her parents are living, and her father is a businessman. The composite Cosmopolitan girl has college training. She loves dancing, and next to it horseback riding and swimming. And she works, or expects to work. As there was almost no duplication of occupation among the state winners,” Baldwin continues, “you can take it for granted that the composite girl has many ideas, all of them good.”

Though she won the contest, Isabel was actually younger than the ideal— just eighteen — and quite petite at about 5’3½ inches tall. She’d been born on Green Hill plantation, surrounded by 2000 acres of lush Mississippi countryside. Her mother, who married at sixteen, had three healthy children within the next five years. Baldwin found that Isabel “hasn’t an atom of classic beauty, but she’s as pretty as spring in the South or for that matter as spring in New England.” She loves to dance and also plays the clarinet, piano and the saxophone. Not only that, she’s a good tennis player and golfer, likes reading, knows how to embroider, knit, and crochet as well as cook. But that’s not all – Isabel “is a practical girl, so in college she is taking a business course. Neat, efficient, she has excellent grades,” plus she’s already learned shorthand and typing.

I  felt a bit inadequate by the time I read all this, and then learned that Isabel’s thirty-something mother made all her daughter’s clothes. And I wondered how my mother, Jane Hall, reacted to this description of a model young woman which came out just before the movie of her Cosmopolitan novel, These Glamour Girls, released. I’m sure Jane saw Baldwin’s piece; her short story about a girl close to Isabel’s age, “Elizabeth, Femme Fatale,” appeared in the same issue of the magazine.

Jane would have approved of Isabel’s strong character — she too abhorred “petty jealousy and deceit.” Isabel, it turns out, was popular with girls as well as boys, something Faith Baldwin found unusual in 1939. She had no shortage of dates, but kept a special place in her heart for a Brooklyn baseball player who often wrote to her. At eighteen, Isabel was no more ready for marriage than Jane had been; she hoped to be an actress. “A Cosmopolitan girl if ever there was one, with plenty of ambition, plenty of spirit and a logical, practical mind to guide her romantic heart,” Baldwin stated.

I have no idea what happened to Isabel, but I have a feeling she raised a family and contributed to many worthwhile causes. She was six years younger than Jane Hall who would be a Cosmo cover girl in October 1939. And she was exactly the same age as Betty Friedan. Was she happy? I hope so.

If there was a statewide search to find today’s composite Cosmopolitan Girl, given the changes in the magazine –and American life –over the past three quarters of a century, what sort of young woman would rise to the top?

For the original article: Faith Baldwin, “Autobiography of America–1939: The Cosmopolitan Girl.” Cosmopolitan (July, 1939), 55-56. For what happened to one of Isabel’s contemporaries, Jane Hall, Such Mad Fun comes out next week.   .See also my guest post on a related topic on this excellent online magazine.