For nearly three decades, The Improper Bostonian has showcased smiling faces: stars from near and far, athletes, and the city’s bright young things.
“I’d look at it and think, ‘Oh, this is what young people are doing. They’re looking cute and going out at night,’ ” says Monica Collins, a former Boston Herald TV critic and self-described media junkie. “I really liked it. I’d walk my dog in a certain direction every other week just to get a copy, and then I’d dive into it.”
Now thousands of faithful Improper readers will have to look elsewhere for photos of well-scrubbed men and women at sparkly affairs and the magazine’s signature mix of buzzy restaurant reviews, celebrity interviews, fashion spreads, lifestyle features, and event listings. To the surprise of its own staff, the magazine announced Thursday it is closing.
“After nearly 28 years in business, we are closing The Improper Bostonian effective today,” publisher Wendy Semonian Eppich wrote in statement posted on the magazine’s website. “While this news might be surprising, the company has had a great run and we’re hopefully leaving this incredible city better and brighter since our inception in 1991.”
In an interview later in the day, Semonian Eppich said it was a difficult decision to stop publishing, and even more difficult to deliver the news to the staff.
“It’s a family business and so it was a family decision,” she said, before adding that some “very big names in Boston” contacted her Thursday expressing interest in resurrecting the magazine in some form.
“We’ll see what happens,” Semonian Eppich said.
Begun by her brother, Mark Semonian, in a loft in Brookline Village, the Improper published twice a month, reaching an audience of more than 350,000 readers annually. Often with a celebrity’s cheerful face on the cover — singer Joelle James graces the final issue — the Improper was available in blue news boxes throughout the city, at restaurants, hotels, and colleges, and on the doorsteps of thousands of residences from the Back Bay to the North End.
Editor Matt Martinelli said the magazine had been operating at a loss “for a little while,” and the Semonian family had made an attempt to sell it. Four years ago, Martinelli said, the Improper’s per-issue circulation was 87,500, but that dropped to 60,000 lately. He said the magazine had about two dozen full-time employees, including editorial, sales, and marketing staff, and another dozen or so freelancers.
“We were a lifestyle magazine, but we’d upped our arts coverage a lot in recent years,” said Martinelli. “We’d also tried to be a little more heady about things. The city is smarter than it used to be, more educated.”
The current glossy, ad-heavy incarnation of The Improper Bostonian bears little resemblance to the magazine that first hit the street. Bankrolled by patriarch Leon Semonian, then a broker at Smith Barney, the first issues were on newsprint, with a lot of tantalizing gossip and attitude. Announcing itself as feisty and fearless, one early Improper included Catherine de Castelbajac’s X-rated notes to her lover, billionaire Bill Koch, who later kicked her out of his condo at the Four Seasons.
There was also a revealing interview of then-congressman Joe Kennedy II by former WBZ-AM radio host David Brudnoy, and a provocative piece by Chris Lydon, former host of the longtime WBUR show “The Connection,” that promoted the idea that chef Julia Child was the preeminent feminist of her time.
“Yes, it’s changed,” says Jonathan Soroff, the Improper’s rococo columnist whose dispatches from the party circuit were a must-read for fans of the magazine. “When we started, we wrote some very [gutsy] news stories, absolutely. But our arts-and-entertainment coverage became super strong, and that’s hard to do as a biweekly because we were thinking two months out.”
Soroff, who’s been with The Improper from the beginning, said there were many tears shed at the magazine’s Back Bay office Thursday morning.
“It’s like a death in the family. Everybody’s crushed,” he said. “A lot of companies don’t survive 28 weeks, let alone 28 years, and I’m grateful for every second of it. I got to interview everyone from Maya Angelou to the ‘Real Housewives.’ ”
Longtime humor columnist Ezra Dyer fondly recalls dancing onstage at a Flaming Lips concert in a bunny costume for one of his pieces — a column that led a reader to introduce Dyer to a woman who later became his wife.
John Spooner, the famed financial guru and nationally recognized novelist, has written a column for The Improper since 2005. He said the magazine’s masthead gave him “the freedom to express thought and snarkiness,” and he took full advantage. He said he’s terribly sad, but not surprised that the doors are closing.
“Media is a challenging landscape,” Spooner said. “Whether it’s writing or dance or painting or acting or singing, if you choose the creative life, you’re doomed. I can’t tell you how much I hate that The Improper is closing. It’s been a wonderful refuge for me and a great thing for the city.”
Among its competitors, The Improper’s sudden demise was met with the opposite of glee.
“While it may be good in some sense for @DigBoston, I am not here to gloat,” tweeted Chris Faraone, editor of the alt weekly Dig Boston. “With very few exceptions, I don’t like to see any publications go out of business.”
That sentiment was shared even by folks at Boston magazine, despite the fact that the two publications had periodically jousted. (To the editors of Boston magazine, The Improper’s annual “Boston’s Best” issue was just a confusing copycat of Boston magazine’s “Best of Boston” issue.)
“It’s always a sad day to see a publication close its doors,” said Boston magazine editor Chris Vogel, “especially one that has been around for so long.”
Asked Thursday what he’ll do now, Soroff sighed.
“I don’t know,” he said. “My calendar just became incredibly empty.”