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Profile: A regular at the White House and the Island Library

JO ANN KIRKLAND PHOTO Maggie Murphy and her daughter, Maeve, at the family’s Shelter Island home.
Maggie Murphy and her daughter, Maeve, at the family’s Shelter Island home.

Maggie Murphy was enjoying the quiet beauty and significant snow cover of a February Shelter Island weekend with her husband David, daughter Maeve, and a nine-month-old Goldendoodle named Ellie, when two visitors broke trail through a foot of ice and snow, tramped into their home and left dripping boots in a mound by the front door.

“Would somebody throw my pants up to me?” Maggie yelled. David wadded up a pair of jeans and fired them upstairs.

Next to Sundance, the Oscars and the White House Christmas party, all of which Maggie has experienced, her Shelter Island life is less red carpet and more Stainmaster.

Maggie’s distinguished publishing career spans decades as reporter, editor and industry leader at Us, Entertainment Weekly, Life, People, Parade and starting last month, theMid.com. She has told the stories of every kind of American, from single moms working at Wal-Mart to Barack and Michelle Obama working at the White House.

Maggie was born into a large Irish family in Queens. Her four siblings still live within a few miles of where they all grew up in Woodside. “My parents were immigrants in the mid 50s, a good time to be Irish in America,” she said. “People knew us in our small neighborhood, knew my mother, knew who my family was.”

Maggie got her start in journalism at a New York City public school, Bryant High. A self-described “good Catholic girl,” when her English teacher asked to see her after class, she assumed she’d done something wrong. He told her she should join the newspaper, “The Bryant Clipper.”

“I was fascinated by the immigrant story I saw on TV,” Maggie said, referring to Rose Ann Scamardella, an Italian-American woman who anchored WABC Eyewitness News in New York City in the late 1970s. “I had a hardscrabble upbringing, my dad was an alcoholic,” Maggie said. “I didn’t want to be around too many sad things. Rose Ann Scamardella looked like she was having fun. I wanted to do that.”

As for college, “There really wasn’t a path in my everyday life,” said Maggie. In her junior year at Bryant, an adviser asked if she was going to college, and when she demurred, answered the question for her. “I was sort of adopted by the English department, they helped me apply, and I ended up getting into NYU,” she said.

Maggie worked at an NYU school newspaper, an alternative weekly. There she met David Browne, who would later become her husband. “He wanted to be a music critic, and I said, ‘Oh wow, you can do that? I’ll try that,’” she said. “We became very focused on how to make our way in the publishing business.”

At first, Maggie and David struggled the way many college grads do. “We had a series of the most unfortunate jobs,” she said.

But every job had something to teach her. At Teen Beat, Maggie learned not to ruin the magazine cover by using the word “flick,” which creates an unfortunate visual impression when viewed in passing. She said, “Years later, when I worked at Entertainment Weekly, this became the Maggie Murphy rule, ‘Don’t put the word flick on the cover.’”

In the late 1980s when clothing retailers were hiring magazine journalists to study color swatches of their apparel and come up with evocative names, Maggie found herself in the middle of the J.Crew and Tweeds “color war.” She went to work for J. Crew after the defection of a team of writers to Tweeds.

“They liked colors like ‘emotion’ for gray,” said Maggie. “At J. Crew, they’d give you a swatch, and you would think, that’s orange, but orange is boring so let’s call it kumquat, or call it ‘team’ for navy blue. It was a wacky, visual job.”

She and David had married and they had a mortgage, so when a magazine job at Us came her way, she took it. Over the next 20 years, she worked in the intense, competitive, and sometimes glamorous world of publishing. She was named “Hottest Editor of the Year” in 2011.

Maggie interviewed Michelle Obama several times and President Obama twice. “They are both impossibly good-looking in person, very tall,” she said. “The president is hard to interview because you get 20 minutes and his answer to every question is 10 minutes long, and you wonder, do I interrupt the leader of the free world?”

In the early 1990s Maggie and David started coming to Shelter Island on weekends when their friend Kathy Heintzelman, who still lives on the Island, invited them to share a house near North Ferry with a tribe of friends, colleagues and competitors from the city.

“My boss at Entertainment Weekly used to call it the ‘Sleeping with the Enemy’ house,” Maggie said. Since then, they’ve continued to live weekends, year-round on the Island, buying their own place in 2000.
Maggie and David had Maeve in 2002, when Maggie was close to 40.

She found that having a child deepened her ties to the community, especially the Shelter Island Library. “On Saturday afternoons in the winter, we’d go and read books,” she said. “It’s one of my favorite places, a wonderful institution.”

During her time at Parade, Maggie’s professional life and personal life seemed to come together on Shelter Island. “The thing I cherish most is the way the Island is like so many towns that I visited at Parade — the importance of education, the paper, the library to small town life.”

In the fall of 2014 Maggie was displaced at Parade when the company was sold. “This was the first time in 27 years I’d had to look for a job, something that a lot of people my age have grappled with,” she said. “It makes you reassess where you want to live, how you want to live, what your work life means to you.”

With Maeve’s help, Maggie concluded that work outside the home is vital to her happiness. After leaving Parade, she began to meet Maeve at the school bus, and ask how her day had gone. One day after listening for a while, “the boss in me came roaring back and I said, ‘O.K., here’s how this is going to work. You are going to give me 10 minutes on everything that went wrong and then you are going to tell me how you are going fix it.’”

‘Mommy,’ Maeve said, ‘You need to go back to work.’”

Now working at a startup called theMid.com, Maggie described her job as being the adult in a big room of journalists writing about “the messy middle” of people’s lives: jobs, children, transitions and parents.

She sees some of the changes in her decades here on Shelter Island as improvements. “The glue of the Island is its livability 365 days of the year. I’m mindful of that,” she said. “Stars Café changed the Heights. It’s great to have Black Cat Books and it’s been wonderful to see a Farmers Market and Sylvester Manor. The chicken salad at the Eagle Deli is awesome.”

“To become someone who has a great job, who can have a house on Shelter Island, and be able to live in the city, it is the expression of the American Dream,” she said. “I think it’s so much about teachers tapping you on the shoulder and saying ‘you are good at this, you should do this.’ Ordinary people doing ordinary things make the biggest difference in our lives.”