03/06/1989 at 01:00 AM EST
For those present at the creation, PEOPLE'S debut 15 years ago resembled a very special delivery. "We were like nervous new parents—we didn't know what to expect," recalls Richard B. Stolley, the magazine's first managing editor and now Time Inc.'s editorial director. "Fortunately, the baby was healthy and thriving. None of us ever got much sleep. Later it was like when you expect a son to grow up to be 5'10" and he turns out to be 6'5" and very handsome. We were always amazed."
The first issue—March 4, 1974—hit the stands with Mia Farrow on the cover, and the U.S. magazine scene, in Stolley's view, hasn't been the same since. "We pretty much invented personality journalism," he says. "Short, snappy stories, lots of pictures. We started the trend, and it hasn't stopped yet."
Today, of the original 70 or so editorial staffers, only 12 remain: assistant managing editors Hal Wingo and Ross Drake, senior editor Ralph Novak, staff writer Joyce Wansley, production manager Dave Young, copy processor Nélida Granado and copy editor Mary Radich. In the bureaus, the only veterans are correspondents Fred Hauptfuhrer and Jerene Jones (London), Kent Demaret (Houston), Julie Green-wait (Detroit) and Joyce Leviton (Atlanta).
Beleaguered pioneers united by a cause, the early staffers had to share office space with LIFE and MONEY and spent a lot of time explaining what PEOPLE was all about. "Every week we had to invent ourselves," says Drake. "At first we had no identity, and on Mondays we wondered how we were going to get the magazine out. Somehow we did, even though the place looked like a battle zone—chairs and desks in the hallway, everyone doing what he had to do to keep this rickety project alive." Adds Novak: "The hours were brutal. One time the phone woke me up at 5 A.M. I was under my desk sleeping, so I answered the call from the floor. Back then it seemed perfectly normal."
The staff has more than doubled since then, and computers have infiltrated into almost every aspect of the publishing process. "But, basically, we're still the same," says charter senior staffer Wingo. "We're just more sophisticated looking, more refined, better written. But we're still doing celebrities and what I call the keepers, the pieces that speak of the human condition, the ones that last long after you forget what Cher or Don Johnson did last week."
PEOPLE also remains the same in another key regard. "Behind all the flash," says Wingo, "there's lots of hard work. What looks easy and superficial is often very difficult. Pulling this off is a big reason for our success and will certainly help us over the next 15 years."
Novak, now Picks & Pans editor, takes the long view of PEOPLE'S future. "I hope people will be able to look back on us a hundred years from now and see a pretty accurate reflection of our age," says Novak. "Sure, PEOPLE magazine will reflect the short attention span of busy Americans, but we'll also reflect an America that's still ambitious, that still has a dream for a better life."