Surviving, with Style
So far her magic charm is working. One of the most powerful figures in New York's fiercely competitive fashion scene, the stylish Harper's Bazaar editor-in-chief feels she has regained the upper hand in her four-year fight with ovarian cancer—an ordeal she shares in her new memoir, No Time to Die (Little, Brown). At bay for more than a year now, the malignancy was first detected in December 1993, less than two years after the former editor-in-chief of British Vogue had arrived from London with much to celebrate—a glamorous new job, a loving family and a reputation as one of the most warmly admired talents in an industry famous for its rivalries. Almost overnight, Tilberis, now 50, was at risk of losing it all to a virulent disease with a cure rate generally lower than that of breast cancer. "I was reduced to an almost animal level of survival," she writes of one four-week hospitalization in 1995, when she was so sick she couldn't swallow her own saliva, "struggling just to make it through the day, all privacy and dignity gone, trying to hold on to something that represented the routine of life I'd taken for granted."
And what a life it is. As head of one of the world's top fashion magazines, Tilberis takes front-row seats at runway shows and hobnobs with celebrity couturiers like Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. Under her leadership, Harper's Bazaar has won two prestigious National Magazine awards (for design and photography); Tilberis herself earned Advertising Age's Editor of the Year award for 1993. "She's extremely influential," says Patrick McCarthy, chairman of W, an upscale women's fashion magazine. "She knows what makes clothes fashionable." Klein agrees: "Liz has a great eye."
As well as incredible perseverance. In the final days of 1993, Tilberis underwent a hysterectomy at Manhattan's Mount Sinai Medical Center. Exhausted from weekly chemotherapy treatments but determined to keep working, she received staff members and examined magazine layouts at home.
The oldest of three children, Tilberis (born Elizabeth Kelly) attributes her indefatigable spirit to her late father, Thomas, an eye surgeon, who served in the Royal Air Force in the Far East during World War II. Her creativity was fostered by her mother, Janet, 82, a homemaker, during what Tilberis calls a "very normal, sunlit childhood" that began in the suburbs of Manchester, England. "I was always interested in fashion, from the time I had my first doll," Tilberis says.
Not that she didn't have other interests. As a teen, Tilberis was expelled from Leicester Polytechnic art school in 1965 for sneaking a boyfriend into her dorm room. Later, at Jacob Kramer College of Art in Leeds, a professor named Andrew Tilberis, five years her senior, whom she soon began dating, "didn't think much of her artwork," he recalls. "Then I realized," he says, "she was obsessed with fashion."
Liz realized it too. She returned to Leicester the next year to complete a degree in fashion design; by the time she and Andrew wed in 1971, she was working for British Vogue as an assistant. (She rose to editor-in-chief in 1988, replacing Anna Win tour, who is now her top competitor as editor-in-chief of American Vogue.) By her early 30s, the professionally ascendant Tilberis, frustrated by her inability to conceive a child, began fertility-drug treatments she now believes increased the odds of developing ovarian cancer, a claim scientific data do not fully support. "There may be an association between the two," says Peter Dottino, the gynecologic oncologist who operated on Tilberis in 1993, "but the exact linkage remains to be identified."
In 1995 she had a relapse and needed a risky bone-marrow transplant. At one point, she writes, a call from Princess Diana, whom Tilberis knew from her days in London, "single-handedly" raised her platelet count, allowing her to leave the hospital sooner. "It was something that happened between two people who are friends," she says. "To hear her voice gave me a great lift."
Tilberis has since learned to live with uncertainty. In December 1996 she had a cancerous lump removed from her neck. Still, Tilberis says, "I am a great optimist." To help fight a disease that will kill an estimated 14,500 American women this year, she serves as president of the nonprofit Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. The busy Tilberis especially cherishes her summers with Andrew (who now calls himself a "lapsed artist") and their two adopted sons, Robbie and Chris, at their Long Island seaside retreat in East Hampton, N.Y. She insists, "I'm not about to say I'm going to give up."
Aixa M. Pascual in New York City