The first thing you’ll notice about Barbara Tober is that she’s a sharp observer, picking up on the slightest of details and reacting to them. During a speech to a roomful of guests at the St. Bartholomew’s Conservancy Gala Organ Concert (an event which she chaired), Mrs. Tober vocalized her observations in real time, from the heft of the award she was giving to the decor of the space, to the size of the paper her speech was written on.
During my interview in her private office at her uptown home, she was at it again. As she told a story about growing up near New Jersey’s “Pre-DDT” Kittatinny Mountain, Mrs. Tober watched my eyes drift toward a plate of cookies. Instantly, Mrs. Tober interrupted her own line of thinking with a remark on how delicious they were. “Try those chocolate ones. You must take some home.” I do, then we’re back on track: “Anyway, that’s my childhood.”
I soon learned that this was partially Mrs. Tober’s wry sense of humor at play. Mrs. Tober isn’t constantly cracking jokes, but by sharing her thoughts- big and small- she is inviting you to enjoy the world with her. When telling a story, she sometimes speaks in what sounds like vocal italics, imbuing a certain amusement by the very thing she’s thinking before she ever finishes the thought. Pair that with a penchant for incidental pauses and whole sentences effortlessly shift meaning, gaining humor or becoming grounded in seriousness. She is a master of the language, running the full gamut of its tricks and tools.
Mrs. Tober’s love affair with details and language has defined her career, beginning with a copywriter job at Vogue Magazine which eventually led her to the role of editor-in-chief at Conde Nast’s Bride’s magazine. Along the way, she’s written two books, The Bride: A Celebration, featuring fascinating lore as well as facts about courtship, engagements, weddings, and honeymoons, as well as ABCs of Beauty, from when she was a beauty editor.
Mrs. Tober speaks candidly about how important language is to her, remarking, “I like to put everything in words in a way that is graceful, gracious, charming… interesting. You use interesting words. I love the language. I love being involved in a language.”
Mrs. Tober isn’t hesitant to verbalize how impactful her time at Bride’s was on the broader culture, where she was the editor-in-chief for 30 years. “We changed the way America married!” She smiled. “We asked so many questions. ‘Why is the bride the only person in the picture? Why is he over there? Why don’t they write their own vows?’ We just kept saying, ‘Why is this the way it is?’” It wasn’t about solving anything, but a matter of knowing something else was possible, if you wanted it.
“In those days, they had these huge weddings in Vietnam and in Russia where they’d have 50 couples getting married at the same time. It wasn’t personal at all. A lot of these people escaped and came to the United States. They wanted to have a wedding for themselves. We started there. It was really a matter of anthropology.” Indeed, Mrs. Tober surrounded herself with people who wanted to observe the condition first, heavily influenced by the theories of Margaret Mead, the foremost anthropologist of the time. “One of my best friends is Helen Fisher. She’s an anthropologist and both of us sat at the feet of Margaret Mead. Together we explored so much. It was only the tip of the iceberg.”
Under Mrs. Tober’s bold leadership, the content of Bride’s magazine expanded as Barbara’s interests did. Eventually, Bride’s magazine went so far as to change its name to Brides & Your New Home. “That was done for one simple reason. Everyone knows we have fashion because we have a bridal dress on the cover. But not everyone realized we talk about decorating and entertainment as well. Marriage is a lot more than the ceremony.”
One of Mrs. Tober’s most prescient quotes captures the scope: “When people marry, other people work. A wedding brings economic health… It is a great banquet from which everyone can derive a living. It makes enormous economic sense to me.”
Indeed, in her personal life, marriage has had a near-perpetual presence. Tober has been married three times, but it’s impossible to chat with Mrs. Tober without a mention of her late husband of 49 years, Donald Tober, who died in early 2021 amid a challenging diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease. Over the course of their long marriage, while Donald found success leading Sugar Foods Corporation, the couple rose to the top of the New York City philanthropic scene; becoming increasingly involved in the intersection of craftsmanship and art.
It’s on this topic that Mrs. Tober becomes particularly enthusiastic, demonstrating her passion for craft in real time. She tells me about a few details of the office we’re sitting in. A pair of columns: “Those are tribute to the Isabel O’Neil school. That’s not pore-free concrete. They’re painted.”
They’re truly remarkable, impressing a sense of heft and realism that feels increasingly rare. The walls and molding: “It’s paint behind you. It’s not Cinnabar. That’s paint. The artist was here for six months painting and sanding and painting and sanding and painting until he had it the way he wanted.” She finishes it off with a charming bonus, the classic extra detail: “Polish guy; a fabulous guy.” Without missing a beat, “Come to the living room”. The living room is vast and painted, of course, with commentary on every detail. She describes everything with a juvenile sense of giddy. “We took everything out and started over. We redid it.”
A some point, Mrs. Tober becomes a bit woeful. “You see how they decorate now. I know whoever buys this will paint it white. People shouldn’t do that!”
After his passing, Mrs. Tober turned Mr. Tobers’s bedroom into a well-preserved memorial space, packed with notes of appreciation, condolences, and a variety of ephemera and photos of the loved man. “I still visit him. I still talk to him. We did everything together.”
Mrs. Tober, now 87, hasn’t slowed down by any measure. If anything, she’s more active than ever, having treated her staff to a holiday in Abu Dhabi (“I’ve never seen anything like it.”) and returning to New York City in the middle of the crowded Spring social season. “Mrs. Tober does have an engagement this evening, we’re going to have to get ready.”
An early woman in the male-dominated world of advertising and magazine editing, Mrs. Tober has served on the Boards of a number of women’s oriented organizations including the Women’s Forum and the Women’s Leadership Initiative at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Just recently, Play for Pink, the Breast Cancer research initiative founded by Evelyn Lauder (herself a breast cancer patient), is honored the philanthropist for her contributions to the cause.
Her all-female staff supports the efforts of her venture capital fund, Acronym, Inc., which focus on art-related projects including The Guild Publishing Company, Inc., publishers of The Sourcebook for Architectural and Interior, and CODAworx, a global online hub for commissioned artwork where Mrs. Tober serves on the Advisory Board.
A true patron of the arts, Mrs. Tober has collected works by established as well as emerging artists such as Dale Chihuly, Bernar Venet, Boaz Vaadia, Michelle Oka Doner, Roy Lichtenstein, Tom Otterness, Olga de Amaral, William Morris, Betty Woodman, Lino Tagliapietra, and more. Her collection is defined by the practice and technique of the creation itself; an obsession with the how of the work.
Currently, Barbara Tober serves as Chairman Emerita at the Museum of Arts and Design, where she was Chairman of the Board of Trustees for 15 years, critically seeing the completion of the new museum building, now sited at the southern curve of Columbus Circle. Mrs. Tober now heads the Museum’s International Council and Education Committee and remains an active member of the Amati group at the Metropolitan Museum, New York City Ballet, Lincoln Center, The Metropolitan Opera, and New York Philharmonic.
Her enthusiasm for the beauty of the natural world, first instilled as a young girl in the hills and farms of New Jersey, continues with her support of the Central Park Conservancy, Friends of Wethersfield organization, and the Duchess Land Conservancy. She maintains Yellow Frame Farm in Millbrook, New York, a working farm where she’s able to indulge her green thumb.
Purchase Barbara Tober’s book, The Bride: A Celebration here. Read Ron Alexander’s 1992 New York Times story on Barbara Tober here.