Susan Alai, a longtime lifestyle editor who worked at Women’s Wear Daily as a reporter, associate fashion editor and assistant city editor in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, died Tuesday at Morristown Medical Center. She was 70 years old.
Alai died after a long battle with multiple sclerosis, according to her husband, Frank.
Known as a calm presence in the newsroom, Alai was a gifted writer with a highly professional work ethic.
Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, Alai graduated from Seton Hall University in 1974 with a Bachelor of Arts in English and Journalism. She started her career at the Dover Advance in New Jersey, covering Morris County government before landing at Fairchild Publications, where she worked at Footwear News, Home Furnishings Daily and then WWD and W.
During her decade-long career at WWD, Alai was a reporter, associate fashion editor and assistant city news editor, straddling both the fashion and news sides with equal finesse. Her stories included those on ILGWU contracts, Mohan Murjani, Irving Spitalnick, and discounting in status jeans, while she also profiled Mel Gibson in 1987 for WWD, and interviewed Diane von Furstenberg for a story entitled, “Fashion’s Shy Di: DVF Through the Ages,” for the October 1985 issue of W.
Alai also interviewed Faye Dunaway, Ralph Lauren and Yves Saint Laurent for WWD, traveled to the Caribbean and St. Barths to write features, profiled Prince Albert in Monaco for W magazine, did an interview with Mr. and Mrs. Duka (John Duka and Kezia Keeble) a week after their wedding, and conducted the last interview with Jacob K. Javits before his death. Alai would travel frequently to Europe to cover the collections.
Ben Brantley, the former chief theater critic of The New York Times, who earlier worked at WWD, recalled the fun they used to have when they covered the collections together in Europe.
“Susan was a remarkable combination of sanity and creativity. As a fashion editor, who had cut her teeth as a business reporter, she kept a level head and a clear eye in the midst of a world populated by people of extravagant eccentricities and matching temperaments. When we covered the European collections together, she was a heaven-sent colleague, who kept an amused distance during a season that had its share of off-the-runway melodrama and instances of bad behavior. We devised pet names and ditties to describe some of the monsters we were dealing with and even had our own theme song for that season, ‘Fashion Editor,’ set to the tune of ‘Private Dancer’; “‘All the clothes come in these places/And the clothes all look the same,’” Brantley said.
“She brought that combination of careful observation and a big-picture sense of humor to the restaurant reviews she did with Lorna Koski under the noms de plume of Hansel & Gretel. Her brightness never faded, even after she had become ill,” he added.
Her colleagues recalled her even temper and calmness in the newsroom, along with her professional work ethic.
“Susan was one of the those people you’re glad to have around in what often was a chaotic newsroom. She was calm and dependable and she did her job without a whole lot of drama,” said Mort Sheinman, retired managing editor of WWD.
Edward Nardoza, retired editor in chief of WWD, said Alai preceded him at WWD, so although he never worked with her directly, he knew her and her work.
“She was a smart and tough newsperson who rose to a senior editor’s rank in a highly charged and highly competitive newsroom. And it was a time when there were few women from news near the top of the masthead,” Nardoza said.
Her friend, Lisa Anderson, a retired journalist who worked with Alai at WWD, recalled her insatiable sense of curiosity.
“Susan was one of the most versatile writers and journalists I’ve ever known with an indefatigable sense of curiosity about everything from fashion to food to art and culture. She never backed down from a challenge and most vividly in her battle with multiple sclerosis,” Anderson said.
Bridget Foley, former executive editor of WWD, recalled Wednesday that when she first arrived at WWD, Alai was covering designer sportswear.
“She was young but had a commanding presence as a reporter. At the time, WWD was split between news and fashion, and some editors had a ‘never the twain’ attitude. Not Susan. From the start, she was welcoming, helpful and highly collaborative. She was also whip smart and very funny. While ultra serious about her role at the paper and her responsibility as a reporter, she also appreciated the fun and amusement she found in the industry, and in the Fairchild of that time, which was a wonderful, often wacky place,” Foley said.
Bobbi Queen, a former WWD fashion editor who worked with Alai, added, “She really sparkled with warmth and a gentle, but sharp wit.”
After leaving WWD, Alai joined Saks Fifth Avenue as copy chief, where she was responsible for corporate letters, in-store signage and fashion editorials for Folio, the direct mail catalogue. She also worked with the creative director and senior vice president of advertising to set the tone and look of the advertising. Alai also did speech writing for the president and chairman of Saks Fifth Avenue.
She later worked at Bergdorf Goodman and did contract writing for Giorgio Armani and Gianni Versace.
She left the fashion world to start a family and be closer to her home in Morristown, New Jersey.
Alai later spent nearly 12 years at The Star-Ledger, where she was the lifestyle editor in charge of two weekly sections: Savor (food) and Home & Garden. She was a restaurant reviewer and on-air personality for The Star-Ledger’s weekly four-minute food segment on News 12 New Jersey. She worked with chefs Anthony Bourdain, Mario Batali and Sarah Mueller. After taking a 2008 buyout at the Ledger, she freelanced for such newspapers as The New York Times Home & Garden section, Parsippany Patch, where she wrote a weekly food column, and AOL.com.
According to her daughter Julia Healey, her mother was passionate about cooking, skiing, running, Pilates, yoga and music, and was a voracious reader. She also loved her three dachshunds.
Alai, who had been battling multiple sclerosis since 2007, served on the Community Health Advisory Board for Morristown Memorial Hospital.
“My mother was one of the strongest people I’ve had the privilege of knowing. She was a force to be reckoned with and truly my hero,” Healey said.
Frank Alai added, “Susan was strong, courageous, fun-loving and kind. She never sought confrontation but if confrontation came her way, someone was in for a big surprise.”
In addition to her husband and daughter, Alai is survived by her mother, Victoria (Peggy) Sullivan; a sister, Margaret Coe; brothers Michael Sullivan and Jimmy Sullivan; a son-in-law Michael Healey, and numerous cousins. A celebration gala of her life is being planned for May.