Mary Dunn, PEOPLE Editor Credited with Creating Sexiest Man Alive, Has Died

She was one of the magazine’s original staffers when it was launched in 1974

Mary Dunn, a photo editor and founding staff member of PEOPLE who helped start the magazine’s famous Sexiest Man Alive franchise, died on July 5 at the age of 76.

The news was first reported by the Camden, South Carolina newspaper Chronicle-Independent,

Dunn was a PEOPLE photo editor when the magazine launched its first ever issue on March 4, 1974.

“Her role as picture editor for the magazine was crucial to its success,” according to the Chronicle-Independent obituary. “With her colleagues in the photo department, she attracted the world’s best photographers and practically invented a unique style of story-telling in black and white photography (and later color). She was smart, tough, funny, creative, a good negotiator, worthy of respect and trust, and serious when she had to be. She had fresh ideas for photos even after 14 shoots with Farrah Fawcett. She had the patience and knowledge to get a good cover out of difficult subjects.”

Dunn played a pivotal role in the development of PEOPLE’s annual and popular Sexiest Man Alive issue, which began in the mid-1980s. One day, according to former PEOPLE editor Jess Cagle, a group of the magazine’s staffers were sitting around looking at photos, namely images of an emerging star named Mel Gibson.

“Mary Dunn, who was this fantastic, genteel, Southern photo editor, said, ‘Oh my Gosh, he is the sexiest man alive,’ when she looked at a photo of Mel,” Cagle recalled. “And that moniker stuck.”

Beginning with Gibson’s appearance on the cover in 1985, the Sexiest Man Alive issue has been a key part of the magazine’s identity.

Born and raised in Camden, South Carolina, Dunn was accepted into Radcliffe College in 1964 but attended Sweet Briar College in Virginia at the insistence of her father. According to her obituary, she majored in military and diplomatic history and participated in several theatrical productions.

Upon graduation from Sweet Briar, she moved to New York City to work at NBC as an ad trafficker — a role that led to her meeting her future husband, Gray Advertising executive Toby Dunn. The couple’s marriage lasted 53 years.

Dunn left NBC to work as a picture researcher at time magazine before moving on to PEOPLE. She served there until 1994, when she became photography director for Entertainment Weekly.

“Her contribution was inestimable,” continued the Chronicle-Independent obituary, “In addition to dedicating the last decade of her 30-year Time Inc. career to Entertainment Weekly, Mary covered Olympics ceremonies in Lake Placid and Tokyo. Upon her retirement, Jess Cagle, EW’s then-editorial director, described her as an elegant, southern spitfire who spoke her mind freely.”

Following her retirement, Dunn, who suffered a brain aneurysm in 1999, spent most of her time in New York City and traveled. She is survived by her husband, a daughter, two sisters and three grand step-children.

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