Vanity Fair: The Early Years (1914–1936)
Once upon a time, before the income tax, the Great War, and Prohibition, Mr. Condé Nast bought a magazine called Dress, a potential rival to his four-year-old Vogue. A few months later, in 1913, he paid $3,000 for a musty British social, literary, and political review titled Vanity Fair, named after both the sinful place in John Bunyan's 17th-century allegory The Pilgrim's Progress and William Makepeace Thackeray's 19th-century satirical novel. Crossbreeding his two acquisitions, Nast created Dress and Vanity Fair, a hydra-headed flop. To salvage the situation, Nast sought advice from the most cultivated, elegant, and endearing man in publishing, if not Manhattan, Frank Crowninshield.
The upper-crust aesthete—who, earlier the same year, had helped organize the landmark Armory Show, a succés de scandale which introduced Cubism to the American public—offered a remarkably simple solution. "Your magazine should cover the things people talk about," Crowninshield told Mr. Nast. "Parties, the arts, sports, theatre, humor, and so forth." Nast at once anointed Crowninshield editor, and agreeing to ditch the first half of the old title, the publishing tycoon launched Vanity Fair in January 1914. In his first editor's letter that March, Crowninshield confidently proclaimed that "young men and young women, full of courage, originality, and genius, are everywhere to be met with."
Miraculously, geniuses did materialize in "Crownie"'s offices with alarming frequency. Dorothy Parker, who happened to be toiling at Vanity Fair as a caption writer, sold her first poem to the magazine. Robert Benchley, setting off from the Harvard Lampoon, also wound up at Crownie's silver-leafed door. At one point, the humorist was even managing editor—but then, so were the clever brunette Helen Brown Norden (Condé Nast's mistress), as well as her blonde antithesis, Clare Boothe Brokaw, who grabbed the post from her jilted lover, Donald Freeman, just after his death in a car wreck. And to varying degrees Crowninshield discovered or championed e. e. cummings, Walter Winchell, Noël Coward, Edmund Wilson, P. G. Wodehouse, Alexander Woollcott, Cecil Beaton, Edward Steichen, George Hoyningen-Huene, and Man Ray. Generously assuming that his 90,000 readers already shared his own avant-garde tastes, in 1917 Crownie ran a poem by Gertrude Stein, and he routinely reproduced works by Matisse, Maillol, and Picasso long before any mainstream American magazine dared—and over Nast's heated objections.
From 1921 to 1927, Nast and Crowninshield actually roomed together in a Park Avenue duplex—"I suppose people thought we were fairies," the publisher said—a situation providing the editor with posher accommodations than he could otherwise have afforded, and his boss with access to Crowninshield's far-flung and comprehensive social connections. Omnivorously embracing everyone from Harry Houdini and Gypsy Rose Lee to Mrs. Astor and the "rich as mud" Mrs. Harry Whitney, Crownie was, in fact, memorialized in his 1947 New York Times obituary as "one of the true founders of cafe society." And it is very much this composite, cosmopolitan, glittering universe that V.F. defined, tweaked, mirrored, and celebrated in its irreverent, sophisticated pages.
The magazine's jaunty ethos of mixing, matching, and homogenizing personalities from different classes, races, and sexes (as long as they were brilliant, beautiful, rich, or talented) was nowhere better expressed than in illustrator Miguel Covarrubias's "Impossible Interviews," imaginary pairings of such unlikely duos as Greta Garbo and Calvin Coolidge. Though V.F. elevated all of its elect to the same celestial plane, once apotheosized, nobody was sacred. Thus the glossy mirthfully printed humbling beach shots of George Bernard Shaw and Otto Kahn, and in 1918 it enshrined Henry James in its Hall of Fame, only to list him five years later among "The Ten Dullest Authors."
What, then, killed Vanity Fair, dead at 22 in the year 1936? A victim of the Depression, the magazine lost advertisers—whose existence Crowninshield had always ignored anyway. But Vanity Fair had also fallen out of sync with the times. By the 30s, with the economy and Fascism at the forefront of readers' minds, subscribers gravitated more to no-nonsense news coverage than to arch V.F. pictorials such as "Who's Zoo?," which likened Mussolini's face to a monkey's. Nast contemplated emasculating Vanity Fair by turning it into a magazine called Beauty. But instead he folded it, along with Crowninshield, into Vogue. How bewildered the erudite Crownie would be to learn that, nine decades after his installation as editor—and some 20 years after Vanity Fair's resurrection into its current incarnation—today's reading public is less familiar with Bunyan and Thackeray than with the periodical that once promised to "ignite a dinner party at fifty yards."
by Amy Fine Collins,
a Vanity Fair special correspondent, helps supervise the annual International Best-Dressed List. Her book The God of Driving tracks her adventures behind the wheel.
Источник публикации: Vanity Fair