Condé Nast, The Man and his Empire

by Susan Ronald,

  • St Martin’s Press, 2019
  • ISBN: 9781250180025
  • RRP $44.99

Reviewed by Shelley Gare

Condé Nast, the New York magazine mogul who gave us Vogue, Vanity Fair, House & Garden and Glamour, elite titles that dominated the twentieth century, was sometimes a tightwad “in true millionaire tradition” as the racy and smart journalist Helen Lawrenson put it in a memoir.

By 1925 Nast was very rich indeed, a multi-millionaire courtesy of his sewing patterns company, his purchase and successful revamp of Vogue, and his printing company, Condé Nast Press. He had a 30-room penthouse at 1040 Park Avenue with a Chinese Chippendale ballroom and ten entertaining rooms on the roof for his famous parties. He was intellectually prestigious, considered to be on the cutting edge, and an icon of the smart set, a man who thought nothing of buying hundreds of gardenias to perfume the air for his guests

Still.

Figures and profits were his fixation and talent and this was not a man to waste money on anything he considered unimportant or unnecessary. Lawrenson had first met him in December 1931, when he interviewed her for a job at Vanity Fair. “He seldom wore a hat because he hated to tip hatcheck girls,” Lawrenson, who became his lover, commented of his spending habits. She also confided that after one dinner, where he had left a 50 cent tip, she had slipped back to the table and left a fiver.

There were other contradictions. He might have been famed for his entertaining prowess but, according to Lawrenson, the host had all the “vivacity of a stuffed moosehead”. Turn the page of Lawrenson’s memoir though and – surprise! – she describes Nast as a man who loved women, and every orifice of them, and once lifted up her skirt in a taxi-cab “removed his pince-nez glasses, and holding them aloft, proceeded to go down on me. Far from arousing any passion, all it aroused was a hysterical desire to giggle and the fervent hope that we wouldn’t go over any bumps in the street”.

Lawrenson’s Condé Nast is a puzzle but one who charms and delights and who has his secrets and pathos. (By the time, he met Lawrenson, he had had prostate surgery, not a lot of fun back in those days, and it had helped destroy his second marriage. Hence, especially given his love of beautiful women, his interest in oral sex.)

The Nast who emerges from Susan Ronald’s new and impressively packaged hardback is someone-else altogether. Ronald has ploughed into archives and libraries and 60 books, according to her bibliography, including Lawrenson’s memoir,  Stranger at the Party, where I found the above anecdotes, but when I read Ronald’s painstakingly put together biography, all I could think of was that verse by American William Hughes Mearns:

 “Yesterday, upon the stair,

I met a man who wasn’t there!

He wasn’t there again today,

Oh how I wish he’d go away.”

In Ronald’s biography, the main character never appears as more than a thin, black and white character who is hard to warm to or understand. I turned each page, hoping to find rich anecdotes galore, insights into Nast, insider glimpses of a period in American journalism and high society life that still seems the height of creativity and glamour, until by page 124, I realised I was on a fool’s errand.

It’s not that the alluring names and adventures and key events aren’t all there, exhaustively covered and exhaustingly so at times. It’s just that Ronald so often makes them dull.

At one stage, Lawrenson sums up Nast’s character like this: “He was a kind, gentle, tolerant man. He had no hubris, no dishonest tricks, no vanity, and there was nothing mean, cruel, violent, vicious or bitchy about him. He was never a poseur in any way (when named one of the Ten Best Dressed Men, he said to me, ‘Shows you how silly it is. I’ve worn this same dinner jacket for ten years’).”

Ronald’s own attempt at a summation early, on page 79, is lengthier and less memorable: “While he already had the reputation of an urbane, socially irreproachable – at times unapproachable – man, he was not considered warm, or humorous. That was due to his restraint and shyness … Condé was sane, reasonable, fair, and hardworking. He loathed pretense and humbug. He loved simple pleasures like funfairs, ice cream …”

Well before the book’s end, I started longing for signs of Nast’s approaching death – which came on 19 September 1942 – and that must be about the worst thing one can write of a biography.

Lawrenson provided a clue to the difficulties Ronald might have faced when she also included this cameo: “’You actually knew Condé Nast?!’ an American woman said to me recently in an awed tone. ‘He must have been a fascinating man.’ Condé fascinating? No, he wasn’t. It isn’t a term one would ever have applied to him …”

Nevertheless, Lawrenson  makes him fascinating in her reminiscence, just in the detail and spark she supplies and, of course, his achievements and drive were fascinating.

Nast, born on March 26, 1873, in New York, had grown up close to his mother, Esther. His father, William Nast, the son of a wealthy and deeply religious Methodist from Cinncinnati, Ohio, was a rapscallion from an early age. Having married an heiress – Esther belonged to the cultured French family, Benoist, and her father had opened the first private bank in St Louis – he soon headed to Europe, leaving his wife and four young children behind for 13 years. Esther moved back to her childhood home of St Louis. Ronald writes: “His son Condé had grown up with an overripe sense of right and wrong, a sense of duty, abiding admiration for his mother, and a steely will not to follow in the footsteps of Mr Disappoint.”

After studying at Georgetown University in Washington, Nast showed early commercial skill when he helped out the printer’s firm in which his family had invested $US2000 (about $60,000 now). He came up with the idea of selling advertising to exhibitors for display in the annual St Louis Exhibition and it worked. Then a college friend Robert J. Collier asked him to join him in re-invigorating his family’s weekly, Collier’s Weekly. Nast demonstrated his skills again, with advertising revenue increasing in four years from $5500 a year to a million, according to Edna Woolman Chase in her own memoir, Always in Vogue. By now, Nast was on a salary not far short of the US president’s, $40,000.

It was time to back his instincts. Now married – to a socially prominent, “old money” heiress, naturally – he invested in the Home Pattern Company in 1904 and three years later left Collier’s. Patterns were given away for free by department stores and sellers of fabric but Nast realised that fashion news on the patterns should let him sell space to advertisers. He also introduced a radical concept: patterns in different sizes and carefully proportioned.

Nast recognised that there was a New Woman out there. She smoked, bicycled, wanted gender equality and even worked; in the 1890s, some 250,000 women were the main breadwinners in their family. The sewing machine was widely advertised and with European haute couture coming to the US, but at a high price, and with more labour saving appliances like vacuum cleaners and washing machines, women were encouraged to think they would have more time to whip up their own fashionable clothes.

Within three years this time, Nast’s pattern company’s annual advertising revenues had gone from $19,000 to $400,000.

Meanwhile he was eyeing off another acquisition, Vogue, then a weekly devoted to society and fashion. Nast saw its potential and when its founder, Arthur Baldwin Turnure, died in 1906 he swooped.

Nast now put to use an idea he had introduced at Collier’s, a strategy that would shape the direction of the Condé Nast Company and its magazines. This was to aim not for a bigger and bigger circulation, but to target a particular group – those with money and class – and then, once captured, to offer them up to the advertisers of luxury goods like pianos, expensive motor cars, jewellery, yachts and cruises, who, up until then, had had little choice but to use mass market journals, which was financially inefficient.

Nast was going to give them a class magazine that appealed to those with the money to spend. He was ruthless. In his words, “the publisher, the editor, the advertising manager and the circulation man must conspire not only to get all their readers from one particular class but rigorously to exclude all others” (Nast’s italics).

Readers would know what to expect not just of the editorial but of the advertising. And thus, Nast changed the direction and business model of magazines.

He also continued with another Collier’s strategy where he had encouraged the commissioning of such writing talents as Rudyard Kipling, Winston Churchill, Jack London, Edith Wharton and P. G. Wodehouse.

He aimed for the best in every field. Over the decades, Nast’s Vogue and Vanity Fair would become renowned for their hiring of staff like editor Clare Boothe Brokaw (later Luce), writers Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Paul Gallico, Helen Brown Norden (Lawrenson) and Aldous Huxley (who was near-sighted and once sat on the new hat of British Vogue’s editor), the photographer Edward Steichen and art director Alexander Liberman, and for commissioning, contracting and/or promoting the talents of each period like Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Constatin Brancusi, Cecil Beaton, Horst, Man Ray, Georg Grosz, Stephen Leacock, Gertrude Stein, Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, George Jean Nathan and Thomas Mann.

A young mail clerk, Ruby Stevens, was sacked by Chase for turning cartwheels in the corridor; she made her way to Hollywood and emerged as Barbara Stanwyck.

Nast’s business motto, writes Ronald, was “Spend More Make More”.

He added House & Garden to his titles in 1913, and created Glamour in 1939 but Vogue was the mother ship. Nast had inherited Edna Woolman Chase as a junior staffer when he purchased Vogue in 1909 and she became his formidable Vogue editor-in-chief – and then editor-in-chief of the French and British editions, started in 1916 and 1920 respectively (a German Vogue launched in 1928 but soon closed) – and reigned until 1952.

Together, Chase and Nast continued to build Vogue into the world’s pre-eminent fashion magazine, a journal also meant for high society and those hoping to break into it,  while the urbane Boston-born Brahmin Frank Crowninshield relaunched Nast’s other new title, Vanity Fair, in 1914 and set out to chronicle the arts, literature, parties, sports, theatre and humour in a style that was slick and modern. He assured his boss that the magazine would be “read by the people you [Nast] meet at lunches and dinners”.

Crowninshield’s first hires were the tart Parker as a writer and humourist Benchley as managing editor. They then became an irrepressible trio with freshly hired drama critic Robert Sherwood. The latter stood over two metres tall and begged his new colleagues to accompany him on the street so he wouldn’t be teased by a band of midgets from the nearby Hippodrome.

In 1915, Vanity Fair, “published the most advertising inches of any American magazine” according to Ben Yagoda in About Town, his chronicle of The New Yorker (a magazine which was finally purchased and brought into the Nast stable in 1985, 43 years after Nast’s death). And Vogue, which had had a circulation of 14,000 when Nast bought it in 1909, was selling close to 130,000 by 1925.

But it wasn’t all gardenias and champagne.

Dorothy Parker and Robert Sherwood proved so unruly at Vanity Fair that they had to be let go, and Benchley, feeling sadly responsible as managing editor, resigned too.

In the 1930s, a combination of a devotion to fashion and precious little else at Vogue and the appointment of the conservative Clare Boothe Brokaw as managing editor at Vanity Fair led to some serious blunders in editorial decision-making. In June 1932, just before Hitler seized power in Germany in January 1933, Vanity Fair published an article to coincide with the Democratic primary titled “Wanted: A Dictator!”. In the same year, Vogue lavished praise on Mussolini’s new Rome: “a Rome rescued by Mussolini from glorious ruins to glorious life…” Three years later, in 1936, Vogue ran a breathless and admiring feature on Hitler’s country retreat in Berchtesgaden. Seven months on, as Ronald notes, Guernica in Spain “was levelled by Hitler’s Luftwaffe and Mussolini’s Avazione Legionaria”. (Vanity Fair closed in 1936; it was relaunched in 1983.)

Harold Ross’s The New Yorker began to steal readers in the 1930s and Arnold Gingrich’s Esquire (launched 1933) took not just readers but menswear advertisers.

As the Depression, took hold and Nast continued with his lavish parties, Lawrenson writes “… there were 12 million unemployed in the country, and there were riots and hunger marches throughout the land, although not a mention of these dreary events dimmed the lustre of those gay and amusing people dancing in the penthouse… May I give you a lift in my tumbr

But the crash of October 24, 1929, had also hit Nast. He kept up appearances but he had been encouraged by a couple of financial schemers, William Catchings and Harrison Williams, to invest most of his wealth in Wall Street and, worse, to take out a two million dollar loan in early 1929 and invest the lot in the about-to-be-issued stock of the new Goldman Sachs Trading Corporation. Catchings and Williams would eventually be fined for fraud and it took a now heavily indebted Nast a tense few years before he found a silent buyer in Britain’s Lord Camrose, who had his own magazine empire. Nast was thus able to save his company from being bought by an American competitor, like William Randolph Hearst.

Hearst had also caused problems when he pinched the dazzling and stylish Carmel Snow, Vogue’s editor, to be fashion editor of the rival Harper’s Bazaar though Snow had always protested she’d never defect to Hearst. Nast had become close to Snow whom he regarded as family and he was blindsided by her move and an offer which she attempted to explain away as just “Irish luck”. Nast was so distressed he got drunk for the first time in his life, but he didn’t let Snow get away with her blithe explanation.

His eventual letter to her is lethal, a case study in how to confront treachery. He wrote: “There does not often arise, in the management of a business, a tie of honour so binding as that which existed between you and me… Had you broken your word in financial circles as you did with me, you would never again have been engaged by a reputable institution in Wall Street … you lacked the courage or candour to face me openly …” He ended by refusing her message of good will: “No, you cannot count on either my friendship or my respect.”

If Ronald had put together her biography only with such telling anecdotes and material, told in the appropriately human way, her book would have come alive. But presumably cognizant of her failure to grasp hold of Nast – and for all I know, a contract that stipulated a certain word length for her book – this biography is stuffed with great wodges of material on related topics. There are lengthy and often overly detailed digressions when key characters are introduced. Historical events, like the growth of Parisian couture, the two world wars, the 1909 strike by garment workers for more money, the 1929 crash, and the Bloomsbury set, are pored over but often ploddingly.

As I read on, it got to the point, rather like listening to a pompous raconteur clearing his or her throat to begin yet another long-winded story, that I started to sense, with sinking heart, the digression ahead. As for Ronald’s writing style, she doesn’t even seem able to make best use of her source material where other writers have already done the work.

Here is Chase on the time Nast, at 35 and earning his extraordinarily high salary from Collier’s decided to quit. His friend Robert “urged him to stay. ‘You know perfectly well, Condé,’ he said, ‘nobody else is going to pay you that much money. You’re not worth it. I give it to you because I want you around and I like to see people happy.’ Condé assented good-humouredly. ‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘I’m not worth forty thousand of your money and I know it. I’m going out to see if I can’t make more than that.’”

Ronald reduces this exchange to this lump.

“Rob Collier couldn’t believe his ears when Condé told him. ‘You know perfectly well, Condé,’ he said, ‘no-one else is going to pay you that much money. You’re not worth it.’ Condé amiably agreed. He wasn’t going to go out and get another job. ‘I’m going out to see if I can’t make more than that,’ he replied.”

Similarly, Lawrenson, sending up the society women who attended Nast’s parties, referred to them speaking in “high, thin, cold-silk voices” which Ronald, citing her, pedals down to the far more prosaic “high, cold-as-ice voices”.

Ronald’s book might be a warning to anyone contemplating a similar work of non-fiction where there aren’t any living interviewees. But then, again, there are a ton of historic biographies where sources like archives, letters, contemporaneous accounts, and earlier books are all that’s available and yet these works are alive, with compelling narratives.

The British author Antonia Fraser pioneered an entire new historical genre with her first biography of Mary, Queen of Scots. She learned how to do it when her boss at Weidenfeld asked her, according to The Guardian, to retell the story of King Arthur. “So she went to the British museum and did a 70,000-word book in six weeks. It’s still in print…” Fraser, however, was attuned to, and acute to, the human spirit – and the importance of compelling narrative.

I’m not a fan of writing reviews of books that aren’t up to scratch, given it gives them exposure, but I’m making an exception this time because, at $45, I want to save people from making an expensive mistake. After all, who would believe that anyone could turn such caviar into porridge? Not me for a start. Bewitched by the subject, and the hardback’s glamorous presentation, I had done a quick flick through and then happily handed over a $50 note. It was only on a long train trip that I realised I didn’t have a chocolate box of a book in my hands but something that came close to a cellophane bag of indigestible hard lollies.

If journalism and magazines are your work or your interest, buy this as a handy text book for it’s true that everything is covered. But if you want a good and insightful read, go on Abe Books and see if you can find a copy of either Chase’s Always in Vogue (first published in 1954 and what a delight it was to read someone casually remembering what they were doing in 1895) or Lawrenson’s Stranger at the Party (1972).

They will almost certainly be cheaper and a lot more fun.

Shelley Gare is an Australian journalist and author whose blog “Hel-lo?” appear each month on The Sydney Institute website at https://thesydneyinstitute.com.au/hel-lo/