THE MAN WHO WAS VOGUE: The Life and Times of CondÉ Nast by Caroline Seebohm

THE MAN WHO WAS VOGUE: The Life and Times of CondÉ Nast

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KIRKUS REVIEW

CondÉ Nast (1873-1942), the publisher of gogue, Vanity Fair, and House & Garden, is remembered for his genius at marketing high-toned magazines and for his fabulous parties; to the women he pursued, he was a lovable rouÉ. But credit for the magazines themselves has largely gone to Vogue editor Edna Woolman Chase and Vanity Fair's legendary Frank Crowninshield. Seebohm, a writer for CondÉ Nast (and other) publications, does succeed in demonstrating that Nast had a lot to do with the makeup of Vogue, in particular. As a personal portrait, however, the book is strained and patchy; as a story of the haut monde, devoid of wit or style. (The nearest approximation to tone is an occasional superciliousness: e.g., ""that tiresome European engagement"" for World War I.) CondÉ Nast was raised in St. Louis on his well-to-do French Catholic mother's ""dwindling fortune"" (his ""Protestant reprobate father"" having decamped for Paris when CondÉ was three). Seebohm thus sees him, thematically, as a Gatsby--and he did like to think of himself as an upstart Midwesterner. Otherwise, it looks not-so-simple. Nast married a chic socialite, and got into the Social Register. Gadded with Crowninshield, and got into the right clubs. Later loved (and would have married) two vivacious beauties, singer Grace Moore and writer Helen Lawrenson. Did marry, briefly, a charmer some 40 years his junior. Along the way he lived for six years with Crowninshield--but there was probably (after much palaver) no ""sexual connection."" Save for some poignant glimpses of the reluctantly aging Nast, what we see of him here is indistinct and inconclusive; his own occasional words--a forthright repudiation of a Cecil Beaton anti-Semitic prank, an exquisitely tactful gift to E. W. Chase--suggest more steel and more sensitivity. On the professional side, Seebohm weakens her case by claiming too much. Nast was no ""modest Medici"": art per so didn't interest him, only what illustrators and photographers could do for women's fashions. Much of what Crowninshield put into Vanity Fair baffled and riled him. But he did understand and impressively foster the potential of Edward Steichen, for one; his emphasis on legibility--""the imparting of fashion information. . . as clearly and efficiently as possible""--is graphically evident in critiques of Vogue covers. Earlier on, Seebohm ticks off the marketing coups: the concept of limitedcirculation ""class"" magazines; the ""clever corollary"" of attracting readers who aspired to belong to that class; the parallel English, French, and (fleetingly) other Vogues. Lastly, she traces the transformation of Glamour from a Hollywood to a young-careerist orientation--and shows Nast supporting ""crowded pages."" This does not, however, make him the equal of Hearst as an influence--though the long, fierce Vogue-Harper's Bazaar rivalry gives the book its snappiest pages. When Vanity Fair folds, during the Depression, Seebohm speaks of its audience being ""unprovided for""; her last sentence heralds its imminent rebirth: ""CondÉ Nast's spirit lives."" Whatever purpose the book may serve as a fanfare, it has little entertainment or intellectual value. But Seebohm is good on Nast the perfectionist party-giver and magazine-stylist.

Pub Date: May 26th, 1982
Publisher: Viking