the demise of vanity fair -- 3/13/20

Today's selection -- from Condé Nast by Susan Ronald. In the 1930s, Vanity Fair magazine ceased publication under managing editor Clare Brokaw, later the wife of Henry Luce and a congresswoman and U.S. ambassador better known as Clare Boothe Luce. Vanity Fair had always been a less-profitable member of the Condé Nast offerings (which included its flagship Vogue), and against competition from The New Yorker and the newly arrived Esquire magazine, it went under:

"Articles appearing in the magazine in those days reflected the devil-may-care attitude of its talent. Vanity Fair called itself 'The Kaleidoscopic Review of Modern Life.' After an introduction from 'THE EDITOR'S UNEASY CHAIR,' works by artists and writers were found ranging from 'From the World of Ideas,' 'In and About the Theatre,' 'Concerning the Cinema,' 'The World of Art,' 'Liter­ary Hors d'Oeuvres,' 'Satirical Sketches,' 'Sports and Games,' and everyone's favorite catchall, 'Miscellaneous.' Illustrated 'Im­possible Interviews,' like those between Albert Einstein and Amer­ica's first superstar astrologer, Evangeline Adams, or Greta Garbo and Calvin Coolidge, peppered its pages. There were pieces as var­ied as 'Marseilles: Chicago of the Latin World,' by Paul Morand, and 'Not on Your Tin-Type,' by Helen Brown Norden, with a cap­tion 'Five highly unlikely historical situations by one who is sick of the same old headlines,' including 'J. P. Morgan becomes a soapbox orator' and the one that nearly caused an international incident, Emperor Hirohito dragging a coolie cart and carrying a scroll, captioned 'Japan's Emperor gets the Nobel Peace Prize -- for invading Manchuria.' There was a slap on the wrist for that one. It was one thing to poke fun at American bankers, quite another to provoke a foreign power that was already seen as belligerent.

"The question might well be asked: How did Clare Brokaw think she could improve on such a good thing? Vanity Fair was always the poor relation in terms of profitability. When Condé suggested looking at making it a weekly, like The New Yorker, she complained to her diary that while she favored such a challenge, 'So near are we to going on the rocks' that it might sink the very boat they were trying to save.

Portrait of Clare Boothe Brokaw

"Having clawed her way to the position of managing editor that she had been after for two years, Clare was already moving on. She craved political power even more, and so politics rose to prom­inence, even on Vanity Fair's covers. Since Frank was one for im­mediately turning away from the front pages of newspapers to the crosswords, bridge commentaries, or arts sections, it was an easy feat. It was made simpler, too, because Condé disliked President Roosevelt's New Deal. Lampooning FDR with her pet Washing­ton insiders became a hallmark of Clare's tenure as the title's man­aging editor. From September 1932 until December 1933, eleven Vanity Fair covers were devoted to political cartoons about vari­ous aspects of the political failures of Roosevelt's first term in of­fice. February 1934's cover had FDR riding a bucking bronco in the shape of the United States. The March issue showed him as an eminence grise masterminding the movers and shakers of the nation -- depicted in neon green. Clare Brokaw was showing and voicing her strong anti-FDR bias through Vanity Fair, with Condé's tacit approval. Frank, meanwhile, collected more Afri­can masks.

"Given that Roosevelt's popularity from his first term had in­creased to an election landslide in his second term -- 523 elec­toral votes to Alf Landon's 8 -- Vanity Fair's politics was alienating a goodly portion of newsstand readers, and potentially some of its subscribers, too: Articles that were sympathetic, encouraging, and even flattering to the new European dictatorships in Italy and Germany also appeared. The most overtly fascistic article appeared before Hitler seized power in January 1933. Written by John Frank­lin Carter in the June 1932 issue to coincide with the Democratic primary, it was called 'Wanted: A Dictator!' He advocated a suspension of the 1932 elections, stating: 'We must declare an im­mediate truce on party politics and create, legally or illegally, an emergency organization, if the executive power is to rescue the na­tional finances and the national credit from the nerveless hands of a lobby-ridden Congress. The alternative is chaos.'

"Vogue, while never commenting on anything political, nonethe­less gave, in 'Vogue's Eye View of the Mode' in June 1933, a shameful commentary on Mussolini's New Rome: 'a Rome resur­rected by Mussolini from glorious ruins to glorious life; a city bathed in mysterious floods of light, where the policemen wear white pique gloves and hats, where the Opera has all the pre-War Vienna glitter of jewels and uniforms ... and where the noble­women emanate the splendour and dignity of the palaces they inhabit.'

"Worse still, there were alternative magazines both subscribers and newsstand readers could and did prefer, like Harold Ross's The New Yorker, printed at Condé's Greenwich printing press. Designed specifically to appeal to New Yorkers, it was stealing away readers who didn't want to focus on politics. Dorothy Parker was a frequent contributor with her biting satire, like her 'Arrangement in Black and White.' E. B. White -- he of the beloved Stuart Little and Char­lotte's Web wrote for The New Yorker for over fifty years -- forcefully commented on the disgrace of a black boardinghouse. Although Ross often used offensive and politically incorrect words to de­scribe those from minority groups, Ross's cofounder, Raoul Fleis­chmann, was Jewish, and Ross had dozens of gay and lesbian friends and staff members, including his Paris correspondent 'Genêt,' Janet Flanner. Those who wrote for The New Yorker were every bit as celebrated for their prose as writers for Vanity Fair. Some often wrote to varying audiences in both magazines. Yet Condé didn't see The New Yorker as a threat. He thought that because they had coexisted happily for nearly a decade, there was room in the market for both magazines.

"What Condé hadn't bargained for was Esquire. The Chicago publisher David Smart and the editor Arnold Gingrich launched Esquire as primary competition to Vanity Fair in October 1933. It neatly captured most of Vanity Fair's menswear advertisers. Then, too, it published stories by Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and Dashiell Hammett, with Bobby Jones on golf and Gene Tunney on boxing in its first issue. Overnight there was a bigger boy in town who hit hard at Vanity Fair's core readers. Esquire's eight to twelve pages of menswear advertising per issue to Vanity Fair's two was a body blow. Coupled with the defection of most of Frank's top men's fashion artists and its immediate circulation of 150,000, Esquire became the proverbial last straw that broke Vanity Fair's back."



Susan Ronald


Condé Nast: The Man and His Empire


St. Martin's Press


Copyright 2019 by Susan Ronald


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