Poetry Madness

The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, June 20th, 2006
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A Dash of Daring: Carmel Snow and Her Life in Fashion, Art, and Letters

by Penelope Rowlands

Rag Mags

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

On a bleak October day in 1933, Martin Munkacsi, a prestigious Hungarian photojournalist who'd never before taken a fashion picture, was on Long Island's Piping Rock Beach with a socialite model and Carmel Snow, the new fashion editrix of Harper's Bazaar, who had hired him to shoot a feature for the magazine's "Palm Beach" issue. Munkacsi, who would become one of the most successful photographers of his generation, ordered the shivering model in bathing suit and cloak to run toward the camera. The resulting snap revolutionized fashion photography. Until then, models were all but mannequins, elaborately and statically posed in the studios; from the Palm Beach issue forward, Bazaar had them diving, scaling sand dunes, jumping over puddles, scampering (naked) around swimming pools, and perched on camels. This was a new approach to fashion (one saw the clothes in action, as much as the models), and, in its effervescence and emphasis on physicality, it was a new approach to femininity.

Snow -- warm but steely, blue-rinsed, with a weakness for martinis (a weakness that in the end proved tragic) -- orchestrated this and the other transformations that made "the Bazaar" (as she called it) under her tenure, from 1933 through 1957, into what is widely considered the finest and most innovative fashion magazine in history. Snow had a genius for spotting genius. She famously proclaimed Christian Dior's spring 1947 collection the "New Look"; with her photographic eye for the details of tailoring, she recognized and tirelessly endorsed the austere, precisely cut creations of the retiring Cristóbal Balenciaga ("He knows a woman's body better than any living dressmaker," she declared). Above all, she applied that talent-spotting genius to remaking her magazine -- and, in the process, fashion journalism. She brought on and served as mentor to Diana Vreeland, the future editor of Vogue and the prototypical flamboyant, dictatorial fashion diva, whose loopy Bazaar column in the 1930s, "Why Don't You?" ("Why don't you rinse your blond child's hair in Champagne, as the French do?"; "Why don't you wear bare knees and long white knitted socks, as Unity Mitford does when she takes tea with Hitler at the Carlton in Munich?"), was, owing to its apparent lack of irony, either charming or distasteful, depending on one's point of view. She signed up and enjoyed an intense, lasting collaboration with the now legendary art director Alexey Brodovitch, who, in turn, brought Man Ray on as an exclusive photographer for the magazine and who, in constructivist-inspired layouts, wrenched the photos out of their neat boxes and splayed them across the pages, thus bringing to Bazaar a stylized visual dynamism hitherto foreign to mass-circulation magazines. The Snow-Vreeland-Brodovitch editorial triumvirate was one of the most harmonious and fruitful partnerships in magazine history.

A periodical of extraordinary visual and graphic variety and distinction, Snow's Bazaar discovered and nurtured not only Munkacsi but also Richard Avedon (who pronounced Snow "the only editor whose judgment I could ever rely on"), Andy Warhol, and the pioneering color photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe. (The photographs of Cecil Beaton and Henri Cartier-Bresson and the drawings of Jean Cocteau regularly enlivened the magazine as well.) Yet Snow also created a magazine for "well-dressed women with well-dressed minds," as she liked to say, and so she recruited Kenneth Tynan as a monthly profiler ("To be given virtual carte blanche to run riot across the pages of Harper's Bazaar was about the most encouraging thing that ever happened to me as a young writer," he recalled), and in her pages helped launch the careers of Carson McCullers and Truman Capote (he became among her closest friends). It's an utterly glamorous story: the all-night shoots after the showings of the Paris collections; the junior editrixes -- "tall, cool Vassar graduates," as S. J. Perelman described them -- in their pillbox hats and white gloves; the languid lunches at Le Pavillion and the Colony; and the long, lovely afternoon that was Manhattan in the 1950s.

In her largely unnoticed and now forgotten 1962 memoirs, Snow told much of the tale of her career with nostalgic glee, including her notorious jump from deputy at Vogue to Bazaar, and her tough if convivial relationship with Bazaar's proprietor, "The Chief," William Randolph Hearst. But Rowlands's far fuller and more detailed chronicle -- conveyed in this 500-page, beautifully designed (so much white space!) book -- is exhilarating, at least for those with an interest in fashion and in what that former Vogue staffer Joan Didion called the "effortlessly glossy" look and tone of the bygone rag mags.

Still, although Rowlands writes discerningly on the haut monde and on haute couture (I was gratified by her sophisticated appreciation of Edward Molyneux's at once winsome and supremely elegant designs from the thirties), she's unable or unwilling to summon a complete portrait of Snow, about whom there's clearly a complex story to tell. Snow was a liberated career woman, and she was also a purposeful social climber and a far-less-than-devoted mother. She started as a fashion editor in her thirties. She then married a high-born dullard (it was by all appearances a passionless match) and had three daughters, whom she literally seldom saw, and the last of whom Snow bore when she was forty-five. But Rowlands, whose mother married Snow's nephew, somewhat understandably fails to probe all this. Nevertheless, I found this energetic but deeply elegiac book, despite its occasional breathlessness and sloppy writing, endlessly absorbing, because it's among the most detailed, precise, and hence evocative accounts of a notoriously rarefied world.

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