A Dash of Daring: Carmel Snow and Her Life in Fashion, Art, and Letters
by Penelope Rowlands
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.
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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