René Gruau (1909-2004)
Portrait of Fleur Cowles, editor/creator of Flair magazine
Gruau was in essence the house artist at Flair, “the most lavish magazine of the 1950s,” even though published for only a year and 12 issues (and an annual), it was ahead of its time (even our time) and a clinic of high-end graphics and printing techniques—unheard of for a mere magazine. Cowles, a painter herself, was an epic figure (read more on her below.)
SEPTEMBER 30, 1996 8:00 PM
A Flair for Living
Fleur Cowles: Author, painter, and most famously, editor of Flair magazine, circa 2003. By Robert Trachtenberg/Corbis Outline.
Fleur Cowles, legendary American expatriate, editor, writer, painter, hostess, and philanthropist, is publishing her memoir and The Best of Flair, an opulent anthology of the dazzling, short-lived magazine that galvanized the literati in the early 1950s.
BY AMY FINE COLLINS
During the high season in London last July one joke passing around Harry’s Bar was that the town was so full of rich Americans no one was being admitted anywhere without a U.S. passport. Ascot was over, Wimbledon in full swing, the Henley Regatta days away, and the festivities surrounding these events were as abundant as the rainfall. But for a carefully chosen group for about 60 individuals the main draw of the week was a book-launch party hosted by Fleur Cowles, the legendary American expatriate editor, writer, painter, hostess, and philanthropist, in her extraordinary 18th-century set of chambers in Albany, originally Lord Melbourne’s palace. Copies of Fleur’s new book, the anecdotal memoir She Made Friends and Kept Them—a kind of gilt-edged address book narrated in the first person—lie neatly stacked on a corner table in the vast pink salon, while the writer has stationed herself several yards away in the grand Wedgwood-blue drawing room. Smartly tuned out in a black-and-white ensemble by her personal couturier, Philippe Lempriere (“He only designs for me”), coquettish black seamed stockings, a colossal pearl-and-diamond brooch by Fabergé (once the object of Eva Perón’s envy), and oversize dark glasses (a trademark for more than half a century), Fleur confers with her secretary Liza Lapsley minutes before the party begins about who will not be attending. The Queen Mother, for whom Fleur throws a birthday party every August, sent her regrets. “She’s not feeling well. And my wonderful Peter O’Toole—those beautiful eyes!—he can’t make it, either. He just started shooting a movie. Have I read you his adorable note? Everybody I’ve invited to the party is mentioned in my book.” The intended guest of honor, Carlos Fuentes, who wrote the memoir’s introduction, has also regretted, due to illness.
But by 6:30 sharp the room begins to fill up with the kind of distinguished company expected more for a state dinner than a publishing party. Writers, artists, and scientists mingle among titled aristocrats from Europe and Asia, including Aysha, the Rajmata of Jaipur, in her native dress. (More royals are present in effigy—silver-framed photos, all inscribed to Fleur, of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco, and the Shah of Iran, are scattered on objet-covered tabletops.) And droves of diplomats from the Old and New Worlds arrive—from Brazil, where Fleur has been decorated as a Commander of the Order of the Southern Cross; from Spain, where she has been awarded the Order of La Dama Isabel la Católica for restoring a ninth-century castle, her summer residence; and from Fleur’s native U.S. Conscientiously observing rules of precedence, Cowles waits until King Constantine and Queen Anne-Marie of the Hellenes, Greek’s exiled monarchs, join the party before allowing toasts and speeches to commence.
In England—a country to which she fled in 1955 as a newlywed with her current husband, the dapper timber tycoon Tom Montague Meyer—Fleur Cowles is best known for her ravishing houses, her naïve/Surrealist paintings of jungle animals and flowers (the subject of more than 50 exhibitions), her philanthropy, and her magnetic power to attract heads of state and artistic luminaries to her table. Yet in America she is best remembered by people of a certain age—and by a knowledgeable elite of young art directors, photographers, editors, and fashion designers—as the founding editor of the short-lived Flair, the most outrageously beautiful, visually daring, and extravagantly inventive magazine ever conceived. This month, HarperCollins will be bringing out, along with the American edition of She Made Friends and Kept Them (her 16th book), an opulent volume that has been Fleur’s dream and mission for nearly 50 years—The Best of Flair. Once again “the magazine for moderns,” as it was billed in a 1949 advertisers’ prototype, will throw “aristocrats of taste” into a state of awed delight, and once again Fleur will be plunged eyeball-deep into what she calls “the fishbowl” of intense social and media scrutiny. “That is my obit,” says Cowles, pointing to a hardbound set of the original Flair, which ran for just 12 issues, between February 1950 and January 1951. “People ask me, If you could read your obit, what would it say? My answer is that I would like it to be about Flair.”
Unlike every other facet of her artfully constructed, mythically scaled life, the contents of her obituary may be a matter beyond her control. The official version of her tale flows along a precisely engineered course, starting somewhere just short of her life’s midpoint, when she married Gardner “Mike” Cowles—scion of a media conglomerate that encompassed Look magazine, The Des Moines Register and Tribune, The Minneapolis Star, and several radio stations—in 1946. “Fleur came like a comet from nowhere,” says one acquaintance of six decades. “She invented herself, never making a false step. She has an amazing power within herself to make anything she wants happen. And now, at the end of her life, suddenly there is this re-emergence! All Fleur wants is to see the beautiful world she’s created around herself and not waste time thinking about how she got there.”
Though Fleur has stated that her childhood is “too painful to discuss,” she does recount that as a girl—a small New Jersey town a ferry ride from New York was the setting of her early years—she dreamed of becoming a writer. “At 11, I wanted to be Katherine Mansfield,” she says. As single career women, she and her younger sister, Mildred (a singer and radio producer), adopted the surname Fenton, another matter closed to discussion. In 1949-50, the year when Fleur was publicizing Flair, she related the story that at 15 or 16 (circa 1925) she bluffed her way into a job as a senior copywriter for Gimbels. From there she appears to have gone to Boston, where she worked in a similar capacity for the carriage-trade shop C. Crawford Hollidge. Though the Fleur trail tapers off a bit after this, it does pass, during the late 20s, through the Massachusetts town of Haverhill, where, known as Fleurende, she became friendly with a local woman’s sister, Alice Hughes, a frequent weekend visitor who wrote a chatty syndicated feature for The New York World-Telegram called “A Woman’s New York.” On September 19, 1933, Hughes’s byline—situated on the front page of the second section beside Heywood Broun’s popular “It Seems to Me” column—was abruptly replaced by a newcomer’s, “Fleur Fenton,” whose intelligent, modish brunette’s features looked out from a photo accompanying her story each day.
Fleur’s column ended in June 1934; by this time she had become “assistant to the executive vice president of Blaker Advertising Agency.” The man holding that lofty position was Atherton “Pett” Pettingell, whom Cowles had married on February 13, 1932. Around 1935, husband and wife formed their own firm, Pettingell & Fenton, representing Seventh Avenue clients and—through Fleur’s cunning efforts—cosmetics giant Helena Rubinstein. Producer Harold Prince, who worked at Pettingell & Fenton during the summer of 1942 as a teenage office boy, remembers that “it was all very theatrical, atmospheric, and glossy, with models like Lisa Fonssagrives stalking in and out. I liken Fleur physically to Gertrude Lawrence in Lady in the Dark. And Pettingell was a very tall, handsome, dashing fellow—very Errol Flynn-y.” It’s not hard to understand Fleur’s attraction to Pettingell. Says Fleur’s great friend the painter Enrico Donati, “He was one of the most handsome men I’ve ever seen.” But after Pett impulsively “ran off with a blonde,” who then left him to return to her husband, Fleur did not take him back.
Fleur, it seems, had already fixed her sights far beyond the limited arena of advertising. “Like most good things in my life, a White House assignment fell into my lap without my trying, due to friends,” Fleur wrote. “I was one of the volunteers writing speeches for the War Production Board.… I was sharp-witted enough to wangle a permit to fly to Europe after VE Day … the first civilian American woman to get into Europe after the fighting stopped.” This special distinction, the first of many to come, “gave me the status,” Fleur continued, “which helped me into the White House [in 1946] as Special Consultant to the famine Emergency Committee … assisting Herbert Hoover, its chairman.”
With typical reserve, Fleur avoids naming exactly which “friends” ushered her straight to the seat of global power. But surely it couldn’t have hurt that by this time she had encountered Gardner “Mike” Cowles, who, as domestic director of the Office of War Information during World War II, lived more in Washington, D.C., than in his native Des Moines. (They originally met, she says, while he was soliciting advertising for Look.) On December 27, 1946, Fleur married the Harvard-educated Cowles (recently divorced from his second wife, Lois, the mother of his three children) at a friend’s house in Stamford, Connecticut. “Anyone who thinks I went after Mike Cowles is out of his mind! I was ashamed of him because of Look. It was a sleazy barbershop sheet. The horror of it!” she exclaims, flinging her hands heavenward.
“Washington, D.C., regarded The Des Moines Register so highly. How, I asked him, can you run a newspaper with such a reputation and make a magazine like Look? It was published on cheap paper and full of sex, while Life took the serious road. But it was making $1 million a year, so he didn’t see any point in changing it. Look was based in New York and he was an absentee editor living in Des Moines. So I told him, ‘You have upbringing, class, and taste. Move to New York and edit the book!’”
Though harsh, Fleur’s estimation of Look was accurate. In fact, Cowles and Life’s Henry Luce had ingeniously teamed up, charting their respective media territories together. In the mid-30s Cowles, inspired by a Gallup study proving that the best-read newspaper articles were accompanied by photos, pasted up a dummy of Look. When he heard Luce was conducting a similar experiment over at Time Inc., the two men compared prototypes. “Our editorial plans … turned out to be quite different,” Cowles wrote. “Life planned to cover the news while we saw Look as feature-oriented. Life would be a rather ‘upscale’ publication while Look would seek a more downscale audience.” Look’s first issue tantalized readers with a lurid pictorial, “Auto Kills Woman Before Your Eyes,” a story on “dope fiend” Hermann Göring—and a back-cover head-and-shoulders color pinup of Greta Garbo. Astonished to see the initial print order of 400,000 swell to 700,000, Cowles soon discovered the cause for this massive sellout. It turned out that when the Garbo page was strategically folded in half the resulting image looked uncannily like a beaver shot.
This was the sordid legacy that Fleur hoped to live down. Literally moved by her insistent pleas, Cowles relocated to New York. Says a man who had ample opportunity to observe them at close range, “My theory about why Mike fell for Fleur was that she was a complete change from his wife, Lois, a lovely Iowan. She could talk politics and publishing. She was a ball of fire—dynamic as any man, but with all the wiles of a woman. She was such a challenge, I would have made a play for her, just to conquer her.”
Ballsy though she may have been, at this point Fleur felt ready to surrender to her more feminine side. “I was pleased to give up my work. I had five households to look after—we kept hotel apartments in D.C. and Beverly Hills, and a house in Des Moines. I love homemaking.” Indeed, her house on 68th Street and the 13-bedroom waterside weekend house they acquired in Weston, Connecticut, came to be greatly admired for their artfully eclectic décor. “Très Fleur,” Flair’s flighty taste arbiter, Federico Pallavicini, once gasped in admiration when called upon to describe the Cowles town house. “She mix all the Louis with all the Georges … Mexican paper flowers with fresh green leaves … Renoir with her own paintings. Quelle salade!” To help stifle intra-office murmurs about Fleur’s supposed Lady Macbeth-like schemes to incite a revolution at her husband’s company, just after their marriage the Cowleses threw a party for some of the Look executives and senior staff. “Fleur got up and made a speech,” says one former editor. “She announced to us that she had no ambition except to ‘take care of Mikie.’ I thought she was a kind of con gal.”
As promised, Fleur did stay at home—at first. But every morning before Mike went to work she stuffed his pockets with little notes brimming with suggestions. “I’d tell him I didn’t like the cover, or the typeface, or I don’t like the sexy pictures. Finally Mike said, ‘Just come in and do it yourself. You know more than I do.’” Her name first appears on the masthead as “Director Woman’s Department” in the August 19, 1948, issue, about eight months into their marriage. “Soon,” Fleur wrote, “I added the role of associate editor of the magazine.”
Fleur Cowles, gloriously fulfilling her confident vision of her destiny at the magazine, turned out to be the best thing to hit Look since the Garbo picture. As a woman and former top-notch ad exec, she instinctively divined exactly where the magazine’s untapped resources lay. If Look in its first raucous incarnation was, as one writer said, “a huge bottle of sex, another of blood [and] a sizable dash of morality,” then under Fleur’s firm, bejeweled guiding hand, the book matured into “as close to a family magazine formula as you can get,” BusinessWeek reported. A cataloguer in the Library of Congress prints-and-photographs department, which has been processing the five-million-item Look photo archive (donated in 1971 when the magazine folded), verifies that the publication “turned around abruptly in the late 40s, almost entirely because of Fleur Cowles. The photography improves, the messy layouts become cleaner, the paper better, and suddenly, with features on fashion, the home, and food, there is a focus on women—who were buying the magazine. Fleur clearly understood the emerging consumer society—that, after the Depression and the war, people wanted their lives back. Her contribution was such that had she not insisted on changes the magazine would never have survived through the 50s and 60s.”
Less than a year after Fleur swept onto the masthead, Look’s ad revenues had vaulted 50 percent, and circulation leapt by 310,000. “Women had to be brought into the magazine for advertising,” Fleur explains. “No one could sell a product without the wife’s O.K., whether it was a tin of sardines or a car.” Fleur also broke the mold by experimenting with photography—and by aggressively recruiting top editors for her department. Imperiously glamorous with her suavely coiffed hair, tinted harlequin glasses, and uncut-emerald ring the size of a horse chestnut, Fleur ruled the distaff side of the Look empire from behind her blond-mahogany “power desk,” a kidney-shaped affair of “considerable sweep,” recalls Look food editor Sylvia Schur.
“I had heard about Fleur’s reputation for being a sharp and driving person,” Schur says. “But she understood the changing attitudes of people coming home from the war, and had a lot to say to them about how they could get on this upwardly mobile thing. We uncovered new developments in food such as ‘America Bit by the Bar-b-que Bug.’ She liked being what she called ‘hep.’ She coined the word ‘heptitude,’ which meant being knowledgeable about food, dress, and living.”
Mike and Fleur had, says Enrico Donati, “a real business relationship—they were workaholic people.” Even so, they managed to carve out a very visible niche for themselves in the social “power structure of New York,” recalls Look fashion editor Nancy Holmes. Their East Side town house and their weekend house in Weston became meccas for high-powered and celebrity friends. “Once when I was visiting Weston from school,” says Mike’s son Gardner “Pat” Cowles, “Cary Grant dropped in. During another stay my father announced that Marilyn Monroe was coming over to spend the day!” Fleur also became very close to financier and presidential adviser Bernard Baruch (whom she credits with sharpening her intellect with daily morning telephone drills about world affairs) and to her counterpart and sometime rival at Life, Clare Boothe Luce. “The difference between Clare and me,” Fleur says, “was a three-letter word: s-e-x. And the other difference is Clare never got her own magazine.”
Fleur and Mike further expanded their perpetually enlarging sphere by traveling around the world every year. “I wrote to Eden and Churchill asking for meetings,” Fleur says. “Mike did not have the self-assurance I had to make these requests.” Among Fleur’s many junkets, usually under the auspices of Look, were trips in 1949 to Brazil and Argentina, where she met the Peróns (subjects of her first book, Bloody Precedent); and in 1953 to Formosa, where she bunkered with Madame Chiang Kai-shek and a boa constrictor, and to Korea, where she and Mike spent 21 hours of “agony and frustration” at the Panmunjom peace negotiations. “Don’t forget I also worked for Ike [whose presidential campaign Cowles had vigorously supported]. I was his unofficial representative to four countries: Persia, Egypt, Cyprus, and Brazil. More presidents should realize that a woman can say things that a man can’t.” On personal terms with the Shah of Iran and his wife, Soroya, with whom she toured America in 1954; Egyptian premier Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose unlikely guest she was at the all-male sacred feast ending Ramadan; Queen Frederika and King Paul of Greece; and Oswaldo Aranha, adviser to Brazil’s President Vargas, she “could say anything”—and then report back to her president.
To create a more official diplomatic forum for her, around 1954 Eisenhower proposed to Fleur an ambassadorship to Greece, or possibly Formosa. But, perhaps thinking of the strain placed on Clare Luce’s marriage by her 1953 appointment as ambassador to Italy, Fleur determined it was in her best interest to decline the offer. “I am probably the only woman in history to turn down an ambassadorship,” she announced to the New York Post. More to Fleur’s taste was her appointment as special envoy to Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation—an assignment that galled her rivals. Her nephew John Cowles Jr. says, “My mother [Betty Cowles] was deeply affronted. She felt she had seniority in the family. And she believed it was wrong to send a divorced woman to court, as the King’s abdication was still very fresh in the people’s minds.” After the coronation, Time ascribed to Fleur a statement of the utmost hubris: “I dressed down so as to not detract from the Queen.” Incensed, Fleur considered suing the Luces but settled for a letter of apology instead.
While Fleur assiduously revamped her husband’s magazine, she encountered frustrations which seemed unsolvable. “I couldn’t get the taste, quality or respectability—all my longings, everything that I craved—into Look,” Fleur says. Cowles wrote in his memoir, Mike Looks Back, “Almost from the time we were married, [Fleur] was determined to start a highly original fashion, art, and culture magazine that would appeal to a class instead of a mass audience.” Fleur maintains that Cowles, recognizing that the whole Look outfit could use further upgrading, “asked me, Would you like to do a class magazine to enhance Look? I jumped to the ceiling! I was filled with joy that it would be mine.” Whatever its true genesis, Flair came into being, Mike’s son Pat says, because “my father was fascinated by Fleur. But he also loved to gamble. He drilled oil wells and loved the craps table.” John Peters, Look’s modern-living editor, asks rhetorically, “Why did Mike Cowles create Flair? Why did they build the Taj Mahal?”
Though they were starting from scratch, with every decision to be made, one that Fleur had already settled on was the title. “Choosing the name was very simple. It’s a word I use a lot. I said to Mike, ‘The name’s got to be Flair—it’s the one thing it’s got to have.’” (And it didn’t hurt that the name was a near homonym for that of its intrepid editor in chief.) Flair’s radically ambitious aim was to outdo every magazine in every category on its own turf. To get the ball rolling, Fleur took off for Europe for three months to research new developments in paper stock, graphic design, and printing techniques. Her quest led her to Milan, where she discovered a madly eccentric pair of aesthetes named Daria Guarnati, the flame-tressed friend of architect Gio Ponti, and Count Federico Pallavicini, a pixilated Viennese decorative artist who had fled the Nazis (and an unconsumed marriage to the Demel’s confectionery heiress) in 1938. Since 1939 this peculiar duo had been publishing—with virtually no budget and no staff—an opulent seasonal review named Aria d’Italia. More objet d’art than magazine, in its fewer than 10 issues, Aria d’Italia “laid the cornerstone for modern graphic design,” Pallavicini wrote. The Cowles company purchased the U.S. rights to the magazine, and Fleur imported Guarnati and Pallavicini to New York.
“Guarnati did have an eye for graphics,” Fleur says, “but when she got to the U.S. she was lonesome and heartsick and went home soon”—though for the full run of Flair she received masthead billing as “Representative for Italy.” Pallavicini, on the other hand, flourished under Fleur’s nurturing patronage. Perpetually gushing frothy drawings and quirky story ideas, he cheered up the staff with his “aristocratic manners, ebullience, and spicy gossip,” recalled Patrick O’Higgins, Flair’s travel editor.
From this fanciful foundation, Fleur began building what Look and Flair photographer Tony Vaccaro calls “the best magazine staff ever assembled.” All the key players, with the exception of general manager Arnold Gingrich (Esquire’s founding editor, whom Mike had cajoled out of retirement in Switzerland) and ad manager Bill Rosen (prized loose from Seventeen), were handpicked by Fleur.
Fleur tapped as her managing editor George Davis, the literary impresario who, following his own precocious success as a novelist, went on (after a stint at Vanity Fair) to discover Truman Capote while editing features and fiction at Mademoiselle. Notorious for his acid tongue and his floridly arcane homosexual chicanery (for his parties he engaged a nude pianist who played ragtime while a lit cigarette puffed away rhythmically in his rectum), Davis was briefly affianced to Gypsy Rose Lee (whom he enlisted as a Flair writer), before taking Lotte Lenya to the altar in 1952. Fleur reflects, “George sometimes came to work and sometimes didn’t. He drank too much, but he was heart and soul to me. He knew what was going on abroad. He had odd ideas, but I would have been a fool not to take his advice. Needless to say, George and Arnold Gingrich did not get along.… Gingrich was the worst thing that ever happened to Flair. He kept insisting on a man’s point of view”—obviously his straight man’s attempt to wage warfare on “a crew,” he wrote, “most of whom could fly back and forth without using the stairs.”
Among the cast of characters flitting through the Flair offices were O’Higgins, given to showing up for work in full riding habit, entertainment editor Shana Alexander, and Paris-based mining heiress Margaret Thompson Biddle, whom Fleur had peremptorily anointed European editor, much to the consternation of Rosamond Bernier, poached from Vogue to fill a similar position. “The word was out,” Fleur says. “People stood in line to get interviews.” She also summoned the great fashion draftsman René Gruau to America to work exclusively for Flair.
With no budget to constrain them, Flair’s multilingual, pan-generational, omnisexual crew toiled 16-hour days throughout the summer and early fall of 1949, confecting the preview issue for advertisers and press. “We were never out before 10 o’clock,” says Francesca Morris, one of Flair’s fiction editors, who sacrificed her honeymoon to the cause. “There was a great esprit de corps, especially among the group around George Davis”—whom W. H. Auden, a Flair contributor, deemed the wittiest person he ever knew.
When, in September 1949, Fleur at last unveiled Flair’s prototype, limited to an edition of 5,000, “all hell broke loose,” says Morris. “It was madness. There was so much interest, phones in the office were ringing off the hook.” Says Letitia Baldrige, then Clare Boothe Luce’s assistant, “People were dazzled. Everyone who counted was talking about it incessantly. Of course, people also thought the magazine would send Mike Cowles to debtors’ prison.” Every pundit in town was scrambling to weigh in with an opinion about the magazine that promised, in its editor’s letter handwritten in gold ink, to “give direction and fullness to life.”
Starting with the die-cut hole in its front cover—a wedge-shaped aperture through which readers spied a man kissing an ecstatic woman—the magazine offered up one sensation novelty after another. The outside cover, richly embossed with a vanilla-covered basket-weave pattern, gave way to a second, photographed by Louis Faurer, which showed the amorous couple to be part of a wall layered with a random collage of shredded posters. “I decided on a two-part cover with a hole,” Fleur says, “because I like the mystery of not being able to know what’s inside. Of course, people started calling it ‘Fleur’s hole in the head.’”
But the cover was just the curtain-raiser for Flair’s startling pack of miracles. One feature, incorporating heat-sensitive invisible ink, instructed readers to “move the lighted tip of a cigarette slowly over the space just below” to find the answers to such enigmatic questions as “What is Flair? Is it Animal? Is it Vegetable? … Is it Male or Female?” A swatch of gossamer cotton lifted up to reveal a drawing of a fetching woman in a Valentina maillot. Jean Cocteau, whom George Davis had transported to America on the Cowles expense account, whipped up a dreamy “Letter to Americans.” (The poet wrote the story on his flight home.) The preview issue concluded triumphantly with a prismatic two-page spread, bleeding luminously from blue to red, entitled “The End of the Rainbow.”
From the moment the prototype debuted, Flair attracted a hate club—a small band, perhaps, but a vociferous and powerful one, drawn mostly from the ranks of the media and advertising worlds. Time, not exactly disinterested, dismissed the preview issue as “a fancy bouillabaisse of Vogue, Town & Country, Holiday, etc.” Newsweek invoked “the ghost of the late and lamented Vanity Fair,” and BusinessWeek cautioned that Flair was “a highly impractical business venture.” The advertising newsletter Space & Time derided Flair’s editors “as lilies seen in a black mirror,” and steered advertisers “allergic to femininity and effemininity” elsewhere.
Undaunted, Fleur forged ahead on schedule with the premiere issue, February 1950—still her favorite. Long before, she had settled on the image that would grace its blood-red cover—a single golden wing. Symbolizing “flight, excitement, and beauty,” it was based on a brooch Fleur had found in a Paris flea market. Its aerodynamic shape recurred silhouetted just below, in a peekaboo die-cut hole affording the reader a glimpse of the second cover—a Gruau sketch of a woman in profile. While several of the preview’s sumptuous features returned for an encore, plenty of extraordinary new material figured in the first issue as well. An article on the 28-year-old Lucian Freud came liberally accompanied with reproductions of his art—the first ever to appear in America. Angus Wilson and Tennessee Williams contributed short stories, Wilson’s printed on paper textured to resemble slubbed silk. Thanks to the intervention of Margaret Biddle, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor opened their home to Flair’s readers, treating them to their recondite and entertaining tips. A more futuristic approach to living was set forth in a two-page spread on Richard Kelly’s lighting design for Philip Johnson’s glass house in Connecticut. Fashion received lush coverage in stories illustrated with Gruau ink studies; photos by Hoyningen-Huene, Maria Martel, and Louis Faurer; and deliquescent paintings by one of Fleur’s discoveries, Sylvia Braverman. To this quixotic mix, Patrick O’Higgins added a whimsical yet practical Baedeker to Morocco.
The 11 Flairs that followed were organized thematically. March saw the Spain issue, a choice savaged by the virulently anti-Franco Nation magazine, which took particular offense at the suggestion that tourists in Spain shun “all political discussion … if only out of courtesy.” Politically, at least, April’s Paris issue—presenting stories by Colette and Simone de Beauvoir, an interview with Proust’s former housekeeper, and a pop-up view of the Place Vendôme—was more commendable. The most luscious number of Flair, the May Rose issue, was impregnated with fragrance—a forerunner of today’s scent strips. Incorporating a handsome booklet by Katherine Anne Porter called “The Flower of Flowers,” the May issue was the one most closely identified with Fleur, who had selected the rose as her personal emblem: more often than not she wore a gold rose brooch or pinned a fresh blossom to her bosom. A Dutch grower bred a Flair Rose, a pinkish-coral tea variety, in the issues’ honor, and later the Fleur Cowles Rose, a cream-colored flower blushed with pink (much in evidence in the garden of her Sussex country house), was named for her. The same issue also introduced a new term, lifted from the lingo of jazz joints: “cool.” Fleur says, snapping her fingers for emphasis, “I invented ‘cool.’ I remember sitting on the floor and asking my staff, ‘If something’s hot, isn’t it cool?’ I said it first.”
By the time of the September 1950 New York issue (with a jaunty cover designed by Pallavicini, profile of Fleur’s friend Baruch, opinion column by Clare Luce, and pamphlet of capricious cityscapes by Saul Steinberg, it was arguably the last great issue of Flair) ominous shadows had begun to darken Flair’s rarefied door. Cudgeling Flair—with all its gimmicks, it was an easy target—had become a favorite pastime of the press. Some of these attacks where lighthearted—such as Charles Addams’s cartoon of a three-handed freak simultaneously reading the magazine and its accordion foldouts. (In a similarly gentle vein, another cartoon depicted one writer telling another, “My story was in Flair but it fell out.”) But others—most notoriously S.J. Perelman’s poisonous “The Hand That Cradles The Rock” in The New Yorker, which likened Fleur’s personality to “a Kansas cyclon … successfully wedded to Devonshire clotted cream”—were wicked. So devastating, in fact, was Perelman’s satire of Fleur’s editorial methods, ad manager Bill Rosen had to brief his sales staff about possible repercussions. At this point, however, Rosen was a bit like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike: no effort, no matter how valiant, was enough to prevent ad revenue from flooding out of the magazine. “Flair was very exciting,” Rosen says. “It was just 50 years ahead of its time. Every ad we got was like pulling teeth—there was too much jealousy from other magazines, and they influenced advertisers. Nobody was rooting for Fleur to win. The general feeling was that she had mesmerized a wonderful guy, and they wanted to see her sink.” Mike called a troubleshooting meeting, at which, Rosen says, “I had to explain to Mike that we depended on fashion ads—and because of her ‘Sammy Glick’ attitude at Pettingell & Fenton, Mrs. Cowles was hated by Seventh Avenue. Well, everyone’s head just dropped. They couldn’t believe I had said that. We then decided at the meeting the new strategy would be to make it clear that the Flair project was Mike’s.”
This tactic, of course, fooled nobody—though 90,000 readers signed up to subscribe (and circulation peaked at 200,000), the Fleur-bashing momentum was already going full throttle. Fleur says, “I went through most of the magazine assuming the advertising would come. I thought the ad world would be just as proud of Flair as I was. But all my magazine rivals banded together and convinced the advertisers that Flair wouldn’t last. My asking them to make custom ads for Flair [tied to issues’ themes and format] didn’t help, either.”
But it was not just external enemies who laid siege to Flair. Its worst foes lurked within the Cowles organization—and the Cowles family—itself. Members of Look’s board of directors, all of them stockholders, including Dan Mich, the editorial director, and Marvin Whatmore, the C.E.O. (a Des Moines man whose daughter married Mike’s son Pat), were alarmed at the rate at which Flair drained its resources away from the flagship publication. By the end of 1950, Mike estimated, Flair’s before–tax losses had mounted to $2,485,000—averaging out to a 75-cent loss on each copy sold. Mike’s brother, John, co-owner of Look since its inception, ended up dissolving their partnership in 1951. “My mother forced the breakup,” John Cowles Jr. explains. “She was afraid Fleur would ruin my uncle. My father swapped his holdings in Look for my uncle’s share of the newspapers.”
On a Friday early in December 1950, Gordon Bryan, the Look merchandizing manager, returned to his office from an executive meeting and—swearing her to secrecy—whispered to his secretary that Mike Cowles was going to shut down Flair. Mike called an emergency Saturday-morning summit of the Cowles hierarchy—including his brother, John, Fleur, and Bill Rosen—at 42F, the corporate suite in the Waldorf-Astoria. In the dark about the nature of the conference, to which only about 8 or 10 people were asked, Fleur “thought it might have to do with policy for Flair—maybe that we’d have to cut some pages out to save money. It was obvious we were not getting our income back. If it had been that kind of meeting I would have understood. I found out at that meeting. And I cried—I could cry today when I think about it. It was heartbreaking. I was so proud of it.”
Mike, assuming that he had given his wife fair warning, wrote, “There is no question that Flair was perhaps the most original and certainly one of the most talked about magazines ever published.… But.… Flair was eating us up alive.… [Fleur] claimed, with nothing to back the claim up, that the magazine would eventually turn around.… It was time to put my foot down.… I don’t think Fleur ever forgave me.” His son Pat says, “Mike’s real love was Look. He would have done anything to keep it alive. Killing Flair probably put a dent in their marriage.”
Mike Cowles sent out a press release citing rising paper costs and “the very critical foreign situation” (the Korean War) as the reasons for the magazine’s demise. Intended to save face, it only made Fleur and Flair look worse with its self-important excuses.
In retrospect, Fleur says that “the Cowles fortune was so huge it didn’t matter if it closed then or later. With that terrible Look, Mike never had the experience of operating at a loss. Killing Flair gave the opposition justification for their nasty campaign that it had been a folly of mine.” On balance, reasons Sylvia Schur, “Fleur was probably brought at least as much money into Look as she lost at Flair.” In any case, poetic justice was served 20 years later when Mike, having lost his advertisers to television, was forced to bury his baby, Look.
Refusing to let Flair rest in peace, Fleur brought out in time for the 1952 Christmas season the Flair Annual 1953, which compiled between its hardback, shimmering red-and-gold covers many of the stories that had lost their chance to run in the magazine. Intended to be a yearly effort, the album was pulled together with a staff of 3 (Fleur, Pallavicini, and writer Robert Offergeld) instead of 100. It was during this period that Fleur also began in earnest to hurl her prodigious energies into world affairs, taking it upon herself to interview Nasser, the Shah of Iran, the King and Queen of Greece, and France’s Prime Minister Mendès-France for Look. Around 1954, Fleur—who admits she may have strayed from home too often—received some news that dealt a coup de grâce to her self-confidence and her ailing marriage: Mike had a mistress. She was someone whom Fleur knew, and he was keeping her rather nicely in an apartment near the old Colony restaurant. “Everyone in New York knew before me,” Fleur says. “Mildred, my sister, tipped me off. I wouldn’t have believed anyone else.”
Weakened, dazed, and, according to one confidante, despairing, Fleur flew to California to seek solace from her sister. When she returned, a Look editor remembers, “Fleur was renewed and very appealing. She dressed in paler colors, and wore a beige felt beret.” If the cause of her uplifted spirits was a new resolve to keep her man, it didn’t last long. In the spring or summer of 1955, Fleur and Mike were flying together on a plane scheduled to make a stop in Rome. While still airborne—a scene would have been out of the question at that altitude—Mike turned to Fleur and announced he wanted to end their marriage. Fleur insists that on the infamous plane ride Mike had merely asked her for a separation. “I don’t give separations,” Fleur says. “It’s an invitation to rape. I told him I wanted a divorce instead.” In July 1955, the public-relations director of Cowles Magazines announced that Fleur had moved into an apartment of her own, and that she and Mike had “separated … in a very friendly fashion.” Proving the amicability of their separation, the New York Post reported, “Mrs. Cowles recently sign[ed] a new three-year contract to continue as an associate editor of Look and [to] remain a member of the board of directors.” In the early autumn Fleur fell seriously ill and had to be hospitalized for an operation. But before she had fully recuperated, Fleur, defying doctor’s orders, flew to Juárez, Mexico, for a divorce. On her last day at Look, Bill Atuhur, the managing editor, went up to Fleur’s office to say good-bye. “She wept,” Arthur says. “I was told that was very unusual.”
Fleur had good reason to rise prematurely from her sickbed and end her marriage to Cowles. Two years earlier, while flying back from her second meeting with the Shah of Iran, she had made the acquaintance of a very eligible young Englishman named Tom Montague Meyer, who had been prospecting timber in northern Persia for Meyer International, the lumber concern founded by his father, Montague Meyer, after World War I. When the plane stopped in Athens, Meyer invited Fleur to occupy the vacated seat beside him. From Athens until the next stop, Rome, the seatmates chattered incessantly. Meyer recalls, “In Rome we got off and had breakfast together. After that we stayed in touch, and had dinner whenever she came to London. Fleur was very decorous, as she was still a married woman.”
After Fleur’s divorce, the couple rendezvoused in L.A. and on the spur of the moment married at the house of Rexall Drug president Justin W. Dart, on November 18, 1955. Cary Grant, the best man, was the only wedding guest besides the Darts. “It was quite a sudden decision,” Fleur says, “though I was always quite certain I would get an invitation to marry him.” After a quick visit to Mildred in San Diego, the newlyweds flew to London, where they were greeted at the airport by “a hundred photographers. When Tom and I arrived here I was famous,” she says. Once they had installed themselves in Albany, Mike Cowles, who until 1958 listed his ex-wife on Look’s masthead as “Foreign Correspondent,” came by to meet his successor. “He was impressed. Tom is the kindest thing alive. And he’s not jealous of me like Mike was,” Fleur says. Sighs a female friend of Fleur’s, “How lucky can you get? To be dumped by Mike Cowles and then marry Tom Meyer!”
Forty-one years later Fleur is warming herself by the fire in the library of the idyllic Elizabethan house in Sussex that she and Meyer bought and restored in 1956. The scent of the gardens’ luxuriant rosebushes blends with the odor of the acrylic paints Fleur is applying to a wooden board resting on a pillow in her lap. As she speaks she deftly paints, the way another woman might do needlework, fashioning an image of anemones, butterflies, and a lounging tiger that will be exhibited in a South American show of her work later this fall. Dispersed all around the romantic three-story house and its barn annex are souvenirs of Flair—Federico Pallavicini paintings, Lucian Freud doodles, Gruau sketches, a series of rose studies by Sylvia Braverman. And, of course, the library’s overloaded shelves hold lovingly worn, bound copies of the issues of Flair. To the right of the front entrance, a guest book, begun on Christmas Day 1956, records the names of people who have enriched Fleur’s purposeful life: Elsa Schiaparelli, Van Johnson, Cary Grant, her stepchildren Lois and Jay Cowles.
“I didn’t need Look to make friends in New York or here,” Fleur reflects as she squeezes a glistening droplet of red paint onto a small brush. “That awful wife [Betty Cowles] said, ‘She won’t get anywhere in England. She doesn’t have Look.’ My life is here now with Tom. There’s really no reason to think of any other. The only part of the past I ever think about is Flair.” Fleur dips her brush into a glass of water next to the French sofa she calls her “studio,” and pauses in thought. “Nobody would do Flair again. There’s not enough money in the world. But if somebody wanted to do it again, I’d be a consultant. My blood’s not red—it’s blue ink. I would create a section, edited by me, maybe an insert in another magazine, called ‘Flair by Fleur.’ It would be Flair for art, for food, for fashion, and for entertainment. I’d design it and give it my ideas. I have an idea a second. I’m a born idea myself! The fact is, the only positive single asset I have is my faith in myself.”
Nancy Holmes, one of Look’s fashion editors, remembers calling on her boss one day in her two-room corner office with the blond-mahogany desk. To her surprise, Fleur invited her to step across the room to see the view from the editor’s chair. “There was a tiny sign attached to a wall that no one could see unless you were sitting at the desk,” Holmes recalls. “I’ll never forget what it said: no matter what you’ve got, it takes more than that. God knows she’s lived it.”
Evgenia Peretz is a Vanity Fair contributing editor.