VANITY FAIR THE PORTRAITSA CENTURY OF ICONIC IMAGES
ABRAMSCopyright © 2008Graydon Carter
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-8109-7298-8
FOREWORD GRAYDON CARTER....................................................................................6DIVINE DECADENCE CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS......................................................................10THE PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPH IN THE MODERN AGE TERENCE PEPPER...................................................20A NEW MAGAZINE FOR A NEW AGE DAVID FRIEND..................................................................28THE PORTRAITS 1913-2008.....................................................................................85CONTRIBUTORS TO THE JAZZ AGE VANITY FAIR, 1913-36...........................................................159TWENTY-FIVE THINGS YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT THE JAZZ AGE VANITY FAIR, 1913-36..................................224VANITY FAIR COVER SUBJECTS, 1983-2008.......................................................................314OUR OFFICE: A HATE SONG-AN INTIMATE GLIMPSE OF VANITY FAIR-EN FAMILLE BY DOROTHY PARKER.....................370PICTURE CREDITS.............................................................................................376BIBLIOGRAPHY................................................................................................378INDEX
Chapter One DIVINE DECADENCE CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
Vanity Fair: A Time Line
1678: The term "Vanity Fair" (referring to a place of rascality and frivolity) appears in John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress
1848: Publication of the novel Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray, first serialized in Punch
1859-1863: Vanity Fair, New York-based humor magazine
1868-1914: Vanity Fair, London based magazine chronicling Victorian and Edwardian society.
1890-1913: Vanity Fair, American general-interest magazine
1913: Dress & Vanity Fair, American monthly (four issues) 1914-1936: Vanity Fair, American monthly
1983-present: Vanity Fair, American monthly: English-language European edition, published out of the United Kingdom: foreign-language editions in Italy, Germany, and Spain
"Divine decadence, darling," breathes Liza Minnelli in recommending the motto of her Berlin nightclub in Bob Fosse's Cabaret. The very word "divine" seems to summon the world of Evelyn Waugh and his "Bright Young Things," dancing until dawn and frittering their brittle lives away on the inventions of transient pleasure. "Oh, Nina, what a lot of parties!" That's the encapsulating observation in Waugh's Vile Bodies, a novel where beneath the dying strains of the light music you can, as with Cabaret, feel the Second World War coming on. Even in The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald manages a hint of the sinister undertone of the Jazz Age. "Yellow cocktail music," he called it, in one of the most arresting images of the period. And when he referred to his protagonists as "careless people," he didn't mean carefree. He meant that they didn't mind about anyone else.
The association between luxury and decadence, and the punishment of these by disaster, is an almost automatic one in our culture. Marie Antoinette maintains a sumptuous court while all the while the fires of resentment are being stoked to white heat. A band plays on the Titanic as the gowns and white ties perform their elegant combinations. The nobles of St. Petersburg look down from their brilliantly lit windows and fail to see the snarling hatred that is gathering in the darkness. The hedonism of Weimar morphs into the grin on a suppurating corpse. Or as Hilaire Belloc once put it about pre-war England: "When they married and gave in marriage / They danced at the County Ball / And some of them kept a carriage. / And the flood destroyed them all."
There are certain crucial dates that encapsulate this sense of impending doom and inescapable nemesis. The year 1914 is one such: the bitter storm that put an abrupt end to what Edwardian England called "the long garden party." The year 1939 is yet another. In September of that year, W. H. Auden was in a gay bar in New York, brooding on the evil Europe he had left behind and saying sarcastically of those around him that for them: "The lights must never go out, the music must always play."
By that time, the first incarnation of Vanity Fair-born in 1914 (after four ill-conceived issues in 1913, under the hybrid title Dress & Vanity Fair), shuttered in 1936-had already ceased to be. The temptation is to regard this, too, as some kind of verdict on frivolity.
But in fact, the lights must never go out. The music must always play. Even in the darkest time, there must be beauty and style and the cultivation of taste and the individual. (The importance of the individual against the massified and the collective is, in fact, one of the most important lessons to have been imparted by the 20th century.) And there is no time in which the celebration of irony-that cream in our coffee and gin in our Campari-is not of the first importance. It isn't as if the forces of seriousness and solemnity and ideological rectitude come very well out of Weimar, either. One of my favorite images of the midnight of the epoch is that of Vanity Fair's former drama critic P. G. Wodehouse, interned by the Nazis in a disused lunatic asylum in Poland, sitting not very far from the site of Auschwitz and scribbling out Money in the Bank. (Appraising Upper Silesia he said to himself: "What must Lower Silesia be like?" That's the sort of thing Oscar Wilde might have managed in the same circumstances.) The debonair, indeed, often shows itself to best advantage amid the dreariness and conformity that are the counterparts of war, dictatorship, and other serious matters.
I began with Evelyn Waugh because he was one of the great exemplars of that literary and artistic modernism (he was a deft illustrator of his own novels as well as those of other people) that provided the good fairies at the birth of the first American Vanity Fair What are the signatures of this style? And why is it still called "modern"? Well, to answer the second question first, from 1913 we start to periodize history by decades. Up until then, even for many Americans, eras were named after monarchs and reigns. In England, this practice ends with the Edwardian, which is, not coincidentally, the antechamber to the hell of the First World War and the ensuing collapse of most of the great thrones. In America, which used to periodize things like architecture with sobriquets like "Colonial," we had already had "the Gilded Age," followed by "the 90s," thus setting the scene for "the 20s" or "the Jazz Age" (Vanity Fair was the Jazz Age magazine): periods that are practically co-terminous. It is, though, "the 30s" that confirm the idea of the decade as the modern way in which to reckon both history and culture.
To modernity, then. Without attempting an exhaustive definition, one can mention experiments with language and form, diminished respect for religion, the celebration of the fully fledged individual personality, the spread of images that are made with celluloid rather than with paint or stone, or that lend themselves to this form of reproduction, and-this perhaps above all-the loosening of sexual repression. Improvisation in music ceases to be frowned upon. Travel becomes a theme, even a need. The concept of speed is pervasive, as perhaps is the awareness of time being short. Easy money and new money are not thought of as necessarily immoral, and gambling becomes an art. (The implosion of the great casino of Wall Street in 1929 nearly replaces the Titanic of 1912 as the surpassing image.) Censorship, given the profusion and proliferation of means of communication, becomes almost a thing of the past. Its counterpart-Prohibition-is the occasion for something like mass civil disobedience in America, with the flaunting of the cocktail shaker and the speakeasy. Youth is to be celebrated for its own sake. An ambivalent phrase-"the loss of innocence"-becomes familiar. People start to wise up.
Frank Crowninshield's Vanity Fair was therefore the right magazine at the right time. And in order to have any sensitivity to timing, it is important above all to know when to stop. When to leave a party. When to break off an affair. The effect to be achieved is this: to be asked why you are doing so rather than why you are not. Taking all things into consideration, 1936 was just the right year for Vanity Fair to hang up its hat. With the war in Spain beginning that summer, and the severe aesthetic of the Works Progress Administration beginning to magnetize most of the country's best photographers and writers-even the divine Miss Dorothy Parker, Wodehouse's successor as the magazine's drama critic-the best recourse for the dandy and the flâneur was to adopt a policy of self-effacement. It's true that the magazine was numbered among those voices that spoke of that horrible Mr. Roosevelt, and that in 1933-the year of the Reichstag fire, no less-it had spoken of Hitler as "Handsome Adolf-A Law unto Himself." But H. L. Mencken had given Mein Kampf a friendly review, and later Time magazine put Hitler on the cover as Man of the Year, so perhaps this offense was not especially odious. At any rate, Messrs. Crowninshield and Nast understood when to bow politely out: a skill never evinced by Mr. Mencken or Time founder Mr. Luce.
In its second appearance, which we may date from the editorship of first Tina Brown and then Graydon Carter, the magazine had the advantage of knowing the mistakes of the previous one. People living in Weimar didn't exactly know that it was the Weimar period they were living through, but if in the 1990s one commissioned a feature on Leni Riefenstahl, for example, one had to do so with a certain-shall we say?-irony. A moral rudder could be-not too obtrusively-felt. One of the achievements of Crowninshield had been, in the spirit of the Parisian Americans of the Lost Generation, to introduce his readers to a world beyond the shores of American isolationism. By the 1980s, the world beyond those shores had become obsessed above all by American culture. And thus the choice of two non-American editors-Brown from England, Carter from Canada-who had been drawn into the American orbit was probably not accidental. They were volunteers for what Crowninshield in his mission statement (not that he would have dreamed of calling it that) had specified as "the progress and promise of American life." And, even if it all seemed a touch meretricious to many of us at the time, the Reagan years did mark the beginning of a new self-reliance and the close of the epoch of quasi-statism that had begun with F.D.R.'s New Deal. To the cartoonists, Nancy Reagan might sometimes have resembled Marie Antoinette, but there were a lot of blue-collar Reaganites about, and it certainly showed.
I shall not easily forget the time, in 1994, when those voters showed their power again and gave Congressman Newt Gingrich control of the U.S. House of Representatives. It fell to me to ask his press secretary, Tony Blankley, if the new Speaker and his closest cohort would agree to a group photograph for Vanity Fair. No thanks, was roughly the response. I pressed him. Perhaps he did not appreciate, I said, that the magazine was read not just by moguls, socialites, and Hollywood types. It had millions of readers in the middle of the nation as well. "Oh, yes, we do know that," replied Blankley (himself a former Hollywood child actor). "And it's those very people we don't want to see us in your glossy pages." I thought that this postmodern rebuff contained a distinct if oblique compliment. Anyway, it wasn't long before all Republicans were more than willing to be found posing in our pages once more. And it's been some time now since I have seen the magazine dismissed, in lofty tones, as being "glitzy" or a "glossy."
"If I say someone has no sense of humor," my friend Martin Amis once remarked, "I mean above all to impugn his seriousness." Grasp this, and you have the root of the matter. I spent half my life working for grimly "serious" weeklies like The Nation, and I sometimes turn straight to Edwin Coaster when I get my new copy of Vanity Fair, but it is on the magazine's behalf that I have found myself standing on mass graves in Eritrea, watching the ebb and flow of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, talking to persecuted dissenters in Cuba, and chronicling the effects of chemical warfare in Vietnam. To have once or twice worked with photographers like James Nachtwey is to have appreciated the way in which-contrary to a once cherished belief of mine-the photographic image can possess a moral weight greater than words. But there is no shame in returning from such an assignment and reporting to an office where fashion and comedy are also given a lot of loving attention. If I were to feel particularly sententious, I might even say that these are among the things in our culture that make it worth defending, against a stone-faced monotheistic and monochrome barbarism. Irony is another of these virtues-precisely because it is the polar opposite of the literal and humorless mind-set-and I think that Carter was fairly quick to see that he had been flirting with a false antithesis when he made his famous remark that September 11, 2001, marked the end of the age of irony.
Vanity Fair had never shirked the serious before September 2001, devoting huge space to Africa, for example, in 1994, the year that saw both the genocide in Rwanda and the election of Nelson Mandela to the presidency of South Africa. It devoted impressive attention, too, to the AIDS crisis, beginning with a feature in 1988 that curtain-raised the now regular idea of the "special issue." But it's probably not wrong to say that after 2001 the magazine became more self-conscious in emphasizing investigations, warnings, and the grainy and gritty aspects of modern life, while never ceasing to "own" the coverage of entertainment, media, and ephemeral quirkiness. Two very salient matters are set to dominate discussion for the next decade at the very least: the climatic crisis and the war on, or with, another, and theocratic, worldview. Not only can the magazine be counted upon to bring news from both fronts in every issue, but it has also become highly identified with a critique of each phenomenon. (I can say this as one who largely concurs with his colleagues about the planetary-warming emergency, and who sharply disagrees with most of them-and in the pages of Vanity Fair, at that-about the conflict in Iraq.)
These considerations even influence the relationship of the magazine to the all-important word "party." Frank Crowninshield conceived of Vanity Fair as a gathering of all that was witty and sophisticated, sure to "ignite a dinner party at fifty yards." Tina Brown-who had published a collection of essays called Life as a Party before becoming editor-dreamed of getting all the most amusing people into one room and then plying them with drinks to see what would happen. She also ran a memoir of depression, Darkness Visible, by William Styron, who once told me that it was parties, above all parties in his own honor, which drove him to turn his thoughts to suicide. Evelyn Waugh would have known what he meant. "Oh, Nina, what a lot of parties!"
Vanity Fair has now quite transcended the café society of its earlier incarnation. On one night of the year, it dominates Hollywood with an enviable reception. On another, it has the whole attention of the Cannes Film Festival with what it would be otiose to call a hot ticket. On still another, it is, again, the cream in the coffee and the gin in the Campari on what would otherwise be the rather flat evening of the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, in Washington, D.C. But on any other given night, at a party for the Natural Resources Defense Council, for example, or for Darfur and Not on Our Watch, the best table at the fund-raising event is likely to feature not just the magazine's business side, but also the presence of writers and photographers who actually know about these matters at first hand. Mr. Crowninshield's best-known descendant is his great-nephew, Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee, the legendary editor of The Washington Post at the time of Watergate, and the man who can fairly be credited with ending the tenure of a sick and venal president. Graydon Carter's raging thirst to emulate him in this respect may never quite be slaked, but all hard-news journalists in my hometown of Washington now read Vanity Fair as a matter of course, and more of them would like to write for it than can easily be accommodated. I don't think Mr. Crowninshield ever quite contrived to be able to say that.
Looking back over the elegant and polished issues that he published in the inter-war decades, I was struck more than anything by the way that the advertisements consisted largely of words. A lot of quite pretty and persuasive writing was done, in those days, by agency copywriters. (Even in our own time, both Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis got a start in the language game by producing material like this for Madison Avenue.)
Now, though, it is the work of photography upon which almost all advertising relies, and it used to be fashionable to complain that with Vanity Fair it had become hard to tell where the ads ended and the articles began. That this was unjust can easily be demonstrated, as Terence Pepper and David Friend show in their expert essays (on the pages that follow) exploring the immense care that true noncommercial photography requires, and the startling frames and framings that are the result. There's no doubt as to which archive of the lens a future social historian will have to consult.