Fleur Cowles: The Queen of FLAIR

There are a lot of magazines, past and present.  But there has never been a magazine like FLAIR.  No magazine has ever been more aptly named than FLAIR, Fleur Cowles’ iconic creation that has launched thousands of fans, ideas, collections, not to mention another contemporary marvel of a magazine.  Each issue of FLAIR was so gorgeous and tactile, it was too expensive to produce to be long-lived, and its artful intelligence, unique beauty and short run have helped make it highly sought-after by collectors and those who cherish things like intelligence, art, and beauty.  Most people gain an appreciation for the magazine with the 1996 book The Best of Flair, which shines a spotlight, albeit a two-dimensional one, on much of the content, ideas and imagery that made FLAIR so special.

It comes as no surprise that an original, innovative magazine like FLAIR was the brainchild of an original and innovative dame.  Fleur Cowles deserves credit and recognition for looking at the ubiquitous, often mundane magazine and seeing its possibilities as precious works of art and inspiration.  So, who was this woman with the genius and chutzpah to challenge what a magazine was and could be?

Like Diana Vreeland, another mid-century style icon with whom she’s sometimes compared, Fleur was a Jewish girl who dreamed of rising above her minority’s and gender’s limitations.  Fleur Cowles was born Florence Freidman in 1908, her father a novelty salesman in New York City.  Florence’s siblings later adopted the less Semitic surname Freeman, while the parade of surnames from Florence’s four marriages easily wiped away any trace of her heritage.

“I have an idea a minute I’m a born idea myself.” – Fleur Cowles

Like so many dames, Florence was intent on re-inventing herself and making it in a man’s world.  Describing herself as “rough, uncut, vigorous” she told Time magazine, “I’ve worked hard, and I’ve made a fortune, and I did it in a man’s world, but always, ruthlessly, and with a kind of cruel insistence, I have tried to keep feminine.”  This is the kind of dumb answer women were forced to offer up when interviewers incredulously queried how women could possibly work hard and be glamorous all at the same time.  (AMAZING!  You can have a full-time career AND  shave your legs!)  Anyway, Florence ditched the Florence, and Fleur steam-rolled though the stigma and sexism and in the early 1930s she started writing a weekly column for The New York World-Telegram.  In 1937, this super dame became co-founder and executive vice president of an advertising agency.  In 1947, she became an associate editor at Look magazine, and a year later, an associate editor at Quick magazine.  Talented though she was, all this was in large part thanks to her third husband, Gardner Cowles, Jr., heir to the Cowles Media Company and publisher of Look.

Look magazine was a photo-heavy competitor of Life magazine.  Fleur understood what so many of her male peers did not, that women were largely the ones buying general interest magazines (and the products advertised).  She gave Look  more fashion, cooking, and home decor content, ending up upping Look’s circulation.

This success, and her sharing the boss’s bed, enabled Fleur to ask her husband for the capital to finance her dream: her own “class magazine,” a periodical intended to be more inspirational than relatable for actual or aspiring housewives.  Fleur didn’t give a shit about spreads touting the best floor cleaner or dish soap.  Cowles imagined FLAIR as a “jewel” that would be as sparkling, sharp and precious as her trademark huge, uncut emerald ring.  In her 1996 memoir, She Made Friends and Kept Them, an 88-year-old Fleur wrote, “Most women married to rich men hope for a yacht or racehorses or more jewels.  But what I secretly longed for was the opportunity to create a ‘magazine-jewel’ which would reflect the real me.”

FLAIR magazine stood out then as it would stand out now.  It’s almost hard to even use the word ‘magazine’ to describe it.  The content was nothing like what you’d find in other periodicals.  Fleur hired Jean Cocteau to write a miniature book about Americans in Paris for the “Paris issue”; Simone de Beauvoir wrote a personal essay about the value of women’s time; Margaret Mead penned an essay titled, “Stop Giving Second-Rate Reasons for First-Rate Behavior.”  FLAIR contributors included Salvador Dali, Tennessee Williams, Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Katherine Anne Porter, W.H. Auden,  Winston Churchill, Jean Cocteau, Lucian Freud, Clare Boothe Luce, Ogden Nash, Colette, even Marcel Proust’s housekeeper.

Each issue of FLAIR had a theme, executed with intelligence and style.  There were “Rose”, “College”, “Paris”, “Holiday” themes and the “All-Male” issue.  But in every issue, the content covered a wide range of subjects meant to challenge readers’ minds and imaginations.  But today FLAIR is best known for the traits that led to its downfall: a dizzying array of truly inventive and innovative graphic elements and lavish features.  Cowles had some features include perfumed pages (for the “Rose” issue”), peek-a-boo cut-outs, some were sliced in half or folded like accordions, while other issues included removable portfolios and pull-out Christmas Carol booklets.  One issue re-invented the cliché fashion spread with pages cut in half to create a sort of pop-up book where readers might mix and match the outfits on the pages, adding or subtracting skirts, jackets and accessories.

The magazine was a feast for the eyes and the intellect (and in some cases, the nose).  It also offered inventive tactile surprises.  In addition to the aforementioned pamphlet inserts and cut-outs, issues of FLAIR might have trap doors, photo spreads with flip books, and multiple kinds of paper within a single issue.  As a reader flipped through FLAIR, he or she would encounter heavy cardstock in one article and then onionskin, glossy pages and newsprint in other parts of the magazine – all dependent on what the feature’s content might warrant.  It’s been said that “If the technology had existed in 1950 for lickable paper, Cowles likely would have made the magazine edible, too.”

It’s probably no surprise that FLAIR was hands-on in more ways than one.  Fleur oversaw each and every aspect of her magazine, including every ad page.  Foreshadowing today’s ubiquitous “advertorials,” Cowles convinced companies to tailor their spreads to the editorial content of each magazine, hoping to make each issue as seamless as possible.  Her goal was to encourage advertisers to make the ads as whimsical and inventive as the rest of the magazine, getting them to create pamphlets and papercuts  so readers would “experience the magazine as a holistic, unbroken fantasy.”

But in just a year, readers’ and Fleur’s feast and fantasy came to an end.  FLAIR began in 1950 and lasted only a year.  The expensive special costs were insupportable.  According to Vanity Fair, by the time the magazine closed, Flair’s “before-tax losses had mounted to $2,485,000—averaging out to a 75-cent loss on each copy sold.”  (Adjusting for inflation, that’s over $25 million in today’s money.)  This huge loss had Fleur’s husband kill Fleur’s FLAIR.  (Soon after, on discovering Mr. Cowles had a mistress Fleur murdered the marriage.)

After the magazine was shut down, a swan-song FLAIR Annual was released in 1953 with a compilation of stories that had not run in the magazine.  Fleur tried to revive FLAIR as a book series, but without her husband’s big ole bank account, she couldn’t bring back all the elements that had made the magazine so magical.

But while FLAIR was over, Fleur was not.  Cowles was as larger-than-life as her magazine.  (In 1950, she was lampooned by S.J. Perelman in The New Yorker as glamorous editor “Hyacinth Beddoes Laffoon”.)  In 1955 Fleur moved to Europe to serve as Look magazine’s foreign editorial consultant and married her fourth and last husband, Tom Montague Meyer (CBE), a “timber executive”.  (Don’t you just want to say “timber executive” a couple of times?  For some reason, I do.  Or maybe I just want to introduce someone as a “timber executive”.  I’m not sure.)  Oh, and did I mention the best man at the Fleur and “timber executive” wedding was Cary Grant?  Cary effing Grant.  (That’s the kind of thing that happens when you’re a baller timber executive, my friends.)

See, Fleur and her husband were good friends with Cary Grant.  As her memoir, She Made Friends and Kept Them implies, Fleur had a lot of friends.  When you’ve got Fleur’s brain, charm and style, you get timber tycoons and you get some amazing pals.  Her friends included writers, painters, diplomats, Elizabeth Taylor, Winston Churchill, Princess Grace.  Listen, our girl threw an annual birthday party for her best friend…the Queen Mother.  Fleur was a rich bon vivant with movie star royalty and royalty royalty for friends.  She even liked liked Ike, representing Dwight D. Eisenhower at Elizabeth II’s coronation.

Now don’t think our smart stylista with gorgeous pale blonde hair and oversized black, blue-tinted glasses just flitted around marrying timber executives (can’t stop myself), hanging with Marilyn Monroe and throwing parties for her royal bestie.  Fleur spent her later years painting, serving on various government committees and creating an American Studies department at Oxford University.

Fleur Cowles lived a long, dame-erific life, active and fabulous well into her 90s.  (According to The New York Times made it to 101 – she died in 2009.)  And Fleur and her fabulous mind and style definitely continue to live on through the coveted, practically worshipped talisman that is FLAIR magazine.  Writers, designers, artists and all those who appreciate inventive style continue to appreciate this pioneer and her “jewel”.  Pristine issues go for exorbitant prices on eBay, while non-collectors get a hint of what was – and continues to be – so special about FLAIR through the highlights compendium.  Also, those who’d love get some of that ‘flair’ magic in their heads and homes can look to Ivy Baer’s Vintage Magazine, a contemporary journal jewel completely inspired by Fleur Cowles’ baby.

Back in 1950, for just one year, readers and artists were treated to FLAIR, the magazine and its embodiment.  For us, thanks to vintage issues of FLAIR and Vintage Magazine, pioneer Fleur Cowles’ vitality and vision are continually re-kindled by new fans. Well into the 21st century, FLAIR and Fleur live on.


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