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The Vanity of “Vanity Fair”

A monument to status anxiety

Once upon a time—between September 1913 and February 1936—there was Vanity Fair. A quarter of a century after it folded, Cleveland Amory called it “America’s most memorable magazine,” and only a curmudgeon would quarrel with that accolade. It inspired an unusual fondness in both its contributors and its readers when it was alive, and amazingly its reputation still inspires much the same fondness in those who have never turned its pages. It is understandable that Condé Nast Publications Inc., the firm descended from the original publisher, should have been tempted to revive it. After all, not even the soul (imagine such a thing) of a present-day corporate publisher can be satisfied by turning out the steadily successful Vogue and Bride’s and Glamour and House & Garden and Gentleman’s Quarterly and Mademoiselle and Self. So after more than a year of preparation, after the laying out of $10 million, and after a lot of ballyhoo, the new Vanity Fair has appeared, numbered “Vol. 46, No. 1.”

Perhaps one should just brush it aside—so crude, so wasted, so trumpery an effort: so crude that the twelve pages of ads for Ralph Lauren’s clothes stand out as by far the most appealing, likable, and even interesting thing in the whole 294 pages: Even the rather unbelievable picture of the young man (Princeton, Class of ’20) who clearly, knowing that he is beautiful, does not worry that he may be damned; his left hand caressing his right knee, his deep gaze that of a man who does not need a mirror to look timelessly on himself. The magazine costs “a hefty $3,” as The New York Times put it: a quarter for each page of Ralph Lauren, and you have, I suppose, your money’s worth; at least you had better think so, for there is little else to persuade. But we have to ask why, with such a model as the old Vanity Fair to inspire it, the new one is so awful. (So ugly, as I heard it called.) Is it just the publisher or the editor who is to blame? Or is it our own time? Or is it even New York—what has become of New York?

By numbering itself “Vol. 46, No. 1”—an act of bravado—it invites comparison with its predecessor. Not even the excellent anthology from the old Vanity Fair, which was published in 1960, really gives any idea of how wonderfully alive that magazine was, issue after issue for more than 20 years. One must read it—hold it in one’s hands—as the magazine it was.

It first appeared in September 1913 as Dress & Vanity Fair, having joined itself to the fashion magazine, and proclaimed in its subtitle that it would cover “Fashions. Stage. Society. Sports. The Fine Arts.” The marriage with Dress had a predictable result. After the ads at the beginning came a full-page photograph of Anna Pavolwa (sic), three-and-a-half pages on the Piping Rock Country Club in Long Island, four-and-a-half pages of pictures and text on Paris hats, three more pages on fashion photographs, one page of photographs of “Summer Diversions of Royalty”—and how quaint they are, one page of stills from the Drury Lane Company’s film of Hamlet, and so on. The promise lay only in the first editorial—“The brighter side of life is by no means the lesser side of life. Therefore in the pages of Dress & Vanity Fair, much of the joy of living will be found reflected, and much, too, of its more serious components.” And it lay in a lament for Fifth Avenue—(“now it is all trade and motors”)—to which I will return, for it tells us something. The second issue struck out boldly with an article by Louis Sherman defending plays that dealt with serious social issues—for example, prostitution: “Of all the pestilent humbugs in America, the alleged purity crusader is the worst.” It noticed in the authors of the plays a “growing sympathy with what is vaguely termed ‘socialism,’ ” and had considerable fun at the expense of Police Commissioner McAdoo, who had stopped the run of Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession and arrested all those who took part. The marriage with Dress was doomed to divorce.

The divorce came with the fifth issue, when the name was changed to Vanity Fair. The same issue announced that from the March 1914 issue the editor would be Frank Crowninshield, who was to remain its editor to the end. In his first editorial he set himself against the Puritanism that was the target also of such young rebels as Van Wyck Brooks and Randolph Bourne: “Let us instance one respect in which American life has recently undergone a great change. We allude to its increased devotion to pleasure, to happiness, to dancing, to sport . . . to the delights of the country, to laughter, and to all forms of cheerfulness. This tendency among us has been of late the subject of many parental warnings, admonitory sermons and somewhat lugubrious editorials. For our part it seems a bright sign in the heavens.” Taking sides even more emphatically, in defense of the “modern woman” who was being blamed for the collapse of all virtue, he went on: “For women we intend to do something in a noble and missionary spirit. . . . We mean to appeal to their intellects . . . and we hereby announce ourselves as determined and bigoted feminists.” By the time one turns to a page of cartoons, “Sex High Jinks,” Vanity Fair’s course is set.

That course took it head-high into the 1920s, and more than any other magazine comparable to it, even Mencken and Nathan’s Smart Set or their American Mercury, it captured at the time and still captures for us their spirit; not all of their spirit, for the 1920s were much more complex, even much more earnest, years than the legend of them allows, yet the spirit for which they are most celebrated, as Vanity Fair celebrated it in its own “Hall of Fame” each month, the men and women who were “making life less dull and more enchanting.”

There is no need here to repeat the triumphs of editorship. By publishing her “Men: A Hate Song,” Crowninshield lured from Vogue a “shy young copywriter” named Dorothy Rothschild, who then blossomed as Dorothy Parker. He printed “The Social Life of the Newt” by an unknown Harvard graduate, Robert C. Benchley, which later became his short film, The Sex Life of the Polyp. Aldous Huxley appeared in almost every issue from January 1921; D.H. Lawrence contributed regularly from February 1924; there were Thomas Wolfe and e.e. cummings, Max Beerbohm and Colette, P.G. Wodehouse and André Gide. “The great wrote about each other,” says Frederick J. Hoffman in The Twenties. Gertrude Stein on Picasso, Edmund Wilson (Jr., as he then signed himself) on T.S. Eliot, Eliot on Lawrence and James Joyce; and of course there was Walter Lippmann—always, everywhere, in the 1920s there was Walter Lippmann . . . the list is almost endless.

But such a catalog does not mean much. It is not names in themselves that make a magazine. A magazine has to have a feel to it. A good magazine is a balancing of the familiar with the unpredictable. It must be familiar enough for its readers to feel that they know (and trust) it and so look forward to it as if it were an old armchair; but it must also be unpredictable enough to take its readers unawares from time to time with an unexpected piece that makes them sit up, and even write those endearing letters (as long as there are not too many of them) canceling their subscriptions. The Vanity Fair of Frank Crowninshield achieved this balance almost unerringly; and the fundamental criticism of the new (and bastard) Vanity Fair is that it gives no sense of what kind of piece or illustration either belongs or does not belong in its pages.

It is slung together—after that year’s preparation, after the outlay of those $10 million—a mess at its heart. This is presumably why its first issue appears with no statement of aims, although its predecessor could clearly state its aims even while it was wedded to Dress. It is also why it is difficult, even after several perusals, to tell the ads from the illustrations. One can have only an increased admiration for The New Yorker which, with much the same kind of advertising, nevertheless manages to subdue it and keep its text plainly distinct. In the new Vanity Fair it is hard to tell whether the illustration of Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep by Mick Haggerty is not an ad—a garish but lackluster imitation of poster art as a first-year commercial art student might attempt it—and whether the two doublepage spreads of ads for Lois sportswear are not illustrations of the story by Gabriel García Márquez. This is not just a matter of the lousiest, most confusing layout with which any glossy magazine can ever have appeared, but a matter of fraudulence, of publishing a magazine whose publisher and editors (and so its contributors) have no idea why it is needed, what they have to tell, or even in what time or place they have their being.

Disraeli once told the students of Glasgow University that two kinds of knowledge were necessary for success in life. The first was self-knowledge. The second was knowledge of the spirit of the age. That did not mean, he said, that one must follow that spirit; it might be necessary to resist it, but it was essential to know the spirit of the age in which one lived and acted. The one clear virtue of the old Vanity Fair was that it knew the spirit of its age. It did not always follow it, it often resisted and challenged it; it certainly teased it. It is not irrelevant that Frank Crowninshield was one of the active sponsors of the famous Armory Show in 1913, or that he played a part in helping to found the Museum of Modern Art in 1930—two dates in the art history of New York that almost set the boundaries to the life of his magazine— for it was from such high seriousness, such dedication to the arts and to literature, that there came the fun, the extraordinary fun, of Vanity Fair, including its joyful celebration of the flapper. With absolute joy, but also with seriousness, it saluted the flapper:

She will go to school. She will talk philosophy, physiology and art with you.
She will be a stenographer, a school teacher, a movie actress.
But she will not cook for you.
She will not do your washing,
She will not knit her own stockings.

That was Alfredo Panzini on “The Flapper— A New Type” in September 1921. But three months later, in waded Heywood Broun to make quite sure, in an article called “Canonizing the Flapper,” that the worship was not carried too far: “The discovery has at last been made that though the flapper may smoke and drink and swear, underneath her rough exterior she has a heart of gold.”

So the old Vanity Fair took its stand in its own age, applauding much of what was going on, always cheerfully interested in it, but never revering it. Again and again, it was on target, as in John Peale Bishop’s review of The Beautiful and Damned:

But, as with This Side of Paradise, the most interesting thing about Mr. Fitzgerald’s book is Mr. Fitzgerald. He has already created about himself a legend. . . . He has an amazing grasp of the superficialities of the men and women about him, but he has not yet a profound understanding of their motives, either intellectual or passionate. Even with his famous flapper, he has as yet failed to show that hard intelligence, that intricate emotional equipment, upon which her charm depends.

One believes that Crowninshield knew exactly what he was doing when beneath a photograph of Mary Pickford, as she was about to leave for France, he put the caption: “What Marie Antoinette was to Eighteenth Century France, Mary Pickford is to Twentieth Century America.” (In fact, I would not be surprised if that was one of Dorothy Parker’s gems. After all, her first job was to write captions, and her first caption was to six photographs of underwear: “Brevity is the soul of lingerie, as the Petticoat said to the Chemise.”) But then one turns to the celebrities who are celebrated by the new Vanity Fair— the “Crowned Heads: Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep,” Roy Lichtenstein, Kevin Kline, Debra Winger, and Michael Graves—and, apart from conveying no hint of why these were chosen, the reverence is almost hushed. Of De Niro and Streep: “They rule then, because we willingly become their subjects, because for a few hours in the dark they have no peers.” Of Lichtenstein; “Was anyone foolish enough to think he couldn’t do that, if he wanted to, and make it work like a dream?” This is insincere writing, hence its gushing earnestness.

There are People-length tributes to Elizabeth Hardwick, to John Huston, to V.S. Pritchett, all very deserving people, but why them, now, in March 1983? The magazine has nothing to say about them. They are thrown in as little dollops of culture, olives in the martini, for what culture is to the new Vanity Fair, which it never was to the old, is busy name dropping. In a wretched piece of trash about Alfred Hitchcock by one of the editors himself, Walter Clemons, the name dropping is carried to the point of unselfconscious caricature. Opening sentence: “Imprisoned in every fat man, Cyril Connolly thought, a thin one was wildly signaling to get out.” Closing sentence: “A mousetrap skillfully set, Hamlet told us, can catch a conscience.” Thanks, Cyril. Thanks, Hamlet. And thanks, Walter, for letting us share. But why those names, Connolly and Hamlet, why those pointless allusions? Jesus, as St. John said, wept.

For there must be some weeping at this travesty. If it is not just the fault of the editors (one of whom publishes himself three times in the one issue with his punch-drunk newsmagazine prose—“. . . .with plenty of power when Le Carr・floorboards his story to the end . . .”) can it be the fault of our age? Is this a reflection of ourselves; at our best, at our worst, it hardly matters? Do we twitter as vulgarly as this, even at a cocktail party where one would, indeed, expect to find the contributors, Calvin Trillin, John Leonard, Nora Ephron, Richard Avedon, Snowdon (there’s the royalty), and Andy Warhol, tired, limp Andy Warhol, always roped in by editors who want a show of Art? Perhaps our age really is like this; in which case, we may as well put up the shutters, and be done with it. Is this all that $10 million can do?

As one would expect, the prose is the giveaway; or rather, one should say, the traducing of prose. Good prose, that down-to-earth concrete manner of expression, rests securely (and so, unexpectedly, can take wing) only on its honesty. Poetry can get away with lies— poetry trades in magnificent lies—but prose cannot afford them. The false, forced, fatuous brightness of the writing in the new Vanity Fair does not torture the language—it is not even as impressive as that—it twitches it. It is not electric. It is the jerk of the man in the electric chair after the electricity has passed through him. How flat—this is what is telling—are its peaks:

Carol Flake on The Night of the Shooting Stars: “Still, like a verismo opera, it sweeps us along, leaving us as forlorn as Galvano when the world returns to normal.” Bull. And imagine how a nonverismo opera would sweep us along.

Elizabeth Pochoda on Czesław Miłosz: “Miłosz has a generous mind as well as a Nobel Prize.” That about says it all; that is what passes for critical judgment. What is meant by the juxtaposition? Are Nobel Prize winners expected or not expected to have generous minds, and who really cares, when it is put like that, about either?

Wayne Lawson on Cats: “And John Napier’s set and costumes are so brilliant they make you want to be a cat and live in an alley.” Make who want to? “You,” he says. Not me, emphatically not me.

Then there is John Leonard, that dauntless exposer of the empty spaces, the interior desert of his mind—which is like Australia, populated round the fringes, a trackless vacancy inside. At $80,000 a year, it is said, he is meant to be the flagship of this disordered fleet of toy Titanics. (Well, one mixes one’s metaphors after a weekend with Vanity Fair.) In an expected piece of puffery for the magazine in the “Style” section of The Washington Post, the author says of Leonard’s piece that he “writes in an experimental style about America today.” One might as well talk of an experimental burp. He engages in a dialogue with some unknown, unnamed Japanese woman: “She wants to know what America was like in the 1970s. (Never mind who she is.) I want to know why the local god of music has five eyes. (I’m not an innocent abroad.)” And then, half a page later: “She watches me play with her toes.” He’s got it wrong. Japanese women are not altogether inane. She was watching him play with his toes—which is all that his writing ever is—and his picture of America today never gets beyond his toes. But he really ought not to be caught painting them in public.

There is, of course, the story by García Márquez; but to lift one plum from a Nobel Prize winner (who is also, no doubt, generous minded) is more a proof of money than of editorial acumen. There is a piece by Gore Vidal on the Gobi Desert—you have to write about something—which makes one sigh (and this is an achievement of the magazine), “Some writing, actual writing, at last.” There is a piece by Robert Stone praising Joan Didion’s book on El Salvador, which confirms my belief that the real allure of her writing is that she is a defrocked nun, whether in California or EI Salvador, surprised always to find virtue in wickedness and wickedness in virtue.

You are allowed in Vanity Fair to care about El Salvador in a pointless kind of way, as long as no one up north is inconvenienced. So here is our own Ronald Steel, saying that America should mind its own business, replace “the old internationalism” with “a stricter notion of self-interest, one that recognizes the difference between what we can do and what we would like to do.” But this sounds all too much like the kind of country the advertisers in these pages want; an enclave where narcissistic consumerism can flourish.

This new Vanity Fair is from Madison Avenue, literally and figuratively; it is a Madison Avenue product, a packaged brain(?)child of a publishing corporation, its accountants, and the advertisers. It has no other reason for being but to make money for the publishing corporation, its accountants, and the advertisers. You could have put a computer in the editor’s chair, and it would have printed out the name of David Levine as the man for a caricature. (The bother about a Levine caricature now is that it looks like every other one. When one’s seen one, as Barry Goldwater thought, one’s seen them all.) So the magazine is aimed at the rich.

But that is not really the point. In a way, the old Vanity Fair lived off the richness of the 1920s. If the rich had not been there, tossing their money all over the place, Vanity Fair would have had no one to laugh at, and in the end to console it, for it was quite fun in the 1920s to see so many people all enjoying being rich. But the new Vanity Fair is addressed to the fretful rich. We knew that the fretful rich were becoming a problem when The New York Times felt that it had to begin a “Living” section. (The frightfully rich do not have to be told how to spend their money.) The fretful rich suffer from what in the 1950s was discovered to be “status anxiety.” The new Vanity Fair is, from start to finish, a magazine of status anxiety.

That is where we must return to Fifth Avenue. The lament for its passing in the first issue of Dress & Vanity Fair was insignificant. Until the beginning of this century, Fifth Avenue was not just rich, it was all style, the Fifth Avenue of Edith Wharton. Even as late as 1916, Hart Crane could write to his father, when he saw it for the first time: “I have just been out for a long ride up Fifth Avenue on an omnibus. It was very cold but clear, and the marble facades of the marvelous mansions shone like crystal in the sun.” But then with the coming of the electric railway, which made Park Avenue livable (but not lovable, as Fifth had been), “all the rich” (for that is how the rich are usually talked about) moved from Fifth to Park. They moved from the mansions of Fifth to the high apartment barracks of Park (The New Republic at the time did what would now be called an “indepth” study of how many of the rich could now live under one roof), and with that move something went out of New York’s life forever. “Where else is there a spectacle like the recently grown splendor of Park Avenue,” asked Waldo Frank in 1925, “that parade of pompous tombs, shutting in wealth and shutting out the sun?” The rich no longer, one might say, felt at home with their wealth.

But still something of that spirit carried all through the New York of the 1920s—it leaps from the letters of young writers like Hart Crane or Edmund Wilson— and the old Vanity Fair carried that spirit of New York in its heart. Condé Nast himself wrote in December 1921: “New York is the mirror of America. In the polished surface of this great metropolis are reflected the shadows of citizens from all over the world.” From that unfretful New York of the 1920s there bubbled forth all those magazines, the Smart Set and the American Mercury, Vanity Fair and, of course, The New Yorker, and it is endless fun to watch, in their letters, the writers of the time jumping from one magazine to the other. “Cummings looks bilious and harried,” wrote Hart Crane to Waldo Frank in 1925. “His connections with Vanity Fair are broken and like the rest of us he is looking for pennies.” John O’Hara wanted to write about coal mines for The New Yorker. Wolcott Gibbs told him one night in a speakeasy, talking of O’Hara and his brother: “You O’Haras simply refuse to recognize the fact that The New Yorker isn’t for clever people. The New Yorker’s for people who live on Riverside Drive,” and O’Hara admitted to his brother that Gibbs might be right: “Pennsylvania mining country is not good copy in a magazine read by people who don’t know the difference between anthracite and bituminous.” Unfretful writers and unfretful readers. (It is wholly characteristic that Richard Avedon’s photographs in the new Vanity Fair are of coal miners whom he manages to translate into punk rock stars with their faces blackened.)

But all through it went the alertness, the serious curiosity about what was happening to the whole society, even while pinning it down to New York. “We have no convenient local symbol of the upper class,” wrote Frank Moore Colby in Vanity Fair in 1921, “and when you think of New York best society you never think of any name of person or place; you think only of an income.” He spoke of

the few general symbols that remain, such as Wall Street for sin and shame. Brooklyn for rusticity. Harlem for distance. Bowery for low life. As for high life, jumping about the city like a neuralgic pain. . . .

And there, 62 years later now, is the evidence. For that is exactly all the high life that there is in the new Vanity Fair— “jumping about the city like a neuralgic pain”—and what it marks, sadly, is the death of New York.