Here’s to a More Incredulous Age

The Vanity Fair of today embodies a certain sort of lavishness—an often unironic appreciation of and yearning for rich people things. It wasn’t always this way.

Michelle Dean is a journalist and critic who lives in New York. Her writing has appeared online...

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I wish I could remember who handed me my first glossy magazine because it was probably a formative moment. I’m from a world of crocheted afghans, Lipton orange pekoe tea, and devil’s food cake made from the box. My frame of reference did not include galas and Martha’s Vineyard. And it was the articles about crime, actually, that drew me into Vanity Fair and its world of Kennedy compounds and Met benefits. The atmosphere of wealth and privilege just bubbled up through pieces about murders on Kennedy compounds.

That it has become such a celebratory document of the upper class is one of Vanity Fair’s ironies. In fact, as you may know, today’s Vanity Fair is edited by a lapsed Canadian named Graydon Carter. He has had the job since 1992; before that he edited a much beloved media magazine called Spy. Carter is now deeply enmeshed in New York rich-people circles, to the point of having once founded a restaurant. Yet he and I apparently went to the same high school in Ottawa, decades apart. Whatever bits of ordinary Canadian teenager might be left in him never appear in his editors’ notes. They are all written with the self-assured bombast I used to think was “very American” until I realized I could do a passable imitation of it myself.

Case in point: Just recently his magazine put out a book designed to shore up its brand, titled Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers and Swells: The Best of Early Vanity Fair. And everything in its preface, written by Carter, is characteristically breathless, if nonetheless sincere:

It was the modern magazine during that early incarnation, from 1913 to 1936. And everybody, everybody wrote for it, including, in no particular order, P.G. Wodehouse, Alexander Woollcott, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot…

This list continues at some incredible length, often in no particular order—indeed, considering that Fitzgerald barely wrote for VF. The entire book is an effort to shore up mythology, to connect the current Vanity Fair to the first one. But in fact there was a lapse of nearly 50 years between them. And the connection between Vanity Fair and money was a little more tenuous the first time around. “The modern magazine” got folded into Vogue in 1936 because the collapse of advertising in the Great Depression led Condé Nast (yes, he was a real person once) to conclude he could no longer maintain it as a separate entity.

When the magazine was revived in 1983, it was actually something of a literary effort. After its first issue was widely panned, a new editor-in-chief was installed. Only then did the whole effort take a turn for the glitterati, first through a man named Leo Lerman and then through Tina Brown, and eventually Carter. Now it has become a magazine whose editorial quandaries consist chiefly of wondering if they’re being too harsh on Gwyneth Paltrow.

Some of that is the changing times. But some of it is also unquestionably Carter, who, as a person who came late to the scene of rich Americans, likes to celebrate ascension and arrival. (He once told New York magazine that “When I came to New York, I was broke. I was desperate.”) Even the stories of corruption his magazine tells bear in their heart an assumption that the crimes are important because they were perpetrated on Important People; Dominick Dunne’s much-loved column was predicated on this, much of the time.

It wasn’t always that way.


The man responsible for the early Vanity Fair, Frank Crowninshield, was more of a to-the-manor-born type. Carter expends a lot of energy describing Crowninshield as a “cultural clairvoyant” who spent “twenty-two roller-coaster years” atop the masthead. He was, in fact, something more of a genteel, dandyish Boston Brahmin. He just happened to see something in his world to rebel against.

He was appointed to be the editor of the former Dress & Vanity Fair by his friend Condé Nast in 1914. That magazine had been small and dowdy, and Nast and Crowninshield decided to shorten the name in an attempt to energize it. This was not, by the way, the work of youth: Crowninshield was already in his forties. He would stay a little over 21 years, well into his sixties. Yet a secretary of his would later recall him as “young, with brown curly hair and a brown curly mustache. It seems to me now we laughed all day long.”

He had long been a man-about-town, an editor and publisher of smaller magazines. He had also written a short but amusing book of aphorisms called Manners for the Metropolis: An Entrance Key to the Fantastic Life of the 400, where he presents dinner thusly:

A dinner is a miscellaneous collection of appropriately dressed men and women, who are not in the least hungry and who are invited by the host and hostess to repay certain social obligations for value received or expected. The attitude of the guests at such a repast is very often one of regret and revolt, because of the haunting memory of an invitation, much more enticing in its prospects, but, alas, more recently received.

The archness there tells you something about the man, i.e. that he’s funny, but also takes a pose of detachment and deflection toward the world to which he belongs. Knowing the upper-class dinner party as intimately as he did somehow liberated him from endorsing its mores.

The magazine he constructed would reflect this spirit. It is no accident that one of the first people he plucked from his slush pile was a young poet named Dorothy Rothschild. She’d sent him a short lyric called “Any Porch,” which satirized the idle chatter of old women at the sort of East Coast summer resort she frequently found herself in:

My husband says, often, ‘Elise’
You feel things too deeply, you do—’
Yes, forty a month if you please,
Oh servants impose on me, too.

Rothschild would eventually marry and change her byline to Dorothy Parker. And she’d go to work for Vanity Fair full-time with Crowninshield.

Crowninshield foreshadows his attraction to Parker’s acid pen in his first editor’s note, where he wrote that the magazine was intended for both sexes but:

For women we intend to do something in a noble and missionary spirit, something which, so far as we can observe, has never before been done for them by an American magazine. We mean to make frequent appeals to their intellects. We dare to believe that they are, in their best moments, creatures of some cerebral activity; we even make bold to believe that it is they who are contributing what is more original, stimulating, and highly magnetized to the literature of our day, and we hereby announce ourselves as determined and bigoted feminists.

“Determined and bigoted feminists” is quite the phrase, isn’t it? And particularly so coming from a general-interest magazine editor in 1914. Feminism was beginning to creep into the general lexicon, but it was still more discussed inradical socialist magazines than among the rich and leisurely to whom Vanity Fair expected to address itself.

It’s hard to know where Crowninshield came by these attitudes, because so much of what we know about Crowninshield comes from other people. (He left behind no collection of papers.) And he was not a man given to self-revelation; he preferred modern art and jokes. In other people’s telling, Crowninshield begins to sound less like a person than a character in an Oscar Wilde story, decadent but opaque. People note his love of clothes—he was especially fond of pink shirts and ties, Nast’s biographer Caroline Seebohm says—and the word “dandy” is frequently tossed about. Search for his name in the newspapers and you’ll find him at every party. But try to put him together and all you can do is string together quotes, and none of them particularly revealing.

One possibility is that he really did have an experience of a subculture. Crowninshield never married, and there is speculation that he may have been gay. Edmund Wilson, who would become a managing editor at Vanity Fair in 1922, pooh-poohed these rumours, saying he had a girlfriend, though he also had a “not very attractive habit of seizing you by the arm in a way that seemed calculated to establish some kind of affectionate ascendancy.” Crowninshield did live with a divorced Condé Nast for six years in the 1920s, apparently as totally asexual friends. This interlude as roommates is often cited as the chief proof of homosexuality, even by Nast himself. “I suppose people thought we were fairies,” Crowninshield blithely said to an Esquire interviewer. But he does not seem to have gone out of his way to discount the rumors.


Money matters always creep into a publication by way of its advertising arm, which has to make money to support the writers. The power of an editor depends somewhat on how he negotiates the balance between good writing and the demands of commerce. Crowninshield was positively antagonistic to his sales people. For example, Crowninshield’s passion for art—he had helped with the famed 1913 Armory Show and was a founding member of MOMA—led him to include artists like Picasso and Matisse in the magazine. Popular taste had not quite caught up with abstract art yet, so this was daring. And he used the ad sales force as a sort of focus group for his choices:

[Crowninshield] would sometimes show the advertising people on the magazine one of his more “decadent” art reproductions, and if they didn’t understand it he would rush it enthusiastically into print.

Crowninshield was also devoted to hiring people who, not to put too fine a point on it, found the universe itself ridiculous. Parker’s early contributions to the magazine were literally “hate songs” about women (and men). Another early hire, the humorist Robert Benchley, was more about skewering himself in service of skewering others’ artistic pretensions, say to writing fiction:

My idea was to create something big in fiction.

Perhaps not exactly a “Les Miserables,” – that would take such an unconscionable time and I have my insurance business that I must give my days to – but a book that would further some good cause, one way or another, a book which my publishers might advertise as “charmingly written in that delightful style which the public have come to know so well, yet, at the same time, pregnant with a real, vital message, which every man, woman and child would do well to take to heart.” That’s the kind of stuff I think I could do fairly well. In fact, my English-Composition teacher in the High School told my mother that I could.

Not every piece the magazine published was like this; there were columnists on clothing, for example, now-forgotten names, who were hand-picked by Nast himself to satisfy advertisers. These columns all have the sound of conciliation to them, running through boring remarks on shirts and golf framed in workaday prose.

Eventually Vanity Fair’s antagonistic attitude toward the world outside did turn into advertiser conflicts. In the most famous of these, Parker got fired as a theatre critic. She told The Paris Review it was because she’d panned three Broadway plays in a row; other reports give a different story. The last straw, they say, came when Parker compared the actress Billie Burke (whom you know best as Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz) to an exotic dancer named Eva Tanguay. Burke’s husband was Flo Ziegfeld, who called Crowninshield to complain. The ensuing back-and-forth led Parker, Benchley, and a third editor to leave the magazine entirely. By then they’d made some reputation for themselves; a newspaper columnist complained about Vanity Fair losing its “Mrs. Parker.”

Edmund Wilson came in as a managing editor to replace them. (He was Parker’s own slush-pile find at one point.) He’d become one of America’s great literary critics, but at the time he was in his twenties and good friends with a budding young writer named F. Scott Fitzgerald. Slowly he began filling its pages with people we now think of as desperately famous but who then were just starting out: Fitzgerald, Edna St. Vincent Millay, e.e. cummings.

The second half of Vanity Fair’s original tenure has always been less storied than the first. It was still an important magazine, but The New Yorker was coming up. In its early years, Harold Ross’s magazine would be the one to publish both Parker and Benchley in their finishing-school phase as celebrity writers, and poach all the rest of the talent besides. The momentum shifted, and The New Yorker, obviously, weathered the Depression intact, unlike Vanity Fair itself.

Crowninshield died in 1947, a decade after the magazine was folded into Vogue. The New York Times obituary read like an encomium to a lesser god. “The mold is broken,” it said. Whether he meant to break anything at all is a historian’s debate at this point. Sometimes cultural change happens because people mean to shake matters up; others discover that public opinion can be greatly disturbed by a joke or two that pierces the heart of its subject matter. (Or, in Parker’s case, I guess, the ankle.)

His Vanity Fair, in short, sought to break something. Its initial sharpness drove at some kind of point other than the enjoyment of fine food and clothing. And if that point was not exactly radical politics, it still had a way of breaking up established opinion. If only we still lived in an age where public commentators found wealth and power so inherently ridiculous.


The Recommender: All the Best of 2014
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