Monday, June 8, 2009

Fleur - A Born Idea Myself

“I have an idea a minute,” Ms. Cowles once said. “I’m a born idea myself.”

By ENID NEMY Published: June 8, 2009

Fleur Cowles, who rose from modest beginnings in New York to become a well-heeled friend of the powerful and famous and the creator of one of the most extravagant and innovative magazines ever published, died on Friday at a nursing home in Sussex, England. She was 101, and her death was confirmed by her husband, Tom Montague Meyer. Ms. Cowles (pronounced coals) was a painter, a writer and a renowned hostess. But she took greatest pride in two things.

One was her short-lived magazine, Flair, published in the 1950s during her marriage to Gardner Cowles Jr., known as Mike, the publisher of Look magazine. The other was her talent for friendship. Her anecdotal memoir, “She Made Friends and Kept Them” (HarperCollins, 1996), was practically a Rolodex of many of the world’s most recognizable names: American presidents, foreign heads of state, Queen Elizabeth II, Elizabeth the Queen Mother (described as her “best friend”), Princess Grace, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Lady Bird Johnson, Pope John XXIII, Howard Hughes, Judy Garland, Joan Miró (who designed her dresses) and Cary Grant, the best man at her wedding to her fourth husband, Mr. Meyer (pronounced to rhyme with “clear”).

Although there were just 12 issues of Flair, published from February 1950 to January 1951, the magazine caused a sensation and is still admired for its coverage of fashion, décor, travel, art, literature and other enthusiasms of Ms. Cowles’s. It was part of the Cowles publishing empire, which included newspapers in the Midwest and, most notably, Look magazine, of which Ms. Cowles had been an influential editor.But Flair, incorporating cutouts, fold-outs, pop-ups, removable reproductions of artworks and a variety of paper stocks of different sizes and textures, was simply too expensive to produce, even though it sold for 50 cents a copy when Time and Life were selling for 20 cents.

When Flair ceased publication, Mr. Cowles, who had financed it, estimated that it had lost $2.5 million. Circulation, less than 100,000 for the first issue, eventually doubled, but advertising did not follow, and losses were running about 75 cents a copy.The preview issue, in September 1949, reflected Ms. Cowles’s passion for the arts and boasted a two-layer cover. The outside was embossed with a basket-weave pattern and punctuated with a hole, through which could be seen a picture of a man and woman embracing. The inside cover showed the couple as part of a wall layered with a collage of shredded posters.A spring issue featured the rose, a flower Ms. Cowles painted and extolled until her death. The issue was suffused with a rose fragrance, some four decades before scent strips became ubiquitous.

Housed within it, bound as a booklet, was a tribute to the rose by Katherine Anne Porter. The magazine itself had a rose named after it — Flair rose — and there is a Fleur Cowles rose as well.

Flair published stories and articles by W. H. Auden, Jean Cocteau, Simone de Beauvoir, Angus Wilson, Tennessee Williams, Ogden Nash and Clare Boothe Luce, among others. Salvador Dalí, Saul Steinberg, Lucian Freud, Rufino Tamayo and even Winston Churchill were among the contributing artists.

Mr. Cowles wrote in his own memoir, “Mike Looks Back,” that his wife had been determined to start a magazine that would appeal to an elite audience. He had created Look, one of America’s most popular magazines, but Ms. Cowles was ashamed of its “man’s barbershop” reputation.

Even before their wedding, in 1946, he said, she insisted that he move the Cowles headquarters from Iowa to New York, and that he personally edit and change Look’s image.

“The Best of Flair,” a compilation of art, photographs and essays from the magazine, was published in 1996 by HarperCollins in an edition of 3,000 copies at $250 each.

Ms. Cowles variously gave her birthplace as Boston and Montclair, N.J., her parents as Matthew Fenton and Eleanor Pearl Fenton, and the year of her birth as anywhere from 1910 to 1917. Census records and reminiscences of friends and relatives indicate that she was born on Jan. 20, 1908, in New York City, the daughter of Morris and Lena Freidman, and that her name at birth was Florence. Her family moved to Bloomfield, N.J., when she was very young, and her sister, Millicent (who also later adopted the name Fenton), was born there. She attended high school in Bloomfield and later, according to her own biographical notes, the School of Fine and Applied Arts in New York, which no longer exists. Her father, who was in the novelty business, deserted the family while she was still in school.

Her career began, she said, at age 15, when she became an advertising copywriter for Gimbels department store. Several years later, while working in advertising in Boston, she married Bertram Klapper of Haverhill, Mass., who manufactured wooden heels. She also wrote a fashion and lifestyle column for The New York World-Telegram until 1934.

By this time she had divorced Mr. Klapper and married Atherton Pettingell, an advertising agency executive who was her boss. Some years later they formed their own advertising company, specializing in Seventh Avenue clients. They were divorced in the mid-1940s.

Soon afterward she volunteered to write speeches for the War Production Board in Washington, and when World War II ended, President Harry S. Truman appointed her as a consultant to the Famine Emergency Committee. She met Mike Cowles while he was in Washington with the Office of War Information, and they were married in December 1946. It was around this time that she changed her first name to Fleur. The following year she joined Look as an associate editor. She added food and fashion to the magazine, which brought in increased advertising, and was instrumental in a redesign.

The couple began traveling to Europe, South America and Asia, where they met and interviewed world leaders like Churchill, Eva Perón and Madame Chiang Kai-shek. After she worked on Dwight D. Eisenhower’s successful presidential campaign in 1952, the White House sent her on fact-finding missions abroad and named her a special envoy to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.She and Mr. Cowles divorced in 1955, and within months she married Mr. Meyer, whom she had met on a plane. The couple took up residence in chambers in Albany, one of London’s most prestigious addresses, where Byron, Disraeli and Gladstone once lived. They also bought and restored Great Surries, an Elizabethan farmhouse on 650 acres in Sussex with rooms named for frequent guests like Cary Grant and Leslie Caron and a barn made acoustically perfect for performances by artists like Yehudi Menuhin.

The Meyers also restored a 12th-century castle in Trujillo, Spain, which they used as a holiday residence until selling it several years ago.

In 1994 the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin, opened the Fleur Cowles Room, a replica of her study in London. In 2003 Pratt Institute devoted an exhibition in Manhattan to the lasting influence of Flair.

Ms. Cowles gave up editing after marrying Mr. Meyer, but she continued to write books, adding to a bibliography that included the biographies “Bloody Precedent” (1951), about Juan and Eva Perón, and “The Case of Salvador Dalí” (1959). She also illustrated a number of her books, including “People as Animals,” “The Flower Game” and “The Life and Times of the Rose.” Her paintings of jungle beasts, huge flowers, birds and objects of nature, often in dreamlike sequences, were exhibited in cities around the world. In 1994 the National Museum of Women’s Art in Washington mounted a show of her paintings, prints and porcelain and crystal designs.


Linda Merrill said...

Amazing woman! Thanks for all the details of her life!

Paul Pincus said...

this was a fantastic tribute, vv.

did you know that fleur's paintings are still very affordable at auction? well, probably not for too much longer.

at any rate, the news today made me a little sad. still, what a life she led!!!


mary said...

wow, Wow, WOW! I knew the name and a bit of the woman but had no idea !! Talk about re-inventing yourself. I loved this info and will look for more about Flair. Thank you so much for this. I have followed your blog but never commented before - this was exceptional. Again, Thank You.


Thank you so much for sharing all of the interesting infomation, This is one of things I enjoy about blogging. I learn more every day.



Pigtown-Design said...

Vamp... great minds! I just posted something about her, too! I'd kill to find a copy of Flair at Book Thing!


Callie Grayson said...

what an amazing women. beautiful post!

Bellamere Cottage said...

Thanks for that story...I had never even heard of Flair...very interesting.


Jan said...

Great woman - great read V !
Has no-one made a documentary?
Maybe that will happen since she's now passed away

jabee said...

They just don't make 'em like that anymore. Thanks for the introduction to Ms Cowles.

And thanks for the tip about the exhibit at the Ransom Center. Here I am in Austin and I haven't been there yet. I wouldn't go to see the Gutenberg Bible but I will go to see her room!

Carey said...

What a fascinating woman. I so admire her creativity and standards for quality. It's sad her magazine couldn't survive, but at the same time, I would rather see something like that die an early, perfect death as opposed to being slowly compromised to the point it was no longer the work of art she wanted it to be.

Renae said...

Miz V!
Thanks so much for enlightening me to someone I have never heard of. Great post!

Visual Vamp said...

Thanks everyone for your continued reading and thoughtful comments!
Paul darling, you inspired me to post this. In fact your blog is daily inspiration for sure!
I'm far too busy for a lady of my age ha ha, but I do try to read all of your blogs, and all of your comments. Forgive me if I am slacking.
xo xo