Smashed on the rocks of fashion
Published 30/04/2006 | 00:11
A Dash of Daring: Carmel Snow and Her Life in Fashion, Art, and Letters
Atria Books, ?28.99
IT WAS Truman Capote who introduced me to Carmel Snow. A decade ago, the almost forgotten Irishwoman appeared as a footnote in a Capote biography. But after a little detective work, I found the remarkable Mrs Snow deserved far more than this marginal postscript.
As New York editor of both Vogue and Harper's Bazaar in an era when fashion magazines espoused all things stylish and intelligent, Snow "discovered" designers like Balenciaga, Dior and Givenchy. She introduced Coco Chanel, Cartier-Bresson and Cecil Beaton to American audiences and published first writings by Capote, Carson McCullers and Eudora Welty. Some of Carmel Snow's sense of chic was immortalised in the film Funny Face and now, at long last, her life has been given its own biography by Penelope Rowlands.
Snow was born Carmel White in Dalkey in 1887 and fashion was in her blood. Her father, Peter White, was MD of the Irish Woollen Manufacturing and Export Company. Well-to-do and well connected, he was invited to oversee the Irish Village at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. When White died prematurely, it was his independent and headstrong widow, Annie, who took hold of the reins.
Annie White's spirit helped drive Carmel's later ambition: "Mother's determinationhad taken her a long wayin a period when women,particularly Irish women, seldom ventured."
Enjoying the freedoms of America, Annie White opened a shop selling Irish handcrafts. Later she boughtthe fashion house TM & JM Fox, "one of the great dressmaking establishments in New York", where society ladies were fitted with Worth and Lanvin imitations.
In her mother's shop, Carmel would immerse herself in the cut and thread of fashion. Through it, she hoped to realise her true ambition of writing on design. But before that, the First World War beckoned and Carmel served in Paris for several years with the American Red Cross.
For Snow, even the war had its fashionable moments: she designed the women's uniforms in crisp Rodier wool and topped them with Reboux straw hats. Slight and delicate, though strong in personality, Carmel was ever elegant. It was in Paris that she first encountered Coco Chanel. After that, her life changed utterly.
On a post-war trip to see the Paris collections (where she would "borrow" ideas for her mother's line), Carmel was introduced to Conde Nast, publisher of Vogue and Vanity Fair, who was so impressed that he hired her as assistant fashion editor at Vogue.
"For my first day I gotmyself up to kill. I woreblack crepe-de-chine from Vionnet and felt proud of myself for recognising here was an artist."
The Twenties was theera for wholesale dressing. Stylish off-the-peg garments became accessible to a wider audience and Vogue was atthe vanguard. Soon, Carmel added picture editor to herCV and revamped Vogue's pages. In an age beforetelevision, magazines were the pre-eminent outlet for visual expression.
Then, in 1932, William Randolph Hearst offered her the top job at Harper's Bazaar. Betrayed, Conde Nast never spoke to her again. Carmel, however, was unabashed. Her ambition was fired.
Visually alert, she attacked design at Harper's. She dragged the magazine's look into the modern age using sketches by Dali, Cocteau, Picasso and Chagall. She published diet features when Hearst argued there would be no interest, and even ran a first feature on the dangers of plastic surgery.
Carmel Snow was also a great hostess, bringing new talent like Diana Vreeland and Anita Loos forward. "When Gentlemen Prefer Blondes burst on to a delighted world, I took Anita under my wings. Our click was immediate and extended to our clothes, from Chanel to Balenciaga."
Aged 39, and after several failed love affairs, Carmel married the wealthy Long Island bachelor Palen Snow. She soon had children of her own, and extraordinarily for the time (like her mother), continued working full-time: "I was never without a baby under the desk."
She could be as ruthless as her mother too. When a photo she commissioned of Wallis Simpson was appropriated by Hearst for a news story, she snatched it back. She then published a "stolen" photo of the reclusive Garbo, and when challenged, snapped: "I don't care. I wanted the picture!"
The Forties and Fifties were Harper's glory years for fiction. Good writing was as important to Snow as good design, and young talent was encouraged. This is the period when Snow first met Capote and Carson McCullers. Following an introduction at a Harper's party, Snow offered Capote a glass of milk, thinking he was a child, and then when she learned his true age, she laid on the martinis.
It was during this period that Carmel Snow's problem with alcohol began to emerge, and by the late Fifties the addiction was affecting her work. The magazine business was changing too. What Snow saw as garish news-stand design took the place of her more sophisticated style. Sex and advertising usurped fiction and features.
As Snow deteriorated, the inevitable happened: she was fired by Harper's. But in those days, even magazine editors had heart. Carmel Snow was commissioned to write on the Paris collections, but her trips became the excuse for further benders. As her marriage faltered, she bought an estate on Clew Bay, hoping her New York friends would stop over on their European jaunts. She befriended Michael Scott and Sybil Connolly, but the west of Ireland was a lonely place after the excitement of New York. One Mayo local remembers: "She was notorious for drink. I think she was drunk the weight of the time, orin bed."
Then the mortifyingly unthinkable happened. On a last trip to Paris with Snow, Richard Avedon, the photographer she had nurtured, described how ill and frail his former editor had become. She hated being relegated to the sidelines after so many years at the top.
She threw tantrums and demanded an invitation to post-show soirees. One at the Rothschilds created scandal. Penelope Rowlands quotes Avedon's blunt retelling: "She drank. There was a large stairway. She peed on the stairs and had to be taken home. End of story."
"In Paris, appearance trumps everything," Rowlands writes. "And Carmel hadn't kept up her end. The news preceded her to New York. It was an ignoble end."
Snow died in 1961 but Rowlands's biography restores her nobility.
As vibrant and engaging as a Dorothy Parker piece, and full of Snow's spirit, the book places Snow at the hub of 20th-Century American culture at a time when Irish immigrants were still a notch below second class.
Snow inspired and created, raised children and excitement while running one of America's most influential magazines - all at a time when most women were chained to the kitchen sink or middle-class bridge table.
Magazine editing hasn't progressed substantially since Snow's glory days, and for Rowlands therein lies regret. What contemporary publication showcases the likes of Cormac McCarthy alongside Annie Leibovitz and John Galliano?
For Snow, the work she did and the excellence she demanded were an extension of her passion for life: "My romance with fashion and design and writing has been the mainstay of my existence, and my editorship of Harper's Bazaar a long love affair. It'simportant, whatever your career, that you make it alove affair!"