IS THERE ANYONE today, beyond those who inhabit the little worlds of journalism and fashion, who recognizes the name of Cond,e Nast--much less knows how to pronounce it? He bought his ticket to oblivion years ago, and traveled there along with Frank Crowninshield and Edna Woolman Chase and all the others with whom he was for a time quite remarkably famous. Two of the three magazines that made him a celebrity are alive and well, and the third is about to be given a second life, but Nast himself is generally forgotten. As Caroline Seebohm makes abundantly clear in this unusually interesting biography, he certainly does not deserve to be.
It is Seebohm's conviction, most persuasively argued, that although Nast published magazines for the carriage trade he had an enormous influence, many years after his death in 1942, on publications for the general public. He was a publisher ahead of his time, one who in a magazine article called "Class Publications" wrote as follows:
"A 'class publication' is nothing more nor less than a publication that looks for its circulation only to those having in common a certain characteristic marked enough to group them into a class. That common characteristic may be almost anything: religion; a particular line of business; community of residence; common pursuit; or some common interest. When I say a class publication 'looks' to one of these classes for its circulation, I state it very mildly; as a matter of fact, the publisher, the editor, the advertising manager and circulation man must conspire not only to get all their readers from the one particular class to which the magazine is dedicated, but rigorously to exclude all others."
Those words, incredibly enough, were written in 1913 --well over a half-century before the emergence of Self and Apartment Life and Soap Opera Digest and Workbench and Victorian Homes, and all the other "class publications," or specialty magazines as we now call them, that have come to dominate the market. Two generations before the rest of the industry came to realize it, Nast understood that a magazine could be enormously profitable with a relatively small circulation if it was edited specifically for a group of readers who shared a mutual interest--because it would appeal to advertisers who wanted to reach that market, and that market only, and would pay handsomely to do so.
Nast published a number of magazines during his career, but three were paramount: Vogue, Vanity Fair and House & Garden. The first was for wealthy women who followed the "mode" of high fashion, later to be called "chic"; the aforementioned Edna Woolman Chase was its editor and perhaps the closest professional associate that Nast ever had. Vanity Fair, edited by the briefly legendary Frank Crowninshield, was a pictures-and-text magazine for the sophisticated that was once praised by Jack London, of all people, for keeping him "in touch with all the fripperies, vanities, decadent arts and sinister pleasures of life"; it is to be revived next year by the publishing company that still bears Cond,e Nast's name, though it is now part of the Newhouse group. House & Garden was conceived as and has always been the toniest of the decorating magazines, a publication for people whose consuming worry is not how to turn the garage into the rec room, but where to hang the Pollock so it doesn't clash with the Picasso.
Nast had a positive genius for designing these magazines to fit the tastes of their elite readers--and for shaping those readers' tastes as well. It was his ambition "to produce the most beautiful and tasteful creation it was possible to produce, and to make no error that could possibly be avoided," and to an impressive degree he succeeded. Vogue, the Nast magazine on which Seebohm properly concentrates, was much more than a fashion periodical. Its elegant, expensively produced pages contained the work of artists and photographers who were at the cutting edge of the avant garde. Behind Nast's stiff, shy demeanor lurked a mind with an instinctive grasp for what was best and most lasting in modernist art. Though Nast liked to shrug off his role with the comment that "I am merely a glorified bookkeeper," Seebohm persuades us that this tribute from one of his photographers is much closer to the truth:
"No other publisher has ever demonstrated a courage comparable to the late Cond,e Nast. Photography owes him an incalculable debt. In the early days of Vogue and Vanity Fair, it was he who persuaded Baron de Meyer and Commander Edward Steichen literally to create fashion photography. . . . Indeed, there is not one significant contemporary name in photography that has not appeared on the pages of the Nast magazines. And until the day of his death Mr. Nast remained creatively restless, always foreseeing inevitable change long before anybody else, always demanding--and getting--new results from old artists, always seeking out young talent and giving it rich and unpredictable opportunities."
The final decade of Nast's life was a difficult one, thanks to his decision to make a public issue of Cond,e Nast stock in the last giddy days of the big bull market. When it crashed, Nast crashed right along with it. To an extent that not even his most intimate associates seem to have realized, that decade was spent in a desperate effort to keep the magazines alive (though in 1935 he folded Vanity Fair) and to maintain, in his private life, an illusion of unruffled calm. When his estate was settled six years after his death, it was revealed that he had personal assets of $52,708,90, personal debts of $68,385.96--and business debts of more than $5 million. Seebohm writes:
"What the publisher must have suffered as he chatted lightly to Princess Nathalie Paley over a glass of champagne at one of his parties hardly bears thinking about. To live so long under the weight of such crushing debts while presenting to the world the face of prosperity would have tested the skills of Janus. What an American finale."
And what a sensitive, intelligent book Caroline Seebohm has fashioned from that life. Excepting a couple of brief and fruitless forays into the barren ground of psychobiography, she interprets Nast's life with a fine balance between reticence and speculation, distance and admiration. She writes with equal perception about fashion and journalism. Her prose is not unduly interesting, but it is always competent and clear. The Man Who Was Vogue is a particularly welcome and valuable biography, because it restores to his deserved reputation a figure who had lapsed into unwarranted neglect; Caroline Seebohm has done a fine piece of work. THE MAN WHO WAS VOGUE: The Life and Times of Conde Nast By Caroline Seebohm (Viking. 390 pp. $18.95)