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'Condé Nast': The rich life of a magazine magnate

Conde Nast on board an ocean liner In

Conde Nast on board an ocean liner In The 1920s. Credit: Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

CONDÉ NAST: THE MAN AND HIS EMPIRE by Susan Ronald (St. Martin’s Press, 448 pp., $32.50)

Condé Montrose Nast turned American publishing on its head. A self-starter aided by wealthy relations, good business instincts and connections in the publishing industry, Nast turned two key insights into a 20th century magazine empire.

His first revelation was that women born in the Victorian era were moving into an age of more mobility, freedom and power. “Condé Nast adored women,” writes his biographer, Susan Ronald, in "Condé Nast: The Man and His Empire." He certainly understood them.

The second was that readers love well-informed dish on the rich, famous and cultured. Not a new insight, but Nast (1873-1942) took it to a new level with the magazines Vogue and Vanity Fair, virtually creating the celebrity culture we marinate in today. He understood the marketing opportunities that celebrity obsession created, and for a time, he grew rich and famous himself, as he transformed Vogue and Vanity Fair, “the love child of the American intelligentsia,” into must-read destinations for a certain class of reader.

Nast is worthy biographical material, and Ronald’s authorized version of his story is the first in 30 years. It succeeds as a social history of a tumultuous time, but it falls short of a complete portrait of an accomplished man.

Nast intuitively understood the allure of a “class” publication, one that targets an audience with elevated tastes and  advertisers aiming for that audience. Early on, he analyzed social class in America, observing in 1913 that “among the 90,000,000 inhabitants of the United States … there was a lack of ‘equality’ — a range of variety of man and womankind that simply staggers the imagination. … This vast population divides not only along the lines of wealth, education and refinement, but classifies itself even more strongly along lines of interest.”

By the Jazz Age, Nast’s publications had narrowed their focus on the upper crust. Ronald’s account succeeds as a social history of this fizzy time as she documents the interconnected worlds covered by Vogue and Vanity Fair — fashion, high society,  literature, the arts and entertainment — from writers Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley of the Algonquin Round Table to New York socialites won over by Nast’s charm offensive. Publication junkies will enjoy the dish on the magazines' brilliant and mercurial editors, from Vogue’s Edna Woolman Chase to Vanity Fair’s Frank Crowninshield and Clare Boothe Brokaw (later Luce). An extensive dramatis personae is helpful in recollecting these long-ago luminaries.

The good times ended with the stock market crash of 1929, as Nast took a battering from bad investments and staff defections. He spent the rest of his life trying to save his empire. In some ways, his hard times are the best part of the book — Nast, an authority on image cultivation, remains a cipher until he finally reveals himself during his time of crisis through anguished letters to family and friends.

The fuzziness of his profile is in part because Ronald, whose two previous biographies were about Nazi collaborators, seems in her relief at writing about an “unsung hero” to have fallen hard for her subject. Her observations about Nast are more testimonial than analysis. A typical character assessment: “[But] it was Condé himself who made the most of the tools at his disposal: his quiet way; sense of dignity; rational, mathematical mind; simple good looks; urbane manner; and the desire to understand what women wanted.” He was “sane, reasonable, fair and hardworking.” With Vogue, “he intended to take his readership on the most joyous ride of their lives.” Down, girl!  Her account is littered with qualifiers like “more than likely,” “might have” and “probably,” and their abundance diminishes her credibility (one does get a hint of Ronald’s possible difficulties in drawing a full portrait of the man in an author’s note, when she reveals that the Condé Nast Archives, from which she drew much of her material, “sadly hold no material prior to 1922,” meaning no material covering the first five decades of his 69 years.

Plagued by ill health and business difficulties, Nast died in 1942, but his empire, eventually acquired by the Newhouse family, lives on. Vogue (and the British and French versions) has endured. While Nast’s version of Vanity Fair closed in 1936, it was resurrected in 1981 and remains a key chronicler of the glittering world Nast first brought to his readers. The empire Nast founded “rumbles on,” Ronald writes, “from strength to strength.” Whether it bests its 21st century adversary — the transition from print to the digital age — remains to be seen. 

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