There’s a certain pleasing irony to the fact that Condé Nast is today remembered as a brand rather than as a man; it’s a thing that would probably have given the man himself the pleasing sense of a job well done.
But Nast was a person before he was a publishing empire, and as Susan Ronald points out in “Condé Nast: The Man and His Empire," her beguiling new book, he’s only had one previous full-dress biography, Caroline Seebohm’s chatty 1982 book “The Man Who was Vogue: The Life and Times of Condé Nast.” It’s long since time for a new life, particularly given both Nast’s fascinating life and the long posthumous reach of his empire, which includes The New Yorker, Condé Nast Traveler, Tatler, Allure, Architectural Digest, WIRED, Bridges, Bon Appétit, Golf Digest, World of Interiors, Men’s Vogue, Teen Vogue, and of course, Vanity Fair.
In chapters of sparkling prose and sympathetic insight, Ronald traces Nast’s life from his birth in New York in 1873 (and his life-long reaction against the wastrel ways of his profligate father) to his early start in the magazine world, recruited by his college friend Robert Collier to renovate the advertising and circulation of Collier’s Weekly.
Nast, Ronald tells us, “was noted for his measured, gentlemanly manner, his numeracy, and his careful management style,” and that combination, allied with an understated skill at reading the zeitgeist, quickly skyrocketed Collier’s circulation and ad revenue. From there, Nast moved on to buy the struggling small New York magazine Vogue, and transformed Vanity Fair into a glittering mirror reflecting the high echelons of New York society.
“Soon enough,” Ronald writes, “he would be credited with creating café society; throwing the most awesome parties; finding young, untested talent from the international arena who would change the way we think; and becoming one of the foremost Americans influencing the export of the country’s can-do attitude, know-how, products, fashion, and style to the world.”
Nast and his irrepressible Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield (an unsung star of the book) found that untested talent everywhere; Robert Benchley, Noël Coward, Aldous Huxley, P.G. Wodehouse, Edna St. Vincent Millay, e.e. cummings, and Dorothy Parker (“she always seemed to hit the centre of the mark,” Crowninshield wrote of her) – these and many other writers blossomed under the winning combination of Nast’s aloof guidance and Crowninshield’s endearing charm. “Frank Crowninshield continued as Vogue’s rara avis, sprinkling his bonhomie and sage reflections like stardust against the prevailing gloom [of the Second World War],” Ronald writes, whereas Nast spent every possible minute at the office, “calculating profit-and-loss statements, seeing where he could gain that edge in the market, and dashing off short memos to his staff.”
Ronald’s colorful prose style perfectly matches the heyday of the early 20th-century magazine boom. Readers are brought inside Nast’s two marriages, inside his sprawling New York penthouse apartment, and inside the ravages of the Great Depression and the onset of World War II in Europe – a time during which Nast was simultaneously preoccupied with “the simple reality that the company’s stock price hovered at around the two-dollar mark” and “quietly” saving friends and colleagues in Europe from the rising fascist threat.
It’s this assured ability to capture the dissonant and at times contradictory aspects of Nast’s nature that sets Ronald’s book apart and makes it such fascinating reading. Nast was one of the earliest 20th-century entrepreneurs to see clearly that the thousands of workers flooding the nation’s cities in the wake of World War I were aspirational in ways that could be intensely monetized. If pitched correctly, magazines seemingly catering to the tastes and interests of the rich could become wildly popular with readers who only dreamed of being rich. In these pages, the staid, reserved mastermind behind Vogue and Vanity Fair comes across as an unlikely Pied Piper figure, giving the smart set a monthly blueprint for their ambitions.
It was a mood and a time, and it couldn’t last forever, of course. Nast died in September of 1942, and Ronald spends a tantalizingly short amount of space on the company’s subsequent changes (noting, with an exquisite touch of euphemism, “the Newhouse management style” that has dominated the family of magazines in recent decades).
This, too, is ultimately a wise choice; it keeps the focus squarely where it belongs, on the buttoned-down, soft-spoken, number-crunching visionary who taught Jazz Age America how to think about itself.