Well-Dressed Mind

Princeton author Penelope Rowlands writes about ‘Vogue’ and ‘Harper’s Bazaar’ editor Carmel Snow.

By:Susan Van Dongen
   With a combination of witty prose and a veteran journalist’s
thoroughness, Princeton author Penelope Rowlands has crafted a new book evoking
an era of white gloves and pillbox hats, when fashion magazines championed the
concept of "well-dressed women with well-dressed minds."
   "’At last a book about Carmel Snow,’ is what I heard from so
many people in fashion," Ms. Rowlands says. With A Dash of Daring: Carmel Snow
and Her Life in Fashion, Art and Letters (Atria Books, $29.95) she’s brought
acclaimed editor Ms. Snow and her times vividly to life.
   Revered in the fashion world, Ms. Snow (1887-1961) was an editor
at Condé Nast’s Vogue during the Roaring ’20s and editor-in-chief
of Hearst’s Harper’s Bazaar from 1934 to 1958. She was a pivotal player
in the careers of Diana Vreeland, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Richard Avedon,
Christian Dior, Geoffrey Beene and many more in fashion, literature, photography
and magazine design.
   Drawing on four years worth of interviews and insider accounts
from fashion industry icons, Ms. Rowlands captures the exceptional taste, the
vivacity and impact of this impeccably dressed Irish woman, who was transplanted
as a child from the old country into New York society.
   Gearing up for an assignment in Istanbul for Architectural
Digest, Ms. Rowlands recently relaxed in her book-lined home on Chestnut Street
and reflected on her subject’s enormous creativity and confidence.
   "Carmel knew she could recognize good clothing, design and photography
and she was unerring in her ability to do so," Ms. Rowlands says. "She had this
visual gift. She knew she could make a great magazine."
   What’s so much fun about A Dash of Daring is that the
book gives regular folks a glimpse into another world, where people shuttle back
and forth across the Atlantic on ocean liners, make lively conversation at chic
cocktail parties and accumulate closets filled with expensive haute couture. Then
there is the dress code described at Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar,
where the editorial staff competes to see who can wear the latest fashions to
the office.
   It might seem laughable to anyone who works in a contemporary
business environment, especially in the editorial professions, which are not famous
for sartorial splendor. But Ms. Rowlands says this dynamic hasn’t changed in the
realm of high fashion magazines.
   "I found all this fascinating," she says with a smile. "You
wouldn’t go to ‘Vogue’ if you were five pounds overweight. But it’s still true.
It’s very competitive and the pressure is on. It’s too much for me, though. I
prefer to work in my sweat pants."
   It was the fact that Ms. Snow’s milieu still exists today that
resonated with the many fashion professionals Ms. Rowlands interviewed.
   "In September, ‘Vogue’ ran a six-page excerpt from the story
and I heard from them that one of the reasons they were so enthusiastic was that
this world hadn’t changed," she says. "That’s what the editors thought was so
   Ms. Rowlands was intrigued by how modern Ms. Snow was. Here
was a jet-setter and fashionista who was also a hard-working business woman —
and the mother of four.
   "She was very disciplined," Ms. Rowlands says. "That’s one of
the aspects of her character that really comes across. She and (Diana) Vreeland
were these hard-working women who never let up. It’s this whole idea that behind
glamour there’s very hard work."
   Ms. Snow’s world sometimes collided with her family’s, though.
Her husband, George Palen Snow, preferred hunting and yachting to hemlines and
   One staid, future son-in-law was taken aback the first time
he came to Ms. Snow’s apartment and saw what looked like a sophisticated child
dressed in a bright blue blazer seated on an overstuffed red satin couch. He was
face to face with Truman Capote.
   At 562 pages, the book is lengthy, but the energy of Ms. Rowlands’
writing drives the story, keeping up with the whirlwind pace of Ms. Snow’s life.
She says she needed the length to tie together all the characters, "a cast of
thousands," Ms. Rowlands says.
   Some of the 20th century’s top talents were drawn to the offices
of Vogue and especially Harper’s Bazaar after Ms. Snow took the
   Her magazine career came at a cultural crossroads in America,
before the domination of advertising, when someone like Man Ray might create a
bold cover, or Jean Cocteau would write copy that would delight the avant garde.
   "Artists and designers mingled on the page — and in life:
Salvador Dalí is shown painting his ‘L’Instant Sublime’ at Coco Chanel’s
house on the Riviera in one issue," Ms. Rowlands writes. "Another features a Louise
Dahl-Wolfe photograph of a pensive-looking model in a Schiaparelli tunic dress
standing next to Brancusi’s ‘Miracle’ at New York’s brand-new Museum of Modern
   "There were illustrations by Ludwig Bemelmans, who would later
invent a little girl named Madeline and… an appearance by Babar the elephant,
in a spread by his creator Jean be Brunhoff," she writes. "It was the audacity
of the mix — elephants, actresses, clothes — that set ‘Bazaar’ apart.
As the art and cultural historian Calvin Tomkins has written, ‘It was the magazine
editor as auteur.’"
   One of the special delights of A Dash of Daring is the
photography, evidence of the legion of stellar shooters who passed through Vogue
and Harper’s Bazaar during Ms. Snow’s tenure.
   Cecil Beaton, Martin Munkacsi, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Louise
Dahl-Wolfe and George Hoyningen-Huene all did fashion or feature photography for
the magazines.
   So did Edward Steichen, who famously photographed for Ms. Snow’s
Vogue. It might have earned him scowls from Alfred Stieglitz and others
in the art photography community but Steichen crafted his own art form with the
magazine work, and raked in the cash doing so.
   Ms. Rowlands writes, "And so one of the greatest living photographers
turned up at ‘Vogue.’ ‘It was a great coup to get a great artist like Steichen
to photograph fashion,’ Carmel wrote. ‘And it was my first coup that Steichen
and I immediately clicked.’ And they did."
   The photographer, who was in his mid-40s and had endured a bitter
divorce, is rumored to have been in love with the younger editor, maybe even carrying
on an affair. There was even talk about marriage. But Ms. Snow (who was still
Miss White then) was a devout Catholic and wouldn’t dream of marrying a divorced
   In later years, Ms. Snow would champion another photography
legend, the young "Dick" Avedon, who seemed to charm everyone around him. His
mercurial personality and career at Harper’s Bazaar were immortalized in
the film Funny Face, where he’s played by Fred Astaire. (Kay Thompson of
the Eloise books played Diana Vreeland.)
   Ms. Rowlands was fortunate to have an interview with Avedon
before his death in the summer of 2004.
   "In his memoir he always paid her due and said that he owed
much of his career to ‘Miss White,’" Ms. Rowlands says. "Avedon was so adorable
to me. I grew up in the late ’60s in New York, (the era of) Jean Shrimpton, Penelope
Tree and Avedon. Sadly, he died between our interviews.
   "I’ll never forget what this book has taken me to," Ms. Rowlands
continues. "I also got to meet Cartier-Bresson and there’s nothing I’m more grateful
for. He said these wonderful things about Carmel — very mystical. He thought
she almost wasn’t human."
   At an early morning interview in Paris with the 95-year-old
Cartier-Bresson, Ms. Rowlands was offered some wine by the late master of photography,
which she had the good sense to accept.
   "Before we spoke, I’d read a couple of interviews and both the
journalists were offered a glass of wine, which they turned down — and consequently
(Cartier-Bresson) got very mean," she says. "So I told myself, ‘I’m having wine.’
We had this Bordeaux at, like, 9 a.m., and we were fast friends. It was a real
highlight. As a journalist you meet so many people but there are a few who are
up there, who no one really compares to."
   A writer who has contributed to numerous magazines, including
Vogue, the New York Times Magazine and ARTnews, Ms. Rowlands
was born in London and has lived in Paris, San Francisco and New York. She moved
to Princeton in 2002 with her 17-year-old son, Julian, and her significant other,
Tom Coradetti, an electrical engineer.
   Ms. Rowlands says she’s much more intrigued by the people she
writes about than hemlines and heel heights and even though she was also a former
correspondent for Women’s Wear Daily and W, doesn’t call herself
a fashion insider.
   "(Fashion) is a discreet universe all its own," Ms. Rowlands
says. "That made it interesting to me, almost as an anthropologist looking at
this world." A Dash of Daring: Carmel Snow and Her Life in Fashion, Art and Letters,
by Penelope Rowlands, is available at bookstores. On the Web: www.simonsays.com