Sunday, January 20, 2013
Birthday Girl: Madame Flair
Born 105 years ago today (although she would probably have told you it was 96), Fleur Cowles was one of those remarkable 20th century women - tough, ambitious, elegant, canny and depending on your perspective either fearless or foolhardy - who broke the barriers between what were then the separate spheres of men and women. An editor, author, painter, doyenne, fabulist, and survivor, she made her way in both Business and Society through a carefully chosen and delicately navigated path of working hard and marrying well.
She's most remembered today for her greatest failure, commercially, and her greatest success, artistically: the ill-fated monthly magazine Flair, a hyper-ambitious attempt to combine the worlds of journalism, art, fashion, and literature in one extravagantly glamourous package. Launched in 1950, it lost her millions, but it gathered for her a cachet that lasted the rest of her long life (she left for Fabulon only four years ago).
Flair, however wonderful,* is far from her only legacy; she also wrote an authorized biography of Salvador Dalí, a piercingly unimpressed take on the lives of Juan and Eva Peron, and a pair of relentlessly auto-hagiographic memoirs, as well as other books that she also illustrated. She promoted the careers of artists as diverse as Katherine Anne Porter and marvelous illustrator René Gruau (whose portrait of her appears above), both of whom graced the pages of Flair, and she counted as friends everyone from Cary Grant to the Queen Mother. If she was an unfailing social climber (and one not eager for the world to know that she entered it as Florence Friedman, daughter of a feckless novelty salesman), few have ever climbed so elegantly; her contemporaries were more than willing to forgive her occasional tiresomeness (and someone born Florence who calls herself Fleur was likely more than a little tiresome from time to time, don't you think?) in return for the enthusiasm and joy she brought with her. We should all live so well, for so long...
* And it really was - among the things, alas, lost many years ago when I had an unfortunate fire were three of its only twelve issues, picked up for a song at a suburban Philadelphia flea market once upon a time. If you've got a spare $300 or so, you can pick up her anthology, The Best of Flair, over at Amazon, or ten original editions at eBay. As Mrs. Vreeland might have asked - why don't you?