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Fellows Find: Fleur Cowles archive sheds light on woman behind pioneering magazine “Flair”

Scholar Teal Triggs works with materials in the Fleur Cowles archive in the Ransom Center’s Reading Room. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Scholar Teal Triggs works with materials in the Fleur Cowles archive in the Ransom Center’s Reading Room. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

 


Teal Triggs is a Professor of Graphic Design and Associate Dean at Royal College of Art, London. She spent time at the Ransom Center over the summer exploring materials related to Fleur Cowles with funding from the Fleur Cowles Endowment Fund. She shares some of her findings here.

 

With the support of the Fleur Cowles Endowment Fund, I was able to spend two weeks at the Harry Ransom Center exploring the personal archive of the journalist, painter, and American socialite Fleur Cowles (1908–2009). As a graphic design historian, my research has focused on the significance of the early 1950s American publication Flair magazine (1950–1951), created and edited by Cowles. The magazine ran for only 12 issues (with a limited-run, 5,000-copy, pre-publication prototype printed in September 1949), yet its influence would continue long after its closure. Whilst the Cowles archive at the Ransom Center is not specifically about Flair, it does contain related materials that provide useful insights into Fleur Cowles’s extensive social network, her commitment to the arts, and importantly for me, her working methods as a writer and editor.

 

Flair was very much a product of its time, simultaneously created as a response to the growth of specialist magazines and a nod to the new medium of television. As Cowles writes: “I wanted a magazine with ultimate dual reader appeal, male as well as female. And, in the frameword (sic) of television’s allure, I wanted a magazine of extraordinary visual excitement.” Flair achieved this with its unorthodox and experimental die-cut covers, unusual paper stock, tipped-in booklets, and luxurious use of space featuring illustration and photography. Undoubtedly, her editorial vision—signified by a drawing of her trademark rose—pushed the conventions of printing technologies and magazine design. Cowles found this a “thrilling gamble.” The original photographs in the collection show her sourcing paper in Milan and capture her exuberance in creating a magazine that has “a sense of surprise, a joy of discovery, with each new reading.”

 

As an editor, Cowles fulfilled, but also shaped, her reader’s aspirations. Flair was ultimately a reflection of Cowles’s own “jet-setting” lifestyle, with features on society’s elite, Hollywood celebrities, and exotic travel. The magazine featured those she knew and places she herself had visited, while often showcasing the contributions made by women with careers in politics. Flair was also a space where she expanded on her interest in design, with stories on interiors, architecture, and fashion. The archive material also shows that whilst Fleur promoted a stylized femininity, she was indeed a pioneer in promoting the role and careers of women in journalism and publishing.

 

Other documents in the collection clarify Cowles’s motivations. Before editing Flair, she was an Associate Editor at Look magazine—a publication owned by her then-husband “Mike” Gardner Cowles. One document that reveals Cowles’s commitment to gender equality is found in a speech she gave to the University of Syracuse and Syracuse Advertising and Sales Club on May 5, 1950. The title of her talk “The Woman in Publishing,” brought a decidedly feminist perspective to America’s publishing history, an aspect of her life I intend to explore further.

 

The opportunity to see the original magazines alongside supporting documents in the collection including letters, cards, telegrams, speeches, and manuscripts presented a rich context for my research, for which I am very grateful, and which will eventually appear in a book about Cowles’s impact on design.

 

Related content:

Publisher, author and artist Fleur Cowles’s archive donated to Ransom Center

Video: Fleur Cowles describes her artwork

Fleur’s Fleurs: “Flower Game” reveals friends and their favorite flowers

Slideshow: Cover art and designs of Flair magazine

Fellows Find: John Steinbeck’s “ideal woman”

Cover of July 1950 issue of "Flair" magazine.
Cover of July 1950 issue of "Flair" magazine.

Heidi Kim is an assistant professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She visited the Ransom Center in December 2012 on a travel fellowship to research her monograph in progress, Invisible Subjects: Asian America in Postwar American Literature.

Some archival trips, like my recent trip to the Harry Ransom Center, are highly directed expeditions. I was on a mission to look at the revision of specific sections of John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden (1952). But there is also always the pleasure of the archive, given time and an extensive collection like the Ransom Center’s, which draws a researcher to explore the small pieces of an author’s oeuvre that can shed light on the concerns of his more famous works.

One of the detours I took was to look at a piece of Steinbeck’s with which I was not familiar, a minor feature in the short-lived but highly ambitious fashion magazine Flair (the Ransom Center holds a rare, complete set of its run). In Flair’s July 1950 “All Male Issue,” several famous men, including child actor Brandon de Wilde and industrial designer Raymond Loewy, were asked to draw and describe their ideal woman. Steinbeck drew a curvaceous nude, a sketchy, muscular outline emphasizing her attributes. The caption read:

“Novelist John Steinbeck snorted as he drew, sounded off: “Guys that talk about the ideal woman just don’t like women. I don’t want an ideal woman. I just like dames. Anyway, the ideal woman is for kids. I think a couple of centuries from now people are going to look back on these times and think all babies were born from mammary glands…”

For any Steinbeck scholar, this brings up an all-too-familiar debate about his unrealistic or misogynistic depictions of women—certainly a fair critique in some respects. However, through this almost defiantly sexualized sketch, Steinbeck was also exploring a growing concern about the repression, conformity, and over-civilization of the postwar era, popularly identified with the 1950s. In his mind, this was far more perverse than the healthy animal sexuality and physicality he extolled in his 1930s naturalist works, sometimes to a degree that readers found uncomfortable. The best-known example is the ending of The Grapes of Wrath (1939), in which the character Rose of Sharon, who has just had a stillborn baby, breastfeeds a half-dead, starving man and smiles mysteriously.

I’m skeptical of Steinbeck’s flippant claim that he was “just” drawing a dame rather than an ideal woman, and that the ideal woman is “for kids” (implicitly only for kids). A domesticized dame who can make a home and family was decidedly his ideal woman, as embodied by Abra in East of Eden. She likes to cook and is also a “straight, strong, fine-breasted woman, developed and ready and waiting to take her sacrament,” that is a sexual awakening from her boyfriend, who is living in an ecstasy of religious purity. Similarly, Suzy, the prostitute with a heart of gold in Sweet Thursday (1954), is no good at “hustling” because she is “too small in the butt and too big in the bust,” a state of body that reflects her state of mind: affectionate, faithful, and nurturing.  Steinbeck’s heroines have generous hearts and generous bodies.

This is not simply objectification; as a naturalist (or post-naturalist) writer, Steinbeck depicts one facet of danger to mankind as the unfitness or unwillingness to bear and nurture in a harsh world where, in Darwinian fashion, fertility of land, women, or even mind contributes to survival. As with animals, human fitness must be shown physically. The purely evil Cathy of East of Eden has a boyish body with undeveloped breasts that do not enlarge even during her unwanted pregnancy, seemingly through sheer willpower. Her body mirrors her stunted moral sense and her deviant use of sexuality as power, and symbolizes how unfit she is to be a force of good in Steinbeck’s myth-inflected narrative. In death, her already insufficient body vanishes from life and human history: “And then her eyes closed again and her fingers curled as though they held small breasts. And her heart beat solemnly and her breathing slowed as she grew smaller and smaller and then disappeared—and she had never been.”