Condé Montrose Nast (1873-1942) was one of the world's most successful magazine publishers. Through his avant-garde periodicals, including Vogue and Vanity Fair, he set a new standard of fashion and home decorating for American women.He pioneered new techniques in marketing, printing, and magazine content, and nurtured the evolution of "cafe society," a blend of artists and elite society, that had never before come together.
Condé Nast was born on March 26, 1873 in New York City, the son of William Nast and Esther Benoist. When Nast was three, his father left for Europe, where he spent the next 13 years. Esther Nast took her four children to live in St. Louis, Missouri, with her family. Although she was a descendant of French aristocracy, she raised her children on a dwindling personal fortune, with little financial contribution from her husband. The Nast children learned to play musical instruments and studied languages. They were raised in their mother's religion, Catholicism. Nast attended public school in St. Louis. A wealthy aunt paid for his college education at Georgetown University, where he excelled in rational philosophy and mathematics. There Nast met Robert J. Collier, whose father owned a weekly magazine called Collier's. Together the friends edited the school newspaper and performed at musical events. Nast went on to earn a law degree from Washington University.
In 1897, Collier offered Nast a job on the staff of his father's magazine in New York City, for a $12 weekly salary. Nast expanded the magazine's readership from a circulation of approximately 19,000 to over 568,000 over the course of ten years. Advertising revenues went from $5,600 to more than one million dollars in the same period. Nast introduced a number of innovations at Collier's, such as color pages, two-page spreads, and the "special number" (an issue devoted to one topic). Nast also divided the United States into marketing regions, noting that certain products sold more readily in certain areas of the country. When Nast resigned from Collier's his salary was $40,000 per year.
In 1902, Nast married Clarisse Couder, a society woman of French descent. Their son, Charles, was born in 1903 and a daughter, Natica, in 1905. In 1906, Clarisse took the children to live in France, where she socialized with artists, poets, and photographers, such as Rodin, Rilke, and Steichen. After a year, the children returned home, but Clarisse stayed in Europe for another year. Although his wife's background gave Nast an entrance into New York society, the marriage did not last. Clarisse moved out of their Park Avenue apartment in 1919, and the couple divorced in 1925. Nast gave her an annual income of $10,000, even after she remarried and divorced again.
Vogue Set the Standard for Women's Fashions
Shortly after Nast married Couder, in 1905, he began negotiations for the purchase of Vogue, a magazine aimed at an elite stratum of society. He successfully acquired the magazine in 1909, with a circulation of 14,000 and advertising revenues of $100,000. His goal was to make it "the technical adviser-the consulting specialist-to the woman of fashion in the matter of her clothes and of her personal adornment."
Nast made many changes to Vogue. He converted the magazine from a weekly into a semi-monthly publication. He raised the price of an issue from 10 to 15 cents, added color covers, more advertising space, more clothing patterns, more society pages, and more fashion. The magazine reported news of an elite echelon of society-what they did and what they cared about: vacations, marriages, charity events, tennis tournaments, country clubs, horseback riding, summer homes, boarding schools, and garden clubs. Nast charged higher advertising rates in Vogue than did competing magazines. His justification for the high advertising rates were that, "Vogue is the elimination of waste circulation for the advertiser of quality goods. I determined to bait the editorial pages in such a way as to lift out of all the millions of Americans just the 100,000 cultivated people who can buy these quality goods."
In 1911, Nast bought interests in two other magazines, House & Garden, and Travel. Two years later, he wrote an article for the Merchants' and Manufacturers' Journal, wherein he described his own theory for creating a successful magazine-rather than appeal to the greatest number of people, a magazine should address the interests of a particular group of people. "A 'class publication' is nothing more nor less than a publication that looks for its circulation only to those having in common a certain characteristic marked enough to group them into a class.… The publisher, the editor, the advertising manager and circulation man must conspire not only to get all their readers from the one particular class to which the magazine is dedicated, but rigorously to exclude all others." By publishing a magazine that was aimed at the American upper class, Nast defined what it meant to be a member of that class. He also gave those who hoped to join that class lessons on what was needed to be a part of that select group.
The Woman Who Was Vogue
Edna Chase began working in the circulation department at Vogue when she was 18 years old, in 1895. In 1914 she became the magazine's editor. Chase had high expectations of her staff. Women had to wear black silk stockings, white gloves, hats, and closed-toed shoes. On one occasion a Vogue editor tried to commit suicide by throwing herself in front of a subway train. Chase admonished the employee (who survived) and said, "We at Vogue don't throw ourselves under subway trains, my dear. If we must, we take sleeping pills."
Nast and Chase believed that the editorial and advertising areas of the magazine should be separated, and that advertised fashions should have no bearing on clothing styles featured in the articles. During the Great Depression this distinction grew more difficult to maintain. Advertisers expected to receive editorial coverage, in return for the exorbitant cost of advertisements. In 1934, Bergdorf Goodman spent over $16,000 for about 16 pages of advertising; the magazine gave the store over 60 pages of editorial space.
When World War I began, Chase worried that the fashion content of the magazine might dwindle, since most fashion originated in Paris at that time. She came up with the revolutionary idea of holding a charity fashion show featuring the work of New York designers. The idea of a fashion show "benefit" presentation was new, and Chase was uncertain as to whether or not society women might be attracted to such a venture. She managed to convince Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish to endorse the event, and thus many society women attended. There were no professional models in the United States, and so dressmakers' models were trained to walk down a runway. Vogue devoted 17 pages to coverage of the highly successful event. In so doing, Vogue opened the market for American designers and ushered in a new era in fashion-one that was no longer dominated exclusively by Paris.
Nast was the first publisher to produce international editions of his magazine. Through British, French, Spanish, and German editions of Vogue, the magazine evolved, as one advertisement stated, "… [into] a living force in all of the civilized corners of the world."
Vanity Fair Appealed to the Intellect
In 1913, Nast added two magazines to his publishing empire, Dress, and Vanity Fair. Around this time he met Frank Crowninshield and asked him to be editor of Vanity Fair. Crowninshield accepted on the condition that the magazine would contain nothing about women's fashion. Crowninshield intended that the mission of the magazine should be to cover the theater, art, literature, and sports. Of women readers he wrote, "For women, we intend to do… something which … has never before been done for them by an American magazine. We mean to make frequent appeals to their intellects. … " Crowninshield despised advertisements, and he intensely disliked a particular feature in his magazine called the "Well-Dressed Man." He believed that merchandising columns prostituted the magazine. When Crowninshield reduced space for the column to just four pages a year, Nast demanded the cut pages be replaced. Nast was well aware that editorial material focused on fashion greatly pleased his advertisers.
In 1921, Crowninshield moved into Nast's Park Avenue apartment. The two went to parties, openings, the theater, operas, and nightclubs. They entertained, traveled, golfed, and joined clubs together. They gave parties that brought together artists and society folk and initiated a concept called "cafe society." The relationship between the two men gave rise to gossip, although the two were never sexually involved. Crowninshield was not known to have had a physical relationship with anyone. Nast had two wives and several girlfriends. While Nast was still married to Clarisse Couder he became involved with Grace Moore, an opera singer. His other romantic interests were actresses, models, and debutantes. In 1928, Nast, then 55 years old, married a 20-year-old woman named Leslie Foster. In 1930, the couple had a daughter whom they also named Leslie. They divorced in the early 1930s. Nast was involved with Helen Brown Norden between 1932 and 1936.
Nast changed the face of fashion photography forever. He hired well-respected photographers and urged them to take more realistic, relaxed, and informal photos. To ensure high quality publications, Nast purchased and renovated a printing plant in Connecticut. The Condé Nast Press earned a reputation for technical excellence, and Nast made several innovations in printing technology. When the stock market "crashed" in 1929, Nast no longer commanded the resources to indulge his perfectionist ideas of printing or anything else. He was ruined. On October 29, 1929, the stock value of Condé Nast Publications plummeted from $93 per share to $4.50. Nast owed two million dollars to a bank. He lost control of his publishing empire and within a few years was in debt for almost $5 million.
In 1930, Clare Boothe Brokaw (later Luce) went to work for Condé Nast Publications. By 1933, she was the managing editor of Vanity Fair. She suggested to Nast that he buy Life, a humorous magazine, and change the format to a pictorial magazine. Nast, who was devastated by his losses, rejected her advice. When Brokaw married Henry Luce, she persuaded him to follow her plan, and in 1936, Luce's new Life appeared on the scene. The publication became one of the world's most successful magazines.
In 1936, Vanity Fair merged with Vogue. Three years later, Nast started a new magazine called Glamour. Its objective was to recognize the Hollywood influence on fashion, beauty, and charm, and to bring those trends to the average woman. Nast used a new layout format for this magazine, the "crowded" page. Prior to this time, Nast publications presented stark, white pages with only one or two photos per page. The new Glamour magazine and its imaginative format were highly successful.
A Sad End
In 1941, Nast developed health problems. His blood pressure soared, his heart began to fail, and he became dependent upon the use of an oxygen tank. He kept his failing health a secret from most people, until he suffered one heart attack in December of 1941 and another in September of 1942. He died in New York City on September 19, 1942. Eight hundred people attended his funeral. In January 1943, his possessions were auctioned off to pay his debts.
Nast believed that women should have the opportunity to have the prettiest clothes, the prettiest surroundings, and every known method to make themselves more attractive. His magazines still exist today. In 1998, the circulation of Vogue was 1,136,000. Vanity Fair, reestablished in 1983, had a circulation of 1,200,000 in 1998. Several other publications bear the famous name, such as Condé Nast Bride's, Condé Nast Traveler, and Condé Nast Sports for Women.
Further Reading on Condé Nast
Seebohm, Caroline, The Man Who Was Vogue: The Life and Times of Condé Nast, The Viking Press, 1982.
Vogue, May 1982.