November 2008

Arts & Letters

Flappers & snappers

By Clare Press
‘Vanity Fair Portraits’

The origins of the word ‘glamour' lie in the swirling mists of Scottish thaumaturgy; to be glamorous in Robbie Burns' time was to be messing with magic. But come the twentieth century, thanks to who knows what dark spell, the term shifted meaning to denote ritz, glitz and the sort of sparkling hedonistic excitement exemplified by Evelyn Waugh's Bright Young Things. Waugh was a Brit, of course, and London a centre of Jazz Age high times, but the spiritual home of modern glamour was America. London did posh properly, Paris had elegance sewn up, but true glamour was - and to some extent still is - rooted in Hollywood and the Hamptons.

Vanity Fair is glamour in print. Launched in New York in 1913 by the dapper publisher and pince-nez fan Condé Montrose Nast, a man so glamorous that his mistress was an opera singer and his Park Avenue party pad covered 5000 square feet, the magazine has long been the official American journal of the smart set. Its cousin Vogue, which Nast had acquired in 1909, is glamorous too, but is more specifically concerned with the cut of one's cloth than of one's jib. And there is a magazine in the current Condé Nast stable titled Glamour - a kid born out of Hollywood in 1939 that these days is synonymous with more accessible, girl-next-door style - but Vanity Fair remains the flagship for style with substance.

As a writer you know you've made it when you've written for the magazine. Its roster of scribes past and present includes Noël Coward, DH Lawrence, Gertrude Stein, Aldous Huxley, James Wolcott, PG Wodehouse, Dorothy Parker, Ingrid Sischy and Christopher Hitchens, to name just a few. Despite, in its current incarnation, championing the political essay - editor Graydon Carter is a committed Bush-basher, and Hitchens recently submitted to torture by waterboarding in the name of investigative journalism - this is a publication recognised foremost for its art-world and Tinseltown credentials. The annual Hollywood Issue's gatefold cover often features stars in swimmers - tastefully styled, of course. And why not? To borrow from Keats, beauty is a joy.

Hitchens, echoing another poet, WH Auden, writes in the introductory essay to Vanity Fair Portraits (Hardie Grant, 383pp; $120): "The lights must never go out. The music must always play. Even in the darkest time, there must be beauty and style and the cultivation of taste and the individual ... And there is no time in which the celebration of irony - that cream in our coffee and gin in our Campari - is not of the first importance."

So, you get my picture. This iconic journal straddles smart and serious, but above all it's gorgeous. And while Hitchens, Sischy and friends can surely bring beauty to life with the written word, it helps to see a photo too. As Carter explains in his foreword to the book, "It was with its photography that Vanity Fair truly and indelibly made its name." Indeed, its roll call of snappers is every bit as impressive as that of its writers. We're talking all the greats: Edward Steichen, George Hoyningen-Heune, Baron Adolf de Meyer, Man Ray, Cecil Beaton, Helmut Newton, Annie Leibovitz, Bruce Weber, Mario Testino, Steven Meisel, even Karl Lagerfeld.

At which point I ought to mention the book's disingenuous subtitle: A Century of Iconic Images. In fact, this record spans half a century, in two periods: the magazine's first incarnation, from 1913 to 1936; and its present one, from 1983 to 2008. In 1936, Nast - strapped for cash and fearing the party was ending - closed Vanity Fair's doors, and for nearly 50 years the famous looked to other magazines to document their fabulous lives.

In Portraits, the absence of icons from the 1940s through '70s is keenly felt: we see Cindy Crawford but not Veruschka; Gloria Swanson but not Doris Day. There is no Andy Warhol, no Audrey Hepburn, no Twiggy, no Jane Fonda, no Beatles, no Stones (although a post-prime Mick Jagger does get a look-in, pictured being ignored by Madonna and Tony Curtis at the Vanity Fair Oscars bash in 1997). The likes of Dennis Hopper, and Bobs De Niro and Dylan, are captured in middle age but not gilded youth.

What we do see is a compelling, wittily presented history - minding the 50-year gap - of celebrity portraiture. The editors have put the thing together in just the sort of quirky way you'd expect, given that this is the team that brought us the psychedelically decorated double-page spread ‘Inside Dylan's Brain' (May 2008), and that allots half a page each month to an actor's ‘In Character' mugshots (see David Schwimmer, last month, "knowing that the chance of a lifetime has been missed"). They have a sense of humour.

The obvious way to arrange the images would have been chronologically. (Or perhaps by taxonomic rank: Phylum Acoelomorpha ... hello, Mr Bush!) Instead, images are paired or sequenced according to their similarities in composition, tone or subject matter. Thus the forgettable '80s actress Mariel Hemingway lounges topless opposite her contemporary equivalent, that scantily clad starlet more famous for her social life than her work, Sienna Miller.

In Alice Springs' 1987 portrait of her husband, Helmut Newton, the master of aggressively sexualised fashion photography poses prettily in a straw hat, linen shirt ... and black stilettos. He's in Monte Carlo, natch. Beside him is a 1931 portrait of the British surrealist painter Paul Nash, also sporting a hat. We can't see his feet, so who knows about the heels?

Newton shot the fabulous 1986 image of a crumbling Salvador Dalí, swathed in a silk dressing gown with something sinister (spaghetti? a feeding tube?) protruding from his nose. Adjacent is a glamorous image of a 25-year-old Dalí, shot in 1929 by fellow avant-garde scenester Man Ray, with not a shred of surrealist evidence in sight - although the signature curved moustache features in both pictures.

Not surprisingly, there is more youth and beauty than decaying flesh displayed in these pages. A 1927 picture of the Albertina Rasch dance troupe is so laden with silvered tulle it calls to mind a lavish dessert. Steichen's young Clark Gable sits opposite Aviator-era Leo DiCaprio; both look good enough to eat. There's Cecil Beaton's picture of diamonds and pearls in which the actress Merle Oberon is also to be seen. The cover image is of Kate Moss dressed up like Marlene Dietrich, and inside it's next to a 1935 shot of the real Dietrich. Herb Ritts shoots Sylvester Stallone kissing a rapt Brigitte Nielsen above an adoring crowd, leaving Juergen Teller to snap designer Marc Jacobs slapping the arse of film director and fashion fan Sofia Coppola (don't worry - he's gay; they're just friends). There's also an aggressively sexy 1995 Leibovitz group shot in which Uma Thurman pouts in a negligee, Nicole Kidman parts her lips seductively above a black-panelled corset dress, and Sarah Jessica Parker struts it in a strapless bra and chain-mail miniskirt. They'd never do it now.

Despite the glamour factor, the image that stayed with me longest after closing the book was not one of Steichen's flapper starlets or even George Hurrell's unsettling picture of Drew Barrymore as a child actor, scowling in pink nylon pleats and enough lipstick to make JonBenét Ramsey blush, but Leibovitz's 1995 portrait of William S Burroughs's oddly vulnerable-looking bald head, in profile. The 81-year-old Beat king's eyes are closed; he is stooped; the collar of his jacket is rumpled - a man ready to bow out. Two years later, Burroughs was dead. On the facing page, George Bernard Shaw, photographed by Malcolm Arbuthnot in 1920, is a stark contrast: aged 64, the Irish playwright is feisty-eyed and holding his lapel like he means trouble.

Arbuthnot, a great friend of his socialist subject, was an exception to the early Vanity Fair norm: he had no money. Many of the snapper pack that worked for the magazine's first editor, Nast's buddy Frank Crowninshield, were upper-class figures with impeccable establishment connections. Crowninshield later became one of the founders of the Museum of Modern Art. Steichen, too, was mates with the modernist art crowd and before working for the magazine helped staged exhibitions for Matisse, Cézanne and Brancusi. De Meyer was married to Olga Caracciolo, whose godfather was King Edward VII, and though Beaton came from more humble beginnings, by the time he'd grown up he was society. Later, royal cousin Lord Lichfield worked for the magazine, as did Princess Margaret's ex, Lord Snowdon.

Plenty of the portraits' subjects, too, came from ‘top families', and while another Condé Nast title, Tatler, was and is the British society rag, that's never stopped royalty from courting Vanity Fair. Testino photographed Diana, Princess of Wales for the magazine in 1997, and Prince William in 2003. Just last year, Annie Leibovitz photographed the Queen in Buckingham Palace, though none of those pictures appears in the book. Presumably Liz refused permission.

Leibovitz took some of the magazine's most recognisable recent portraits - Whoopi Goldberg in a bath of milk, a naked and pregnant Demi Moore - but it's the older, less famous shots that make this book a treat. I love Beaton's picture of a sulky Katharine Hepburn, taken in 1935, and the choreographer George Balanchine's gloriously snooty expression in a 1983 shot, as dancers float surreally over his head (Man Ray would've been proud). Ultimately, it's the faces that make a book like this so fascinating, for these are the mugs, young and old, ugly and stunningly beautiful, that shaped our times.

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