(1873 to 1942)
Claim to fame: Founder of the magazine publishing company that still bears his name.
Quote: "The day an art director is stronger than the editor is a bad day for the magazine.”
Life in 400 words or less: I’ve met a surprising number of people, even in the magazine business, who don’t realize that Conde Nast was a real man, as opposed simply to the name of a company, perhaps founded by two people named Conde and Nast. But, indeed there was a fresh-and-blood Conde Nast. For vivid evidence of that, see Helen Lawrenson’s witty memoir “Stranger at the Party” (Random House, 1975), which includes, among many other things, a description of Nast lifting her skirt, removing his pince-nez glasses, and etc., etc., during what seems to have been a memorable cab ride.
With his terraced Park Avenue penthouse, almost limitless wealth, and a reputation for giving some of New York’s most remarkable parties, Nast created a life that seems like something out of a Depression-era escapist movie, with him as the tuxedoed millionaire character. Though he is likely to be remembered as the owner and publisher of magazines such as Vogue and Vanity Fair, I’m including him here because he had two essentially editorial insights that have had a powerful influence on magazines ever since.
The first was that editing for a mass audience, as was just about everybody else’s goal in those days, wasn’t the only way to go. He envisioned (and his editors created) magazines that served a narrow, and in his case, elite, audience. It helped that such people were also coveted by advertisers and that advertising agencies were willing to pay a premium to reach them. In our era, with mass-market magazines all but dead, and niches becoming narrower by the day, the man seems downright clairvoyant.
His second and smaller insight was also decades ahead of its time. Nast was a big believer in what he called “crowded pages,” jammed not with endless gray text but with as much stuff as possible. For example, he said, “[I]f you give a woman 5 hats to choose from she is not going to be as satisfied as if she had 20 hats to pick from.”
For more: Caroline Seebohm’s “The Man Who Was Vogue” (Viking Press, 1982) is probably the definitive biography. Benjamin Schwarz, literary editor of The Atlantic Monthly, recently referred to it as one of the two best biographies of an American magazine publisher. (The other, he says, is David Nasaw’s “The Chief: The Life and Times of William Randolph Hearst.”) -- Greg Daugherty, 10/08