(1872 to 1947)
Claim to fame: Editor of Vanity Fair from 1914 to 1936.
Quote: “Married men make very poor husbands.”
Life in 600 words or less: In 1913, the publisher Conde Nast had a problem. He'd recently acquired a magazine called Dress, bought the name of another one, Vanity Fair, and combined the two into Dress & Vanity Fair. Ungainly as its title was, that wasn't the magazine's only failing. It also lacked a clear editorial direction, or at least one that satisfied Nast. He decided to consult his friend Frank Crowninshield on the matter.
The Paris-born son of an old New England family, Crowninshield had held editorial posts at several well-regarded but now mostly forgotten magazines, including The Bookman, The Century, The Metropolitan Magazine, and Munsey’s. “There is no magazine that is read by the people you meet at lunches and dinners,” he reportedly told Nast. “Your magazine should cover the things people talk about—parties, the arts, sports, theater, humor, and so forth.” Soon Crowninshield had the job of supplying the luster that Dress & Vanity Fair lacked. Among his first moves was tightening its title to Vanity Fair.
In his first issue, dated March 1914, Crowninshield laid out his mission: “Vanity Fair has but two major articles in its editorial creed: first, to believe in the progress and promise of American life, and, second, to chronicle that progress cheerfully, truthfully, and entertainingly.” He would stick remarkably close to that mission for the next two decades, until the Depression ended Vanity Fair’s initial run in 1936 and both it and Crowninshield were absorbed by the more prosperous Conde Nast title, Vogue.
But it must have been fun while it lasted. During Crowninshield’s tenure, the magazine gave a start or at least an early boost to a long list of 20th century worthies. Its writers included Noel Coward, Aldous Huxley, Thomas Wolfe, Getrude Stein, e.e. cummings, and even Harry Houdini. Among its artists were Matisse and Picasso. Among its photographers, Edward Steichen and Cecil Beaton. Crowninshield’s junior staffers tended to go on to greater glory, as well; they included the humorists Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker, the playwright Robert Sherwood, and the ambitious Clare Boothe before she became Clare Boothe Luce.
Though his editorial tastes may have tended toward the avant garde, Crowninshield was, by most accounts, an old-fashioned gentleman in his very public private life. In its obituary, The New York Times offered him this flowery tribute: “Known to his thousands of friends as Crownie, New York’s most extraordinary bon vivant was handsome, tall, and carried himself with Old World dignity. Given to wearing boutonnieres in both day and evening clothes Mr. Crowninshield was himself a flower in the buttonhole of a large segment of the social life of New York.”
Even Crowninshield’s rejection letters were legendary for their courtliness. The writer Dickson Hartwell recalled that they “were so complimentary that they usually had to be read twice to discover whether he was making a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize or expressing regret.” Edna Woolman Chase, the longtime Vogue editor who was both Crowninshield’s peer and occasional nemesis, wrote that he “rarely saw face to face a contributor whose work he didn't want; his heart was too tender. Instead he dictated charming little notes flattering the writer on the perception and sensitivity of his piece, his wit and freshness of phrasing, and suggested he send it to the Ladies' Home Journal.”
At his death in 1947, at age 75, Crowninshield was an editorial adviser to Conde Nast Publications, where his contributions apparently included the suggestion to spell Glamour magazine with a “u,” rather than the less-glamorous “Glamor.”
For more: Crowninshield seems never to have published a memoir or to have been the subject of a book-length biography, both of which are unfortunate. The closest thing may be a two-part New Yorker profile in September 1942. Crowninshield does, however, figure in many biographies of his celebrated associates, including Caroline Seebohm’s “The Man Who Was Vogue: The Life and Times of Conde Nast” (1982), Marion Meade’s “Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This?” (1988), and Billy Altman’s “Laughter’s Gentle Soul: The Life and Times of Robert Benchley” (1997). He also makes a brief but memorable appearance in “A Good Life,” the autobiography of Ben Bradlee, the former Washington Post executive editor, whose grandmother was Crowninshield’s sister. For a sample of Vanity Fair’s content during the Crowninshield era, there’s “Vanity Fair: A Cavalcade of the 1920s and 1930s,” edited by Cleveland Amory and Frederic Bradlee (1960). — Greg Daugherty, 9/10