Nast, Condé

views updated

Nast, Condé

Condé Nast Publications Inc.


Legendary magazine publisher Condé Nast became the preeminent chronicler of society from 1909 until 1942 through such major publications as Vogue, Vanity Fair, and House and Garden. Out of his belief that advertisers would pay premium rates for the most affluent readership, he pioneered the concept of the limited-circulation magazine targeted to an affluent audience. This concept revolutionized magazine publishing. As the New York Timesobserved in his obituary, "for a generation he was the man from whom millions of American women got most of their ideas, directly or indirectly, about the desirable standard of living."

Personal Life

Condé Montrose Nast was born on March 26, 1873 in New York City. His father, William Frederick Nast, was an unsuccessful speculator-inventor. His mother was Esther Ariadne Benoist Nast of St. Louis. With his father often absent, Nast, his brother, and two sisters were raised by his mother in St. Louis. Nast's paternal grandfather, Wilhelm Nast, was a leading founder of German Methodism in America and edited the leading German Methodist newspaper. It was likely from him that Nast inherited his love of publishing, as well as his systematic way of doing things. Descriptions of Nast as a child have included such traits as thoroughness and neatness. As his mother recalled, "When they were boys, he and [his brother] Louis used to cut the lawn in front of our house in St. Louis. . . . There was a path down the middle of the plot and Condé's side was always very neat, each blade of grass in scrupulous order, but Louis's was more laissez faire, uneven in spots and artistic outcroppings."

Nast convinced a wealthy aunt to finance his education at Georgetown University where he became the first student president of the athletic association in his freshman year. He met fellow student Robert Collier, whose father owned a successful publishing business in New York, an important future contact in Nast's eventual career in publishing. Nast met his first wife, Clarisse Coudert, while riding in New Jersey with Collier and they were married in 1902. They had two children, Charles Coudert and Natica. The couple divorced in 1925. In 1928 Nast remarried to Leslie Forrest who was the same age as both his daughter and his son's fiancée. In 1930, Nast's third child, Leslie, was born. In 1932, suffering from serious financial reversals and uneasy about the age difference, Nast insisted that Leslie divorce him, and she reluctantly complied.

During his heyday as a magazine publisher in the 1920s, Nast established a spectacular life-style in his thirty-room penthouse on New York's Park Avenue. Although he often lunched cafeteria style restaurants, he lived a life of luxury. He was notorious for his lavish parties that brought together the era's rich and famous. As biographer Caroline Seebohm relates, "Going up in the private elevator . . . jammed together with Astors, Vanderbilts, and other persons of consequence, Groucho Marx was overheard . . . to remark to his brother Harpo: 'This is a classy joint.'" After 1941, struggling to make his various publishing ventures successful, Nast became irascible and refused to listen to the advice of those around him. He refused to slow down, despite a serious heart condition. In September 1942, while visiting his daughter at camp in Vermont, he suffered a severe heart attack while climbing a hill with her. Two weeks later he died at the age of sixty-nine, having provided his own epitaph shortly before his death: "Think of it. Here I was, just a boy from St. Louis, and Edna Chase (the long-time editor of Vogue) a Quaker from New Jersey. Between us, we set the standards of the time. We showed America the meaning of style."

Career Details

After graduating from Georgetown, Nast returned home to St. Louis to earn his law degree from Washington University in 1898, but was not eager to work in law. Instead he began to work in a small printing plant in which his family had invested. Nast used the St. Louis Exposition as a way of attracting new business to the plant. When Robert Collier visited his friend he was impressed with Nast's success. He offered Nast a job as advertising manager for Collier's Weekly at twelve dollars a week. Nast built the magazine's advertising revenue to first place and was promoted to business manager in 1905. Nast's strategy was to divide the public into marketing areas and to aim promotions at a select, affluent audience rather than aiming at the mass market. In a famous analogy to explain his concept, Nast observed, "If you had a tray with two million needles on it and only one hundred and fifty thousand of these were had gold tips, which you wanted, it would be an endless and costly process to weed them out. Moreover, the one million, eight hundred and fifty thousand which were not gold-tipped would be of no use to you, they couldn't help you; but if you could get a magnet that would draw only the gold ones, what a saving!" Nast focused on specialty publishing, feeling that advertisers would pay high rates to reach the wealthy market that he was targeting with his publications.

Nast left Collier's in 1907 to devote his attention to the Home Pattern Company, which had a franchise for the manufacture and sale of Ladies' Home Journal patterns. Nast convinced advertisers to place ads in the pattern sheets, and their success convinced him that there was a market for fashion news. In 1909 Nast acquired the weekly magazine Vogue as a vehicle to reach a high society audience through its attention to women's fashion. By 1913, Nast had acquired House and Garden and Vanity Fair. He established a British edition of Vogue in 1916 and a French Vogue in 1921. Nast's publications were trend setting and defined high society interests during the era. Nast excelled at the business of his publications but he helped himself by hiring talented editors who gave his publications their unique character and style. Frank Crowningshield was hired to edit Vanity Fair; Richardson Wright managed House and Garden, and Edna Woolman Chase, who had joined Vogue as a clerk in the circulation department, became its editor in 1914, a position she would hold for fifty years.

Nast was hit hard by the stock market crash and the Depression. Despite great financial losses, Nast refused to abandon his plans to enlarge and modernize his printing plants and introduced color photography into Vogue, Vanity Fair, and House and Garden in 1931. But by 1930, control of the Condé Nast empire had passed into the hands of his bankers. Vanity Fair ceased publication in 1936. After a lifetime in publishing, Nast introduced the first magazine he ever created, Glamour, which appeared in 1939. Aimed at working women, it was a success from the beginning. Nast died burdened by crushing personal and business debt, and the contents of his magnificent penthouse were sold at depressed wartime prices. Nast's publishing empire continued after his death until S.I. Newhouse purchased controlling interest in 1959.

Chronology: Condé Nast

1873: Born.

1900: Hired as advertising manager of Collier'sWeekly.

1905: Promoted to business manager of Collier'sWeekly.

1909: Named publisher of Vogue.

1911: Named publisher of House and Gardens.

1914: Named publisher of Vanity Fair.

1916: Published British edition of Vogue.

1920: Published French edition of Vogue.

1939: Named publisher of Glamour.

1942: Died.

Social and Economic Impact

Condé Nast was one of publishing's titans through the first half of the twentieth century, and his innovations transformed magazine publishing. Recasting his magazines from mass circulation to more specialized audiences, Nast showed how a fortune could be made by focusing on narrower interests aimed at the kinds of readers advertisers were after. The incredible variety in subject matter of today's publications can be traced directly to Nast's conception. He also revealed how dominant periodicals could be in shaping contemporary standards and values. How we dress, how we decorate our homes, and who we admire all are shaped by the media, as Nast demonstrated with the remarkable success and impact of such trendsetting publications as Vanity Fair, Vogue, and House and Garden. Nast, like other publishing giants such as Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst, and DeWitt Wallace, helped define modern publishing, for good and ill, and his legacy remains strong.

Sources of Information

Contact at: Conde Nast Publications Inc.
350 Madison Ave.
New York, NY 10017
Business Phone: (212)880-8800


Chase, Edna Woolman.Always in Vogue. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1954.

Chase, Edna Woolman. "Fifty Years of Vogue. " Vogue, 15 November 1943.

Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.

Kazanjian, Dodie, and Calvin Tomkins. "Becoming a Legend." Vanity Fair, October 1993.

Robinson, Walter G. "With the Makers of Vogue." Vogue, 1 January 1923.

Seebohm, Caroline. The Man Who Was Vogue: The Life and Times of Condé Nast. New York: Viking, 1982.