Cowles, Fleur (1910—)

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Cowles, Fleur (1910—)

American magazine editor, journalist, artist, and author who was founding editor of the innovative and short-lived Flair magazine. Born Fleur Fenton in Montclair, New Jersey, on January 20, 1910; eldest of two daughters of Matthew (a businessman and manufacturer) and Eleanor (Pearl) Fenton; graduated from Montclair High School, 1926; attended School of Fine and Applied Arts, New York; married Atherton Pettingell (an advertising executive), on February 13, 1932 (divorced 1946); married Gardner Cowles (a publishing magnate), on December 27, 1946 (divorced 1955); married Tom Montague Meyer (an English millionaire), on November 18, 1955.

Fleur Cowles is best remembered in America as the flamboyant and innovative genius behind the short-lived magazine Flair, which ran for just 12 issues between February 1950 and January 1951. Flair, however, does not tell the whole story of Cowles, who also rescued Look magazine from certain disaster and became a writer, painter, and philanthropist of some note. In an October 1996 article in Vanity Fair, coinciding with the publication of her latest book as well as a lavish volume called The Best of Flair, a longtime acquaintance likened Cowles to "a comet from nowhere" and commented on her fascinating self-styled life. "She invented herself, never making a false step. She has an amazing power within herself to make anything she wants happen."

Cowles grew up in Montclair, New Jersey, and has called her childhood "too painful to discuss." At the age of 11, she was keeping a secret journal under her mattress and dreaming of becoming a great writer like her idol Katherine Mansfield . While attending New York's School of Fine and Applied Arts, she began what she refers to as "spasmodic" work in advertising by bluffing her way into a job as senior copywriter for Gimbels' department store. Cowles then moved to Boston, where she worked in a similar capacity for another store, C. Crawford Hollidge. Back in New York by 1932, she married Atherton Pettingell, an advertising executive. In 1935, the couple formed Pettingell and Fenton, a lucrative advertising agency of which she was executive vice president. Producer Harold Prince, who worked at Pettingell and Fenton in the summer of 1942 as an office boy, recalls, "it was all very theatrical, atmospheric, and glossy, with models like Lisa Fonssagrives stalking in and out. I liken Fleur physically to Gertrude Lawrence in Lady in the Dark. And Pettingell was a very tall, handsome, dashing fellow—very Errol Flynn-y." The marriage, however, did not endure, and they divorced in 1946.

During World War II, Cowles reinvented herself as a dollar-a-year volunteer, writing speeches for the War Production Board and other government agencies. At the end of the war, she wangled herself a permit to fly to Europe, thus becoming the first civilian woman to enter several liberated countries. Cowles says this distinction gave her status and paved her way into the White house in 1946, as Special Consultant to the Famine Emergency Committee, assisting Herbert Hoover, the committee's chair. Her Oval Office connections would continue with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who in 1954 offered her an ambassadorship to Greece, or possibly Formosa. Thinking it might put undue strain on her then second marriage, she declined, telling the New York Post, "I am probably the only woman in history to turn down an ambassadorship." Eisenhower later appointed her as special envoy to Queen Elizabeth II 's coronation.

No matter what you've got, it takes more than that.

—Sign opposite Fleur Cowles' desk at Look magazine.

Her career in publishing began in 1946, with her marriage to Gardner "Mike" Cowles, president of Cowles Magazines, publishers of the floundering Look magazine as well as several newspapers. Eight months into the marriage, she was directing the new women's department of the magazine and representing the female point of view on the executive editorial board. Hoping to turn Look into a family magazine—and to compete on an equal footing with Life—she introduced sections on food, fashion, and family problems, thus doubling Look's advertising core and circulation within two years. Her frank, demanding style, however, made enemies along the way. In spite of incredibly long work days, the Cowleses maintained a glamorous lifestyle, which included high-powered and celebrity friends like Marilyn Monroe and Bernard Baruch (who for a time telephoned Cowles daily to drill her on world affairs). They further enlarged their social circle with a yearly trip around the world.

All the while, Cowles was formulating plans for Flair, a monthly "class" magazine that turned out to be one of the most beautiful, eclectic publications ever seen in the United States. In one of her several memoirs, Cowles describes Flair as "a phenomenon in American magazine publishing. … the first honestly general maga zine of all the arts." With the support and financial backing of her husband (who, according to his son, could not resist a gamble), Flair was launched in 1950 and advertised as the "magazine for moderns." It was distinguished by state-of-the art features, and the use of advanced graphic techniques, including a variety of paper stocks and printing processes, and pages of varying sizes. Flair also featured the first double foldout cover, die cuts, and a new binding method that did away with staples and allowed the pages to lay flat. The publication was so chock-full of gimmicks that it inspired several cartoons, including a famous one by Charles Addams in which a three-handed creature is simultaneously reading the magazine and its accordion foldouts. Another cartoonist depicted one writer telling a colleague, "My story was in Flair but it fell out."

Although Flair dazzled its limited audience, it also drew its share of detractors, mostly from the media and advertising worlds. Time dismissed the preview issue as "a fancy bouillabaisse of Vogue, Town and Country, Holiday, etc." Business Week called it "a highly impractical business venture." Subsequent issues inspired further attacks, some blistering. S.J. Perelman, in an article in The New Yorker titled "The Hand That Cradles the Rock," likened Fleur Cowles' personality to "a Kansas cyclone successfully wedded to Devonshire clotted cream." In January 1951, after just 12 issues, the magazine had accrued losses totaling $2 million, and Mike Cowles, against his wife's wishes, shut down the operation. In an effort to keep the magazine alive, Cowles brought out a hardback edition, Flair Annual 1953, which included many of the stories that were left unpublished when the magazine folded. Although she went on to other things, she remained wedded to her brainchild, which subsequently became a collectors' item. The 1996 publication, The Best of Flair, was the culmination of a project that had been Cowles' dream and mission for 50 years.

During her heyday, with her trademark ashblonde hair and black horn-rimmed glasses, Cowles appeared to go everywhere and know everyone. (Some of her travel was done in an Ercoupe plane that she flew herself after getting her pilot's license in 1944.) A prolific writer, she authored 16 books. As a result of her stay in Argentina in 1950, she wrote Bloody Precedent (1952), a comparative study of the Argentinean dictatorships of Juan and Evita Perón and their

predecessors Manuel and Encarnación de Rosas . Although criticized by some reviewers as uneven, the work was called by The New York Times "perhaps the most perceptive and accurate picture of Evita Perón published to date." Cowles also wrote The Case of Salvador Dali, whom she call's "Surrealism's most curious character," and was a contributor to several other volumes. Her memoir Friends and Memories (1978) contains sketches about her impressive array of friends and acquaintances, including Gamal Abdel Nasser, Bernard Baruch, Margaret Thompson Biddle , Madame Chiang Kai-shek (Song Meiling ), Marilyn Monroe, Conchita Cintrón, Isak Dinesen , and Jacqueline Auriol . There is also a chapter on the noted plastic surgeon John Converse and the Institute of Reconstructive Plastic Surgery of the New York University Medical Center, which Cowles helped establish through years of fund-raising.

In 1955, Cowles divorced for the second time and later that same year married English millionaire Tom Montague Meyer (Cary Grant was best man). She then moved to England, where she took up painting, lining the walls of three residences with her oils. In 1969, she began to paint professionally and was encouraged by the young Italian painter Dominico Gnoli, who died tragically in 1970. Surrealistic in style, Cowles' images usually take the form of flowers and animals. Her work, first exhibited in 1965, has subsequently been viewed in over 50 one-woman shows, several of them in important museums in the United States and Brazil. Her paintings accompany several parables written by Robert Vavra. One of her paintings is also included in a book by Beverly Nicols , The Art of Flower Arrangements.

Fleur Cowles resided in England in an 18th-century suite of rooms in Albany that was once Lord Melbourne's palace. In 1996, her party to launch her book, She Made Friends and Kept Them, an anecdotal memoir, had an impressive guest list, including writers, artists, scientists, and titled aristocrats from Europe and Asia. Though content with her life, she admitted that if someone wanted to publish Flair again, she would be ready. As she told Vanity Fair, "My blood's not red—it's blue ink. I would create a section, edited by me, maybe an insert in another magazine, called 'Flair by Fleur.' It would be Flair for art, for food, for fashion, and for entertainment. I'd design it and give it my ideas. I have an idea a second."


Collins, Amy Fine. "A Flair for Living," in Vanity Fair. October 1996, pp. 202–222.

Cowles, Fleur. Friends and Memories. NY: Reynal, 1978.

Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1952.

suggested reading:

Cowles, Fleur. She Made Friends and Kept Them: An Anecdotal Memoir. HarperCollins, 1996.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts