Fleur and Cecil
Fleur Fenton was born Florence Freidman in New York City (although she often claimed to have been born in Montclair, New Jersey). Her parents were Morris Freidman, a novelty salesman, and his wife, Lena. Her siblings adopted the surname Freeman later in life: Dr. Paul William Freeman, a dentist (1906—1966), and Mildred Freeman Goetze
Fleur Cowles' first husband was Bertram Klapper, a manufacturer of wood shoe heels. They later divorced. Her second husband was Atherton "Pett" Pettingell Jr. (1901—1971), an advertising executive who was a grandnephew of Samuel M. Pettingell, who founded one of the first advertising agencies in America in 1850.They married prior to 1937 and divorced in 1946.
Her third husband was Gardner Cowles Jr. (1903—1982), an heir to the Cowles Media Company, which at one time owned the Des Moines Register and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Known as Mike, Cowles was the publisher of his family's Look magazine. They married in 1946 and divorced in 1955. She kept his surname professionally.
In November 1955, she married her fourth and last husband, Tom Montague Meyer (CBE), a timber executive. The Meyers lived for a number of years in London and Sussex, as well as Spain.
In the early and mid 1930s, she wrote a weekly column for The New York World-Telegram. In 1937, she became co-founder and executive vice president of the advertising agency Pettingell & Fenton Inc, which later became known as Hartman & Pettingell Inc, then again as Pettingell & Fenton, and finally as Dorland International-Pettingell Fenton Inc.
She founded it with her second husband, Atherton Pettingell, a former executive vice president of Blacker Advertising. Among its clients were A. S. Beck, the shoe concern, Helena Rubenstein, the cosmetics company, and Cohama Fabrics. She resigned from the firm in 1946.
Describing herself as "rough, uncut, [and] vigorous" as her trademark Russian emerald ring, she told Time, "I've worked hard, and I've made a fortune, and I did it in a man's world, but always, ruthlessly, and with a kind of cruel insistence, I have tried to keep feminine". In 1950 she was lampooned by the writer S. J. Perelman in The New Yorker as glamorous editor "Hyacinth Beddoes Laffoon".
In 1947, she became an associate editor at Look magazine, and a year later, an associate editor at Quick magazine. She resigned her position at Look in November 1955 upon her separation from Gardner Cowles and moved to Europe, where she served as the magazine's foreign editorial consultant. Before founding Flair, Cowles was a special consultant to the Famine Emergency Committee in Washington, D.C.
Cowles founded Flair magazine in 1950, and it folded a year later. The magazine, which Time described at its launch as "a fancy bouillabaisse of Vogue, Town & Country, Holiday, etc.," was celebrated not only because of its design and editorial production by European art director Federico Pallavicini (né Federico von Berzeviczy-Pallavicini) but also because of its lavish production. It was the resulting cost of production that killed the magazine, since the expensive special costs (for cover cut-outs for some issues, for example) could not be supported in the long run. This magazine is now sought after by collectors and sells for significant amounts on Ebay. Contributors included Saul Steinberg, Salvador Dalí (The Gypsy Angels Of Spain), and many writers and artists who subsequently became well known. The first issue issue featured Auden, Cocteau, Lucian Freud, Tennessee Williams, Angus Wilson, and many others as contributors.
In later decades, Cowles served on various government committees and represented Dwight D. Eisenhower at the coronation of Elizabeth II. In 1996 the book The Best of Flair collected much of the material from the magazine she founded. Her paintings from the books Tiger Flower and Lion and Blue are to be made into three-dimensional computer-animated films.
Fleur Cowles' painting "Desert Journey" was reproduced as the cover of the 1968 Donovan album Donovan In Concert.
Well connected editor of the short-lived but long-admired Flair magazine
The Guardian, Thursday 11 June 2009
Fleur Cowles, who has died aged 101, said that Flair, the magazine she edited almost 60 years ago, should and would be her obituary. Flair was a short-lived, loss-making, vanity project, meant to showcase the persona Fleur had invented for herself. Media professionals and students have admired it ever since its 12th and last issue appeared on US newsstands in January 1951. By then, Flair had served its purpose for Fleur, becoming in its single year of existence, "a lifetime passport ... it still opens doors to writers, painters and designers".
Fleur was over 40 when she launched it, not that she admitted her age, from which she would subtract anything up to a decade according to whether youth or experience was more in style. However, she was born in New York when Teddy Roosevelt was president, and was named Florence, the daughter of Morris Freidman, a novelty salesman, and Lena, the wife he soon left. She later renamed the family and relocated her childhood somewhere leafier. She did confess to a first proper job, writing advertising copy for Gimbels department store in New York.
She understood early in the popularisation and feminisation of American newspapers the connections between print, fame and advertising, and the hunger for ideas - she was never short of those: "I have an idea a minute." She wrote a fashion column for the New York World-Telegram; she worked in a Boston ad agency. Her first husband, Bertram Klapper, owned a firm making wooden cores for shoe heels. Her second, Atherton Pettingell, an ad executive, had been her boss. She was better at copywriting than he was, and together they set up an ad agency for New York's luxury businesses, including Helena Rubinstein cosmetics.
On the way to a second divorce she found patriotic purpose writing for the War Production Board, which gave her recognition in Washington, enough for President Harry Truman to appoint her in 1946 to his famine emergency committee. She worked on a media campaign to halve the annual US consumption of cereal so that surplus grain could be shipped to Europe, where starvation was imminent.
In Washington she met Gardner "Mike" Cowles Jr, temporarily at the Office of War Information but more usually occupied in the family publishing business. She upgraded her name to Fleur, and Mike and Fleur married, both for the third time. She was at last in the right place to be who and what she wanted. She joined Look magazine, which Mike had founded, as associate editor and oversaw a redesign, adding fashion and food and inventing the formula for later newspaper colour mags. Circulation increased, and so did advertising.
The couple travelled the world with access at the highest level, but she wanted her own magazine, and pleaded for it for two years. It had to have flair, she kept saying - and there was its name. Postwar Manhattan had a huge pool of magazine talent, energised by designers and graphic specialists who had fled Europe. They had ambitious ideas of what a magazine could be, drawn from surrealist collages, Japanese ephemera, memories of 1920s stencilled fashion plates, and the pop-up and pull-out books of their childhoods.
Nothing was too good for Flair, which promised "the best things, the first things, uniting its readers in an aristocracy of taste", and delivered them, with food, fashion and the arts besides. The magazine was on sale every month from February 1950 at an affordable 50 cents a copy, although it cost $1.60 to print. It had corporate advertising, but never enough. It intrigued readers - the print run was eventually 200,000 - but too few of them. It lost between $1m and $3m over just 12 issues, and Mike scrapped it. Fleur never forgave him.
She was by then a major character, the editor as gifted egotist, satirised by SJ Perelman in the New Yorker as the omnicompetent Hyacinth Beddoes Laffoon. Her personal style matched her defunct mag - hatless in a behatted era, in exclusive tailored suits and a rose, with huge horn-rimmed or dark glasses and a trademark Russian emerald ring.
She then began the composition of what, by her death, was a bookshelf of volumes, with Bloody Precedent (1951), a biography of the Peróns, written after she met them in Buenos Aires.
For a while, her A-list-only address book made her useful in Washington, doing errands for the Eisenhowers as roving ambassador and special correspondent, including attending the Queen's coronation in London in 1953 and visiting troops during the Korean war. She flew off to Iran to meet the Shah, although the more important encounter of the Tehran trip turned out to have been on the flight back, with an Englishman, Tom Montague Meyer. The Cowles's marriage had not gone well after Flair closed. Fleur married Tom in 1955, with Cary Grant as best man.
Tom was wealthy enough to establish them, with staff in each venue, in a large London flat, a Tudor farmhouse in Sussex, and a castle in Spain. Thereafter Fleur could afford to play the dilettante. There were more than 50 solo exhibitions of her paintings, besides illustrated books, designs for china, needlepoint and a deckchair for the Royal parks. Mostly, though, she burned energy collecting people. She shamelessly anecdotalised them all in two books of pushy recollections, Friends and Memories (1975) and She Made Friends and Kept Them (1996).
Fleur is survived by Tom.
• Fleur Cowles (Florence Freidman), editor, writer and raconteur, born 20 January 1908; died 5 June 2009
08 Jun 2009 in The Telegraph
Fleur Cowles, who has died aged – probably – 101, was a formidably creative American journalist and socialite who turned her back on humble origins to make her life's business networking with important people all over the world. She travelled to Persia as the guest of the Shah; Cary Grant was best man at the last of her four weddings; Yehudi Menuhin visited to play at her house in Sussex.
Dressed in large dark-rimmed glasses, well-tailored suits (always adorned with a rose), and a ring (one inch square of rough-cut jade), she numbered princes and Popes among her friends. She spun a fable out of her own life, destroying evidence of her unfashionable upbringing and claiming to be the Queen Mother's "best friend". But the significance of her achievements and friendships were undeniable, not least as editor of the magazine Flair in the 1950s.
She was born Florence Freidman in New York on January 26 1908, if one believes a census of the time; she herself preferred 1910, or best of all 1917. Her father was Matthew Freidman (she said Fenton), who worked in the novelty business (she said a businessman-manufacturer), and her mother, Lena (she said Eleanor) Pearl. Fleur graduated from Montclair High School and went on to the School of Fine and Applied Arts in New York.
She began copywriting in the advertising department of Gimbel Brothers department store, receiving a weekly salary of $100 at what she said was the age of just 15, though given the doubt over her date of birth, she was probably 22.
She then moved to work in advertising in Boston and, between 1931 and 1932, wrote a bylined daily column in the New York World-Telegram which was hailed for injecting much-needed sparkle into tedious fashion news.
By 1934, she had was married for the second time, having divorced Bertram Klapper, of Haverhill, Massachusetts, whose trade was the manufacture of wooden heels. Husband No 2 was Atherton Pettingell, with whom she ran the Dorland International Pettingell and Fenton Advertising Agency, of which she was executive vice-president. The Pettingells were divorced in the 1940s.
In 1946 President Harry Truman's administration appointed her special consultant on the Famine Emergency Committee, set up to deal with hunger in the post-war world. She devised a campaign urging Americans to cut down their consumption of cereals by 50 per cent to free up more grain for export to starving children in Europe.
It was while she was in Washington working on the project that she met the publisher Gardner Cowles who was then with the Office of War Information. He was known as Mike, and by this time she had changed her name to Fleur. They married in December 1946 and she quickly joined his magazine Look, introducing features and fashion stories to appeal to women readers (she disapproved of its reputation as men's "barbershop reading") and expanding advertising.
The late 1940s and early 1950s were to prove the basis of Fleur Cowles's lasting fame as a journalist and doyenne of the supremely well-connected. With her husband she travelled the world, meeting and interviewing leaders from Churchill to Eva Peron.
She was at her best on the attack. During Fleur Cowles's 1950 trip to Buenos Aires, Eva Peron tried to charm the influential journalist, paying Cowles particular compliments about her jewellery. Cowles was not taken in, insisting Peron's political "motivation was hatred and revenge". The British Ambassador, Sir John Balfour, gave Fleur Cowles the idea of comparing the Perons to an earlier Argentinian husband-and-wife political team, Manuel and Encarnacion de Rosas. The result was Cowles's 1951 book, Bloody Precedent.
Most of her attention at this time, however, was turned to the lavish and stylish new magazine, Flair, started with her husband's considerable financial backing. Unique in its time, it was launched in February 1950, and featured anything that interested its editor: art, travel, writing and design. It included an interview with Salvador Dalí, some decorating tips from the Duchess of Windsor, and articles by Tennessee Williams, Jean Cocteau and Eleanor Roosevelt. Drawing on her extensive contacts book, Fleur Cowles was able to publish work by Colette and Simone de Beauvoir. Even Lucian Freud contributed. A distinctive feature of the magazine was the hole cut into the front cover, a process called die-cutting, which gave a hint of the glories within, and was enjoyably parodied in the New Yorker. Printed on variously textured paper, it also had a variety of pull-outs and other bizarre design features.
Flair was launched to immediate prophecies of financial disaster, and the oracles of doom were not disappointed. It ran for only a year and eventually lost millions. It was a "commercial bomb" but an "artistic triumph" as the author, James Gavin, described it. But its reputation endured and in 1999 The Best of Flair was published in a lipstick-red cover, to great acclaim, retailing at $250.
In 1953, President Eisenhower, on whose election campaign she had worked, sent her to London with General George Marshall to attend the Coronation, affording her Ambassadorial status. For the occasion she wore a grey dress by Valentina – to match the stone of the Abbey. In 1955, after a nine-year marriage, which was described as "ostensibly happy but businesslike", Fleur and Gardner Cowles separated amicably, though to the surprise of their friends.
She later wrote: "Problems had arisen with husband, Mike Cowles. I often had to be away and I suddenly learned of his relationship with another woman, which I refused to countenance."
Following their divorce, she married Tom Montague Meyer, a timber merchant some years her junior, whom history relates she had either met in Persia in 1953 (when staying in Tehran as a guest of the Shah) or when they sat together by chance on a plane. Cary Grant was best man. Once married the Meyers lived part of the year in five sets in Albany, London, part in their Elizabethan farmhouse in Sussex and part in a ninth-century castle, which they restored in the Extremadura province of Spain.
Fleur continued to be energetic for the rest of her life. She produced an authorised biography of Salvador Dalí in 1959. Having been an avid collector of paintings (though only by artists personally known to her), she began to paint herself, favouring flowers and wild animals. She was widely exhibited, and her works were owned by such figures as James Stewart and even Greta Garbo (whether by gift or purchase is less clear).
In 1975 she published Friends and Memories, which she described as "an artful dodge away from the abused literary exercise called the autobiography". For its author this form had the dual attraction of enabling her to skate over early life and episodes she did not wish to explore, while giving her ample opportunity to impress the reader with an exhausting diet of global name-dropping.
Out they spilt – confidences with President Nasser, an intimate evening with ex-President Johnson at the LBJ ranch, royalty, Popes, presidents, a weekend with Marilyn Monroe, and many more.
In 1996 she returned to the theme in She Made Friends and Kept Them in which she boldly stated her achievements: "Few women have lived more multiple lives than I have: as editor: as that anomaly, an American president's personal representative, decorated by six governments; as a writer of thirteen books and contributor to six others; as a painter, with fifty-one one-man exhibitions throughout the world; patron of the arts and sciences, irrepressible traveller and, more importantly, friend-gatherer …"
In the book itself, names were not so much dropped as hurled in a barrage, page after page. Reviewing it, Selina Hastings concluded that Fleur Cowles was "monumentally vain", and regretted that the readers were not told how "a tough little go-getter from we are not told where (Brooklyn? Bronx?), fuelled by chutzpah, driving ambition and two enormous fortunes from two very rich husbands" reached her undoubted position of influence.
Fleur Cowles's achievements in other spheres were no less impressive. She was a senior fellow of the Royal College of Art in London, a trustee of the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust and president of the European-based LSB Leakey Trust. With her last husband, she helped build the Institute for American Studies at Oxford University, and she served as a trustee of the George Marshall Home in Virginia. The University of Texas at Austin built an exact replica of her study in Albany and held regular symposia in her name.
She was a great fan of the Queen Mother, declaring that her "friendship" had "truly enriched my life". She invariably claimed to be the Queen Mother's best friend, though this view was far from endorsed by former retainers at Clarence House. Nevertheless she carried some crumpled letters from the Queen Mother about in her handbag and would occasionally produce these to support the claim.
Fleur Cowles, who died on June 5, is survived by her last husband.
Published June 08 2009
Fleur Cowles, 101, Is Dead; Friend of the Elite and the Editor of a Magazine for Them
By ENID NEMY
Published: June 8, 2009 in The New York Times
Fleur Cowles, who rose from modest beginnings in New York to become a well-heeled friend of the powerful and famous and the creator of one of the most extravagant and innovative magazines ever published, died on Friday at a nursing home in Sussex, England. She was 101, and her death was confirmed by her husband, Tom Montague Meyer.
Ms. Cowles (pronounced coals) was a painter, a writer and a renowned hostess. But she took greatest pride in two things. One was her short-lived magazine, Flair, published in the 1950s during her marriage to Gardner Cowles Jr., known as Mike, the publisher of Look magazine. The other was her talent for friendship.
Her anecdotal memoir, “She Made Friends and Kept Them” (HarperCollins, 1996), was practically a Rolodex of many of the world’s most recognizable names: American presidents, foreign heads of state, Queen Elizabeth II, Elizabeth the Queen Mother (described as her “best friend”), Princess Grace, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Lady Bird Johnson, Pope John XXIII, Howard Hughes, Judy Garland, Joan Miró (who designed her dresses) and Cary Grant, the best man at her wedding to her fourth husband, Mr. Meyer (pronounced to rhyme with “clear”).
Although there were just 12 issues of Flair, published from February 1950 to January 1951, the magazine caused a sensation and is still admired for its coverage of fashion, décor, travel, art, literature and other enthusiasms of Ms. Cowles’s. It was part of the Cowles publishing empire, which included newspapers in the Midwest and, most notably, Look magazine, of which Ms. Cowles had been an influential editor.
But Flair, incorporating cutouts, fold-outs, pop-ups, removable reproductions of artworks and a variety of paper stocks of different sizes and textures, was simply too expensive to produce, even though it sold for 50 cents a copy when Time and Life were selling for 20 cents.
When Flair ceased publication, Mr. Cowles, who had financed it, estimated that it had lost $2.5 million. Circulation, less than 100,000 for the first issue, eventually doubled, but advertising did not follow, and losses were running about 75 cents a copy.
The preview issue, in September 1949, reflected Ms. Cowles’s passion for the arts and boasted a two-layer cover. The outside was embossed with a basket-weave pattern and punctuated with a hole, through which could be seen a picture of a man and woman embracing. The inside cover showed the couple as part of a wall layered with a collage of shredded posters.
A spring issue featured the rose, a flower Ms. Cowles painted and extolled until her death. The issue was suffused with a rose fragrance, some four decades before scent strips became ubiquitous. Housed within it, bound as a booklet, was a tribute to the rose by Katherine Anne Porter. The magazine itself had a rose named after it — Flair rose — and there is a Fleur Cowles rose as well.
Flair published stories and articles by W. H. Auden, Jean Cocteau, Simone de Beauvoir, Angus Wilson, Tennessee Williams, Ogden Nash and Clare Boothe Luce, among others. Salvador Dalí, Saul Steinberg, Lucian Freud, Rufino Tamayo and even Winston Churchill were among the contributing artists.
Mr. Cowles wrote in his own memoir, “Mike Looks Back,” that his wife had been determined to start a magazine that would appeal to an elite audience. He had created Look, one of America’s most popular magazines, but Ms. Cowles was ashamed of its “man’s barbershop” reputation. Even before their wedding, in 1946, he said, she insisted that he move the Cowles headquarters from Iowa to New York, and that he personally edit and change Look’s image.
“The Best of Flair,” a compilation of art, photographs and essays from the magazine, was published in 1996 by HarperCollins in an edition of 3,000 copies at $250 each.
Ms. Cowles variously gave her birthplace as Boston and Montclair, N.J., her parents as Matthew Fenton and Eleanor Pearl Fenton, and the year of her birth as anywhere from 1910 to 1917. Census records and reminiscences of friends and relatives indicate that she was born on Jan. 20, 1908, in New York City, the daughter of Morris and Lena Freidman, and that her name at birth was Florence.
Her family moved to Bloomfield, N.J., when she was very young, and her sister, Millicent (who also later adopted the name Fenton), was born there. She attended high school in Bloomfield and later, according to her own biographical notes, the School of Fine and Applied Arts in New York, which no longer exists. Her father, who was in the novelty business, deserted the family while she was still in school.
Her career began, she said, at age 15, when she became an advertising copywriter for Gimbels department store. Several years later, while working in advertising in Boston, she married Bertram Klapper of Haverhill, Mass., who manufactured wooden heels. She also wrote a fashion and lifestyle column for The New York World-Telegram until 1934.
By this time she had divorced Mr. Klapper and married Atherton Pettingell, an advertising agency executive who was her boss. Some years later they formed their own advertising company, specializing in Seventh Avenue clients. They were divorced in the mid-1940s.
Soon afterward she volunteered to write speeches for the War Production Board in Washington, and when World War II ended, President Harry S. Truman appointed her as a consultant to the Famine Emergency Committee. She met Mike Cowles while he was in Washington with the Office of War Information, and they were married in December 1946. It was around this time that she changed her first name to Fleur.
The following year she joined Look as an associate editor. She added food and fashion to the magazine, which brought in increased advertising, and was instrumental in a redesign.
The couple began traveling to Europe, South America and Asia, where they met and interviewed world leaders like Churchill, Eva Perón and Madame Chiang Kai-shek. After she worked on Dwight D. Eisenhower’s successful presidential campaign in 1952, the White House sent her on fact-finding missions abroad and named her a special envoy to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
She and Mr. Cowles divorced in 1955, and within months she married Mr. Meyer, whom she had met on a plane. The couple took up residence in chambers in Albany, one of London’s most prestigious addresses, where Byron, Disraeli and Gladstone once lived. They also bought and restored Great Surries, an Elizabethan farmhouse on 650 acres in Sussex with rooms named for frequent guests like Cary Grant and Leslie Caron and a barn made acoustically perfect for performances by artists like Yehudi Menuhin. The Meyers also restored a 12th-century castle in Trujillo, Spain, which they used as a holiday residence until selling it several years ago.
In 1994 the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin, opened the Fleur Cowles Room, a replica of her study in London. In 2003 Pratt Institute devoted an exhibition in Manhattan to the lasting influence of Flair.
Ms. Cowles gave up editing after marrying Mr. Meyer, but she continued to write books, adding to a bibliography that included the biographies “Bloody Precedent” (1951), about Juan and Eva Perón, and “The Case of Salvador Dalí” (1959). She also illustrated a number of her books, including “People as Animals,” “The Flower Game” and “The Life and Times of the Rose.”
Her paintings of jungle beasts, huge flowers, birds and objects of nature, often in dreamlike sequences, were exhibited in cities around the world. In 1994 the National Museum of Women’s Art in Washington mounted a show of her paintings, prints and porcelain and crystal designs.
“I have an idea a minute,” Ms. Cowles once said. “I’m a born idea myself.”
In Vanity Fair
A Flair for Living
Fleur Cowles, legendary American expatriate, editor, writer, painter, hostess, and philanthropist, is publishing her memoir and The Best of Flair, an opulent anthology of the dazzling, short-lived magazine that galvanized the literati in the early 1950s.
By Amy Fine Collins
During the high season in London last July one joke passing around Harry’s Bar was that the town was so full of rich Americans no one was being admitted anywhere without a U.S. passport. Ascot was over, Wimbledon in full swing, the Henley Regatta days away, and the festivities surrounding these events were as abundant as the rainfall. But for a carefully chosen group for about 60 individuals the main draw of the week was a book-launch party hosted by Fleur Cowles, the legendary American expatriate editor, writer, painter, hostess, and philanthropist, in her extraordinary 18th-century set of chambers in Albany, originally Lord Melbourne’s palace. Copies of Fleur’s new book, the anecdotal memoir She Made Friends and Kept Them—a kind of gilt-edged address book narrated in the first person—lie neatly stacked on a corner table in the vast pink salon, while the writer has stationed herself several yards away in the grand Wedgwood-blue drawing room. Smartly tuned out in a black-and-white ensemble by her personal couturier, Philippe Lempriere (“He only designs for me”), coquettish black seamed stockings, a colossal pearl-and-diamond brooch by Fabergé (once the object of Eva Perón’s envy), and oversize dark glasses (a trademark for more than half a century), Fleur confers with her secretary Liza Lapsley minutes before the party begins about who will not be attending. The Queen Mother, for whom Fleur throws a birthday party every August, sent her regrets. “She’s not feeling well. And my wonderful Peter O’Toole—those beautiful eyes!—he can’t make it, either. He just started shooting a movie. Have I read you his adorable note? Everybody I’ve invited to the party is mentioned in my book.” The intended guest of honor, Carlos Fuentes, who wrote the memoir’s introduction, has also regretted, due to illness.
But by 6:30 sharp the room begins to fill up with the kind of distinguished company expected more for a state dinner than a publishing party. Writers, artists, and scientists mingle among titled aristocrats from Europe and Asia, including Aysha, the Rajmata of Jaipur, in her native dress. (More royals are present in effigy—silver-framed photos, all inscribed to Fleur, of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco, and the Shah of Iran, are scattered on objet-covered tabletops.) And droves of diplomats from the Old and New Worlds arrive—from Brazil, where Fleur has been decorated as a Commander of the Order of the Southern Cross; from Spain, where she has been awarded the Order of La Dama Isabel la Católica for restoring a ninth-century castle, her summer residence; and from Fleur’s native U.S. Conscientiously observing rules of precedence, Cowles waits until King Constantine and Queen Anne-Marie of the Hellenes, Greek’s exiled monarchs, join the party before allowing toasts and speeches to commence.
In England—a country to which she fled in 1955 as a newlywed with her current husband, the dapper timber tycoon Tom Montague Meyer—Fleur Cowles is best known for her ravishing houses, her naïve/Surrealist paintings of jungle animals and flowers (the subject of more than 50 exhibitions), her philanthropy, and her magnetic power to attract heads of state and artistic luminaries to her table. Yet in America she is best remembered by people of a certain age—and by a knowledgeable elite of young art directors, photographers, editors, and fashion designers—as the founding editor of the short-lived Flair, the most outrageously beautiful, visually daring, and extravagantly inventive magazine ever conceived. This month, HarperCollins will be bringing out, along with the American edition of She Made Friends and Kept Them (her 16th book), an opulent volume that has been Fleur’s dream and mission for nearly 50 years—The Best of Flair. Once again “the magazine for moderns,” as it was billed in a 1949 advertisers’ prototype, will throw “aristocrats of taste” into a state of awed delight, and once again Fleur will be plunged eyeball-deep into what she calls “the fishbowl” of intense social and media scrutiny. “That is my obit,” says Cowles, pointing to a hardbound set of the original Flair, which ran for just 12 issues, between February 1950 and January 1951. “People ask me, If you could read your obit, what would it say? My answer is that I would like it to be about Flair.”
Unlike every other facet of her artfully constructed, mythically scaled life, the contents of her obituary may be a matter beyond her control. The official version of her tale flows along a precisely engineered course, starting somewhere just short of her life’s midpoint, when she married Gardner “Mike” Cowles—scion of a media conglomerate that encompassed Look magazine, The Des Moines Register and Tribune, The Minneapolis Star, and several radio stations—in 1946. “Fleur came like a comet from nowhere,” says one acquaintance of six decades. “She invented herself, never making a false step. She has an amazing power within herself to make anything she wants happen. And now, at the end of her life, suddenly there is this re-emergence! All Fleur wants is to see the beautiful world she’s created around herself and not waste time thinking about how she got there.”
Though Fleur has stated that her childhood is “too painful to discuss,” she does recount that as a girl—a small New Jersey town a ferry ride from New York was the setting of her early years—she dreamed of becoming a writer. “At 11, I wanted to be Katherine Mansfield,” she says. As single career women, she and her younger sister, Mildred (a singer and radio producer), adopted the surname Fenton, another matter closed to discussion. In 1949-50, the year when Fleur was publicizing Flair, she related the story that at 15 or 16 (circa 1925) she bluffed her way into a job as a senior copywriter for Gimbels. From there she appears to have gone to Boston, where she worked in a similar capacity for the carriage-trade shop C. Crawford Hollidge. Though the Fleur trail tapers off a bit after this, it does pass, during the late 20s, through the Massachusetts town of Haverhill, where, known as Fleurende, she became friendly with a local woman’s sister, Alice Hughes, a frequent weekend visitor who wrote a chatty syndicated feature for The New York World-Telegram called “A Woman’s New York.” On September 19, 1933, Hughes’s byline—situated on the front page of the second section beside Heywood Broun’s popular “It Seems to Me” column—was abruptly replaced by a newcomer’s, “Fleur Fenton,” whose intelligent, modish brunette’s features looked out from a photo accompanying her story each day.
Fleur’s column ended in June 1934; by this time she had become “assistant to the executive vice president of Blaker Advertising Agency.” The man holding that lofty position was Atherton “Pett” Pettingell, whom Cowles had married on February 13, 1932. Around 1935, husband and wife formed their own firm, Pettingell & Fenton, representing Seventh Avenue clients and—through Fleur’s cunning efforts—cosmetics giant Helena Rubinstein. Producer Harold Prince, who worked at Pettingell & Fenton during the summer of 1942 as a teenage office boy, remembers that “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.” It’s not hard to understand Fleur’s attraction to Pettingell. Says Fleur’s great friend the painter Enrico Donati, “He was one of the most handsome men I’ve ever seen.” But after Pett impulsively “ran off with a blonde,” who then left him to return to her husband, Fleur did not take him back.
Fleur, it seems, had already fixed her sights far beyond the limited arena of advertising. “Like most good things in my life, a White House assignment fell into my lap without my trying, due to friends,” Fleur wrote. “I was one of the volunteers writing speeches for the War Production Board.… I was sharp-witted enough to wangle a permit to fly to Europe after VE Day … the first civilian American woman to get into Europe after the fighting stopped.” This special distinction, the first of many to come, “gave me the status,” Fleur continued, “which helped me into the White House [in 1946] as Special Consultant to the famine Emergency Committee … assisting Herbert Hoover, its chairman.”