Fleur Cowles and her Flair

1-img_3831Fleur Cowles on the cover of Christie’s catalog featuring her collection.


By Stuart Mesires

Last month on November 23rd there was a sale at Christie’s in London that included some of the personal property of one of my all-time favorite ladies, Fleur Cowles. Fleur was an editor, writer, painter, renowned hostess and probably best known as the creator of the legendary 1950s magazine, Flair


1-1-img_3907  Flair magazine covers.

Flair was a groundbreaking publication at the time and still influences magazines to this day. In an article written by Amy Fine Collins for the October 1996 issue of Vanity Fair, she describes Flair as being “the most outrageously beautiful, visually daring, and extravagantly inventive magazine ever conceived”. It incorporated cutouts, fold-outs, exquisite and varied paper stocks and removable reproductions of artwork.


1-img_3904Rene Gruau illustrations from the February 1950 issue of Flair.

The contributors to the magazine included such luminaries as W. H. Auden, Jean Cocteau, Simone de Beauvoir, Tennessee Williams, Clare Boothe Luce, Salvador Dalí, Saul Steinberg and Lucian Freud. The legendary fashion illustrator, Rene Gruau was even hired to exclusively work for Flair. The magazine, however, was so expensive to produce that only 12 issues were created – from February 1950 until January 1951. Flair’s influence, however, was such that it still remains a legend to this day in the publishing world.


rene-gruau-portrait-of-fleur-cowlesRene Gruau Portrait of Fleur Cowles.


The creator of Flair was just as legendary. Fleur Cowles’ background was shrouded in secrecy and she often made up stories about her early childhood. In actuality she was born on Jan. 20, 1908, in New Jersey to working class couple, Morris and Lena Freidman. Later in her life, Fleur would go on to become a prominent figure on the International social scene and even called the Queen of England one of her close friends. Fleur was married four times and it was through her third husband, Gardner “Mike” Cowles – an heir to the Cowles Media Company that Flair came to be.

The Cowles Media Company published The Des Moines Register and Look Magazine. Fleur was a prominent editor at Look but longed to produce a high-end magazine that would reflect her love of the arts and fashion. After much cajoling she finally got her wish and the premier issue of Flair was launched in February 1950. In that issue, Fleur wrote a letter from the editor. It appeared to be written by hand in gold lettering on a lightweight black velum type paper. In the letter she said, “I have longed to introduce a magazine which combines, for the first time under one set of covers, the best in the arts: literature, fashion, humor, decoration, travel and entertainment.  This copy of Flair shows that it can be done; it is proof that a magazine need no longer be stolidly frozen to the familiar format.”



                        Letter from editor, Fleur Cowles in the February 1950 issue of Flair.

The premier issue had a bright red cover and Fleur later claimed that it was her favorite of all the covers. It featured the image of a single golden wing that was based on a brooch that Fleur had found in a Paris flea market. The cover had a peekaboo die-cut hole that allowed the viewer a glimpse of the second interior cover – a Rene Gruau sketch of a woman in profile.



    February 1950 issue of Flair Magazine with cut-out.


1-img_3903 Interior cover of February 1950 issue of Flair magazine.

The content inside the premier issue didn’t fail to impress either. There was a profile on the 28-year-old artist, Lucian Freud with a pull-out reproduction of one of his paintings; a short story by Tennessee Williams; a feature on the Paris home of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor with a red tissue paper pull-out featuring their entertaining tips; a feature on Richard Kelly’s lighting design for Philip Johnson’s glass house in Connecticut; Rene Gruau fashion sketches and many other items of interest.


The February 1950 issue of Flair featured a pull-out card of a reproduction of a Lucian Freud painting that accompanied an article about him.



Entertainment tips from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor accompanied an article about their Paris apartment in the February 1950 issue of Flair.

The February 1950 issue also featured lifestyle pieces. The photo below is from the issue and features Chicagoan, Mrs. Howard Linn. She is seen in the photo on the left in a piece about a Hunt in Middleburg, Virginia.



Chicagoan Mrs. Howard Linn seen above on the left in a feature about the Middleburg, VA hunt.


Everything in Flair was done to perfection. Even the advertisers were asked to create custom advertisements just for Flair. Below is a Marshall Field & Company advertisement from the February 1950 issue.



                     Marshall Field & Company advertisement from the February 1950 issue of Flair.


In the issues that followed the premier, each month represented a different theme. There was the Spanish issue, the Vacation issue, the Country Living issue, the Men’s issue, the Paris issue, etc.


1-img_3910Flair’s April 1950 issue was the Paris issue.


img_3852 Marshall Field & Company advertisement from the April 1950 Paris issue of Flair.

The May 1950 issue of Flair was all about Roses – Fleur’s favorite flower. The issue was especially luscious and literally smelled like a rose. It was infused with the fragrance of roses and featured articles and artwork about roses as well as a booklet insert by Katherine Anne Porter called, “The Flower of Flowers”. The May issue was closely identified with Fleur as she had chosen the rose as her personal symbol and often wore a gold rose brooch. The May cover featured roses with a cut-out through which the second cover of a portrait of a lady with roses could be seen.


img_3916Flair, May 1950 cover.


img_3912 Flair, May 1950 cover with a glimpse of the interior cover.

Unfortunately the high cost of producing, Flair eventually led to its downfall. By the end of 1950 Flair’s before tax losses had mounted to $2,485,000 and the Cowles Media Company could no longer afford to produce the magazine. In December 1950 they made the decision to stop production. Fleur never got over the decision. In an October 1996 Vanity Fair article Fleur said about the closing of Flair, “I could cry today when I think about it. It was heartbreaking. I was so proud of it.” Flair’s influence, however, was such that it still remains the stuff of legends and the original issues have become coveted by collectors. Fleur and her Flair magazine were way ahead of their time. Fleur went on to other pursuits including moving to England, illustrating and writing books, painting, restoring houses, creating porcelain pieces and becoming part of the international social scene. She lived to be 101 years old. “I have an idea a minute,” Fleur once said. “I’m a born idea myself.”