Beatrix Miller: 'Vogue' editor whose own talents, and her nurturing of others', helped set the tone for the Swinging Sixties
The Independent’s former comment editor, Adrian Hamilton writes a weekly column largely on international affairs with particular focus on the Middle East, Iran and foreign policy issues. Before joining the paper he was deputy editor of the Observer newspaper.
Wednesday 26 February 2014
"Speak," she would command, turning her chair sideways to the window, putting her feet up on to the radiator and powdering her nose while waiting for you to disgorge your thoughts.
For almost anyone working on Vogue in those days Beatrix Miller was a formidable editor. For anyone coming new to her staff she was quite terrifying. But you learned two things about "Miss Miller", as we junior members of staff called her, or "Bea", as she was known to her intimates. One was always to have ideas. You didn't turn up for a general conference or a solo meeting without them. The other was how willing she was to listen even to the most outlandish thoughts, and to go with them if she thought they had even a half-chance of success.
If great editors are marked by their ability to embrace and encapsulate their times, Beatrix Miller was certainly among them. As editor of Queen through the heady and revolutionary era of Jocelyn Stevens' ownership in the late 1950s and early '60s, and then as editor for 22 years of Vogue, where she helped make the reputations of many of finest writers and photographers of the time, she remade women's magazines from being noticeboards of High Society to being the expression of Swinging London and the social changes behind it.
If the other sign of a great editor is the team she or he builds around them, then Miller showed that in full measure. Incredibly shy and private herself, she found expression in fostering the youthful ambitions of others. The number of photographers she encouraged, such as David Bailey, Duffy and Terence Donovan, the designers she favoured, the models she employed and the writers she gave a chance to make up a roll call of talent of that extraordinary period of cultural explosion that marked the '60s through to the '70s.
The oddity, and in some ways the making, of Miller as a magazine editor was that she was never really either a fashion expert or a natural visual journalist. Her first love, aside from music, was words, their rhythm and their oddities. The second daughter of an eminent doctor who had served with distinction on the Western Front and married her mother, a nurse on the Front, she was brought up in Rudgwick in Sussex and educated entirely by tutors to the age of 17. Fearful of impending German invasion, and to her own fury, she was packed off to a relative in Ontario, Canada, while her elder sister signed up with the Waafs.
Escaping Ontario after a miserable year, she headed to New York where, surviving for two weeks on popcorn, by her account, she found a job as a secretary. She returned to Europe after the war partly to study on a six-month course at the Sorbonne and worked for a year and half with MI6 in Germany – a period about which she remained extremely reticent.
Returning to New York after a stint in British magazines in 1956, she joined American Vogue as a copywriter, where her ability to find a witty or intriguing title for a feature and capture a sitting with flight of phrase brought her a considerable reputation. It was from there that Jocelyn Stevens plucked her to edit his newly-acquired Queen magazine in 1958 and make it the hot magazine of the "Chelsea Set".
It was a baptism of fire, very nearly literally so if the stories of Stevens' infamous temper are anything to go by. He is alleged to have bullied Beatrix mercilessly, as he attempted to dominate others, but the two of them, together with a galaxy of talents, including Mark Boxer, helped wreak a revolution in magazines for women. Out went the traditions of record and emulation of a class. In came a chaotic, fun-filled celebration of a new world of satire, parody and youth.
Beatrix, charged with keeping some focus to this torrent of novelty and providing a feminine voice to a male-dominated coterie, came up with a definition of the target reader. Called "Caroline", a 16-year-old who'd left school without absorbing too much education, she was the "kind of girl you finished up in bed with". The character, which gave the name to Britain's first commercial radio station, which Stevens launched in 1966, was typical of Miller's teasing humour and served as a template for editorial discussion for years after.
Miller herself – fortunately in view of the commercial pressures which were to cause Stevens to sell the magazine – was lured to Vogue in 1964 to inject some of the same youthful high spirits to that greying institution. Freed of the public-school spirit of Queen, wisely she did not try to repeat the exercise. Instead she concentrated on her strengths, which were in culture in the broadest sense, and reinforced her weaknesses, especially in fashion, by appointing young talent and encouraging it to flower. She had the true journalist's autodidactic mind, picking up what was new and interesting, catching what suggested a trend, seizing on what was funny or eccentric.
She managed her fashion content the same way. Clothes never interested her in themselves and she was too aware of her own physique to try and be fashionable herself. But she liked themes and narratives and, with a title in mind, she encouraged fashion editors in touch with the zeitgeist and photographers eager to develop a more natural style of pictures to go out and shoot "stories".
By the early 1980s London's swing was slowing and journalism was less concerned with riding developments and more with celebrating consumerism. The role of Vogue was seen as a bible of the industry and the role of the editor to be a leading player in it. Miller retired in 1986 to make room for Anna Wintour.
The job of editor is never easy to relinquish. It is a position of almost unique personal power and prestige. Miller, who was always an enabler of others and almost pathologically intent on avoiding the limelight, didn't seek out the membership of committees which are the lot of many in retirement. She made abortive starts with a memoir to be called Life After a Fashion or Life to the Letter. But she never saw it through despite the gallant efforts of Sir Roy Strong, a good friend until the end, to help her.
Instead she concentrated on life in the country in her beloved cottage, "Pig", in in Wiltshire, and the pleasures of her two nieces, two nephews, four great-nieces and two great-nephews. An editor's editor, she will be remembered for the talent she fostered and the images she created at the heart of the Swinging Sixties.
Beatrix Molyneux Miller, journalist: born 29 June 1923; died 21 February 21 2014.
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