Fleur Cowles: Writer and well-connected socialite who edited 'Flair' magazine

Fleur Cowles spectacularly achieved her early goal of reaching the social stratosphere, spending much of her life amid the uppermost reaches of A-list celebrity, meeting practically everyone who was worth meeting. The glittering circle of friends and acquaintances of this supreme socialite included US presidents, Salvador Dali, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr and, one of her proudest conquests, the Queen Mother.

While she was fascinated with fame she was not simply a vacuous hanger-on. She showed creativity as a journalist, designer, author and painter and most of all as a publisher. Her third and fourth husbands were very wealthy men who provided her with a life of opulence, enabling her not just to consort with the rich, famous and conspicuous but actually to join them in the high society of New York and London.

She rose to these dizzying heights from obscure beginnings – deliberately obscure, for she gave vague and varying accounts of her early days. When pressed, she would say her childhood was "too painful to discuss." It is probable, though not certain, that she was 101 when she died: she was reticent not only about her age but also about her birthplace and the names of herself and her family.

Her father Morris Freidman, a businessman who dealt in novelties, moved out of the family home, which may have been in either New York or New Jersey, when she was a schoolgirl. She went by a number of names including Florence, Fleurende and finally Fleur. She started out writing advertising copy for a New York store, then switched to journalism with a society column. By the early 1930s she was back in advertising, rising through the ranks of an agency partly through her undoubted ambition and energy and partly through the boss, Atherton Pettingell, who first promoted her and then married her.

This was her second marriage: her first, to the shoe manufacturer Bertram Klapper, had ended in divorce. The Pettingells set up a news agency together: the business went well but the marriage did not and another divorce ensued. During the Second World War she wrote for the War Production Board, where she met and married husband number three, Mike Cowles, whose large company's publications included the huge-selling Look.

Presidents Truman and Eisenhower appointed her to various official committees and in 1953 she was despatched as an American representative to the Queen's Coronation. It was, in an apt phrase, one of her crowning moments. Afterwards she hotly denied a magazine report that she had drawled of the occasion: "I dressed down so as to not detract from the Queen." She may well not have said it, but everyone chuckled that it deliciously encapsulated the Fleur Cowles persona. Within the Cowles magazine empire she did well, especially in Look, which she was credited with making more fashionable and more presentable. It had been, she said with a shudder, "a sleazy barbershop sheet – the horror of it!"

Her success persuaded Mike Cowles to bankroll what is still remembered as one of the most spectacular high society magazines ever published: Flair, its title chosen to reflect both her name and her exquisite taste. No expense was spared on the magazine, which featured fashion, literature and the arts. An interview with her friend Salvador Dali was featured, while issues contained pull-outs, cut-outs, different types of paper and startling design. Eleanor Roosevelt, Tennessee Williams and Winston Churchill wrote for it; so did Simone de Beauvoir and the Duchess of Windsor. "I have an idea a minute," Fleur Cowles once said, and many of them were incorporated in her publication.

Launched in February 1950, it was a complete original. Some of it was on a silk-like material; some of it was printed in invisible ink, which yielded its secrets only when a lighted cigarette was held close to it. Exotic figures were lured from Europe to design and run a publication which lived up to its declaration that it would provide "the best things, the first things, uniting its readers in an aristocracy of taste."

It was the talk of the town yet it lasted just a year, for Fleur was as extravagant as she was innovative and even the deep Cowles pockets could not forever subsidise its lavish costs. Cowles ruefully calculated that the whole venture had cost him around two and a half million dollars. When he shut it down Fleur was shattered. "I cried," she recalled. "It was heartbreaking – I was so proud of it." But decades later she was to say: "It became a lifetime passport. After Flair was born, Fleur and Flair were inextricably and permanently intertwined, and we have never been untied – it still opens doors to writers, painters and designers."

After the demise of the magazine came the demise of the marriage. Fleur wrote of Cowles: "I often had to be away and I suddenly learned of his relationship with another woman, which I refused to countenance."

The year 1955 brought her third divorce but also her fourth marriage. This, with Cary Grant as best man, was to Tom Meyer, an enormously wealthy English gentleman farmer and timber tycoon who survives her after more than 50 years marriage.

For the last half-century she had an absolutely fabulous lifestyle in the various homes which Meyer maintained in various countries. She launched no more magazines but wrote books, which included an authorised biography of Dali. She also produced paintings which featured in many exhibitions.

Her famous friends and acquaintances could have filled a book: in fact they did, for her 1996 work She Made Friends and Kept Them meticulously chronicled her activities as what she called a "friend-gatherer." Everyone who was anyone seemed to be in there, ranging from monarchs, popes, Marilyn Monroe, President Nasser, Margot Fonteyn, Princess Grace of Monaco (who was "like a sister to me"), Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, the Shah of Persia: the list is endless.

They were all carefully categorised into sections such as memorable gentlemen, women achievers, politicians, diplomats and heads of state. It stands as a veritable tour de force of her networking and name-dropping during a long life spent among the movers and shakers of the 20th century.

David McKittrick

Florence Freidman (Fleur Cowles), editor, writer and socialite: born New York c. 20 January 1908; married firstly Bertram Klapper (marriage dissolved), secondly Atherton Pettingell (marriage dissolved), 1946 Gardner "Mike" Cowles (marriage dissolved), 1955 Tom Meyer; died 5 June 2009.

John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
Jonas Gutierrez (r) competes with Yaya Toure (l)

Newcastle winger is in Argentina having chemotherapy

Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

Returning to the stage after 20 years makes actress feel 'nauseous'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
peopleThe Times of India said actress should treat it as a 'compliment'

Watch this commuter make a mad 320-metre, 75-step dash to work
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
lifeShould we feel guilty about keeping cats inside?
The programme sees four specialists creating what they believe are three perfect couples, based on scientific matchmaking. The couples will not meet until they walk down the aisle together
tvUK edition of wedding show forced to recast after wave of drop-outs
Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama is to offer a BA degree in Performance and Creative Enterprise

Top conservatoire offers ‘groundbreaking’ arts degree

Mikel Arteta pictured during Borussia Dortmund vs Arsenal
champions league
Yes supporters gather outside the Usher Hall, which is hosting a Night for Scotland in Edinburgh
voicesBen Judah: Is there a third option for England and Scotland that keeps everyone happy?
Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Teaching Assistants

£50 - £85 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Rapidly developing and growing ...

Supply Teachers needed in Stowmarket

£1034496 - £1516224 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: The Job:Randstad ...

Primary Teacher EYFS, KS1 and KS2

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education are urgentl...

SEN Teaching Assistant Runcorn

£50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant EBD , Septemb...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week