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

Sunday 23 October 2011 03:02

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.

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