by Penelope Rowlands
Simon & Schuster, 560pp, 20
SHOULD YOU BE ASKED TO NAME THE NEW York fashion editor who revolutionised magazines and made stars of Coco Chanel, Cecil Beaton, Richard Avedon and Yves Saint Laurent, it's a fair bet Diana Vreeland is the woman that would first spring to mind.
But Vreeland was a mere debutante when Carmel Snow first began stirring things up in the fashion world. Snow was the Irish immigrant's daughter who became editor of Harper's Bazaar in 1932 and transformed it from stuffy society rag into a cutting-edge style magazine and dangerous rival to Cond Nast's Vogue. This comprehensive biography by Penelope Rowlands is a germane tribute to Snow, the woman whose vision, audacity and dedication extended the boundaries not only for 20th-century fashion magazines, but for fashion itself. Her aim was to produce magazines for "well-dressed women with well-dressed minds".
Snow was born Carmel White in 1887, near Dublin. Her father, Peter, died when she was small, so with six children to raise, his widow Annie approached her husband's boss, offering to take over Peter's job representing Irish crafts at the Chicago World Fair. Her subsequent success enabled the family eventually to settle in New York, where Annie White took over an upmarket fashion emporium, TM & JM Fox. It was at her formidable mother's side that Carmel honed her eye for chic: the Whites went to Paris each season to view the new collections so that Annie White could create copies in her Manhattan store. "I found that I could remember the details exactly, that I actually had a photographic eye for fashion," Snow recalled. It was a gift that would fuel her whole career.
As an unmarried woman, Carmel lived with her mother, helping in the shop, attending the Paris shows, partying with New York's beau monde. Her break came in 1921 when she was introduced to Edna Woolman Chase, the editor of Vogue, and was then offered a job by the publisher Cond Nast himself. She was 34 when she joined as assistant fashion editor.
It was from Vogue that Carmel defected to Harper's, after 11 years. Although she was gifted, and adored by Nast, her ambition was subtly kept in check by Chase, whose reign at Vogue lasted an astonishing 40 years. Carmel, now Mrs George Palen Snow and the mother of three girls, crossed to the enemy camp owned by media mogul William Randolph Hearst in order to progress. Cond Nast never forgave her: "Your treacherous act will cling to you," he told her.
But from that point on there was little that Snow would regret in career terms. She made landmark changes to Harper's: her "genius for spotting genius" brought to its pages Jean Cocteau, Dorothy Parker, art director Alexey Brodovich, photographer George Hoyningen-Huene, and Christian Dior (then a young fashion illustrator). She introduced movement to fashion shoots, taking them out of studio settings for the first time - women were taking part in life rather than merely decorating it. She employed the brilliant, capricious Diana Vreeland as fashion editor. Hearst quickly became as big a fan of Snow as Nast had been. Within a few months of her arrival, she was editor-in-chief.
Snow worked her staff into the ground, but she also looked on them as "family". Her real family, based outside the city, received far less of her time than did Harper's, which must be why Rowlands has gleaned so much detail about Snow's career, and relatively little about her home life - there simply was none.
The anecdotes that embody Snow's devotion to her work are legend: she trained herself to sleep sitting up in bed so that, during the Paris show weeks, any minion could enter her hotel bedroom to show her pictures that had to be approved. They would find her dozing upright, eyes closed, her hat in place (the impeccably groomed Snow was rarely seen without a hat). Rowlands holds back on detail only on Snow's fall from grace. In 1957 her alcoholism resulted in a most unfortunate public incident, in which Snow lost control of her bladder and urinated down a staircase at a party in the Rothschild mansion. Suddenly she was out of favour, and out of a job.
Strangely, she was succeeded by her own niece, Nancy White, and continued to visit the collections with her twice a year. In her own mind, says Rowlands, Snow was still editing the magazine, for no-one's benefit but her own: "You have to know when to leave the party." Snow had nowhere to go to that could match the joie de vivre of her life at Harper's. She finally left the party in 1961, when she died in her sleep. Snow was key in recording - and driving - the developments in modern fashion. Without her daring input, the past 50 years would have been far less decorative. And without Rowlands's admirable biography, the extent of her contribution may have been unrecognised by future generations.