A native magazine maven

 

Biography: When the Royal Irish Academy's Dictionary of Irish Biography is eventually published, it will hold an entry on Carmel Snow, editor of Harper's Bazaar from 1934 to 1958. The effect should be to make this Irishwoman's name better known in her native country than is the case at present, writes Robert O'Byrne

Snow's name is barely remembered; we tend to deify a handful of our forbears while forgetting many other equally deserving individuals. And any effort to promote Carmel Snow into the pantheon of Irish heroes must deal with two handicaps: she was a woman; she worked in the ephemeral world of publishing.

Revolutionaries come in many guises but one common characteristic is a fanatical devotion to the cause they've espoused. Snow's single ambition was to produce the world's finest women's magazine and to this end she would go to extreme lengths.

As soon as the Allies liberated Paris from Nazi control in August 1944 she was determined to visit the city; readers of Harper's Bazaar deserved to know what was happening in Europe. After hounding the US government for months she finally secured permission to make the trip at a time when war was still waging in many parts of the world.

Her journey involved travelling from New York to Miami to Trinidad to Caracas, then across the Atlantic to Dakar from whence to Lisbon, Madrid and finally Paris. There followed months of extreme winter deprivation but Snow, who scarcely needed sleep or food - though she couldn't survive without several strong martinis - thrived in this atmosphere. At the time she was approaching 60.

Snow was an early enthusiast for air travel, taking her seat in July 1939 on the first commercial flight from the US to Europe. It allowed her to visit Ireland, where she was born in 1887 and where she would settle, albeit temporarily, after her retirement.

Her maiden name was White (like Carrie Pepperidge in Carousel, she married Mister Snow) and her indefatigable mother had run the Irish Village at Chicago's 1893 World Fair. Soon afterwards Mrs White began summoning her children and the family eventually settled in New York.

Carmel Snow met the publisher Condé Nast who invited her to become an assistant editor at his flagship magazine, Vogue.

After Snow was poached by William Randolph Hearst to become editor of Harper's Bazaar, Nast never spoke to or mentioned her in public again.

Hearst made an astute choice. When Snow joined Harper's, the circulation stood at just under 105,000 per monthly issue; by 1948, this figure had more than tripled to 350,000. What's more, Snow was able to boast that "more men read Harper's Bazaar than any other women's magazine".

Perhaps this was because it offered more to read than any other women's magazine. The list of writers published by Snow remains astonishing, among them Elizabeth Bowen, John Cheever, Carson McCullers, William Saroyan and Truman Capote.

This was the magazine where another displaced Dubliner, Maeve Brennan, would work as an associate editor before moving to the New Yorker. And while Harper's Bazaar was defined as a women's magazine, Snow never presumed her audience had a narrow range of interests; on that 1944 trip to Paris, she travelled around France with Henri Cartier-Bresson, subsequently publishing his images of physical destruction and a shell-shocked populace. There were few great photographers during the first half of the last century with whom Snow did not work: Brandt; Steichen; Blumenfeld; Dahl-Wolfe; Beaton; Man Ray; Brassai; Kertész; Avedon.

She was a fierce supporter of the avant-garde in fashion, championing Balenciaga in the face of near-universal opposition and being the first person to recognise the genius of Christian Dior; Snow is credited with inventing the term "New Look".

In 1949, the French government awarded Carmel Snow the légion d'honneur for "her influence since the end of the war in re-establishing the prestige of French art, French crafts and French design in the United States".

By now, she was the most important woman in magazine publishing. Typically, a Dior couture show would not begin until Snow had taken her place on a grey velvet sofa set aside exclusively for her use. No one was more courted and feted, no one more feared.

Of course it had to end badly. By the late 1950s, the problem was threefold: now aged 70, Snow had grown tired; heavy drinking began to affect her judgment; times and tastes were changing. She resigned because the alternative was being sacked.

What must have especially hurt was that her successor as editor was her own niece, Nancy White, who, while unquestionably competent, had none of the older woman's flair.

In retirement, she dictated an occasionally amusing but anodyne memoir. Penelope Rowlands reveals much more, not all of it flattering to her subject. The only complaint that can be levelled against this biography is that there are not more illustrations from Harper's Bazaar during its glorious heyday, when it outshone every rival. But the book must be welcomed for giving a more complete picture of Snow's time at the forefront of the magazine industry than has ever been available before. It also provides abundant evidence as to why Carmel Snow should be celebrated in Ireland, a country she never forgot.

Robert O'Byrne is a writer and journalist. His book, Mind Your Manners: A Guide to Good Behaviour, is published by Sitric Press

A Dash of Daring: Carmel Snow and Her Life in Fashion, Art and Letters By Penelope Rowlands Atria Books, 559pp. £20