The life and times of the man behind major publications, such as Vogue, Vanity Fair and House & Garden
When I hear of the name Condé Nast, more than a visionary man, what comes alive in my memory are the publications he nurtured during his lifetime, from Vogue to Vanity Fair. But I knew he was a man because I have been a faithful subscriber of fashion magazines practically my whole life. Upon Nast’s sudden (and untimely) death in 1942, The New York Times described him as a creative person who knew how to use printing to catapult himself and a civilisation into a certain shade of greatness. Vogue, one of the foremost fashion magazines of today, was a dying weekly back in 1909 – the time when Nast chose to purchase it. The 24-page weekly was to be a class act in Nast’s mind; it was to be a publication that breathed life into what is fashionable for that particular era. All his life, Nast was the subject of intense competition from fashion magazines that held very little fame for too long but had a huge liberated audience to enjoy it, and also financial loses because of the Great Depression.
Vogue was good with promotions, Nast’s enormous parties were both classy and meant business, and Vogue was the first publication to have double-page colour printing. In 1914, Vogue crossed the Atlantic even though there was a world war to think about. WWI had actually raised sales figures but then the business sadly got dented as shipping (sans the absolutely vital ones) were banned from the United States of America to Great Britain. Nast surprisingly was one of those revolutionaries who always believed in his own work. So, rather than abandon the success Vogue was garnering across the Atlantic, Nast created British Vogue; this helped to keep afloat the injections of British fashion influence on Vogue itself, somewhat and with so much success at his feet, Nast purchased House & Garden (1915), launched Vanity Fair (1913) and bought himself a penthouse in Park Avenue, on the 86th Street.
Born in 1873 in New York City, Condé Nast was the third child for William, who left his family for Europe. His mother, Esther was left without an income, as a result, and so had to move her family from New York City to St Louis, a town where she had grown up in. Nast, was a bashful, Catholic boy, who grew up to be an enormous advocate for women, filled with bountiful amounts of charm. It is so strange to hear about Condé Nast growing into a man, with a passion for bettering women’s lives. His profound desire to charm women, which sits on the side of that, is deep-rooted in the lifetime of affection he had for Esther. It’s all speculative talk if that desire came from his personal experiences but its rather odd (and rare) in the Nast family.
Wilhelm Nast, Condé’s grandfather, is the founder of German Methodism in the United States of America, and it is a religious faction demanding dutiful dedication. His son, William Nast, was keen on sophisticated European tastes, fine tastes, luxury and fashion. Condé went from the countryside back to his hometown to create Vogue, when he was only 36 years old. This was the roaring twenties so the shock to see an episode like that unfolding is very difficult to fathom but hear the story out: Condé’s spinster aunt once appeared in Missouri, with the desire to put one of Esther’s two boys through college. Condé beat Louis at it with the help of his vegetable garden patch because it had managed to impress his aunt with its tidiness and orderly upkeeping. His aunt then put Condé through Georgetown, where he got lucky and met Robert Collier, of Collier’s Weekly. Because of the two’s friendship, in 1900, Nast earned a job as an advertising manager in the infamous publication.
At Collier’s Weekly, Condé managed to rake in profits for advertising substantially and he was living and breathing “the successful dream”. Nast, in his early days in publishing had acquired plenty of experience with Collier’s Weekly, in both the publishing industry and economics. With Vogue, as such, Condé was never interested in mass circulation because it necessarily wasn’t going to evolve into a profiting venture. And it was so hard to do that as well, with women’s magazines dominating in numbers for markets for readers who were fast feeling the effects of freedom. When Condé managed to buy that house in Park Avenue, it resembled his tastes enormously: it was a duplex penthouse, where the ballroom fronted 18th Century Chinese wallpaper. Condé’s whole life inside that house evoked sentiments from his magazines, be it House & Garden or Vanity Fair. Parties of the roaring twenties meant flowers, waiters, rearranging furniture, people being sent off to spend the night in a local hotel, and guests such as Fred Astaire, Cecil Beaton and the Marx Brothers. His parties from this era (1925 – 1942) often got into conversations within the spaces of the two major wars.
Tall enough at 5ft 8in, Condé was often spotted in a three-piece suit and (probably) a starched collared shirt. Condé was always a kind and quiet figure, more interested in having a successful party, than the glamour of the party. But when the Wall Street crash happened, Condé lost his empire: in the night dated October 1929, stocks for Condé plummeted from $93 to $4.50 but he never mentioned any of this to the society he would be close to. The final decade of his life was spent at the top of his company but he no longer owned it and it was a secret Condé kept from the world. Since in Great Britain, the Depression hadn’t managed to hurt as much as in America, British Vogue weathered the storm better. This convinced press magnate Lord Camrose to lend $1mn to Condé to purchase back most of the publication’s shares. After his death, the Newhouse family bought Condé’s company, and even though it was hurtful to lose Vogue, Condé always believed that his magazines were so much more than mediocre hardships and that his whole life wasn’t really about throwing one extravagant party after another, but that it was really publishing.