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FLEUR COWLES (1908-2009) was an influential writer, painter, illustrator, and creator and editor of the short-lived but legendary magazine, Flair.  She was also, particularly in later years, a society hostess whose guest-list consisted of a veritable Who’s Who of the most prominent public personages of the twentieth century.

Census records indicate that she was born Florence Friedman on January 20, 1908 in New York City, the daughter of novelty salesman Morris Friedman and his wife Lena, though Fleur was known to have obscured many facts about her childhood and early life. She would list her birth date as anywhere between 1910 and 1917 (depending upon, as Veronica Horwell wrote in The Guardian, “whether youth or experience was more in style”), give her maiden name as either Fenton or Freeman, and often claim to have been born in Montclair, New Jersey. She attended school in Bloomfield, New Jersey (during which time her father deserted the family) and, according to her own account, the School of Fine and Applied Arts in New York City (which no longer exists). She also went by a variety of names, including the aforementioned Florence, as well as Fleurende, and finally, Fleur. (When pressed about the discrepancies in her biography, she would respond by saying that her childhood “was too painful to discuss.”) Her professional career began when she dropped out of school as a teenager and “bluffed her way” into a job as a copywriter at Gimbel’s Department Store in New York City. From there she appears to have gone to Boston, where she worked in a similar capacity for the carriage-trade shop C. Crawford Hollidge. In the early 1930s, under the byline “Fleur Fenton,” she wrote a daily column for the New York World-Telegram, which was hailed at the time for injecting much-needed sparkle into the often tedious world of fashion news. In 1934 she moved back into advertising, becoming the “assistant to the executive vice-president” of the Blacker Advertising Agency; her boss happened to be her husband, Atherton “Pett” Pettingell, whom Fleur had married after divorcing her first husband, a manufacturer of shoe heels named Bertram Klapper. Around 1935 Fleur and Pettingell formed their own advertising firm, Pettingell and Fenton, which represented Seventh Avenue clients, including (through Fleur’s cunning efforts) cosmetics giant Helena Rubinstein. During World War ll Fleur wrote speeches for the War Production Board in Washington, D.C. and, following V-E Day, became one of the first civilian American women to set foot in Europe after the fighting ended. Following this distinction she was appointed by President Truman to be a Special Consultant to the Famine Emergency Committee, where she worked on a media campaign to halve the annual U.S. consumption of cereal so that surplus grain could be shipped to Europe, where starvation was imminent. While in Washington she met Gardner “Mike” Cowles, an heir to the Cowles Media Company, which owned and operated the Des Moine Register and Minneapolis Star Tribune newspapers, as well as Look magazine. They were married (both for the third time) in 1946, following Fleur’s divorce from Pettingell. Before long she joined the staff of Look, first as Director of the Woman’s Department and shortly thereafter as Associate Editor. By adding features on fashion, the home, and food, thus bringing women into the fold and redirecting Look’s rather sordid image as a men’s magazine to one that centered on the family, she is credited with increasing the magazine’s circulation by over 300,000 and boosting advertising revenues by over 50 percent. Look’s Food Editor at the time, Sylvia Schur, recalled in a Vanity Fair article that Fleur “understood the changing attitudes of people coming home from the war, and had a lot to say to them about how to get on this upwardly mobile thing. She liked being what she called ‘hep.’ She coined the term ‘heptitude,’ which meant being knowledgeable about food, dress, and living.” Fleur also, according to Veronica Horwell, “understood early in the popularization and feminization of American newspapers the connections between print, fame, and advertising - and the hunger for ideas.” (“I have an idea a minute,” Fleur once famously said. “I’m a born idea myself.”) Had it not been for Fleur’s efforts, it is believed that Look never would have survived through the decades of the fifties and sixties. But despite her undeniably successful redesign of her husband’s magazine, Fleur encountered frustrations which seemed unsolvable. “I couldn’t get the taste, quality, or respectability - all my longings, everything that I craved - into Look,” Fleur told Vanity Fair. Mike Cowles, in his memoir, Mike Looks Back, wrote that “almost from the time we were married, (Fleur) was determined to start a highly original fashion, art, and culture magazine that would appeal to a class instead of a mass audience.” Fleur, for her part, maintained that her husband, looking to further upgrade his magazine, asked her, “Would you like to do a class magazine to enhance Look?”  Irrespective of its true genesis, Flair, which the New York Times called “one of the most extravagant and innovative magazines ever published,” came into being. 

At a time when most magazines were selling for twenty cents a copy, the fifty cent Flair was, from the beginning, destined to be a lavish, sophisticated, and theretofore never-before-seen “pack of miracles,” as Vanity Fair described it. Much to her husband’s eventual consternation, Fleur spared absolutely no expense in getting it off the ground, bringing in (often importing from abroad) the finest talent money could buy in order to fill her open editorial positions (“The best magazine staff ever assembled,” gushed famed photographer Tony Vaccaro). Limited to a production run of only twelve issues (from February 1950 to January 1951), and covering fashion, decor, travel, art, and literature, Flair’s provocative design, enlightened feature articles, and sophisticated advertising layouts, not to mention its stellar artwork and photography, caused a sensation and left an indelible mark on publishing history. Many of its design elements were years ahead of its time, such as cutouts, fold-outs, pop-ups, removable reproductions (suitable for framing) of art by prestigious artists, different paper types of varying sizes and textures (often in the same issue), and scent-strips. Indeed, one issue of the magazine, “The Rose” (dedicated to Fleur’s favorite flower), was suffused with a rose fragrance, four decades before scent-strips became commonplace items in magazines. (Flair itself had a rose named after it by a Dutch botanist, the so-called “Flair Rose,” and there is a “Fleur Cowles Rose” as well.) Flair’s rarified list of contributing writers and artists included Salvador Dali, W.H. Auden, Jean Cocteau, Lucian Freud, Tennessee Williams, Angus Wilson, Ogden Nash, Simone de Beauvoir, Colette, Clair Boothe Luce, Saul Steinberg, Sylvia Braverman, and even Eleanor Roosevelt, the Duchess of Windsor, and Winston Churchill. Work by renowned fashion photographers Hoyning en-Huene, Maria Martel, and Louis Faurer graced its pages. But despite the fact that circulation grew from an initial 90,000 to over 200,000, production costs were prohibitive, and Fleur’s husband Mike Cowles shut down Flair after losing an estimated 2.5 million dollars (100 million in today’s dollars). However, Flair’s lasting impact as a creative success was validated in 1996 when a first edition box-set called Best of Flair sold out its print run of 3,000 at $250 per volume, warranting a second-edition. Even today individual copies of the magazine, which appear infrequently on online auction sites, are assiduously coveted by collectors.

Following the demise of Flair, Fleur threw her considerable talents and energy into covering world affairs for Look magazine, as well as becoming a sort of roving ambassador for President Dwight Eisenhower, on whose presidential campaign she had vigorously worked in 1952. Her forays into the world of international politics had begun in the late 1940s, with visits to Brazil and Argentina. (Fleur’s mentor in these matters was the erstwhile presidential advisor and eminent financier, Bernard Baruch, one of the seemingly endless number of political and cultural luminaries whose friendships she had cultivated.) Her 1950 trip to Buenos Aires to interview Juan and Eva Peron resulted in her well-received book on Argentina under the infamous dictatorial couple; titled Bloody Precedent, the book drew comparisons to an earlier Argentinean husband and wife team, Manuel and Encarcion de Rosas, and was conceptually derived from an idea given to her by another of her acquaintances, the British Ambassador Sir John Balfour. World figures she interviewed in the early 1950s included Egyptian President Gamal Nassar (who invited her to take part in the generally all-male sacred feast celebrating the conclusion of Ramadan); the Shah of Persia (whose wife, Saroya, requested and received Fleur’s companionship on her tour of America in 1954); Queen Frederika and King Paul of Greece (whose son Constantine turned to Fleur for consolation upon his forced abdication from the throne in 1967); and France’s Prime Minister Pierre Mendes-France (who was responsible for ending French involvement in the Indo-China War). Despite her role as a journalist and editor for Look magazine, her contacts and political acumen were such that the Eisenhower administration set aside any potential conflicts of interest and sought her out for governmental duties abroad; she considered herself President Eisenhower’s unofficial representative to four countries: Persia, Egypt, Cyprus, and Brazil. “More people should realize that a woman can say things that a man can’t,” she told Vanity Fair. (In the case of Brazil, she felt that she “could say anything” to Oswaldo Aranha, the chief advisor to Brazil’s President Vargas.) Seeking to create a more formal diplomatic forum for her, President Eisenhower proposed to appoint her Ambassador to Greece, or possibly Formosa; perhaps believing that it would cause more strains to a marriage already strained by the demise of Flair, she declined the offer. (Ironically, her marriage to Cowles was dissolved not long thereafter.) “I am probably the only woman in history to turn down an ambassadorship,” she told the New York Post. More in line with her preferences was her appointment in 1953 as the American president’s special envoy to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth ll. Also that same year she attended the Panmunjom peace negotiations in Korea and traveled to Formosa, where, she quipped to Vanity Fair, she “bunkered with Madame Chiang Kai-shek and a boa constrictor.”

In 1955 the marriage between Fleur and Mike Cowles came to an end, but Fleur was not single for long: that same year, in what was destined to be her fourth and final marriage, she wed British timber tycoon Tom Montague Mayer, the couple conjoined in an intimate ceremony with Cary Grant serving as best man. Once married, the Mayers lived part of the year in five “sets” (apartments) in the famous Albany complex in London (one of the city’s most prestigious addresses, where Lord Byron, Disraeli, and Gladstone once lived), and part in an Elizabethan farmhouse called “Great Surries” located on six hundred and fifty acres in Sussex with rooms named after frequent celebrity guests and a barn made acoustically perfect for performances by artists such as Yehudi Menuhin; holiday periods were spent in a restored twelfth century castle in Trujillo, Spain. For the balance of her life Fleur directed her attention to writing and illustrating books, painting, and carving out a niche for herself as arguably London’s most glittering high-society hostess. According to the online publishing site, Goodreads, Fleur either wrote or collaborated on a total of twenty-one books and collected volumes, several of them as illustrator for the author Robert Vavra’s series of acclaimed children’s stories, including Tiger Flower, The Love of Tiger Flower, Lion and Blue, and To Be A Unicorn.  She also produced contemplative treatises on subjects that were of deep personal interest to her (i.e., flowers, art, and wildlife), reflected in such works as The Flower Game, The Life and Times of the Rose, An Artist’s Journey, People as Animals, and If I Were An Animal. In 1959 she wrote an authorized biography of her friend, Salvador Dali, titled The Case for Salvador Dali. She also produced two anecdotal memoirs, 1975’s Friends and Memories (which she described as “an artful dodge away from that abused literary exercise, the autobiography”), and then, in 1996, She Made Friends and Kept Them, which coincided with the release of the box-set, Best of Flair, and in which she stated her achievements: “Few women have lived more multiple lives than I have: as editor; as that anomaly, an American president’s personal representative, decorated by six governments; as a writer of thirteen books and contributor to six others; as a painter with fifty-one one-man exhibitions throughout the world; patron of the arts and sciences; irrepressible traveler; and, more importantly, friend-gatherer.” Indeed, both memoirs meticulously chronicled her activities as a “friend-gatherer,” and are essentially tastefully-bound Roledexes of the world’s most recognizable names. The list is practically endless, but it encompasses: The Queen Mother, Queen Elizabeth ll and Prince Philip, Pope John XXlll, Princess Grace of Monaco, the Shah of Persia, President Gamel Nassar of Egypt, Yehudi Menuhin, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Howard Hughes, Judy Garland, Cary Grant, Margot Fonteyn, Viscount Rothermere (her godson), Winston Churchill (who once greeted her at his home clad in only a bath towel and smoking a cigar) and a vast and diverse array of influential monarchs and heads of state.

Having been an avid collector of paintings and always maintaining a strong interest in art and artists, she began to paint in earnest herself, executing colorful depictions of wild animals (mainly big jungle cats) and flowers in daydream-like, surreal settings (though in earlier years she had painted several distinctive landscapes produced on the island of Bermuda). Her artwork first received international attention at the Sao Paulo Biennale in 1965, and ultimately her work was publicly displayed over fifty times in galleries and museums throughout the world, including a 1993 exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., at which time Richard Martin, then the Curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, had this to say of her: “She imbues each mushroom and flower of fictive jungle with the properties of enchantment. We are drawn into the mystery of nature as a child might be. . . . What Cowles does is transform nature, turning it from perceived grace into a mysterious beauty that surpasses perception and invokes the imagination. . . . In a tranquil and busy bower of nature, she has invented a microcosm, a little world known to us in every rational taxonomy of flower and life form, but ultimately exotic to us in elegant perfection.” Some of her more notable works include: Bermuda (1931), Two Bouquets with Blue Pitcher (1957), Spotted Cats (1967),Tulip Tree (1969), Tigers and Birds (1970), River Rendezvoux (1975), Time Suspended (1979),Tiger, Flowers in the Moonlight (1980) Study in Red (1982), Study in White (1988), Strawberry Fayre (1988), and Offering and Tree of Life (creation dates uncertain). Her paintings were favored by many celebrities, including James Stewart and Greta Garbo. In an interview conducted at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, she explained her artistic process, saying that she would simply sit down in front of a blank canvas and start painting; she didn’t make sketches prior to starting or look at anything for inspiration. She was adamant that her paintings do not hold hidden meanings. She executed them with only her “longing and desire to give pleasure to other people,” adding that her aim was to “create, create, create. I just don’t want to criticize . . . when it comes out, I am not disappointed in what I do because I am creating.” In addition to writing and painting, Fleur’s other late-life creative endeavors included designing tapestries, china, and accessories (featuring her artwork) for Denby Ltd., and conceiving a specially-designed deck chair for London’s Royal Parks. 

Over the course of her long life Fleur and her prodigious body of achievements were the conferees of many international honors, such as: the receipt of the Queen’s Medal and decorations from four other governments; the bestowal of a Senior Fellowship from the Royal College of Art in London; a special exhibition devoted to the lasting impact of Flair on the publishing world held at the Pratt Institute in New York in 1993; the construction of an exact replica of her study at Albany at the University of Texas’ Ransom Center (which since 1994 has held regular symposia in her name); and the reproduction of her painting Desert Journey on the cover of recording star Donovan’s 1968 album, Donovan in Concert. Fleur’s public service contributions are also much in evidence; she sat on many boards supporting activities such as art, literature, and the preservation of wildlife, serving as a trustee for the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust, the European-based LSB Leakey Trust, and the George Marshall Home in Virginia. With her last husband Tom Mayer, she helped to build the Institute for American Studies at Oxford University.

Behind her blonde mahogany desk in her corner office at Look magazine, Fleur had posted a sign visible only to her own eyes, its words serving as a useful tool in understanding her boundless drive and determination in making the ascension from obscure beginnings to true renaissance woman: No matter what you’ve got, it takes more than that.

Written February 2016 by Brian Flon, author of "Hell's Kitchen Requiem" (2014), available as an e-book at Amazon, ITunes, and Barnes & Noble.

©The Lusher Gallery LLC 2016.  All rights reserved.  No portion of the material described herein may be reproduced in whole or in part without the prior written consent of The Lusher Gallery LLC.