- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 18, 2006


By Penelope Rowlands.

Atria Books, $29.95, 562 pages, ilus.


Of the many things that are “no longer what they used to be” as we embark on this new millennium, it might be said that fashion is a contender to head the list. It is hard to recall those good old days when every American department store, dress shop, milliner or even discount store rushed to Paris each season for the fashion shows. After all, how else would they have known what they could or should sell?

Nothing summons up those far-off days like the word milliner. Who even wears hats for fashion reasons rather than warmth these days? Only the British royal family it seems; and judging by the hats on display at last year’s wedding of Charles and Camilla, it’s time they joined the 21st century and gave them up — for the good of fashion.

When fashion trends ruled, it followed that there was an influential press to carry forth the word as to what went and what didn’t; and that there were authoritative figures within that world who laid down the law. Two publications reigned supreme throughout much of the mid-20th century: Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. And the legendary Carmel Snow, the subject of Penelope Rowland’s intelligent, illuminating, and probing biography, held sway in turn over each of these publications.

Indeed, it might be said that Harper’s Bazaar’s successful challenge to the hegemony formerly enjoyed by Vogue was largely due to the formidable Mrs. Snow.

In many ways, “A Dash of Daring: Carmel Snow and Her Life in Fashion, Art and Letters” is a book as impressive and unusual as its subject. At first, you wonder at the very existence of this print-heavy brick of a tome devoted to a largely forgotten fashion diva-maven.

Instead of the lavishly-illustrated picture book with appropriate commentary, here is one of those proverbial “thick, fat square books;” and you find yourself wondering: Does Mrs. Snow deserve such a serious exploration and examination? But by the time you have read its 500-plus pages of text, you realize that she does — particularly if it is being undertaken by as skillful a biographer as Penelope Rowlands.

For if this book had relied too much on merely giving the reader a portrait of a bygone world, nostalgically satisfying as that might be, the enterprise might not justify such a detailed and lengthy treatment.

But Ms. Rowlands succeeds brilliantly in bringing to life the character of her subject and we get to see Carmel Snow in all her glory: imperious, authoritative, impossible on occasion, but also courageous and independent in her judgment, genuinely intuitive, and blessed with a true sense of what con -tituted fashion, in short, taste. She also shows us the nature of the private woman: her kindness, her ambition, her snobbery, her relentless drive, and her true grit. There is also no attempt to gloss over the less attractive traits, notably her alcoholism. Even in an age of heavy drinking, Carmel Snow was a champion lush and, without dwelling too much or too crudely on this, Ms. Rowlands is adept at showing the effect it had on her private life and her career.

“A Dash of Daring” is studded with all sorts of delights for the reader. It is, I suppose, unlikely that someone totally uninterested in fashion and its hothouse world would read this book, but I am sure that if he did, he would find all sorts of things to fascinate and amuse.

The portrait of Mrs. Snow’s background in Dublin society and the amazing story of how her widowed mother was able to use her connections to take North America by storm are in themselves worth the price of the book. And once the family is settled in New York, the upward mobility continues apace and we soon see Carmel ensconced at Vogue and marrying above her social, if not her intellectual, station.

The stammering and mostly-silent but well-heeled Protestant Palen Snow afforded the Catholic Carmel White just the sort of niche in New York Social Register Society that she desired. And speaking of vanished worlds, it is fascinating to read of this bridegroom and his family whose whole life with its seasonal migrations from New York to the Carolinas revolved around riding to hounds — foxhunting.

Not exactly Carmel’s world, but the marriage endured and produced several children: perhaps a personality as strong as dynamic and as determined as Carmel Snow needed just this sort of dim bulb at home. And, as the biographer tells us, there was certainly no question of her ever having to ask his permission to work — or do anything else.

Work she did, prodigiously, and she played almost as hard, whether at home in New York or in Paris for the shows. No matter how many dry martinis she had consumed nor how many late hours she had put in on the dance floor, she was always at her desk — or by the runway at a fashion show — bright and early, ready to rule the roost.

Ms. Rowlands is particularly adept at cluing us in to office politics and how Carmel played the game, yet another aspect of this book that would appeal to those less interested in fashion per se. The story of her jumping ship from Vogue to Harper’s Bazaar is full of high drama and makes for compelling reading indeed.

But perhaps the most fascinating part of a consistently interesting book is the account of Carmel’s dethronement from her position of unparalleled power and eminence at Harper’s Bazaar. There have doubtless been harder falls from the top perch, but this one was painful enough and Ms. Rowlands describes its effects with just the right touch of sympathy to elicit the requisite pathos:

“And so it happened that, one Monday morning in the late fall of 1957, Carmel did not take a cab to 572 Madison Avenue, stopping in to say a quick rosary at one or another church on the way. She didn’t step into the elevator — resplendent in Balenciaga, emanating Joy — and call out her orders, suggestions, stray thoughts, or funny stories to whichever of her staffers happened to be on board. Instead, she stayed home, as the clock ticked, minute after minute, hour after hour. Harper’s Bazaar had been her life and it was over. ‘She always said she was the magazine.’ … All through her career, ‘she was in command every living minute’… And now she was not… .It’s no wonder that… ‘after she left she shrank.’”

And the cost was not just to her. Carmel had always been a fearless backer of putting literature into her magazines. Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of Her Own” received its first U.S. publication in Vogue and an immediate consequence of Carmel’s departure from the corridors of power at Harper’s Bazaar was that “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” which she had scheduled to appear there, was unceremoniously dumped by the new regime.

As a fiction editor at the magazine put it, “Without much ado, Harper’s Bazaar had ended its long and distinguished history of printing quality fiction.”

The rest of the story remains sad: debilitating illness and everywhere the diminution of social and personal status that so often accompanies the retreat from eminence. Attempting to return to her roots, she bought a splendid if drafty mansion on the windswept coast of her native Ireland, dreaming of splendid house parties attended by the grandees of the fashion world on the way to and from the Paris shows (transatlantic flights still had to stop in Shannon on the west coast of Ireland in pre-jet days).

But despite the splendors of the house and a full complement of servants ready to wine and dine them, the people she wanted were just not as interested in her now that she was no longer Harper’s Bazaar incarnate. She returned to New York and died one night in her sleep, a death as peaceful as her life had been hectic. “A Dash of Daring” is a fitting tribute to a grande dame and a sad reminder that they don’t make them like Carmel Snow anymore.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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