Beyond the Sea

Condé Nast, the Man Behind the Transatlantic Empire

Everyone knows Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Glamour magazines. However, very few remember that Condé Nast, the press group that has become synonymous with elegance and art de vivre, was actually founded by a man of the same name. Despite his incredible success and immense wealth, he preferred to observe the triumph of his transatlantic empire from the shadows. This discreet yet ambitious figure is even said to have inspired Fitzgerald to write his character Jay Gatsby!
© Condé Nast Archive

Anyone combing his upbringing for clues as to how Condé Montrose Nast first discovered fashion and frivolity will be sorely disappointed. The future press magnate was born on March 26, 1873, to an unlikely couple – a Protestant father raised according to the strict teachings of the Methodist church, and a Catholic mother, the daughter of the man who founded the first private bank in Missouri. Their marriage was not a happy one. After their fourth child was born in New York City, Esther Benoist had grown tired of her daydreaming husband burning through her savings, and asked him to go and find his fortune elsewhere. William Frederick Nast went to Europe for 13 long years before returning home as poor as he was when he left.

Nicknamed “Mr. Disappoint” by his own family, he at least had the good grace to die in 1893 at the age of 53. Anyone can imagine the impact that his father’s terrible reputation would have had on the young Condé Nast. But while he had barely known him, the young boy grew up with an unshakable desire to avenge the man who, despite everything, had helped bring him into the world. To satisfy his mother’s and maternal grandmother’s expectations of success and appearance, he took on the Nast family values of perseverance, studiousness, and discipline. As a result, Condé was a model student throughout his education.

Succeed, but How?

As his mother had decided that her youngest son would become an attorney, just like his illustrious grandfather who had made millions in banking, Condé (named by his mother’s side of the family in a nod to their French heritage) started studying law. However, his excessive shyness was a constant obstacle. The young man was uncomfortable speaking in public and was particularly ill-adapted to courtroom speeches, and so changed career as soon as possible. In 1897, his former university classmate Robert offered him a job in New York City with his father, the publisher Peter F. Collier. How could he say no? Robert J. Collier was as determined, extroverted, and audacious as Condé was unassuming. With his mother’s permission, Condé Nast left Missouri and spent 10 years putting his work ethic, talent for numbers, and energy into boosting sales of the Collier’s weekly magazine.

He developed such an understanding of the market that the ad revenue generated by the news and fiction magazine jumped from a few thousand dollars to more than one million in 1907. Condé Nast was finally making his fortune! At the age of 30, he was the company’s advertising manager and was earning more than the president of the United States. Even his personal life was a success. In 1902, he had married Clarisse Coudert, the daughter of an internationally renowned New York lawyer, and had been included in the Social Register. And as Condé Nast was never happier than when he was neck-deep in work, he also purchased the Home Pattern Company alongside his job at Collier’s.

Vogue, the Flagship of the Condé Nast Empire

What was Condé Nast thinking when he acquired this pattern manufacturing and mail order company? And why did he hand Peter F. Collier his resignation letter in 1907? It appears that he had discovered a way to become even richer. Everything boiled down to a very simple idea. The engagement of a readership with a magazine – the challenge of all advertising investors – depends more on the profiles of customers than on distribution figures. In other words, if you sell pianos, there is little point in buying ads in general-interest publications with a print run in the millions. Instead, you should approach an elitist magazine that only appeals to your target audience: a readership rich enough to purchase expensive products. All that was left to do was find the medium to enable Condé Nast to put his theory into practice.

Clarisse Coudert, 1917. © Condé Nast Archive
Condé Nast and his daughter Leslie at the family’s Park Avenue penthouse. © Condé Nast Archive
The model Chantal Dumont, photographed on the Alexandre III bridge in Paris, ca. 1960. © Ewa Rudling/Condé Nast Archive

In 1909, after several years of negotiations, he finally acquired a small, high-society gazette printed since 1892 by a handful of wealthy aesthetes who enjoyed showing what worldly figures – including themselves – liked to see, read, do, buy, or lust after. Titled Vogue, a word with French origins, the magazine had a weekly print run of 14,000; a mere drop in the ocean in a country with a population of 92 million people at the time. However, the subscribers included a large proportion of the 5,000 names listed in the Social Register, an enticing group for advertisers specialized in highly exclusive consumer goods. In 1910, Nast transformed the magazine into a bimonthly and made it both more attractive and professional. The new publication was such a success that, within just one year, Vogue had far more advertising pages than all its competitors in the women’s magazine sector. And as the new owner had almost limitless ambition, he exported his concept to London in 1916 and to Paris in 1920, carving out a niche as the leading international press publisher.

The Right Place at the Right Time

The success of Vogue in the United States was down to a series of major societal shifts. Having only been independent for a century, the American nation at the turn of the 20th century was beginning to see the widespread rise of a wealthy, established population eager to indulge in the joys of bourgeois life. The recent development of the railroad also enabled cost-effective delivery of goods, newspapers, and magazines. As for advertising, the market was booming in all sectors – including in the rapidly growing cosmetics industry. What’s more, the second half of the 19th century had seen otherwise poor families become immensely rich and catapulted to the top of the social pyramid thanks to mining, oil, and steel.

This nouveau riche demographic, who was scorned by polite society, needed a guide to learn the codes of its new neighbors in Manhattan, Newport, Southampton, and Aiken, South Carolina, a winter retreat for the U.S. smart set. With its elitist and deliberately arrogant tone, Vogue was both a bible and a door opener. Everything that Vogue had done in fashion was then replicated by House & Garden in 1911, but this time for interior design and park and garden landscaping. Never again could a Long Island reception fall flat, even for hosts born on a farm in Oklahoma! And for those wanting to excel in high society and know which recent events to analyze with wit and humor, Vanity Fair arrived in 1914 to teach tongue-tied readers the art of conversation. In short, Condé Nast had become the master of the education – some would say elevation – of an entire population focused on progress, leisure, and the accumulation of wealth.

Game Over

This golden age defined by an appetite for challenges and risk came to an end on Thursday, October 24, 1929, with the Wall Street Crash. In just a few days, Condé Nast lost a quarter of his fortune. But the worst was yet to come. Due to a loan taken out in 1927, which he was unable to repay four years later, the magazine mogul had the majority of his shares taken away. Having become a minor stakeholder in his own press group, the usually courteous and open-minded man transformed over the years into an irritable and sometimes tyrannical boss. He spent his days, evenings, and even his weekends trying to entice new investors. His luck changed in 1933 when Lord Camrose, a British journalist who had made his fortune in the press, took pity on the misfortunate magnate and agreed to an incredibly generous loan.

Camrose had the exceptionally good taste to keep his involvement a secret – so much so that Condé Nast bought back the shares he had lost without anyone knowing where the money had come from. Until the end of his life, he portrayed the image of a man living in extreme luxury. Every two weeks, he hosted fabulous parties at his Park Avenue penthouse, with rivers of Champagne and caviar eaten by the ladle. However, the reality of his situation was far less glamorous. Behind the scenes, Condé Nast was fighting tooth and nail to keep his empire afloat. Sacrifices had to be made, including closing Vanity Fair in 1936 (the magazine was revived in 1983) and selling The American Golfer the same year. But it was in terms of his own health that he paid the highest price.

After years of smoking, overwork, and stress, severe blood pressure problems darkened his final years. He had a first heart attack in late 1941, although he managed to hide it from even his closest employees. He then suffered a second one during the summer of 1942, which considerably weakened him. He died in his bed at the age of 69 on September 19 of the same year. A few days after his passing, his loved ones were shocked to discover that the empire of the 1920s was riddled with debt. Condé Nast also left behind enormous personal debts, the equivalent of almost 100 million dollars today. By way of an inheritance, he left his company and the editorial concepts that, as soon as the crisis was over, made his successors immensely wealthy. Even today, Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Glamour – the only magazine that he built from scratch – are still considered pillars of the international press.

Condé Nast, la fabrique du chic by Jérôme Kagan, Editions Séguier, 2022.


Article published in the September 2022 issue de France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.