Fleur Cowles is best remembered as the founding editor of the short-lived Flair magazine. An extravagantly inventive and costly publication that ran for 12 issues, from February 1950 to January 1951.
Born Florence Freidman in New York on January 20, 1908, ‘Fleur’ rarely discussed her childhood with any consistent details, although she said in many interviews that her first ambition was to become a writer. She bluffed her way into a job as a copywriter for Gimbels at the age of 16, but her writing career was put on hold when she married Bertram Klapper, a manufacturer of shoe heels. After a divorce, Fleur remarried, this time to advertising executive Atherton Pettingell in February 1932. She returned to writing, penning a column entitled “A Woman’s New York” that appeared from September 1933 to June 1934 in The New York World-Telegram under her nom de plume Fleur Fenton.
In 1937 Fleur and Atherton founded an advertising agency with clients consisting mostly of Seventh Avenue clothing manufacturers, as well as cosmetics giant Helena Rubinstein. After Atherton ran off with a blonde Fleur returned to writing, this time for the War Production Board. In 1945 she became the first civilian American woman to fly to Europe after VE day. During this time she encountered Gardner “Mike” Cowles, who was Domestic Director of the Office of War Information. In civilian life, Cowles was a media scion that included publishing Look magazine “…a sleazy barbershop sheet” according to Fleur “…published on cheap paper and full of sex…”
Soon after Fleur and Mike were married on On December 27, 1946, Fleur convinced Mike to use Life magazine as a model for revamping Look. Fleur became the director of the Woman’s Department at Look magazine, and by 1948, the associate editor. The magazine was transformed into a family magazine with quality photography, clean layouts, and features on fashion, food, and modern living aimed at female consumers.
However, Fleur was frustrated by the limitations of a mass market magazine. She became determined to create an original fashion, art, and culture magazine that would appeal to an elite class of reader. With the support of her husband Fleur began to create her new magazine she called ‘Flair’. She spent months looking for the best paper stock, printing techniques, and graphic design available and in Milan discovered the opulent annual review Aria d’Italia, purchased the U.S. rights for the magazine, and hired its creators Daria Guarnati and Count Federico Pallavicini.
Unrestrained by budget Flair’s staff, that by some accounts topped 100 people, worked throughout the summer of 1949 to create a limited edition premier issue. Released in September 1949, the magazine featured expensive die-cut pages, heat sensitive invisible ink, and fabric swatches. Although cutting edge in its presentation, reviews were reserved. Time magazine called the first issue “a fancy bouillabaisse of Vogue, Town & Country, Holiday, etc.” and few others were any kinder, calling it: undirected, impractical, and effeminate. The 12 issues that followed were just as fanciful and included pop-ups, accordion foldouts, and fragranced pages. Despite the magazine becoming a bit of a joke in the publishing industry for its pretentiousness, there was no denying that the magazine was exciting and ‘cool’, a slang word borrowed from the jazz scene coined in Flair magazine by Fleur Cowles.
Fashion advertisers began to pull out, especially after Fleur began asking for custom ads for her themed issues. By fall 1950, the death of the magazine was inevitable. Look magazine’s board of directors were alarmed by how quickly Flair drained Look’s profits. By the end of 1950, Flair’s estimated losses mounted to nearly 2 1/2 million dollars – averaging a 75 cent loss on every copy sold. The magazine was shut down, although a swan-song edition appeared Christmas 1952 when the Flair Annual 1953 was released – a compilation of stories that had not run when the magazine was still in print.
Fleur and Mike Cowles marriage suffered, and in 1955 ended in divorce. Later that same year, Fleur married for the fourth and final time to Tom Montague Meyer, an English timber tycoon – Cary Grant was the best man. Fleur moved to England and remained there for the duration of her life, passing away June 5, 2009 at the age of 101.