Remembering Fleur Cowles, Woman of Flair

Flair was a commercial bomb. Backed by the wealthy husband of its founding editor, the magazine lost millions before folding after a year. That was almost 60 years ago, yet Flair—all twelve issues of it—remains influential and highly coveted for the unique blend of art, literature, fashion, and design that it wrapped in an innovative and expensively produced package. It was the Visionaire of 1950. To thank for that is Fleur Cowles (née Florence Freidman), who died on Friday at—as best anyone can tell—age 101.

Cowles’ post-Flair life included, by her own description, stints as “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 traveller and, more importantly, friend-gatherer.” But it was for her magazine, which featured works by the likes of W.H. Auden and Salvador Dali, that she will be remembered. That, too, is by design. “I want Flair magazine to be considered my obit. And that’s what I want to be remembered by forever,” she told the Associated Press in 1996. “Nevermind any other thing I may have done. It’s Flair that really reflects me.”

Enid Nemy explains in Cowles’ New York Times obituary:

The preview issue, in September 1949, reflected Ms. Cowles’s passion for the arts and boasted a two-layer cover. The outside was embossed with a basket-weave pattern and punctuated with a hole, through which could be seen a picture of a man and woman embracing. The inside cover showed the couple as part of a wall layered with a collage of shredded posters.

A spring issue featured the rose, a flower Ms. Cowles painted and extolled until her death. The issue was suffused with a rose fragrance, some four decades before scent strips became ubiquitous. Housed within it, bound as a booklet, was a tribute to the rose by Katherine Anne Porter. The magazine itself had a rose named after it—Flair rose—and there is a Fleur Cowles rose as well.

And so Cowles will get her wish.