On a pious visit once to the late Sir Max Beerbohm in Rappallo, it being a hot day, I took one of the horsedrawn carriages which still ply for hire there. This antique and decrepit vehicle waited for me during the hour or so I spent with Sir Max. I had rather hoped to slip off unnoticed in it when the time came to go, but in his usual polite way Sir Max saw me to the door, the straw hat which he wore on all possible occasions rakishly tilted to one side, and his little, red-rimmed tired eyes still faintly animated on my behalf. My lurking chariot at once came lumbering up, and there was no evading my connection with it. I got aboard and settled among the flea-ridden rugs with the best grace I could manage. The driver flicked his wretched animal, whose bones stuck out alarmingly, like a reconstructed skeleton of some prehistoric monster in a museum. As we lumbered off I heard Sir Max muttering to himself: “Carriage folk! Carriage folk!”
The episode was recalled by turning over the pages of the massive, elegant volume with which the magazine Vogue has commemorated the completion of seven decades of existence. Searching about in my mind for some category which would comprehend all who appear in it, Carriage Folk seemed about right. The vehicles at their disposal might vary between the very latest and most commodious Cadillac or Rolls Royce and some old flea-bag such as carried me to Sir Max’s villa in Rapallo, but none of them, it was safe to assume, walked. As Miss Mary Borden, a Vogue contributor, puts it, in reference to her own sex: “I say ladies, because I mean well-bred women of assured social position.”
Simplifying the matter further, one may go so far as to say that, in the world of Vogue, unlike the real world, there are no poor. Only the minute proportion of mankind who change their underwear frequently, bath daily, and take for granted being sheltered, warm and having enough to eat, qualify for admission. At a rough guess I should suppose that no one is portrayed or mentioned with an income of less than, say, ten thousand dollars a year. Thus, any pope, cardinal, bishop, and even most archdeacons, evangelists, and hot-gospelers, might legitimately claim admission, but not the founder of the Christian religion, nor any of the apostles, with the single exception, perhaps, of Judas, who acquired thirty pieces of silver; at present-day values quite a sum of money.
Again, taking the case of literature, one properly finds Henry James, Galsworthy, and Wells, but not George Orwell; a writer who, whatever his merits or demerits otherwise, was too “hot” for Vogue. He even, in his crazy, mixed-up way, had something to say, which does not do at all in this world where Noel Coward is forever witty, Elsa Maxwell forever commanding, and the Windsors forever young.
Ah! the Windsors belong all right. We see them looking soulfully at one another, with all the wrinkles carefully erased; a king who gave up a throne for love, a duchess in her own wrong, and lovers, lovers, all the way. We, the English taxpayers, need feel no rancor at being called on to finance their harmless masquerade, especially when we consider nuclear and other infinitely more expensive purposes to which the money wrung from us is put. So here’s a health in whisky sour to our king-over-the-water, coupled with the name of his gracious lady-under-the-drier.
As for dear old podgy Elsa, elegantly presented here in some kind of footballing or bicycling outfit, she went on organizing parties up to the end. Where would Vogue be without such voluntary helpers, who rustle up the celebrities as Women’s Institute ladies do the fruit, flowers, and vegetables for the Vicar’s Harvest Thanksgiving? I once interviewed her on television, and tried to find out who paid for the parties. I mean, picked up the bill, counted out the notes, wrote the cheque. On this point, blunt, bluff, outspoken Elsa would not be drawn. I just could not get her to tell me, and now I shall never know. Perhaps the ravens brought martinis, magnums of champagne, grains of caviar, and shreds of smoked salmon to her in their beaks.
Then Noel Coward and Gertie Lawrence. What a pair! Very Vogue of very Vogue. Also Cecil Beaton (did he photograph them? He must have done. Anyway, he photographed Greta Garbo, here included, eyelashes and all). How the sparkle of the Twenties, the woosh of the Thirties, the—No, let’s stop there. That will do—comes shining out of their dear, beautiful, wonderful masks. And such lines to speak! Maugham’s aphorisms; yes, even those! La Rochefoucauld couldn’t do it better. (“To do one’s duty sounds a rather cold and cheerless business, but somehow in the end it does give one a queer sort of satisfaction.”) Or could he?
Entertainers and entertainment, I should say, along with haute and basse couture, account for between 60 and 70 per cent of the world of Vogue. Juvenal wrote somewhere, as I have read somewhere, that the excessive fame of entertainers was a symptom of Rome’s decadence and decay. It might be so with us. (Good old Liz, by the way, has a full page towards the end, and I greeted her, for once, with a joyous cry. Compared with Lady Diana Manners and all that lot, there was something simple, elemental, primaeval about her simple, elemental, primaeval bust, barely, but barely held together with a Cleopatra snake-chain.) We certainly go after our actors and comedians and telly-folk in a big way; and Vogue, ever properly, reflects the trend, let Juvenal say what he will.
Next to entertainment, comes just money; the Rockefellers, the Astors, old bearded Carnegie and the rest. There’s a glory about them, it has to be admitted. Who can resist a money smile, a money charm, money nubility? You want those millionaire girls, you want them badly. Even the nippers partake of the charm, so that you almost see haloes shining out from their poor little heads; like an infant Jesus on an Italian altarpiece. I’m thinking particularly of two Astor children, Michael and Stella, photographed at the foot of a majestic stairway, and holding their candles to light them up to bed. Droll little urchins!
After money—and a poor third—comes government and politics. (Actually, the Kennedys help here because they’ve got money, good looks, and inexhaustible toothy smiles, as well.) Our English contribution in this field is almost entirely Royal, with the exception of a small inset of Ramsay MacDonald, another of Macmillan and Eden, and a larger photograph of Winston Churchill looking peculiarly portentous and silly in Garter robes. Our Royal Family are well represented. There’s a picture of the late George VI looking like a matinee idol. Quite a feat that on the part of some unknown, or perhaps known, photographer. Also of Princess Marina, now the Dowager Duchess of Kent, who likewise comes out as something between Lillian Gish and La Madonne des Sleepings. The little princesses are well to the fore, and, of course, the present incumbents, who group admirably. Their numbers are constantly being augmented; no less than four of the Royal ladies are currently expecting, as we used to say in the old Emily Post (she’s in, by the way) days. So, get the flash-bulbs ready, polish up the lenses; we English may have lost our place in the sun, but not in the pages of Vogue. Yo! ho!
With so large a preponderance of entertainers, monarchs, and millionaires, not much space is left to cover residuary activities like religion, science, and art. Fortunately, however, there has been a gentleman’s agreement to consolidate in these fields. In the style of Miss Rheingold, a Mr. Religion, a Mr. Science, and a Mr. Art are nominated for all purposes occasions. For the first, then, Dr. Schweitzer, for the second Albert Einstein, and for the third Pablo Picasso. These three distinguished figures hold the portfolios, respectively, of Religion, Science and Art, and relieve us all of the trouble of looking further afield.
It is a magic world into which Vogue takes us; a sort of magazine equivalent of Keats’s Grecian Urn. A magic world whence poverty and suffering have been banished; where the heathen do not rage, and no one imagines vain things. No Stalin to keep us awake at night, no Gandhi to ask awkward questions, no Senator McCarthy to rant and roar. Like the two sweet little Astor children, we can take our outsize candles, and climb up the massive Cliveden stairway (What frolics there, subsequently, compered by the late Dr. Ward; but not for Vogue!), under the watchful eye of our dear nanny—the camera—whose unblinking eye holds us wholly and for ever in its cold compass, sheltering us from the bitter outside air and the hard light of day.
February 20, 1964