Condé Montrose Nast

By: Victoria Yates

Condé Montrose Nast was born in New York City on the 26th of March 1873, one of four children of William Nast and Esther Benoist. Three years later his father left for France where he would remain for the better part of the next thirteen years. Following this move, his mother (French aristocracy by descent) moved her family to Missouri.

The family’s financial needs rested on Esther in the absence of her husband, and her personal fortune dwindled. Regardless, she gave her children a solid upbringing, following in her Catholic faith and learning to play musical instruments and speak foreign languages. In his youth Nast showed traits similar to those of his grandfather, Wilhelm Nast, a leader of the German Methodist movement in the US and himself a publisher, proving to be thorough and neat.

Nast convinced his aunt to finance him through Georgetown University where he met Robert Collier, the son of a successful New York publisher, with whom he edited the school paper and became fast friends. After graduating Nast decided to pursue a Law degree at Washington University in St. Louis. However, Nast decided law wasn’t for him and took a job at Collier’s in 1897, successfully increasing the magazine’s circulation from 19,000 to roughly 560,000 over a ten-year period. Amongst his innovations at the magazine were the introduction of color pages, specialist issues, and two-page spreads. Nast also put emphasis on recognizing that the US had different marketing regions with different audiences that needed catering for.  

In 1902 Nast married his first wife Clarisse Couder, a society woman of French origin. The couple’s first child, Charles, followed a year later, and their daughter, Nautica, arrived in 1905. The marriage struggled and in 1919 Clarisse moved out before their formal divorce in 1925. Early into their marriage Nast began negotiations to buy the elite magazine Vogue - which he finally purchased in 1909 at a time when its circulation was 14,000.  Nast hoped to make the magazine a technical specialist for women’s fashion and accessories, for which he made some major adjustments to the format and content including the introduction of color pages, increased advertising, more society pages and fashion patterns. The concerns of Nast’s target elite audience became the meat and bones of the magazine, and his aspirations translated into higher advertising rates than any competitor.

The company’s portfolio grew in 1911 with the purchase of House & Garden and Travel. Shortly after, he penned an article in which he described his strategy not as inclusion of as much of the audience as possible but the deliberate exclusion and targeting of an elite group. In 1914 Edna Chase became the magazine’s editor. She was a strong willed leader who had a very precise vision for those involved, setting out a dress code for the women in the company and cultivating the image of what a “Vogue woman” should be.  Between them, Nast and Chase believed in the need to separate the fashion in the advertising from what was featured in articles. This was difficult to maintain during the depression when advertisers expected editorial coverage given the prices paid. When the war hit there were very real concerns that the fashion section would struggle as Paris was, at the time, the center of the fashion world. Chase hosted a revolutionary runway show featuring American designers and attended by the society elite, kick-starting a new era of fashion that was no longer solely dominated by Paris.

Nast was the first publisher to print international editions of the magazine, featuring German, Spanish, and French editions. And in 1913 he bought a further two magazines Dress and Vanity Fair, appointing Frank Crowninshield editor of the latter whose vision was to create, for the first time, a women’s magazine that wouldn’t focus on fashion but would instead appeal to their intellects. Crowninshield and Nast became inseparable friends, with Crowninshield moving into Nast’s apartment and the pair attending events and parties together.

One of Nast’s areas of influence was that of fashion photography in which he encouraged a more informal and realistic style. His attention for technical detail was widely noted, making numerous innovations in the field of printing. The 1929 “crash” however meant that his vision could not be financially sustained and Nast, and his company, quickly spiraled into debt. During this time he rejected the advice to buy Life magazine, which went on to be hugely successful, and in 1939 he started a new magazine, Glamour, which focused on Hollywood’s influence on the ‘average’ woman’s fashion and lifestyle choices. With this new creation Nast once again showed his innovative side, utilizing a “crowded page” format never previously seen and proving highly successful.

Sadly in 1941 Nast’s health began to fail. He became dependent on an oxygen tank but managed to keep his difficulties private until he suffered a heart attack followed by a second less than a year later. He died on the 19th of September 1942 at the age of 69. His possessions were auctioned off shortly afterwards to pay his debts. His magazines still remain hugely popular today, with Vogue and Vanity Fair in particular leading the market in terms of reputation and content. He was a pioneer of a new era and an innovative man who altered the face of the publishing industry and started a unique empire that is still going strong today.