I worked for Women’s Wear Daily and the Fairchilds for 17 years, the last seven of them as publisher of WWD and the company’s editorial director.
Mostly I remember the fun. The grand crew of journalists who worked for the paper. And the strange, gifted people who designed clothes. I was fascinated by the designers, less intrigued by the clothes. What little I learned about fashion, I got from two people: a Princeton man named John Fairchild and a Frenchwoman in her 80s named Coco Chanel.
I went to work at 7 East 12th Street as a retail news reporter for WWD on Columbus Day of 1953. I was 24, a year out of the Marine Corps and trying to be a newspaperman. I’d been working on the weekly house organ at Macy’s and thought the hundred bucks Fairchild would pay me was pretty good. I worked for them in New York, covered Congress in Washington, was their bureau chief in London and later in Paris, where our daughters were born, and returned to New York (sailing home from France on another Columbus Day) to become publisher in 1964.
Until then, the most money I ever made, even as European director of the company, was $14,000 a year. They were great newspaper people, but they didn’t throw their money around.
John Fairchild’s father, Louis, ran the company, but Uncle Edgar was chairman. Only Edgar had a private bathroom in his office. “Edgar’s up there taking a shower,” John would authoritatively inform you. Edgar enjoyed recounting his adventures. Once he assisted the captain of the Queen Mary in putting down a mutiny by brandishing a revolver he had in his stateroom (I later checked with Cunard and was told there’d never been a mutiny). During the war, Edgar ran civil defense for the city of New York. Or so he said. “He was the air raid warden for the Fairchild building,” noted one family rival dismissively. As with most family-owned enterprises, the relatives bickered constantly.
Despite Edgar, WWD and the other Fairchild trade papers were solid, factual, accurate and made money. And they were incorruptible when it came to resisting advertising pressure on the news coverage. DuPont was our biggest single advertiser, and when we ran a negative story about fiber prices, the company threatened to pull its ads. When I went down to Wilmington to argue the case, Louis Fairchild asked if our story was accurate. I said that it was. He then declared, “If they pull their ads, we’ll just have to sell more advertising elsewhere to make it up.” DuPont backed off.
I knew nothing of fashion when I began. John, on the other hand, was a sort of instinctive genius about it (not even he could explain why). He could sit through a showing of 200 dresses by Dior or Cardin and tell you, quite accurately, which numbers would become “fords,” the looks Seventh Avenue would knock off by the thousands and sell for millions. John was a great and relentless reporter and not a bad writer. But more keenly than anyone, he understood that the designers were the really key people in fashion, and he focused the coverage on them, flattering, threatening, building up and, occasionally, punishing the disbeliever. John believed in having at least one good feud simmering at all times.
He also understood the way to the heart of tomorrow’s fashion stars, the talented but underpaid young designers, featuring them in the pages of his family’s newspaper, making them important, influential and, eventually, rich. When couture house owner Robert Ricci demanded we stop mentioning the name of his designer (Jules Francois Crahay) and publish only the name “Ricci,” Fairchild banned “Ricci” and wrote endlessly of “the Crahay collection.” Monsieur Ricci capitulated. And by the time he’d left Paris after five years to become publisher of WWD, John was himself as significant a force in the world of fashion as any of the great designers: Dior, Balenciaga, Saint Laurent, even Chanel. And far more so than the editors of what had been, until his time, the dominant fashion slicks, Vogue and Bazaar. How could the monthlies possibly compete with a daily on breaking fashion news, overnight reviews, the scandals and doings of the industry’s fabulous characters?
For my part, I lacked his instinct for fashion. But I was drawn to the designers, a rare and exotic breed, and intrigued by the ferocity of the infighting, the power plays, the money. And (as Thurber once bragged), I could get it, I could write it, I could put a head on it; I knew a little journalism. Coco Chanel taught me about fashion. She would snub the New York Times, Life and the AP, ban a famous fashion critic because the woman had bad legs, call Madame Vreeland of Vogue, “the most pretentious woman I have ever seen,” and yet permit me to hang out taking notes in the salon where she and her assistants literally “built” a Chanel tweed suit on a tall, beautiful, nearly naked young mannequin.
Afterward, we would smoke my cigarettes and drink away the Paris afternoon with her Scotch in the suite of rooms above her shop on Rue Cambon, as she provided reams of quotable, shrewd, informed comment and bitchery, all of it on the record, much of it cabled press rates to New York to appear in next morning’s WWD. Coco was 50 years older than I, had somehow the notion I was a Native American and called me,”mon petit Indien.”
When I first took over from John as Fairchild’s man in Paris I was warned by a PR gadfly to be circumspect. “Mind you,” Marjorie Dunton said, “I don’t believe it. But they said John had affairs with animals.”
Perturbed, I phoned John that afternoon. “Not even a mouse,” he assured me.
The Algerian War was on and plastique bombs shattered the Paris nights. Andre Oliver, Cardin’s top aide, serving in Algiers, was surely the only private in the French Army whose uniform was tailored by a couturier. Saint Laurent was drafted and promptly broke down in boot camp. Said his partner Pierre Berge, “Yves was born with a nervous breakdown.” But to WWD, war was an incident; there was serious game afoot. A few years earlier, we’d scored a world scoop by publishing in advance a sketch of Princess Margaret’s wedding dress. “Yank spies steal the dress!” screeched one Fleet Street headline.
Jackie Kennedy declared she would “dress American” and Oleg Cassini was anointed her designer. WWD learned the new First Lady was still buying clothes from Givenchy supposedly sewn up for sister Lee Radziwill. White House press secretary Pierre Salinger issued indignant denials. Then, on their first visit to Paris, Jackie charmed General de Gaulle at a state dinner by turning up in the very Givenchy dress we’d reported she had ordered.
When I took over from John Fairchild in Paris, I inherited not only his job but his feuds. Balenciaga and Givenchy, two of the great designers, had banned WWD. Through guise and by stealth, we got around the ban. Of the dozen Fairchild staffers, three were countesses, attractive young women from the posh 16th arrondissement, and we dispatched them to winkle out the secrets from Balenciaga and Hubert de Givenchy. They penetrated the inner sanctum pretending to be wealthy private clients (which they were) or florists’ assistants or even streetwalkers, “swinging the bag” along the Avenue George V in front of the two couture houses, peering through opened French windows and chatting up gossipy mannequins when they broke for a smoke.
Once a collection had been shown to the buyers and press (only WWD was excluded), we buttonholed buyers on the sidewalk and pumped them for details of what they’d just seen. Then we really went to work, scooping the competition, sweet-talking Sydney Gittler of Ohrbach’s, for example (WWD invariably referred to Sydney as “the coat king”), and went back to his hotel suite where we gnawed room service steak frites and knocked back the vin rouge, while Gittler described for Kenneth Block, the great fashion illustrator, the significant looks of the new season. Next morning in America, WWD readers saw more accurate Balenciaga sketches than those of the Times, which wasn’t banned.
The most influential of the young designers was Saint Laurent. He and his savvy partner, Pierre Berge, recognized the power of WWD and each season previewed, but only for us, his new collection the night before it was unveiled to the rest of the press, enabling us to radiophoto precise sketches to run in our paper 24 hours before anywhere else. That was the job, as we saw it: to get into print with the fashion news ahead of the competition.
Which included discovering the new talents: Mary Quant in London, Roberto Capucci and Valentino in Italy, and in Paris, Courreges, who got me hooked on rugby at Stade Colombes, and Emanuel Ungaro, who raised seed money by borrowing against his girlfriend’s Porsche.
At the height of the great skirt-length controversy of the late Sixties, Time magazine did a cover story on WWD, calling the newspaper “plain as gingham and just as reliable.” Under John as company president and me as its publisher, the little daily trade paper was still reliable, but a lot less plain.
We sold 2,000 subscriptions to other media that felt they might be missing something if they didn’t see WWD every day. The White House alone had a dozen subs. National Security adviser Dr. Kissinger called to complain that our White House beat reporter, Kandy Stroud, was too assiduously chronicling his active social life. Late at night, Kandy received boozy phone calls from Martha Mitchell about villainy in high places. Woodward and Bernstein had their “Deep Throat”; we had our Martha, the attorney general’s wife.
Circulation doubled, advertising poured in and we were turning a healthy profit. On an annual revenue of only $12 million, we were clearing $3 mil in operating profit. The big corporate fish circled, contacting the bickering Fairchild family through merchant bankers regarding a possible takeover, with one offer, from Capital Cities Broadcasting, eventually being accepted. Job offers, some of them tempting, came in for me, for John (from Conde Nast). We began to ponder a consumer spinoff of WWD that we could call W, standing for “women, wit, weekly,” a title suggested by Chuck Mitchelmore, now a top editor of the International Herald Tribune.
Streisand was off to Paris to record her first French album. Her manager called. Could I arrange that she meet Chanel? Of course. As we climbed the mirrored stairs to Chanel’s apartment, I could feel Barbra’s arm tremble with, what, excitement, nerves? Streisand, who spoke no French, had memorized a gracious little speech of tribute, and, with her singer’s ear, delivered it so perfectly, Coco launched into an elaborate reply, in French, bien sur, at which a shaken Barbra grabbed me and hissed, “Get me the hell out of here.”
It was WWD, covering the wedding on that Greek isle, that christened the bridal couple “Daddy O” and “Jackie O,” labels that stuck. We called the ebullient Cristina Ford “Ciao, Babee,” poor Princess Margaret, “Her Drear.” When I encountered Lynda Bird Johnson with George Hamilton at an Oscar party in Hollywood, the First Daughter savaged me for being “cruel to my mother, my sister and me,” in WWD’s put-down of their Texas “style.”
What a time it was! Giddy, glorious, glamorous, dizzying and sometimes surreal. We were doing solid, serious journalism, accurate and fast, scooping papers and magazines 10 times our size, and having fun doing it. We were putting out a terrific little paper every day and making money at it. And we were still young enough to glory in the adventure. When a transit strike crippled New York, John and I rented bikes. I can still see the startled look on Norman Norell’s face when I arrived at his showrooms pedaling off the elevator. And we drove the celebrated nuts: needling the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (our label for them was, “Commerce & Industry” for renting themselves out for the evening). When Joe and Estee Lauder hosted a black-tie dinner for the Windsors, a typo on the embroidered linen place mats spelled “Duchess” with a “t,” as in “Dutchess County.” Naturally, the gaffe got into the next morning’s WWD.
We believed, with Roy Howard, a newspaper’s job was to “print the news and raise hell.”
Pierre Cardin sent a pageboy for gendarmes to arrest our reporter Gerry Dryansky (today European editor for Conde Nast Traveler) for writing slangily of a Cardin collection.
Rose Kennedy phoned to ask that WWD pass up the opportunity to track Jackie and the children on a ski holiday in the Rockies. “But we’ll lose the story and our competition will get it.” Matriarch Rose astonished me by saying, “If you respect her privacy, others will follow.” I agreed, if Rose would give us an interview. She did, to June Weir, getting off a much-quoted line about Bobby’s spending big bucks to further his political ambitions. “Why not,” said Rose Kennedy, “it’s our money, isn’t it?”
Winchell was in decline, desperate for a New York outlet, when he phoned John Fairchild. “I don’t want to talk to him,” John said. “You call back.” I didn’t like Winchell either, but listened to his pitch and even today can hear his distinctive growl: “I’m a newsboy, Mr. Brady. I stand on a corner and sell newspapers. And I can sell your newspaper.”
We weren’t buying. But when the World Journal Tribune folded, I bought New York market syndication rights to the great Red Smith before the Daily News or the Post even thought of it. Red’s wonderful columns ran in our little paper for a year or two until the Times offered him a big deal and, being sportif, we released Red from his WWD contract.
When the Czechs revolted in 1968, two of our best European correspondents, Barney Leason and Dryansky, both took off for Prague without even being told, getting through Soviet lines by passing themselves off as textile buyers, and phoning and cabling stories for a week to WWD and our new partners, the Cap Cities radio and TV stations. Now we were scooping the wire services. Leason, to this day, insists it wasn’t the Russians that closed them down, but that Dryansky had run out of properly laundered Cardin shirts.
Calvin Klein worked for WWD so briefly as an art department gofer that I couldn’t remember him. Said Calvin years later, “I was so terrified when I saw you coming, I hid in the men’s room.”
Chanel told Marie Louise Bousquet of Harper’s Bazaar (in confidence, she believed) that Balenciaga was too old and ought to retire, Marie Louise picked up her skirts to hurry across town to tattle on Chanel to Balenciaga. Coco shot back, saying of Mme. Bousquet, “Face of a monkey, mouth of a sewer.” When Saint Laurent expressed his admiration for Chanel, Coco put him in his place: “M. Saint Laurent has good taste. And the more he copies me, the better taste he demonstrates.” Jacques Tiffeau, a Frenchman who worked on Seventh Avenue, claimed to have seduced a honeymooning American bridegroom on the Blue Train between Paris and Nice. Courreges banned WWD for a season when we suggested Chanel, not Courreges, had popularized trousers for women. We couldn’t wait to put all this Sturm und Drang into print to the delight of readers.
During the skirt-length debate, the Fairchild building on 12th Street was regularly emptied by bomb-scare calls. John and I handled this with what we considered considerable aplomb, and we went to the movies.
As publisher, I assigned myself the best stories, covering the Apollo 11 launch, which would land Neil Armstrong on the moon, and which in Florida was a week-long cocktail party. In one of the vast NASA hangars, in one corner Wernher von Braun played to his flatterers, in one opposite corner, Charles Lindbergh stood, pleasantly alone, but delighted to chat. Here, in one room, was the history of manned flight.
When the Arno overflowed and flooded the stones of Florence, I flew to Italy to write about the disaster. And found the great old city flooded with hippies and college kids and aging volunteers, all of them scrubbing down the stones, sluicing away the mud.
John’s secretary was the long-suffering Gertrude Price. Early one morning, a very upset John called me at home. Mrs. Price’s sister had been run over and killed and would I go with John to handle things at the morgue? Naturally, I went. As we waited by a sort of picture window for the body to come up on a lift to be viewed, John had had enough. “You’ll have to identify the body,” he said, “I’m going outside.” “But I’ve never even seen Gertrude’s sister. How can I identify the body?”
“She probably looks like Gertrude,” said John helpfully, bolting from the room.
Emilio Pucci, that renaissance figure whose dining room was, literally, walls and ceiling, done by Josiah Wedgwood, gave me an interview in which he accused the Medicis of being “nouveaux riches.”
One of our best writers, Chauncey Howell, took up prizefighting in a Manhattan gym where a salty old manager wanted him to turn pro. Chauncey, he was sure, could make serious money. “For one thing, you got that wonderfully faggy name.”
Mr. Fairchild was invited to lunch at the apartment of Mr. John, a plump milliner who titled himself, “Emperor of Fashion.” “I’m not going there alone,” John Fairchild said. “You’ve got to come.” I hoped this wasn’t going to be another morgue experience. Mr. John’s partner and roommate, a young man named Peter Brandon, met us at the apartment door on a bicycle, which he rode around the spacious apartment, up and down the hallways, in and out of rooms. During lunch Mr. John’s pet bird sat on his head, where he deposited a small dump. I was speechless and John was too well bred to say anything.
When I left WWD on Bastille Day of 1971 in an ill-advised move to take over and modernize Harper’s Bazaar, John Fairchild cried “Treachery!” And for years we didn’t speak. Which was silly. So ever since, when I encounter Mr. Fairchild, I dash over, grab his hand, pump it vigorously, and tell him how splendid he looks. It seems to disconcert him marvelously.
Can fashion journalism be as much fun today? I don’t believe so.
James Brady writes weekly for Parade magazine and Advertising Age. His latest novel is The Marines of Autumn.