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Tutoring the Rich: Frank Zachary

Graphis April 2000



He sent a travel photographer to Venice once

with only one directive: no pigeons.

With the social poise that has long characterized his style, Frank

Zachary reinvented himself at the age of 59. Celebrated, for more than 40
years, as an art director who had pioneered graphic innovations and creative
photojournalism, he became the editor-in-chief of the oldest and most conservative
magazine in America.

His first issues of Town & Country, a publication unapologetically dedicated to promoting

the lifestyle of the upper classes, hit the newsstands in 1973, the year Picasso died. For
Zachary’s admirers, and there were many among the smart readers of Holiday magazine where he had previously showcases his art directing talent, this career move was perceived as a defection of sorts, a retraction of his modernist principles.

“Yet Town & Country was the culmination of my whole career,” says Zachary today from his office at Heart Publications where in semi-retirement he generates new ideas and magazine projects. “Studying the rich is a matter of cardinal interest to me. As a journalist, I learned not to underestimate the role of the old aristocracy in shaping a place – its history, its landscape, its economy. But I never reported on the culture of affluence with adulation. I looked at the phenomenon with the dispassionate scrutiny of an anthropologist.”

Design critic Steven Heller who, as a teenager, impatiently awaited the next issue of Holiday magazine for its sheer visual thrill, is still puzzled by Zachary’s choice of topic. In 1989, he wrote the definitive profile of Zachary for Print magazine, but to this day, he still wonders why his hero got involved with the culture of old money.

“Frank is a discerning individual,” he told me recently over lunch, “It’s not like he picked the first job that came across his desk. Was he going to try to explain to the rest of us what it was like to be rich? It was the 1970s after all, and affluence was not a popular topic.”

Making money rather than news

Born in Pittsburg in 1914, the son of Croatian immigrants (his father was a steelworker), Zachary surprised everyone by effortlessly taking over Town & Country and turning the then ailing magazine into a financial success. For the next twenty years, he celebrated with elegance, verve, and flair the sense of entitlement of the most privileged among us.

Deliberatly ignoring Watergate, feminism, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Lech Waleas, Chernobyl, Maastrich and Macintosh, he focused his visual sophistication on fox hunting, philanthropy, Arabian horses, personal vineyards, estate planning, golfing in Hawaii, Saratoga, Gstaad, London, and why rich kids are different.

The people who subscribed to Town & Country were the same folks who bought the expensive jewelry advertised on its pages. Unlike other magazines that features stories about the rich,  Town & Country wasn’t voyeuristic.

“In the past rich was synonymous with smart,” says Bride Whelan, director of the Society of Publication Designers. “Nowadays, rich doesn’t mean anything unless you are famous too – and/or grossly overpaid for what you do. But Frank never pandered to the perception that there was something wrong with inherited wealth.” Neither cynical like Vanity Fair, nor ostentatious like Architectural Digest, Town & Country, like his publicity-shy readers, was making money rather than news.

So, while the first part of Frank Zachary’s career is well documented and the subjects of many articles, (particularly his brilliant collaboration with Alexey Brodovitch for Portfolio magazine), his work for Town & Country has never been thoroughly examined.

Far from being a professional aberration, though, Zachary’s interest in the rich can be traced back to his first job. At age 18, he was hired as a rookie photographer at the Pittsburg Bulletin Index. Zachary was inspired by John O’Hara who, during his brief tenure as the editor of the Bulletin, was able to transform this weekly society publication into a magazine with a broad subject matter.

“O’Hara showed me that the rich do more than play golf and dance at debutante balls,” Zachary says. “From him, I learned that reporting on the privileged classes is an opportunity to explore all sorts of human activities. Society as a whole can be reflected through the prism of wealth.

O’Hara left the Bulletin to write Appointment with Samarra, his first novel, in which he explored the disintegration of the upper-class inhabitant of a small city. Zachary, a quick study, eventually became the managing editor of the Bulletin, maintaining O’Hara’s journalistic vision. But in 1938, at age 24, he became restless and left Pittsburg for New York. Upon arriving, he held a series of jobs in public relations, working briefly for with Bill Bernbach who would latter become an advertising legend. During World War II, while serving in the overseas division of the Office of Information, Zachary met more artists who would influence him, including illustrator Ludwig Bemelmans and graphic designer Bradbury Thompson.

No empty "whatever"

From his early exposure to journalism, Zachary learned another lesson: a picture isn’t worth anything unless there is a person in it. During his career, he always championed what he called “environmental portraiture,” intricate tableaux vivants combining people, landscapes, animals, buildings, props, and things.

“At Town & Country, we used to pride ourselves in never photographing an empty room, an empty garden, an empty whatever,” says Zachary. “We always found a human interest, a person relating to that environment.”

In 1945, Zachary parlayed his growing interest in photojournalism into a well-paid job for Minicam, a magazine for “home” photographers. Quickly renaming it Modern Photography, he turned the modest publication into a forum for professional and art photographers, doing stories on Harry Callahan, Helen Lewitt, Arnold Newman, and Alexey Brodovitch, artists he admired and with whom he eventually developed lasting friendships and fertile collaborations.

Portfolio magazine, his short-lived venture with Brodovitch, was to become Zachary’s most celebrated accomplishment, even though only three issues were published between 1949 and 1951. A design publication Zachary describes as “an American version of Graphis magazine,Portfolio was in fact as art project, with heart-stopping spreads featuring the work of Charles Eames, Herbert matter, Paul Rand, Henri Cartier Bresson, Matisse, Picasso, and others. Published by George Rosenthal Jr., a wealthy friend of Zachary, whose family owned Writer’s Digest in Cincinnati as well as Modern Photography, the magazine refused advertisements on aesthetic grounds and eventually ran out of money.

But the initial generosity of the Rosenthal family in supporting this purely idealistic venture convinced Zachary of the positive influence wealth can have on our culture. The Portfolio experience was a formative one in more than one way. Watching Brodovitch lay out the magazine prompted Zachary to analyze his finished spreads carefully.

“That’s how I came to understand how to use white space, how to line up pictures, how to create visual sequences. He also taught me how two views of the same subject can be made to resonate with each other.”

The great days of Holiday

When, in 1951, Zachary, now in his mid-thirties, was offered the job of photo editor at Holiday, an upscale travel magazine, he was ready at last to exploit the sum total of his skills, particularly his eye for photography. There, he assembled a team of stellar photographers, including Arnold Newman and Slim Aarons, and a group of witty contributing illustrators, such as Ronald Searle, Edward Gorey, George Gusti, and John Rombola.

Eventually promoted to art director, Zachary soon dominated the magazine with his personality. Ted Patrick, the editor-in-chief, was quite willing to give him more power. The result was a publication borne of intense collaboration rather than unresolved contradictions, the latter being so often the case today.

“A photographer is only as good as the man who directs him,” says Slim Aarons, remembering the Holiday years. “Though Frank isn’t the type of art director who supervises your every move – in fact he leaves you pretty much alone – he knows how to provoke you to think. He sent me to Venice once with only one directive: no pigeons. First I thought he was nuts, but then I realized how brilliant his suggestion was. Photographing Plaza San Marco without pigeons forced me to push the limits of my creativity.”

Sometimes Zachary would challenge a photographer with too many suggestions. “We were discussing a shoot in Dublin,” recalls Arnold Newman, “and Frank said to me: ‘I have an idea if you don’t mind, Arnold.’ Bracing myself for what I knew would come next, I asked, ‘What is it, Frank?’ And he said: “Dublin? Everybody there speaks poetry, so why don’t you get a couple of longshoremen who spout poetry… and of course they should be drinking Guinness… and as long as they are longshoremen, maybe it should be down by the river Liffey, where they load boats… and throw in some ships while you are at it… and they have some great Georgian architecture. Do you think that you can get it all in the same picture?’”

Newman tells the story each time he gives a lecture and then shows the photograph of Dublin, and it’s all in there indeed, including the poetry. Every time, the audience bursts into laughter.

For Zachary the art director, Town & Country was an extension of Holiday: a magazine that allowed him to dream up even more fantastic pictures, with a cast of characters in even more extravagant attire. “Poverty makes great pictures too,” he says (witness Cartier-Bresson’s memorable reportage in Naples or Burt Glinn’s images of the seedy side of Hamburg, both shot for Zachary at Holiday). “But the rich have a sense of drama and a sense of their importance that can yield some colorful moments too.”

Rich folks in small cities

But Town & Country also appealed to Zachary the editor. “I wanted to take the rich out of their social ghetto,” he now explains. “Overcoming the public’s resentment for the rich was an intriguing challenge for me. People love stories about the rich-and-famous, or the rich-and-vulgar, or the rich-and-greedy, but they find articles about wealth handled with restraint and dignity hard to take.”

While Zachary’s Town & Country may not have gained too many new readers among the less-privileged, it did feature articles that were gutsy, socially responsible, and unique. Zachary remembers in particular a 24-page story on Apartheid, in the June 1977 issue, when Nelson Mandella was still in jail. “They would not let us photograph him behind bars,” says Zachary, “but we got everyone else, from the king of the Zulu to Laurens van der Post in his family estate, and Dr. Barnard, who had performed the first heart transplant.”

Stories on the richest families in America included lengthy portfolio on the African-American aristocracy in Atlanta, Washington, Chicago, and New York. Reports on the dangers of sleeping pills, marijuana, and cocaine were not unusual. “But most important, we did not assume that the United States of America were confined to New York and Los Angeles,” says Zachary. “We consciously sought out smaller cities, the second cities of the country and the movers and shakers who lived there. And since no one else was dong this kind of reporting, it was fascinating. We quickly discovered that a lot of action took place in these cities.”

Though Zachary lived vicariously the life of the gentry, he never bothered to personally meet the people he featured in Town & Country. He was not one of them. Unlike today’s editors-in-chief who are cast as celebrities by the very press they oversee, Zachary stayed behind the scenes, never going to any charity events or parties attended by his  readers.

“I liked maintaining that kind of anonymity,” he says. “Look at the old New Yorker. No one knew Harold Ross or Bill Shawn. The magazine didn’t even have a masthead. It spoke for itself.”

But before you pick up an old issue of Town & Country, beware: Zachary’s magazine for the rich is not for design snobs in search of the latest trendy graphics. Layouts are understated and photographs show no sign of preemptive irony. It’s straightforward imagery, almost demure by today’s standards, but so charged with visual information and social commentaries you sometimes feel like rubbing your eyes in disbelief.

In the January 1977 issue, for instance, a Larry Dale Gordon photograph show Bill Lear, sitting at his big desk on an old runway, next to his personal Lear-jet 23, with a potted palm tree behind him and a pet baby giraffe at his side.

A March 1984 Venetian portfolio by Norman Parkinson features a ballroom in which a model in a short Zandra Rhodes lingerie dress is about to step into an eighteenth-century goat cart drawn by two dwarfs in period costume.

And the September 1991 issue dedicated to Houston, Texas has an 18-page photo essay by Victor Skrebneski with handsome formal portraits of the city’s founding families – and of them dressed in regal attire, assuming poses Queen Elizabeth would approve of, their hands poised demurely on their laps.

Eat your heart out Helmut Newton, Bruce Weber, Steven Meisel. These old Town & Country photographers were far more outlandish than anyone in your generation. The images they created were not only bizarre and offbeat, they were also defiantly eccentric, a quality often associated with the upper class.

“Eccentricity is part of the mythology of the aristocracy,” says Nelson Aldrich, author of Old Money. “The conceit is that you are so secure, you don’t care about other people’s opinion. Of course, there is a long way between the fantasy of Old Money and its reality. In fact, the self-made nature of American wealth precludes ever feeling secure.” A true blue blood New Englander, Aldrich claims, with just a hint of condescension, that Zachary’s Town & Country was a tutoring tool for the nouveau rich, a magazine that told them how to behave, what to do on their vacation, and where to send their kids to school.

Savoir faire and cachet

Squeezed between the patricians who look down their nose at the nouveau rich and the rest of us in the huddled masses who resent trust fund brats, Zachary chose to ignore both extremes. Still, he spared no expenses to make the best magazine money can buy. “But we didn’t have such a big budget,” he says now. “Photographers didn’t travel with a huge entourage, as is the rule today. They went alone on location and hired a local assistant, if they needed help with their equipment.” And everyone on staff had to be self-sufficient, getting access to their subject on the merit of their own wit and charm.

It was the photographer’s responsibility to get on the phone and convince the marquis, the tycoon, the earl, and the heiress to pose for the shot. “No one knows how to do that anymore,” adds Zachary. “It takes savoir faire and cachet to gain access. Slim Aarons was a master of the genre. A very tall, exceptionally attractive Yankee, he could get a duke to sit in the most ceremonial dress on a throne in the middle of the street in one of the towns he owned, with all the shopkeepers in the doorway looking at him in awe and his private helicopter hovering over his castle in the distance.”

John O’Hara could have written many short stories based on those epic photo shoots. With a chuckle, Frank Zachary recently shared with me one of his favorite memories. In 1961, for a special issue of Holiday on Milan, he dispatched Slim Aarons to Italy. The portraits of the local Italian aristocracy Aarons brought back were great, but Zachary realized that he had forgotten to shoot the cardinal.

“Go back,” Zachary said, “Rumor has it that the cardinal is likely to become the next pope – we’ve got to have him!” Less than a week later, back in Milan, Aarons was setting his camera in Cardinal Montini’s audience room. But when the high dignitary of the Church eventually showed up, he wore a simple black robe. It took all of Aarons persuasion to send him back to his personal apartment to don more grandiose vestments. Forty-five minutes later, the future pope was ready to sit down on his throne in his ecclesiastical splendor, complete with silk stockings and pointed velvet slippers, but Aarons still was not satisfied. “Where is your ring, your  eminence!” he scolded. “You would not want our Catholic readers to see you without your ring, would you?”

Years later, Aarons found himself by chance on Saint Peter Square right when Pope Paul VI was blessing the pilgrims. The former cardinal of Milan immediately recognized the six-foot-four inch American in the crowd. “Slim was someone you didn’t forget,” says Zachary. “The Pope waved at him. Then, ignoring protocol, he put his hand up, and, with a big grin and a wink, pointed at his ring.”


www.townandcountrymag.com