“Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! which of us is happy in the world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?…

…come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.” Conclusion of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.

Above: Duke and Duchess of Windsor photographed by (l.) Cecil Beaton in 1937, and (r.) Patrick Lichfield in 1967.

From the Book of Ecclesiastes, 1:2 (King James Version):

“Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”

From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

“vanity (n.)

c. 1200, “that which is vain, futile, or worthless,” from Old French vanite “self-conceit; futility; lack of resolve” (12c.), from Latin vanitatem (nominative vanitas) “emptiness, aimlessness; falsity,” figuratively “vainglory, foolish pride,” from vanus “empty, void,” figuratively “idle, fruitless,” from PIE *wano-, suffixed form of root *eue “to leave, abandon, give out.” Meaning “self-conceited” in English is attested from mid-14c. Vanity table is attested from 1936. Vanity Fair is from “Pilgrim’s Progress” (1678).”

David Friend, editor of creative development at Vanity Fair, wrote on January 14, 2008:

“In 2008, Vanity Fair celebrates its 95th anniversary…

“Vanity Fair” originally meant “a place or scene of ostentation or empty, idle amusement and frivolity”—a reference to the decadent fair in John Bunyan’s 1678 book, The Pilgrim’s Progress. By the 19th century, however, author William Makepeace Thackeray made “Vanity Fair” his own, borrowing the term to christen his widely read 1848 satirical novel, which was serialized at the time in Britain’s Punch magazine.

Vanity Fair, the magazine, appeared in three incarnations in the 1800s. First, it was a short-lived, Manhattan-based humorous weekly, published from 1859 to 1863. Next, in the U.K., from 1868 to 1914, Vanity Fair was the title of a periodical that became known as the cream of the period’s “society magazines,” best remembered for its witty prose and its caricatures of men (and occasionally women) of privilege. Sir Leslie (“Spy”) Ward, the magazine’s famed illustrator, believed that “when the history of the Victorian Era comes to be written in true perspective, the most faithful mirror and record of … the spirit of the times will be sought and found in Vanity Fair.” Finally, in 1890, another American version began weekly publication, reconceived as a theater magazine that boasted unabashedly of reaching “the vast, Luxury-loving, money-spending multitude everywhere.”

In 1913, the dapper and visionary publisher Condé Nast, having already made a success of Vogue, bought the rights to the name and introduced a new hybrid journal, Dress & Vanity Fair, which had an undistinguished four-issue run. Revamped in 1914, Vanity Fair was yet again relaunched. In short order it became, under the stewardship of its canny and irrepressible editor, Frank Crowninshield, a cultural bellwether of the Jazz Age. Vanity Fair promoted the work of modern artists (Picasso, Brancusi) and illustrators (Miguel Covarrubias, Paolo Garretto), published essays by new literary lights (from Dorothy Parker and Gertrude Stein to D. H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley), and helped popularize and perfect the genre of celebrity portraiture through the pioneering work of photographers such as Edward Steichen, Man Ray, Cecil Beaton, and Baron de Meyer.

Beyond the pages of Vanity Fair, Crowninshield and Nast also spawned Manhattan “café society” at vibrant parties they threw for their acquaintances in the newly intersecting spheres of literature, the arts, sports, politics, cinema, and high society. Their magazine, throughout the 20s and into the 30s, became the gold standard for the so-called smart magazines of the era. “Vanity Fair,” wrote social historian Cleveland Amory, “was as accurate a barometer of its time as exists.” Then, alas, came the ravages of the Depression and the rise of Fascism. In 1936, V.F. suspended publication, considered a periodical too glib and urbane for the increasingly stormy times.

Vanity Fair was resurrected by the Condé Nast Publications a half-century later, in 1983, as a quirky cultural pastiche…

With its mix of lively writing, bold portraiture, keen cultural intuition, in-depth reporting, and memorable profiles of the movers and shakers of the age, Vanity Fair has become, by many estimates, magazine journalism’s acknowledged arbiter of modern society, power, and personality.”

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