Monica Penick was in Palm Springs last February for Modernism Week, so I paid $10 to hear her talk about editors Elizabeth Gordon, of House Beautiful, and John Entenza, of Arts & Architecture. Gordon had a large popular audience; Entenza had the academics and professionals.
Gordon picked a fight about style.
Her point was that the International Style of Le Corbusier and that foreign bunch was irrelevant to American living. She pushed her own agenda, with much success, through the late-1940s and the 1950s.
I waited a while to buy Penick’s book, paying $42.53 for Tastemaker: Elizabeth Gordon, House Beautiful, and the Postwar American Home.
Tastemaker is impeccably researched, but the writing often plods. Penick never met a list she didn’t like and want to include instead of breaking it up with some elaboration on each point. Nothing in her prose moves; it’s semiformal and bland.
Nevertheless, for one who lives near Palm Springs and needs to know more about the architectural background, this book is essential.
The story picks up after the halfway point when Frank Lloyd Wright emerges from behind the mahogany paneling in support of Gordon, who sharpened her attack against the International Style in synch with the McCarthy hearings. Wright was delighted to join in against the Europeans and reestablish his legacy. I wish the book had started with this drama, and the storytelling could have filled in all the details about Gordon’s editorial programs. Instead, it’s strict chronology and falling eyelids.
I have two takeaways from Tastemaker. They’re from the perspective of one who’s written for magazines his whole career.
First is how much power and influence Gordon had. An editor in the 1950s was like a god. Her Pace Setter homes series was a big deal. Her emphasis on “climate control” in a well-designed house (with strong support of passive solar) made noteworthy inroads. It’s hard to imagine today; editors are more like dogmeat, and a different can of dogmeat tomorrow don’t hurt nobody as long as it saves the company some money. Editors in those days shaped opinions. Now everybody has an opinion even before the topic is introduced. Or we could say people have greater access to objects and ideas.
Second thing is how the companies pampered editors. The Hearst fashion eds were expected to look the part, so the company provided assistance with hair and makeup. Private school tuition could be part of the package for editors in other categories. Again, perks? I did get $5 off my monthly phone bill because of having contributed stories to one company’s title, but they didn’t throw in a discount at Super Clips.
I hope Tastemaker, published by Yale, is doing well. But if you’re even considering reading it, just call me, instead. I’ll fill in the blanks for you.