"Vanity Fair" originally meant "a place 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 title to christen his widely read 1847 satirical novel (recently brought to the big screen, with Reese Witherspoon starring as the beautiful, conniving protagonist, Becky Sharp).
"Vanity Fair" crossed over from fiction to journalism, of a kind, in 1860, with the first issue of a British periodical bearing the name. The publication 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."
In 1913, the dapper and visionary publisher Conde Nast, having already made a success of Vogue, bought the rights to the name and introduced a new hybrid journal, Dress and Vanity Fair, which had an undistinguished four-issue run. Revamped in 1914, Vanity Fair was relaunched and in short order, under the stewardship of its canny and irrepressible editor, Frank Crowninshield, became 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 "cafe 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. And in 1936, V.F. suspended publication, considered a periodical too glib and urbane for the increasingly stormy times.
Vanity Fair was resurrected a half-century later, in 1983, as a quirky cultural pastiche. Two editors (Richard Locke and Leo Lerman) tried their hands at the helm, with mixed results. At first, the magazine ran rather tame illustrated covers, then black-and-white Irving Penn headshots of authors and intellectuals. (Neither readers nor advertisers seemed smitten with the prospect of Philip Roth's stubble or Italo Calvino's nose hair.) Tina Brown took over in 1984 and gave the magazine a Reagan-era flair, appealing to the free-spending tastes of readers in that go-go decade. Brown conscripted a stable of photographers (Annie Leibovitz and Herb Ritts, Helmut Newton and Harry Benson), encouraged writers like Dominick Dunne, smacked celebrities on the cover, and offered a frothy bouillabaisse of scandal, wealth, and high and low culture.
American actress Demi Moore, on a famous Vanity Fair cover (August, 1991)
In 1992, Graydon Carter, a veteran of both Time and Life, co-founder of Spy, and editor of The New York Observer, stepped in and ramped up the magazine, bringing it to new levels of journalistic prowess—and profitability. Carter enlisted a stable of A-list contributors (including Christopher Hitchens, Bryan Burrough, David Halberstam, Nick Tosches, and Michael Wolff), expanded the magazine's mandate to cover news and world affairs, commissioned stunning photographic portfolios and definitive retrospective pieces, and inaugurated editorial franchises that have become V.F. cornerstones: the Hollywood Issue (accompanied each year by the star-studded Vanity Fair Oscar gala, currently the most famous annual party in the world), the New Establishment 50 (which ranks moguls in the information-communications-entertainment sphere), and the International Best-Dressed List. On Carter's watch, the magazine has amassed a bounty of publishing-industry awards for general excellence, photography, reporting, and commentary, and has become a monthly must-read among tastemakers and trendsetters in the corridors of influence around the globe.
With its mix of lively writing, bold portraiture, keen cultural intuition, and in-depth 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.