Fleur Frenton Cowles (January 20,1908 – June 5, 2009) was an American writer, editor and artist best known as the creative force behind short-lived Flair Magazine. My wife and I got to know her very well and enjoyed her company and her knowledge of the world.
Here is the substance of an interview I did with her in 1987.
ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES
Fleur Cowles: A man who did a lot for me – who was very sweet and good about me, and who in his official autobiography describes me as one of his daughters – is Bernard Baruch, America’s famous elder statesman. Now Bernard Baruch made my mind, I’m sure of it, first of all by having such belief in me. I had to live up to it. Secondly, by a habit which I would have loved to pass on to a child. He used to call me up every morning at nine o’clock and ask my view on the leading question of that day. It could be the stock market, it could be the war in some remote place. I got up at seven every day – read every paper – read every book. I was most anxious to give him the right answers. And he created my brain. I’d love to have done that for a child.
I have never felt discriminated against because everything I have achieved I have achieved because I am a woman. Every important assignment, every professional success I’ve had, was because a women was needed for a particular project. That includes White House assignments, half the editorship of one of the biggest magazines in the world, all the philanthropic things I do to raise money. They choose me because I can tell them how women think. I’m the woman in each instance. As associate editor, I brought the woman’s readership to Look magazine (which went from one million readers to seven million before it died). And I brought to it a pattern of editorial content that brought women into the magazine as readers, which made it possible to sell the magazine to important advertisers, making the magazine more popular and helping it rise to even larger circulations in America. I never felt discriminated against. It was the other way round. I was sought after because I was a woman, because a woman’s talent was needed – a woman’s view. I didn’t step in to a man’s job. I did what needed the mind of a woman.
Women, are, I suspect, kept out of many things because they’ve never been there before – a lack of judgement by some men. Prejudice cannot be overlooked, and some of it is inescapable. Women are not considered long-range investments because of the threat of childbirth and the absenteeism which ensues. Often this is the biggest hurdle in casting jobs: choosing between a young man and a young woman. In the worlds that men occupy and dominate, a clever woman’s place can often be as part of a team which is foolishly ignored. A woman can make the most natural companion to a man in many jobs and projects. Sometimes women don’t make the attempt because they can’t ignore the fear that women can’t be as successful as men in a competitive situation; while other women, with the knowledge of the scope and size of their skills and brains, the variety of their talents, the value of their curiosity which is more definite in a woman than in a man, push on in a low-key and successful way.
America is in the forefront in giving women the big chance in life. What I was able to achieve thirty years ago in America could not have happened here. Never, never. Can you imagine being allowed to co-edit one of the biggest magazines in the world – in 1948? You can’t see me being asked by a prime minister to carry secret, serious, delicate messages to heads of state, but they did in the United States. It’s not a long hard battle to have people recognize what you are in America. It’s pretty instantaneous – not here. Here it takes forever to realize what the potential of a woman happens to be. She has very often to fight for that recognition.
Being a woman was an enormous asset because heads of state would talk frankly to me; perhaps they didn’t worry too much about a woman. I, in turn, talked frankly to them. Men cannot so easily because men don’t like such frankness from other men. Sometimes it erects a wall between them. A male ambassador, talking to the head of state, has to watch his prerogatives. He might even be persona non grata (as one I knew was) for asking the sort of questions I could ask, or commenting on their attitudes and views. I could ask them in the simple and sympathetic way that men find unacceptable to each other.
There are very few Margaret Thatchers in this world. And many women who achieved her kind of importance were not good women. For me, Mrs Ghandi was a vindictive, difficult, unpleasant woman. This is my own personal judgement. Perhaps the one great women other than Mrs Thatcher who achieved particular success as a woman was Golder Meir – Israel’s greatest woman, not at all feminine. Great, distinguished, brave, she had many things in common with Mrs Thatcher. And there are others: Mrs Bandaranaike was a despot. And equally so, in her frustrated angry way, Mme Chiang Kai-shek in Taipei, whom I also knew. I stayed with her in Taiwan many years ago, but this genuinely Iron Lady really was one and revealed it on that visit: tough, cruel, devastatingly angry at her fate. She actually asked me why the United States was foolish and fearful enough not to do what they should – why don’t they drop the bomb on China? She didn’t mind the idea of such destruction of her own people if it would give her the regal dynastic role she enjoyed in China when her husband was alive and they both ruled (and robbed) China. After they fled to Taipei, even her husband took her power away. No matter what side of politics one is on, no one could ever call Mrs Thatcher cruel and despotic. Evita Perón, about whom I wrote the book, Bloody Precedent, was equally harsh, cruel – much tougher than Juan Perón, for whom she performed with such brilliant but terrifying vengeance against the rich who rejected her. It was she who held the reins of the people – power over the Descamisados, the poor and helpless Argentinians – but under painfully false pretences. The rich (good or bad) disappeared, their money confiscated. She sold herself to the workers as a saint, but after getting to know her (the musical Evita to the contrary) I came to realize her as one of the most evil women in the world – and one of the most brilliant. We were together in Buenos Aires at the height of her power. She was, in my view, the most corrupt woman in modern history, not excluding such a minor copy as Emelda Marcos. Every worker in the Argentine had to give one day’s wages every month to her so-called mandated charities – which ended up in her pocket. Millions of dollars of jewellery and money in foreign banks. She was a consummate propagandist. Visitors were always shown the facades of big homes for unmarried mothers. No one actually lived in them. I saw children’s homes (usually confiscated mansions) where expensive luxurious clothes (which were commandeered from shops but never paid for) hung in endless closets. Poor children were dressed in them for a hurried display for visitors like me. She was so devastatingly dishonest and politically frightening (a female Hitler) that she was fascinating and loved by the poor who believed in her. I went with her to one rally where thousands of women stood and cheered her as she pointed at her Paris outfits and her enormous diamond orchid pin, huge earrings and bracelets, and ranted at a high pitch at them: see how I’m covered in jewels today. I started life with nothing. My mother struggled – she was as poor as you are. She ran a brothel. But it is all for you. I’m gathering everything from the rich just to collect and give to you, my people. They mean nothing to me, nothing. I went to her famous court of appeals, which was actually set up to punish the rich. An apartment-house owner was brought before her as she sat at a Napoleonic desk. He was accused of expecting his tenants to pay rent. No one needs to pay you rent, she hissed at him. You’re too rich already. You will be sentenced to twenty days in jail! What she did to muffle the press was just as desperate. I dedicated my book to a heroic gentleman who struggled for so long to keep his fine newspaper the only anti-Perónista in print despite jail sentences and confiscated newsprint. The Argentine, before the Peróns, was the largest beef and wheat exporter in the world. Evita put an end to that. When I was there, they went ahead importing both for their own food supplies because she exhorted the workers to stop working on farms. Her story, in an ironic way, may be an example of woman’s stupidity. The society of Buenos Aires totally snubbed the president’s wife, wouldn’t welcome her or invite her to be a member of the snobbish Jockey Club. Another instance of how cheap, small feminine bitchiness may have affected history.
In many ways, my life has been unique. Not that I have gone further than other women. But it’s covered more territories. I’ve done so many different kinds of things – I’ve lived so many different lives. I’m sorry now there are no children because I would have loved to see how they grew up and what they’d be. I’d like to try to influence them the way other people have influenced me.
Fleur Cowles: I am definitely not a feminist, probably as I’ve never had to fight for my place in a man’s worlds. But I do support half of the hopes and dreams of the feminist movement to have equal opportunities and equal pay – which too many do not have. I want to see this achieved, though without claiming themselves the same as men. This is unnecessary, if not foolhardy. Women have their own important places.
Women have to go without that clenched fist to get there. And I always say it is so simple, it is the easy way to get a message across. To my girl godchildren, I would say, remember, never mentally put on a man’s trousers to get there – keep your skirt.
Fleur Cowles: I’ve never had a child (although I have nine godchildren and three stepchildren I love very much). I have to achieve my own sort of fulfilment in the work I do, the things I create – my kind of children. I can get joy from them. When I enter a room, my eye instantly locates my own book on a crowded bookshelf twelve feet away. I see my paintings hanging almost all over the world. I get fulfilment from the friendships I’ve made. Recently, in Texas, I was interviewed by a not-so-friendly woman journalist who asked a cryptic question: so you’ve done just about everything, what now? The same thing, I replied, but hopefully, better. OK, OK, she ended in an extraordinary way, suppose you’re dead and buried, or cremated. What do you want on your tombstone? Not what you think, I replied. I’d like six little words: ‘She made friends and kept them.’ The answer literally fell out of my mind. (Naturally, this was a problem to which I’d never given any thought.) It made good reading and I was grateful for the chance to say what attribute I’d like most to be remembered for.