GENTRYstyle.com is a new online blog for men.
We hope to reflect the interests, curiosity and style of the modern gentleman.
We’ve taken our cue from the brilliant 1950’s men’s magazine GENTRY, founded by William C. Segal. In that forward-thinking, eclectic style bible, readers would be as likely to read an article on the manufacturing of Scottish tweed as one on the architecture of the American ranch house.
We have sought to create an online blog that reflects the wide interests of the contemporary gentleman, the 21st century Renaissance man— well-educated, successful, with the time and inclination to dabble in the arts, science, sports, philosophy or to just sit in his own Finnish bath.
Bored by many of today’s men’s magazines, that are lead by fleetingness of ‘Fashion’ and have little real sense of personal ‘Style’, we hope that GENTRYstyle.com proves both entertaining and stimulating.
The History of Gentry Magazine
Gentry was a lavishly illustrated and produced monthly magazine that lasted for seven years in the 1950s. William C. Segal, who died last year at age 96, is not nearly as well known an art director as his contemporaries Alexey Brodovitch or Alexander Liberman; his name does not appear in so much as a footnote in any design history textbook. Yet his influence on–if not his larger vision of–fashion magazines during the late 1940s and ’50s equaled that of his more famous peers. Segal was not just a magazine art director and designer; he was the founder and managing director of Reporter Publications in New York City, as well as publisher and editor of its stunningly elaborate flagship periodicals, American Fabrics and Gentry. The former was an elegant trade magazine that combined articles on line art and commercial textile manufacture aimed at elevating the “rag trade”; the latter was a the quarterly men’s lifestyle Gentry.
Segal’s lack of recognition is confounding. Perhaps the fact that he held both the business and artistic reins somehow nullified his contributions in either realm. Or perhaps, since he hired art directors and designers to work on projects, notably Alvin Lustig, he takes on the appearance of a client rather than a creator, and the number of clients cited in design histories is minuscule. But if the term auteur applies at all to graphic design, and arguably it does, then Segal’s total participation in all aspects of his publications (from founding them, to selling ads for them, to laying them out) has certainly earned him that title. If he’d done little else but produce the quarterly Gentry, that feat of design stewardship alone should ensure him a place in the design pantheon.
But Gentry, which ran from 1951 to 1957, has been relegated to obscurity, while a similar periodical, Fleur Cowles’s short-lived Flair magazine, was recently commemorated in an expensive facsimile collector’s edition. Magazines are ephemeral. To rise above its particular time, to be remembered and studied as a milestone, a magazine must be irrefutably unique. The case for Gentry can easily be won on visual evidence alone: It was both daring and beautiful. But Segal’s personal passion is what made it a paradigm of innovative publishing. As its editor, he belongs among an illustrious circle that includes Arnold Gingrich of Esquire, Diana Vreeland of Vogue, Hugh Hefner of Playboy, and Clay Felker of New York, all of whom imposed their wills, ids, and egos on their respective publications and, in so doing, shaped readers’ tastes and perceptions.
Although Segal was this kind of editor, he was also somewhat different from the others: He lived a remarkable parallel existence apart from his publishing life, which further informed Gentry’s content beyond the conventions of men’s fashion. As a follower and confidante of G.I. Gurdjieff, the Armenian-born mystic who led an esoteric movement aimed at joining the wisdom of the East with the vitality of the West, Segal devoted much of his time and energy to raising the spiritual level of everyday existence. He used American Fabrics and Gentry, in part, as outlets for personal exploration that he felt could help others cope with their lives. Segal practiced Buddhism* and sought out themes for magazine articles that delved deeper into human experience than was typical of the fare usually found in fashion publications. But Segal was also a pragmatic businessman who found ways to align his humanistic, artistic pursuits with the constraints of trade publishing. “When we launched Gentry,” he said in an interview shortly before his death, “we visualized it as a magazine that could have a great cultural influence. At that time in the U.S., we were largely a nation of hicks. There was no culture. People did not know how to dress well, how to eat well, how to order wines or what to read. They were unfamiliar with the world of art. We thought we could have a civilizing influence through this publication.” His practical goal was “to allow people to see the esthetic element that was a factor in choosing clothing.
The importance of Gentry was to make the clothing part of the fine art of living.” Thus, he bolstered features on menswear of the day with articles on a host of other subjects–art, history, philosophy, travel–as well as with short fiction pieces by leading authors. His wife, Marielle Baucou, in an unpublished biography of Segal, recalls the premiere issue of Gentry: “All of Bill’s life and interests were in that first issue: a riding lesson, building around his daughter Margaret; a page of music by Thomas de Hartmann, who arranged Gurdjieff’s music; several pages on how to build a sauna, based on his own sauna; two pages devoted to 20 of Rembrandt’s self-portraits; the first publication in America of [excerpts from] Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. Already there was Bill’s interest in Buddhism [captured in the following Siddhartha passage]: ‘He strove in vain to dispel the conception of time, to imagine Nirvana and Samsara as one,’ an idea that pleased Bill immensely. Finally, there was a section called ‘Gentry Fashion,’ addressed to men [who were] as elegant as the editor.” The son of Romanian immigrants, Segal was born around 1904 in Macon, Georgia (he couldn’t give the exact date of his birth since his mother never celebrated birthdays nor kept records of them). His father moved the family from the South to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and eventually to New York City, where Segal took business courses and studied Elizabethan theater at New York University. After graduating, he worked for a few years on a magazine called Plastic and Wire before he decided to start his own publication–in the menswear field. This initial publishing venture, in the late 1930s, was The Neckwear Reporter, a newsletter. Its success enabled him to expand his company, which ultimately produced six publications. In 1946, with the help of his first wife, writer and editor Cora Carlyle, Segal started American Fabrics, envisioning a magazine that was more ambitious than his other trade journals. He chose an extra-large format and included a generous number of tipped-in fabric swatches, similar to textile catalogs, as a means to give tactility and dimension to an otherwise two-dimensional form. He also hired famous artists, including Salvador Dali, to create covers and interior spreads, believing that “such a magazine would at least have an artistic life, and would intrigue a number of people. Much to my astonishment,” he recalled, “the magazine took off immediately–there evidently was a market for a quality publication.” Five years later, when Segal founded Gentry because he wished to do on a broader scale what he had done for the trade, he used similar production techniques and expanded the range of special effects. He was determined, from Gentry’s very first issue, to have a very top publication physically. The printing, paper, and production of all the material would be first rate.” But at two dollars a copy, it would have to be more than “first rate” (the cover price of most magazines in 1951 averaged twenty-five cents).
Segal’s challenge was to imbue Gentry with an allure for the affluent. He hired Alvin Lustig, who had designed Segal’s spacious residence in Manhattan and cramped offices in the Empire State Building, to create Gentry’s first cover (now difficult to find), which he illustrated with a dramatically cropped photograph of a Greek head to symbolize the high level of its content. But what really caught the public’s attention was a pre-launch subscription advertisement in The New Yorker that defined Segal’s pros pective readers as “first rate,” implying that they would be less than elite if they passed up this magazine. The headline read: IN OCTOBER A NEW TYPE OF MAGAZINE WILL BE PUBLISHED. IT WILL EITHER ELATE THE TOP 100,000 THINKING MEN IN THIS COUNTRY, OR BE A MISERABLE FLOP. FRANKLY, WE DON’T KNOW WHICH. The text that followed was a hard-pitch sell to his status-conscious would-be constituents: You are one of the 100,000 men (we honestly don’t believe there are more than that number) who are a blend of certain characteristics…. These are men who have matured in their thinking: who have reached an economic niche above the mass stratum; but, more important, who are ever in quest of a better way to live with themselves as well as with others…. It is always why, why, why, with these 100,000 men who look no different from all the others; who may have more or less wealth than many of the others; who may do any kind of work, or no work at all, for their daily bread. They want always to know more, so that they may contribute more to people near them and to the world in which they live; they want to give more so that they can gain more from each breath, each hour, each day, each year of their lives.” The rest of the ad described the contents of the magazine: It is hard to give a picture of Gentry for the reason that there is nothing in the world like it. For example, when Gentry prints a story on fishing, our technique calls for the swatching of an actual trout fly in the book. Or, perhaps we talk about smoking; in this case it is quite natural for Gentry to enclose a tobacco leaf…. We do not believe that the best magazine reproduction in the world, full color or black-and-white, can do justice to a fine tweed fabric. So, when Gentry illustrates a new coat, an actual swatch of the fabric will be tipped alongside the photo to make it come to life…. Much like the legendary Portfolio magazine (art-directed by Alexey Brodovitch from 1949 to 1951), Gentry incorporated surprises in each issue: booklets, limited prints, die-cuts, half-sheets, fabrics–even a flattened bag of oats to accompany a story about horses. It seemed as though money were no object. “His constant aim was to humanize the design, never to make it slick, mechanical or merely pretty, never to lose communication with the reader, always to assist the eye and the mind with a change of pace, an ingenious interruption to break the expected sequence of visual images,” said Cecil Lubell, whom Segal hired as editor-in-chief of American Fabrics and Gentry. “He has an unerring eye for scale and contrast, a rare talent for selecting just the right photo to enlarge and the lesser ones to take secondary place.
The layout always came alive under his hand.” The demands of the business eventually forced Segal to cede some of the art directorial duties on Gentry to others, but he continued to monitor the visual content of the magazine. Though not listed on the masthead as art director for one of the final issues, Winter 1956-57, he was certainly instrumental in publishing a cover by Henri Matisse (as well as an interior insert of Matisse’s graphic art), an article illustrated by graphic journalist Felix Topolski, and another insert featuring drawings tided “Toscanini Conducting,” by David Fredenthal. “Gentry was a phenomenal success in one sense,” Segal recalled, “in that it received reams of publicity … and truly had a superior audience. But the magazine itself was much more costly to produce than I thought. And perhaps while we had a great deal of advertising, we did not price per page sufficiently high.” Even so, Segal was so consumed with Gentry that he sold off Men’s Reporter, one of his successful trade magazines under the Reporter Publications imprimatur, to Fairchild in order to obtain needed capital. But when Time-Life czar Henry Luce offered to acquire Gentry, believing it would fill a vacancy in his publishing portfolio as a rival to Esquire, Segal refused. Segal remembered a meeting with Luce that he had arranged to seek publicity in the Luce publications for a book by P.D. Ouspenky, Gurdjieff’s prime disciple: “I noticed [Luce] kept pushing the book aside, and he kept wanting to speak about Gentry. And finally he brought the conversation around to the fact that he would like to publish Gentry. I would become one of the vice-presidents of Time-Life, and he would take over the magazine.” While the offer was flattering, “Bill could imagine the array of business advisors, accountants, circulation managers, advertising managers and editors who would control the content and direction of his fledgling,” said Robert Riley, a Segal friend who was curator of the Brooklyn Museum. “He ended the interview with an abrupt smile. [Bill] was amused. Mr. Luce was not.” For its readers, Gentry was a rich, sensuous experience–Segal had delivered everything he promised. For Segal, Gentry was an almost religious mission to acculturate his audience. For Reporter Publications, however, Gentry was a financial albatross. “I kept putting more and more of the money we made on American Fabrics and other publications into Gentry,” Segal explained. “I suppose it fed my vanity, and my egoism.” In 1957, he put both magazines up for sale. The buyer was the son-in-law of the owner of the Superman comic books, who had his own publishing company. Segal thought he did a very good job with the few issues of Gentry he produced. “Nevertheless, they lost a million very quickly. The Superman publisher was discouraged, and eventually he asked me to take Gentry and American Fabrics back, which I did.” Gentry folded shortly thereafter.
A few years later, Segal literally gave American Fabrics to a noted fabric artist and friend, Sheila Hicks, who struggled to keep it afloat. She sold it in 1980, 50 years after Segal had entered the publishing field. Ultimately, the magazine disappeared. Today, various magazines, notably Nest, Visionaire, and Flaunt, continue in the Segal tradition of the devoted iconoclast editor flying in the face of convention. How the design history books will treat these magazines can’t be predicted. If Gentry’s obscurity is any indication, they may well go unrecognized, even though the history of design has become more inclusive. One thing seems certain: If Segal started Gentry today, he would be celebrated for his independence–and the buzz on Gentry would be deafening. * A short documentary film by Ken Burns, Veselay: Exploring the Question of Search with William Segal, made in 1996, examines this aspect of Segal’s life. RELATED ARTICLE Gentry’s interior spreads, shown here and on facing page, adhered to a few type styles while giving the imagery generous space and breathing room. Segal and his art directors understood the fine art of pacing, and so each issue of the magazine maintained a cinematic flow that went from splashy visual spread to text-heavy page. The frequent use of inserts, die-cuts, and slip-sheets added to the reader’s delight and surprise.
Steven Heller’s recent hooks include Graphic Design History (Allworth Press) and Counter Culture: The Allure of Mini-Mannequins and Advertising Displays (Princeton Architectural Press).
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