Alexander Liberman; Shaped Magazine Empire


Alexander Liberman, who in his 58-year career with Conde Nast Publications was the driving force behind Vogue, Mademoiselle, Glamour, Self and other magazines, died Friday. He was 87.

Credited with bringing photography, intellect and creativity to fashion magazines, Liberman died at a hospital in Miami after a short illness, said Maurie Perl, Conde Nast spokeswoman. She added that he had a history of heart problems.

Liberman served as the company's editorial director from 1962 to 1994, when he left the position and James Truman took over. Liberman continued to serve as the company's deputy chairman of editorial until his death, "although his active participation at Conde Nast slowed down" after 1994, Perl said.

Liberman was also a writer, photographer, painter and sculptor and reached an audience far beyond Conde Nast. He wrote several books about art and photography, among them: "The Artist in His Studio" in 1960, "Greece, Gods and Art" in 1968 and "Marlene: An Intimate Photographic Memoir" in 1992. His last book was "Then," a 1995 collection of black and white photographs of such icons as Henri Matisse, Coco Chanel, Truman Capote and William Paley.

Liberman is credited with playing a major creative role in the development of the Conde Nast empire, which grew from a company with four magazines to publisher of 17, including Architectural Digest, Vanity Fair, Gourmet, Conde Nast Traveler and the New Yorker, reaching more than 76 million readers each month.

Liberman's ability to lure top editors, writers and photographers, including the internationally known photographer Irving Penn, to Conde Nast, was well known.

So was his drive to give each magazine its own face and voice, never shying away from any subject or issue that was sexy or controversial.

"Alex was a towering figure in the history of Conde Nast," company Chairman S.I. Newhouse Jr. said in a memo distributed to staff Friday.

"His brilliance flowed through the company during and after his active years, and his influence distinguishes us from all other publishers. The ethical and creative standards that he set for himself and Conde Nast continue to guide us today.

"He was also the last direct link to Conde Nast the man, who recognized [Liberman's] talent and hired him, and to Edna Woolman Chase, the founding editor of Vogue," the memo read.

Vogue editor Anna Wintour said Liberman "was an extraordinary person, as fascinated by arcane literature and art as he was by the energy of popular culture. He wasn't a snob and was equally pleased to discuss an episode of [the TV serial] 'Dynasty' as he was the Hermitage [museum in St. Petersburg, Russia]."

Born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1912, Liberman moved to Paris in 1924 after attending prep school in London. He received his baccalaureate in philosophy and mathematics and then went on to study painting and architecture at the Ecole National des Beaux Arts.

At 19, he worked as an assistant to the great poster artist Cassandre, and he later served as art director of Vu, the French predecessor of Life magazine.

Hired by Nast himself, Liberman joined the Vogue art department in 1941, and in 1943 was named the magazine's art director. By 1960, he had become general art director for all Conde Nast magazines, and in 1962 was appointed editorial director of all Conde Nast publications.

"He was a brilliant man and a brilliant artist, sculptor and painter," said Edie Locke, a director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Fashion Group International, who worked with Liberman when she served as editor-in-chief of Mademoiselle from 1970 to 1980.

"And he was sexy too. He was very elegant in his dress. In the fall, he always used to wear a gray or black suit and always a black knit tie with a white shirt. In the summer, the black and dark grays would switch to pale beige. He was always very proper like that."

She recalled, "I worked with him on a daily basis. He came to the office very early, and very often our day together would begin at 9:01 a.m."

She said Liberman's editorial sense also included his unique approach to graphics, in which he excelled. "From a graphics point of view, he was an innovator," she said. "Each magazine had its own art director, but Alex was very much involved in looking at the layouts and making sure that they were interesting. 'Energy' was one of his favorite words.

" 'The pages need to be full of energy,' 'They need to be more exciting,' 'The magazine needs to grab you instantly,' he would say."

Locke said Liberman wanted to make sure that all the magazines remained "completely of the moment" and reflected on their pages "any change in attitude on the part of women, anything revolving in society about women."

Mary Randolph Carter worked closely with Liberman when she was Mademoiselle's beauty editor in the early 1970s.

"While we were doing layouts in the art room, I remember how he once grabbed a copy of the New York Post and tore the headlines off and said, 'Now that's a headline!' " recalled Carter, who today is vice president of advertising for Ralph Lauren's Polo. "He just loved to experiment with type and imagery."

Carter later left Mademoiselle, but was wooed back to help Liberman launch Self magazine in 1979 as creative director.

"The first cover for Self was quite groundbreaking for a magazine," Carter said, adding that Liberman wanted a photograph of a strong woman, "a real woman that could reinvent beauty."

"At the end, after many, many covers, we chose this great-looking, healthy woman. She had hardly any makeup on. She looked like she had been running. Her face looked red and healthy, with a slightly broken sweat on it.

"That was contemporary and the kind of message we carried in Self because of Mr. Liberman. He was a totally modern man. He was incorrigible in his vision. He really lived in the now, so to speak," she said.

Others agreed.

"He was in the vanguard of what it took to make a modern magazine," said Paul Wilmot, former vice president in charge of public relations for Conde Nast and currently a New York-based fashion publicist.

"When he started with Conde Nast, the magazines used a lot of illustrations," Wilmot said, "and then it became all about the visual image and photographs. He shepherded that."

Stan Herman, president of the New York-based Council of Fashion Designers of America, called Liberman "the beginning of a new genre of magazines."

"Every generation has somebody with an intellectual overview, and he was one of those people who brought that to fashion," Herman said. "It was very much in need. He was a power player, and he had a powerful base in which to execute his ideas, which were always right on target."

Liberman is survived by his wife, Melinda, and stepdaughter, Francine du Plessix Gray, a noted author. His previous wife, Tatiana, a noted hat designer, died in 1991. A private funeral is being planned. A memorial service will be held in New York in January.

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