Frank Zachary, Catalyst-in-Chief
Frank Zachary died last week at 101. He was a great art director turned editor, and I will be writing more tributes to him in the next weeks. For now, this is an essay adopted from a Print magazine story that I did when Frank finally received the AIGA medal in 1990.
Jazzways, edited by Frank Zachary, designed by Paul Rand.
If Frank Zachary was never born (or at least was in another profession), many esteemed photographers, illustrators, writers, graphic designers and art directors would probably be less esteemed, if not unknown, today. For almost 50 years Zachary has worn many hats in publishing, advertising and public relations as a writer, art director and editor. He has been the quintessential, behind-the-scenes catalyst—inspiring and directing talented people to do good work.
Zachary, the editor-in-chief of Town and Country magazine since 1972, has prominently appeared on various mastheads. In fact, as a young boy in 1962, this writer first saw him listed as the art director of Holiday. Without understanding the nature of either graphic design or art direction at the time, I was nonetheless inspired by the striking photography and witty illustration of this magazine, and I somehow intuited that Zachary had made it all happen. Without knowing him personally I decided to follow in his footsteps—I too wanted to be a magazine art director.
It was only many years later that I learned of Zachary’s extensive role not only in the development of this, one of the last great behemoth magazines, but of his contributions to magazine publishing in general and art direction specifically. He was the founding editor of the legendary Portfolio magazine, the short-lived journal of applied arts, brilliantly designed by Alexey Brodovitch. Portfolio became the paradigm of what a modern graphic and industrial arts magazine should be. And Holiday, for which he was both art director and managing editor, was more than just a stunning travel magazine, it was a wellspring for photographer- and illustrator-journalists who blazed trails in a field that was primarily dominated by decorative styles.
Zachary had created working conditions where the unexpected was expected, yet novelty was always eschewed. “The beauty of Frank’s work is that it never followed a single thread,” says Sam Antupit, design director of Harry N. Abrams and former art director of Esquire. “Things that he initiated might have been copied [by other magazines] but they never approached his remarkable execution.” Working for Zachary did not necessarily ensure fame and fortune (though many of his “discoveries” did do quite well) but resulted in something even more valuable: the confidence to exercise self-expression, push conventions and be more than just a pair of tired hands.
What distinguishes Zachary from other great art directors is journalism. He is not a mere aestheticist, but rather a storyteller and reporter in picture and words; he is not a simple decorator, but a conceptualist with ideas as his bedrock. “With Frank the lines blur as to whether something should be executed visually or verbally, because he has always been that rare combination of editor and art director,” continues Antupit. “His brilliance is that he says visually what should be an image and verbally what should be a word. If an image is better expressed in words then he is not afraid to use the words.
So in the end what you have is a concept where the verbal and the visual are inseparable.” The inseparability of word and image—journalism and art—is rooted in a lifetime of activity dating back to Zachary’s earliest jobs during the Depression, where in his native Pittsburgh, amidst the factories of this steel town, he found his life’s work in magazines.
Zachary was born in 1914, the son of Croatian immigrants. During his high school years he worked at all sorts of jobs “just to keep body and soul alive,” he says. But he had a passion for writing, particularly poetry, science fiction and humor, which kept his spirits high, though his efforts were rejected every time he tried to submit them to magazines. But his love didn’t go unrequited for long. At 18 he got a job with Henry Scheetz, whose family had been prominent in the publishing house of J.B. Lippincott Company, and had come to Pittsburgh from Philadelphia to salvage the ailing Pittsburgh Bulletin Index. Scheetz took to Zachary immediately, owing in part to the boy’s talents, but more pragmatically because he needed a low-paid staff. “He needed me alright,” Zachary recalls amusedly, “and I became the staff.”
He quickly taught himself how to use the Speed Graphic, the classic newsman’s camera, and within months became the Bulletin Index‘s local beat reporter, makeup and layout man, as well as its chief copy boy.
The Bulletin Index resembled many small city magazines of the day. It covered debutante parties and golfing events, and published witty cartoons and mildly satiric articles. Predictably, most Depression-era magazines of this kind failed, but Scheetz had a curious success. In fact, the Bulletin Index was a kind of precursor to the contemporary city magazine. For Zachary it was also a wonderful place to learn the trade, if for no other reason than that Scheetz hired novelist John O’Hara as editor. “It was a break for me,” says Zachary, “for O’Hara vicariously introduced me to the world of New York writing. He’d come in every morning, sit down at his Underwood-5 typewriter, put in a yellow sheet of copy paper, twirl it and write. About an hour and a half later there was a perfectly typed and written short story for The New Yorker. Before O’Hara left nine months later to write Appointment in Samara, he had changed the magazine from its society orientation to one cast in the mold of Time. As we began to prosper, the staff got bigger, and around 1937 [at age 23] I became managing editor.” In his off hours he was also the Pittsburgh stringer for Time, Life and Fortune magazines.
Zachary took a shine to a young journalist hired as the Bulletin Index‘s society editor, Catherine Mehler (later to become Mrs. Zachary), who, with contacts in publishing in Chicago and Cleveland, convinced Zachary to pitch the idea of selling a network of regional magazines that he would edit. “I went to see the big-money people,” he remembers, “with a prospectus written by Catherine, but just couldn’t make the case. But it did, however, get back to Scheetz and precipitated a major falling-out between us.”
Jobless, in the spring of 1938 Zachary headed for New York City in an old Ford and $50 in his pocket. New York was formidable. Zachary recalls being, “happily passed along from one place to another by very friendly guys who had never seen or heard of me, and I finally wound up, in less than a week, with a job at Carol Byoir’s public relations firm.” He worked in one of those legendary bullpens where 30 other would-be writers were trying to make a living while pursuing careers as short-story writers. Zachary was responsible for AP press releases, but while his colleagues battled them out, Zachary, an admittedly slow writer, worked well into the night. This work was not his metier, but his next job as PR man for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the largest peacetime public campaign in American history, was considerably more satisfying.
As assistant director for the office of magazine publicity, which handed out releases, arranged for stories and photo opportunities, he became closely acquainted with the Fair’s tireless promoter and organizing genius, Grover Whelan, who in turn taught Zachary and his friend Bill Bernbach (who later became an advertising kingpin), conceived and produced some of the Fair’s many imaginative, theatrical publicity stunts. The Fair was only a two-year event, so at its close Zachary was unemployed until hitched up as PR man by The United China Relief Fund. This humanitarian group supported by Time czar Henry Luce and Clare Booth Luce, hoped to relieve the suffering of Chinese people facing Japanese aggression.
Taking a page from his World’s Fair bag of tricks, Zachary organized publicity events including rice bowl festivals and parades, and brought over the first two Pandas from China to the Bronx Zoo. The following year, with the United States deeply involved in the war, he took a job with the COI (Coordinator of Information), which became the OWI (Office of War Information), the civilian agency that produced major propaganda for the U.S. government. Also working there in those days were illustrator Ludwig Bemelmans, designers Tobias Moss and Bradbury Thompson, and publisher Oscar Dystel, who put out a magazine called U.S.A. Zachary worked as an editor and picture coordinator for U.S.A. and Victory, and later worked on Photo Review with the German emigré Kurt Safranski, a pioneer of photojournalism who went on to found the Black Star photo agency.
Towards war’s end, with the first of two daughters on the way, Zachary sought a more permanent job. Minicam, which later became Modern Photography, for which he became the East Coast editor in 1945, was a magazine for the passionate home photographer. But rather than cater only to the technical needs of amateurs, Zachary decided to reinterpret his job by creating a forum for the professional and art photographer. Among his stories were features on established figures including Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, Aaron Siskind, Harry Callahan, Helen Levitt and Arnold Newman, as well as new discoveries—many whose work would later be employed in other magazines under Zachary’s tutelage. Also at this time Zachary wrote an article on Alexey Brodovitch, Harper’s Bazaar‘s legendary art director, about whom he says, “I later honed my own art directing skills just by being around Brodovitch.”
Portfolio, edited by Frank Zachary, designed by Alexey Brodovitch
After the war, most major publishers were proposing new magazines to capitalize on the resurgence of consumer advertising. Curtis, the publisher of Saturday Evening Post, hired Zachary to be senior editor of Magazine X, a general interest magazine later renamed People. Its executing editor was Ted Patrick, for whom Zachary had worked at the OWL. A dummy was presented to Curtis’ management, but owing to corporate problems it was rejected as unfeasible. They did, however, buy a moribund travel magazine, Holiday, and made Patrick its editor, leaving Zachary again without a job.
He pounded the streets for a while before being hired by Grover Whalen, then president of Coty, who was organizing the 50th anniversary celebration of the 1898 amalgamation of New York’s five boroughs into Greater New York. “Grover was a great showman,” recalls Zachary, “who always wanted to do big things. And we did them. I organized the biggest parade in the history of New York at that time—100,000 people, 5,000 vehicles. I had the people who planned D-Day handle the logistics so that everything was timed to avoid traffic jams. I used the people who helped create the atomic bomb, the Manhattan Project, to trap light from a star 50 light-years away to ignite a flame at the cutting of the ceremonial ribbon. I deployed 2,000 police and firemen to make certain that every building along the parade route had turned off their lights between 9 and 10 p.m.
so that the fireworks would be all the more impressive.” The event went off with only one hitch. “We stretched a ribbon across Fifth Avenue loaded with gun powder, [so] that when the button was pushed, the star would ignite the powder and cut the ribbon. Unfortunately, we put a little too much in and it blew all over, blackening the faces of the mayor, the governor and Whalen, and stopping their watches too.”
Zachary returned to magazines when George Rosenthal Jr. suggested that they create a magazine for America such as Graphis was for Europe, only not so rigid in format. “The format itself should be a graphic experience,” says Zachary. The elder Rosenthal put up $25,000 to print a 9×12-in., perfect-bound magazine on luscious paper, incorporating as special inserts everything from shopping bags to 3-D glasses. Portfolio featured stories on graphic and industrial designers, poster artists (like E. McNight Kauffer), cartoonists and a variety of cultural ephemera all innovatively designed by Alexey Brodovitch. Even their letterhead, designed by Paul Rand, was of the highest caliber.
About the first issue, Zachary says, “George and I spared no expense in buying the best paper and the best of everything else that we could. Then we decided to sell advertising. Well, we hated the ads we got. So we said, ‘Hell, we’re not going to mar our beautiful magazine with these cruddy ads.’ We were terribly idealistic.” A subscription to the magazine cost $12 a year for four issues and garnered a few thousands subscribers. While Rosenthal worried about finances, Zachary’s primary job was to develop ideas and work with writers. He would also collect all the photographs and illustrations for the stories and dash over to Brodovitch’s office at Harper’s Bazaar to plan the issues. “We got along very well because I let him have his head,” Zachary recalls with fondness. “But he was no prima donna. He worked in the most fantastic way. For example, I would come in, say, at seven o’clock in the evening with the idea of how many pages we had for an issue, and how many would be devoted to each story.
I would come back [the next day], and there was the magnificent layout. He used the photostat machine like a note pad. He would get stats of every photo, often different sizes of the same piece, in tiny increments that might vary from a quarter inch to an inch, or from an inch to two inches, and so on. You would see him surrounded by all these stats. But as he put them down, my god, all of a sudden a spread materialized beautifully proportioned, everything in scale, with just the right amount of white space, type and picture mass. I learned so many nuances of art directing just from watching him.”
Portfolio premiered in late 1949, and lasted two years and three issues. During this time, Zachary was also editor of Jazzways, a one-shot magazine on the folkways of jazz. The cover was designed by Paul Rand, and its photographers included Berenice Abbott, Henri-Cartier Bresson and Lee Friedlander. In addition, Zachary and Rosenthal published paperback photo albums under the Zebra Books imprint. These were the first of their kind to present good photojournalistic portfolios for just 25 cents. The titles included “Murder Incorporated,” the first book on the Mafia; “Life and Death in Hollywood,” a pre-Kenneth Anger look at the foibles of the glitter capital; and “Naked City,” the first collection of pictures by the famed New York street photographer, Weegee. Each sold between 150,000 and 250,000 copies, with all profits poured back into Portfolio.
The third and last issue of Portfolio was the most beautiful. The dream of an exquisite, ad-free magazine had, however, turned into a nightmare. Though financial problems did not weaken Zachary’s resolve to publish, George Rosenthal Sr. decided, rather than incur further loses, to summarily kill Portfolio at a time when Zachary was stricken with appendicitis. Nearly 50 years have passed, and Zachary’s brainchild remains a landmark in the history of design.
The death of Portfolio in 1951 left Zachary jobless once again. This time a fateful meeting with Ted Patrick, his former OWI boss, resulted in a job as picture editor of Holiday magazine. At that time Holiday was clean and orderly, though its layout looked as if it had been made with a cookie cutter. So as Zachary worked with the pictures he also began to make his own layouts. And these were not just picture layouts in the conventional sense but, taking a page from Brodovitch’s book, cinematic presentations. Noting the dramatic difference, Patrick offered Zachary the job of art director. “’Jesus Ted,’ I told him, ‘I’m okay, but why don’t you try to get Brodovitch? He’s the real master.’” In fact, Zachary even took Patrick to meet the White Russian, but for some reason they did not hit it off and Patrick insisted that Zachary take the job.
Holiday, art directed by Frank Zachary, covers designed by Paul Rand and Saul Bass.
Zachary didn’t know much about typography, but did have experience laying out pictures in the Zebra Books, which taught him the value of scale. “I learned that the picture is the layout. If you have a great picture, you don’t embellish it with big type. You make it tight and sweet,” he says, referring to his signature layouts. He soon developed a cadre of talented photographers who brought life to the magazine in the form of thematic picture essays. Among them were Arnold Newman, Tom Hollyman, John Lewis Stage, Robert Phillips, Fred Maroon and Slim Aarons, many of whom still work on Town and Country.
While photography was the backbone of Holiday, illustration was its soul. Zachary was underwhelmed by the prevailing sentimental illustrative approach found in most American magazines, and eyed Europe, specifically England and France, for the surrealistic comic vision he was looking for. “Frank brought sophisticated illustration to American magazines,” recalls Sam Antupit. “Other art directors brought powerful or clever images, but Frank bought an unprecedented sophistication. Of course it came from Europe since in the early ’50s there weren’t too many Americans practicing sophisticated pen work.”
Holiday artists like Ronald Searle, Andre François, Roland Topor, Folon, Tomi Ungerer, Comenico Gnoli and Edward Gorey (one of the few native Americans practicing out of the mainstream) were given great latitude to develop their own stories and portfolios. Zachary avoided using the reigning stars because ”that would be too easy,“ but chose to discover his own new galaxy. In most cases the artists actually transformed themselves in this environment. ”I got people like Ronald Searle,“ remembers Zachary, ”to do a feature on something like the London hotel scene. The first result was pretty straightforward, so I asked him to satirize it or just make it funny, and almost overnight, he changed his style, becoming the Searle that you and I know today.“
Searle concurs: ”Frank gave me a lot of firsts. From around 1959 to 1969, he gave me all the space one could dream of, the chance to fill it with color, the freedom to travel and what proved to be the last of the great reportages. Off to Alaska! Cover all of Canada! Bring me 10 pages on the dirty bits of Hamburg! No expense spared. The years of travel for Frank gave me experiences that cannot be bought. There was always one problem: He always called me ‘Arnold’ instead of Ronald. But then, he probably always called Arnold Newman ‘Ronald,’ so it balanced out.“
Zachary also developed what he called ”environmental portraiture,“ which is common in today’s magazines but was startlingly unique in the early ’50s. Says Zachary, ”I would tell a photographer, ‘If a guy is a multimillionaire painter, I want to see a whole lot of his paintings in the background and on top of that I want to see his castle in the background too.’ A photographer just couldn’t walk in and take a picture of a subject; he had to assemble the components of the subject’s life.“ A now-classic example of environmental portraiture is a Zachary-directed photograph made for a special issue of Holiday on New York City showing the highways and parks czar and power-broker, Robert Moses, standing omnipotently if precariously on a red girder over the East river.
The shot illustrates Zachary’s willingness to spend a tremendous amount of effort to get that one perfect image for an issue whose shelf life is decidedly short. But this iconic photograph by Arnold Newman still has life, long after the magazine turned to dust.
For several years before his death, Ted Patrick was editor of Holiday in name only; he was very ill and relied entirely on Zachary to run the magazine both editorially and visually. In 1964, Patrick died, and Zachary admits he ”was confident that I would succeed Ted as editor.“ Instead, there was a new group of managers at Curtis who named a new chief over Zachary. ”They gave us all raises, and made me managing editor, but it became intolerable.“ Zachary and other editors objected to the cheapening of the magazine and urged the president of Curtis to intercede. He sympathized but did nothing. Abandoning his ”baby“ was not easy, but Zachary left to take a job with McCann-Erickson, under the famed advertising creative Mary Wells.
”To this day, I don’t know what they expected of me,“ he says about working in a field that was foreign to him. ”They made me president of international advertising at Pritchard-Wood, a pretty fine agency with nine offices, headquartered in London but operated in New York.“ It was, however, a difficult experience, for by his own admission Zachary knew and cared little about advertising. He lasted eight months until being moved laterally at McCann-Erickson into the Center for Advanced Practice, a fancy title for a group that was supposed to be a hothouse of advertising experimentation. His colleagues on this elite, somewhat idealistic project included Bill Backer, Al Scull and Henry Wolf. The center was to be a laboratory for experimentation with new advertising approaches, but turned sour when the breakthroughs they proposed were ignored or rejected. Zachary stayed on for three years, until in 1969 he was asked to return to Holiday as art director.
One of the popular canards in the magazine racket is, if a magazine is on the skids it must be the art director’s fault. Hence, if its look is improved—if the cosmetics are freshened—the magazine will regain its sprite complexion. Zachary was asked back by the same editor who superseded him earlier to do what he should have been allowed to do in the first place. And he did put a remarkable team of talents together to make the best travel magazine on the market. But the changes came too late to reverse the deleterious market trends. Holiday was eventually sold, resold, and died. Zachary, who had helped in its initial acquisition, was rewarded with a magazine of his own—a struggling little lifestyle magazine that had grown out of something called Diplomat.
Zachary promptly changed the name to Status and had Salvador Dali design its logo. As editor, Zachary was free to pump in all the energy he wanted, converting it to an amusing, entertaining, literate society magazine, done very much with tongue-in-cheek—in the manner of the old Vanity Fair (and predating by a decade the revival of the new Vanity Fair). He hired Dick Zimmerman as art director. The editorial mix was exciting; the graphics were excellent. The only problem was that the magazine was never given enough capital to succeed. Zachary eventually had a falling out with the publisher, and after a year’s worth of issues he left, again jobless—but wiser.
In late 1970 he was hired as art director of a lackluster Travel and Leisure, where he stayed for over a year imbuing it with the kind of photography and illustration that was his signature, and that by this time had become a standard in other magazines too. He would have been happy to stay at T&L, had he not been offered the job of editor-in-chief of Hearst’s Town and Country. All the experience that he had acquired over the years suddenly came together with this one assignment.
He used this opportunity to effectively change this veritable bibelot of high society to reflect his wit and concern for the human condition without abandoning the core audience. ”I knew it was a society magazine,“ he says, ”but if had the potential for expanding its readership because it was not just about parties and debutantes, but about the rich who had the power to do things. They were, I believed, an audience ready for socially motivated articles.“ The focus shifted from strictly reporting on social doings to a mix of themes, including satirical pieces on class and society. ”My satirical side isn’t savage or mean,“ confides Zachary, who has always wanted to publish a truly sophisticated satiric journal, and still hope to. His humor doesn’t ”tear people apart,“ but rather plays off their own comic sense.
Zachary’s total understanding of his magazine and confidence in his staff and contributors result in a decidedly unique product—one that maintains certain traditions while breaking new ground. ”Town and Country is probably the only national magazine that still does original photo essays,“ says former Life photographer Slim Aarons, who has worked for Zachary for over three decades. In fact, in the face of formats based on the planned clutter and chaos that most magazines celebrate today, Zachary still firmly believes in the viability of a traditionally positioned and planned editorial well in which the photo essay is a major storytelling tool.
Zachary is a rare breed of editor-art director. But how does being a former art director affect the way an editor-in-chief commands other art directors? ”I merely represent the experience of an old hand,“ explains Zachary modestly. ”I’m a journalist, not a designer per se. I do not interfere with typographic matters, but I am interested in the photograph as a medium of communication and try to make certain that a picture is used to tell a concrete story.“
At 77, Zachary argues passionately for certain standards in magazine design, since he believes that the tenets of good design do not change—only style does. But he also watches out for, nurtures and champions new talent. This keen ability to flow with the current yet stand fast for his beliefs and the integrity of his publication is the solid underpinning of Zachary’s 60 years in publishing. If what it takes to be an AIGA medalist is the ability to inspire others, contribute to the language of design and leave a legacy that should be studied for years to follow, then, as in all his other jobs, Frank Zachary fits the bill.
He is truly a catalyst-in-chief.
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