The Somerville London Group held its second online meeting on Wednesday 18 November. The Principal welcomed over 100 guests to Dressed for War: The Story of Audrey Withers by Julie Summers. Julie has written thirteen books and her biography of Somervillian and Vogue Editor, Audrey Withers is her latest.
Born in Manchester in 1905 to a Somervillian mother and a GP father, Audrey’s early influences were her father and his circle of friends (artists, writers and poets, in particular the artist Paul Nash) and her boarding school headmistress, Mary Bentinck Smith, a suffragist who saw no bars to women doing anything and believed they should be as ambitious as men.
Good at English, Greek and Latin, Audrey went up to Somerville to read English, but, considering that she could read books in any event, soon switched to the new-ish subject of PPE. She loved her time at Oxford. It gave her confidence and she thought the tutorial system an excellent preparation for her future as editor of Vogue: “like an athlete preparing fro a race”. She left Somerville in 1927, disappointed with a second, but determined to make her own, independent way in the world and headed for London.
After some time working at the bookstore Bumpus, Audrey answered an ad for the most junior copywriter at Vogue, borrowing clothes for the interview from her three flatmates. She got the job and rose quickly to be Managing Editor: liaising with writers and photographers and making sure everything ran on time and to budget. In 1940 she became Editor when the war meant that the previous editor, having returned to the United States for a holiday, was unable to return to the UK. Audrey’s first issues were produced in the cellars while the Blitz raged.
As Editor, Audrey wanted the magazine to about more than fashion and was determined to bring the war to its readers. Whilst Cecil Beaton produced many iconic images, it was former Vogue model Lee Miller who provided the tougher edge, writing dispatches (which Audrey then edited) and taking photographs in Normandy, in liberated Paris, and in Alsace. In 1945 Lee reported from the concentration camps of Altdorf, Buchenwald and Dachau and sent photographs (begging Audrey to believe that the horrors shown were true). In the June 1945 Victory issue, Audrey became the first British magazine editor to publish a photograph showing the piles of bodies from the camps: Vogue was indeed more than fashion.
Audrey stuck with “more than fashion” after the war. Contributors included Daphne du Maurier, Benjamin Britten, Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland. Fashion remained: Norman Parkinson took photographs for Audrey for fifteen years. Audrey discovered and promoted Antony Armstrong-Jones. But after twenty years at the helm, Audrey sensed that fashion was taking over and that there was less space for other features. She resigned and retired from Vogue in 1960.
She spent her time travelling (including many trips to Soviet Russia with her Russian émigré second husband). In the 1980s she worked as membership secretary for the then newly formed SDP. She was always meeting new people, always curious, always looking forward. Courageous, energetic and determined, life for Audrey felt “like champagne bubbling up inside”. It bubbled until she died, aged 96 in 2001.