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Cult of Personality : SHE MADE FRIENDS AND KEPT THEM. By Fleur Cowles (HarperCollins: 376 pp., $32.50) : THE BEST OF FLAIR. Edited by Fleur Cowles (HarperCollins: 338 pp., $250)

December 22, 1996|GRACE MIRABELLA | Grace Mirabella is the founder of Mirabella magazine and the author of "In and Out of Vogue," her autobiography (Doubleday)

The end of the 20th century will be marked as the time when everyone called everyone by his or her first name (from president to valet parker), when celebrity-driven magazines and television shows prevailed and Andy Warhol's proclamation that everyone would have 15 minutes of fame proved true--and there's a reporter always available to do the interviews. Fleur Cowles' new book, "She Made Friends and Kept Them," separates the name-dropper and celebrity-driven from one who knows and calls so many famous personalities her friends and takes understandable pride in these relationships.

There is no doubt that some will look at Cowles' anecdotal memoir as too rich a meal, too much to take in one sitting or in many sittings. Some will look through the contents page for names of interest; others might simply read reviews that incorporate segments about the personalities in this book.

Sampling little morsels of this book is not enough. The author has forged the extraordinary amalgam of journalism, art and friendships with a prodigious memory. We get from this book footnotes to history: a meeting with Gen. Douglas MacArthur brings with it pages of descriptions of his role during the Korean War as well as his contretemps with Truman; her conversation with Madame Chiang Kai Shek or, better yet, Madame Chiang Kai Shek's question to her, malevolent and unexpected, as she hissed, "You Americans are fools. You have the atom bomb. Why don't you throw it on China?"

Cowles speaks often of her meetings with Evita Peron. She describes Peron in this book and in a much earlier book, "Bloody Precedent," as "rabble-rousing," a "tyrant" and as "revenging." When Hal Prince was directing the stage production of the musical "Evita," he invited Cowles to the rehearsals. "He knew I was one of the few who actually knew Evita," Cowles writes. Her desire was to prevent any "idealization of that dreadful woman."

The book reads like a veritable Who's Who of the world, sometimes with simple capsule descriptions of the subject's life or unique talent, sometimes in conversations with former President Dwight Eisenhower (for whom she worked as an emissary), Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe, the Queen Mother, et al. and more et al! It is a dizzying world for a young girl from a small New Jersey town hobnobbing with the world's leaders.

Cowles has a remarkable memory for extensive conversations with these friends that she tells you about. Beginning with her marriage to Mike Cowles, the owner-publisher of Look magazine, a magazine she helped turn into a well-received and well-regarded one, Fleur Cowles has been recognized as a top editor and journalist.

In later years, she divorced Cowles and married Tom Meyer, a highly successful industrialist and a man of many interests, and together in London they invited and entertained the world's great "players." Those who were invited to their flat in the Albany, to the house in Sussex, to the house in Spain, wherever they were invited, the guests, all stars, shone as brightly as those on the silver screen. No one went to their dinners just to eat.

Cowles not only has the uncanny ability to meet vastly interesting people and to put them together with other vastly interesting people but she has never been afraid to pose questions. Of Truman, she asked why he made "his controversial decision to order dropping the second A-bomb on Nagasaki." She asked tough, "why" questions often--and she was answered.

The very smart and personable Barbara Walters probably shares many of Cowles' strengths and has also met as many of the world's most highly regarded people, but Walter's turf is so very public. Cowles' turf is private, filled with genuine friends.

Who is Cowles? you might ask. Some might know of her as the brilliant editor of Flair magazine, published in 1950. Some might also know of her as an artist of no small accomplishment, a woman with a reporter's eye and an artist's eye. But do you learn more about her from this book?

You ask for more even though this is not intended to be an autobiography. In Carlos Fuentes' introduction, he defines Cowles wonderfully, writing of her as "tough but never malicious, warm but never mawkish, self-respecting but never self-serving, Fleur Cowles recalls to life, keeps in daily repair and finds in the hearts of those she knows, the dual beauty of friendship and memory."

Dealing with the many personalities in this book takes skill--skill to maintain a reader's interest. Cowles does more than reasonably well, but after a while you might find yourself skipping pages to meet someone you've always wanted to meet in your own life. Doubtless you'd like to meet Cowles, this renaissance woman, but you must know her, in this book, only through her friends.

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