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A Century Of Beautiful People

The legendary magazine publisher Conde Nast first launched Vanity Fair in 1913. Dress & Vanity Fair, as it was called then, was a direct response to the flowering of early 20th century culture epitomized by Stravinsky's seminal "The Rite of Spring" and New York's landmark Armory Show, which opened America's eyes to modern art. In the magazine's 48 years since (it was shelved in 1936 and resuscitated in 1983), it has employed nearly every great portrait photographer of its early and rebirth eras to shine a light on the faces and the figures who have mattered most to the zeitgeist.

The writer E.L. Doctorow isn't among the staggering array of luminaries populating Vanity Fair: The Portraits: A Century of Iconic Images, but flipping through the book's hundreds of glossy pages and pictures brings to mind the heady thrill of Ragtime. Like Doctorow's zigzagging 1975 blockbuster, this coffee-table behemoth gleefully juxtaposes disparate historical and cultural giants into a sometimes loopy but almost always bracing narrative of its own.

Although they were photographed 32 years apart, you can practically hear the syncopated rapport between tap dance icon Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and pianist Dave Brubeck, prime mover of the jaunty jazz standard "Take Five," in facing images by masters George Hurrell and Bruce Weber. The leggy poses of J.Lo (from 1998) and Johnny Weissmuller (from 1930) have more than gams in common: She's in nothing but laced silk panties; he's in little more than a tank top. The sharp-beaked profiles of Robert Mapplethorpe and Jean Cocteau sufficiently link their side-by-side portraits — until you also notice that both men are holding canes and you contemplate the shared daring and strange beauty of their work.

Literary lions likes Yeats, Woolf, Conrad and Cather enjoy a prominence in these pages, and in many cases it's revelation enough just to get a good look at them. One gender-bending pairing contrasts the feminine-featured poet Seamus Heaney and positively brawny prose renegade Gertrude Stein.

Current Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter's Madonna addiction and penchant for pretty people both compelling (Leo DiCaprio, Sienna Miller) and not (Giselle Bundchen, Cindy Crawford) get played out here. So do his politics in one blistering picture sequence: a stirring, ennobled image of spent rescue workers from the World Trade Center over-leafs to a steely Oval Office portrait of an erect and imperious Bush, Cheney, Condi Rice, et al.

But if, as Christopher Hitchens writes in one of the book's three history-rich essays, "even in the darkest time, there must be beauty and style and the cultivation of taste," you could do worse with your limited books budget than to trace the luminous contours of Miles Davis' genius or Gwyneth Paltrow's face.

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John McAlley
John McAlley is the editor of's Books We Like series. A longtime top editor at Harper's Bazaar, InStyle, Us and Entertainment Weekly, McAlley has written for GQ, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, Spin and's Monkey See blog. He has worked as a photo editor at Rolling Stone and been a contributor to Aperture. He lives in Dallas, Texas.