/ 28 February 2014

Vogue’s longtime editor Beatrix Miller dies at 90

Beatrix Miller understood that all magazines work on two scales
Beatrix Miller understood that all magazines work on two scales

Beatrix Miller, longtime editor of British Vogue, who has died aged 90, kept her Rothmans in a slightly battered gold case to the right of the blotter on her desk. You watched the opal and moonstone rings on her fingers as she pulled out a cigarette, fired it up with her gold lighter, and inhaled, both of you caught in a congenial nicotine pause that was the prelude to the next idea. Smoking was her only apparent weakness; she loved it and you loved her for falling short of perfection.

To her left was a sheaf of paper printed with the outlines of double pages that she would tick off as each story made its way to production, but there was also a box of Kleenex on the windowsill that would come into play if something important were troubling you. She wanted all her staff to have purpose and discipline, appetite and enthusiasm. Crisis averted, doubt cleared up, she'd say: "Now, I've been wondering just how a hologram works" or "I think the next big problem will be weather", or exclaim how ravishing something was, and off you'd go, feeling shored up, inspired and supported.

Bea made editing a magazine look like an important mission to be undertaken with joyful dignity. She was imperturbable, sailing through the offices of Vogue like a general or a very fine ship, her blond hair back-combed and lacquered, her skirt pleated, her heels sensible, her cheeks rouged and her mood positive. She was made of stern stuff: her parents, Robert and Annie, had met at the front on medical service in the first world war. I don't think she called us "troops", but we were often rallied, and when she thought Vogue was stagnating, she'd call for a revolution –"All change!" – and move people around into different jobs.

'Woman ambassador'
Over a Negroni at lunch at Burke's one day in 1977, she admitted to me that she'd wanted to be "the first woman ambassador", or a concert pianist. She spread out her fingers and said: "My hands were too small." Instead of making music, she orchestrated the symbolic reality of Britain through two epoch-making magazines: Queen from 1958 to 1964, and Vogue from 1964 to 1984.

Her curiosity, wit and sense of adventure made the London of the swinging 1960s unfold as a series of eccentric and delightful tableaux that created the template for that time. It wasn't just the staggeringly beautiful Jean Shrimpton, or Marit Allen's pages about real people, or Donna Mitchell in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit. It was a constant wit and awareness of the larger context, that was apparent as early as a cover of Queen in 1962, where a picture of a beautiful girl in a chiffon dress was set off by a single cover line that read: "I AM AN EXPORT."

Bea understood that all magazines work on two scales, the personal and the historical. "You must write for the most intelligent person you know," she said, and didn't mind a reference to Wittgenstein now and then. So while she created the practical "More Dash Than Cash" pages, she also employed the endlessly witty Antonia Williams to make every title and sub-head sparkle, because what caught the eye in passing was as important to her as the rest.

She turned David Bailey, Terry Donovan and Duffy loose on the fashion and the faces of the day, made Jonathan Miller into a household name, and nurtured Grace Coddington, Georgina Howell, Liz Tilberis, Felicity Clark, Veronica Hindley, Julie Kavanagh and Lucy Hughes-Hallett. Vogue functioned as the first place for royal portraits, often shot by "Tony" – Lord Snowdon, husband of Princess Margaret. But she also adored Peter Sellers (and, I suspect, goonery in general) and gave rollicking parties in her elegant artist's studio in Chelsea, where the young and the boyfriends joined the grander guests after dinner to sit on the floor and carry on late into the night. But she was shy, and rarely went to the parties of others. She loved her car – I remember a Jaguar that she drove very fast – and her little house in the country, which she called "Pig".

That day at Burke's Bea told me she'd been evacuated to Canada at 15 as the war began, lived with an uncle and aunt in Ottawa, refused to study anything but the piano and ate only the breakfast cereal Cream of Wheat for a year. She manned a switchboard, learned to type, and returned to the UK in a North Atlantic convoy surrounded by German submarines – "I wasn't afraid, though we never once took our clothes off in 16 days" – and reported for war work in Whitehall. She was in Germany with MI6 for two years – "civilian, decoding, intelligence work". After a first stint as an editorial secretary who also wrote features at Queen, she went to Vogue in New York. "I lived in one of those buildings where you have to tip the doorman five dollars every morning or he won't let you back in at night."

When Jocelyn Stevens bought Queen he insisted she return to edit it, and together with Mark Boxer as art director, they made a uniquely stylish, sparkling magazine that created its time. "Never forget that a magazine is where gunpowder is kept and it's also a warehouse." After six years she took over Vogue, and made it what is its today – a wide-ranging and essential publication.

I worked as her features editor twice, first to replace Marina Warner who was going to Vietnam with Willie Shawcross in 1972 – I was too young for the job – and again in 1976-77. I'm astounded how fast and how effectively Bea taught me everything I know, though I never could match her self-control. She remained the truest and most solid of friends. Later, when I edited Paris Vogue, I made her a contributor so that the French magazine could profit from her consistent common sense.

No one knew anything about her love life; her discretion was an act of faith, on a par with never demeaning anyone and refraining from putting anything negative in writing.

After she retired in 1984, she was made CBE and joined her friend Roy Strong on the council of the Royal College of Art. She was going to write her memoirs, but never did; she talked about piles of paper on her table, but discretion kept her from telling her story, or reticence. Her nephew Charles Winstanley says she often quoted this Arabic proverb: "Four things come not back – the spoken word, the sped arrow, the past life, and the neglected opportunity."

She is survived by her nephews, Charles and Jeremy Winstanley, her nieces Clare Winstanley and Lucinda Lofthouse, and six great-nieces and nephews.

Beatrix Miller, editor, born June 29 1923; died February 21 2014