The Smart Set

For the 1928 MGM film starring William Haines, see The Smart Set (1928 film).
The Smart Set

Cover of September 1911 issue
Categories Literary magazine
Publisher William d'Alton Mann (1900–1911)
John Adams Thayer (1911–1914)
Eugene Crowe and Eltinge F. Warner (1914–1930)
First issue March 1900 (1900-03)
Final issue July 1930
Country United States
Based in New York City
Language English

The Smart Set was an American literary magazine, founded by Colonel William d'Alton Mann and published from March 1900 to June 1930. During its heyday under the editorship of H. L. Mencken[1] and George Jean Nathan, The Smart Set offered many up-and-coming authors their start and gave them access to a relatively large audience. Its headquarters was in New York City.[2]

Early years

In creating The Smart Set, Mann initially sought to offer a cultural counterpart to his Town Topics, a preceding gossip magazine which he used for political and social gain among New York City's elite, which would include works "by, for and about 'The Four Hundred'”.[3] With The Smart Set, Mann wanted to provide sophisticated content that would reinforce the social values of New York’s social elite. He gave it the subtitle "The Magazine of Cleverness." He published the first issue of The Smart Set on March 10, 1900, under the editorship of Arthur Grissom, who also worked at Town Topics. As editor, Grissom created the formula of the magazine that would remain intact throughout the greater part of its existence: 160 pages containing a novelette, a short play, several poems, and witticisms to fill blank spaces. Grissom died of typhoid fever a year later, and Marvin Dana took over as editor, in the first of a series of managerial turnovers that would define the evolution of magazine until its termination. Dana remained as editor until 1904, when he left The Smart Set to work in newspapers.

His replacement, Charles Hanson Towne, was the magazine’s first editor to actively push to publish new literary talents, such as O. Henry and James Branch Cabell. Under Towne’s editorship, the magazine reached its peak circulation of 165,000 in 1905. However, as a result of allegations of blackmail associated with Mann’s Town Topics in 1906, The Smart Set’s popularity began to decline, and it immediately lost around 25,000 readers. Dissatisfied with the magazine’s direction, Towne resigned his position as editor in 1908 to work with Theodore Dreiser on The Delineator. After Towne’s departure, Colonel Mann stepped up as editor alongside Fred Splint, and the two quickly set out to revitalize the magazine in order to rebuild its readership. As part of this revitalization, Mann started a monthly book review column, and Splint hired the Baltimore newspaperman Henry Louis Mencken to fill the position. Soon after, in 1909, George Jean Nathan became the magazine’s drama columnist. Mencken and Nathan eventually ensured the magazine’s place in literary history.

The Thayer years

With The Smart Set in perpetual decline, Mann sold the magazine in 1911 to John Adams Thayer for $100,000. Thayer, a self-made millionaire who had previously pulled Everybody’s Magazine out of a slump and earned himself a significant fortune from its sale, hoped ownership of The Smart Set would allow him entrance into the social ranks of New York’s high society (Rascoe xix). However, the magazine’s ruined reputation made this difficult and his purchase left him in charge of a sinking ship. After Mencken and Nathan both declined the offer of editorship, Thayer assumed the position of editor-in-chief and appointed the magazine’s Associate Editor, Norman Boyer, as Managing Editor. An expert in advertising, Thayer added a slogan to the magazine's subtitle, stating that "Its Prime Purpose is to Provide Lively Entertainment for Minds That Are Not Primitive." The new slogan was unsuccessful in restoring the magazine’s reputation and popularity, but in 1912 a younger, more rebellious audience began reading The Smart Set for that very reason. To accommodate this new demographic, Thayer, at the recommendation of Mencken, handed over the editorship to Willard Huntington Wright in 1913.

Although only lasting a year, Wright’s tenure marked a period of artistic prosperity for The Smart Set. Thayer, undoubtedly regretting the decision later, appointed Wright as editor with complete control of the magazine’s content and direction. Wright, immediately taking advantage of this position, began collecting manuscripts from new artists and hired Ezra Pound as an overseas talent scout. With an appreciation for new and unconventional literary styles, Wright steered the magazine into publishing more experimental and avant-garde literary works by authors such as D. H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, William Butler Yeats, and Ford Madox Ford. Predictably, Wright’s editorial decision caused a drastic reduction in readership and angered the magazine’s advertisers, who began withdrawing financial backing. Additionally, Wright was using The Smart Set’s checkbook to overpay authors for their work and was attempting to secretly fund a prototype of a more radical publication with Mencken. As a result, Thayer fired Wright in 1914 and announced an end to the magazine’s avant-garde content and a return to more traditional material. By the end of Wright’s editorship, however, the magazine was in economic disrepair, and Thayer handed over ownership to Colonel Eugene Crowe in return for forgiveness of debts.

The Mencken and Nathan years

Cover from March 1922

Having little interest in running a magazine, Crowe gave control of The Smart Set to Eltinge Warner, who then appointed Mencken and Nathan as co-editors with total artistic control. While Warner remained in control of the magazine’s accounts (circulation, advertising, and bookkeeping), Mencken and Nathan focused on literary content. In a series of measures to economize, Mencken and Nathan relocated the magazine's office to a smaller location and reduced the staff, retaining only themselves and a secretary, Sara Golde. Additionally, Warner reprinted previous issues of The Smart Set under the title Clever Stories. In their most successful effort to boost revenue, Mencken and Nathan began the pulp magazine The Parisienne in 1915 as a place to publish a surplus of manuscripts they deemed inferior for The Smart Set. Parisienne generated significant profits, which they used to offset the production costs of The Smart Set. The co-editors sold Parisienne to Warner and Crowe in 1916 and repeated exactly the same process with Saucy Stories and, in 1920, Black Mask.[4]

Mencken and Nathan’s co-editorship helped to bring about a golden era for new literature and The Smart Set. Circulation during their co-editorship was between 40,000 and 50,000, making it one of the most far-reaching venues for literature of the period. During this time the magazine featured works by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Theodore Dreiser, Aldous Huxley, Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill and Dashiell Hammett, among others. In May 1915 The Smart Set published two stories from James Joyce’s Dubliners, the first time Joyce's work appeared in an American publication. The magazine also introduced F. Scott Fitzgerald in September 1919, when it published his short story "Babe in the Woods". In addition to introducing new literary talent, the two editors were also renowned social critics, who lampooned virtually every facet of American culture. Although they were known for their satire, their increasingly controversial material became the reason for their departure from The Smart Set and would set in motion the end of the magazine itself.

Beginning of the end

Mencken and Nathan’s editorship at The Smart Set came to an end after they planned to run a satirical piece on President Warren G. Harding following his death. Harding died in August 1923. His funeral procession involved transporting the body across the country from San Francisco to Ohio. The mainstream media began to sentimentalize the procession, to the dismay of American intellectuals, who noticed a hypocritical change in the press’s attitude. Among the dissatisfied were Mencken and Nathan. The two co-editors planned to run a satirical piece on the president’s funeral, treating the president in death as they did in life. However, the magazine’s printers noticed the piece and reported its contents to an incensed Warner. Considering the piece to be a form of treason, Warner demanded that the editors remove it and, in a rage, announced that he was selling the magazine. Warner’s removal of their satirical piece marked the end of the editors' carte blanche over the magazine’s content, and they sought the freedom and control over their own publication. Upon leaving, the two Mencken and Nathan began a collaboration with the publishing magnate Alfred A. Knopf and started The American Mercury.

Before leaving The Smart Set Mencken and Nathan recommended Morris Gilbert to replace them as editor. Reportedly, Gilbert had no idea that Warner was planning to sell the magazine upon accepting his position as editor. Under the editorship of Gilbert, the magazine’s attitude and content reverted to the days before Mencken and Nathan’s (or even Wright’s) time as editors. However, Gilbert’s position as editor was short-lived. In 1924, Warner sold the magazine to the publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who immediately gave editorial control to George D’Utassey. Unable to cope with the new management, Gilbert resigned soon after.

The end

Hearst’s ownership of the magazine brought about an editorial focus on commercialism and superficial moral themes. As the magazine’s new editor, D’Utassey reversed the artistic headway that Mencken and Nathan had established for the magazine and changed the subtitle to "True Stories from Real Life." Under D’Utassey the magazine veered away from unconventional literature and satire. Although (or perhaps because) the content changed, Hearst’s ownership led to huge profits, and circulation grew to 250,000 in 1925. In 1929 the magazine merged with Hearst’s newly acquired McClure's to form The New Smart Set, under the editorship of Margaret Sangster. Under Sangster, the magazine became a publication targeted towards young women and was given a new subtitle, "The Young Woman’s Magazine". However, following the Wall Street crash in 1929, the magazine was unable to survive the economic slump. It ceased publication in June 1930.

Editorial tenures

List of contributing authors

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Willa Cather, Ben Hecht, Carl Van Vechten, Maxwell Anderson, S.S. Van Dine a.k.a. Willard Huntington Wright, Dorothy Parker, Sinclair Lewis, Dashiell Hammett, Aldous Huxley, James Joyce, Eugene O'Neill, Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robinson Jeffers, O. Henry


In 1934, some of the best pieces from the magazine were gathered in The Smart Set Anthology, published by Reynal & Hitchcock. In 2007, Drexel University launched an online cultural journal named The Smart Set. Drexel's journal shares some ideals with the original Smart Set and lists Owen Hatteras, a pen name used by H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan of the original journal, on its masthead, but its connection to Mencken and Nathan's magazine is unofficial.


  1. Nolte, W. H. (1968). Mencken's Smart Set Criticism. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
  2. "The Smart Set: A Magazine of Cleverness". The Modernist Journals Projects. Retrieved February 21, 2016.
  3. Dolmetsch 4
  4. Dolmetsch, C. R.; Behrman, S. N. (1966). The Smart Set: A History and Anthology.

Further reading

  • Angoff, Charles (1967). "The Mystique of The Smart Set." Literary Review: An International Journal of Contemporary Writing 11:49–60.
  • Bruce, Sam (1994). "George Jean Nathan." American Magazine Journalists, 1900–1960. Second series. Sam G. Riley, ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit, Michigan: Gale. p. 137.
  • Curtiss, Thomas Quinn (1998). The Smart Set: George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken. New York: Applause.
  • Dolmetsch, Carl R. (1966). The Smart Set: A History and Anthology. New York: Dial.
  • "The First New Yorker! The Smart Set Magazine, 1900–1924". The Serials Librarian 37.2 (1999): 89–104.
  • Fitzpatrick, Vincent (1994). "H.L. Mencken." American Magazine Journalists, 1900–1960. Second series. Sam G. Riley. ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit, Michigan: Gale. p. 137.
  • Hagemann, Edward R. (1979). "The Smart Set." Library Review (Louisville) 28:25–29.
  • Hamilton, Sharon (1999). The Smart Set Magazine and the Popularization of American Modernism, 1908–1920. Dissertation. Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia.
  • Hatteras, Owen (1917). Pistols for Two. New York: Knopf.
  • "A History of The Smart Set Magazine, 1914–1923." Dissertation. University of Chicago, 1957.
  • Nolte, William H. (1968). H.L. Mencken's Smart Set Criticism. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. From the editor's introduction: "In gathering these criticisms, reviews, comments, barbs, horselaughs, prophecies, and assorted miscellanea, which constitute about one-sixth of Mencken's Smart Set literary criticism, I was guided by a desire to collect material that deals with books or men still of interest, or that vividly displays what was of special interest in the period, or that helps us to understand better the multifarious personality of Mencken."
  • Rascoe, Burton; Conklin, Groff (eds.) (1934). The Smart Set Anthology. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock.
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