1883-1966

DOROTHY TODD 

'That Filthy Editor'

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Bless Dorothy Todd, for she has not been immortalised with the kindest words. 

 

At best she was ‘mannish’, at worst ‘butch as pig iron’. Her face was ‘objectionable… like a sea lion’, her figure ‘buxom as a badger’, and Virginia Woolf viciously penned, ‘she reminds me of an extinct monster pushing through the mud’. 

 

Despite this astonishing - and frankly offensive - array of animal analogies, Dorothy Todd (nicknamed Dody) was born quite human on May 1st, 1883. Her father was a property developer in Chelsea, but her prosperous childhood came to an end when he died and her alcoholic mother frittered away his fortune in the casinos of Monte-Carlo. 

Nonetheless, Dody grew up well-read and speaking several languages. Her young adult life was plagued by another personal difficulty: the birth of her illegitimate daughter. Yet by her thirties she’d made a name as a capable writer and was hired by Vogue to head up the British office. 

It was the early 1920s and the West was gripped by modernism, a movement which challenged tradition across the arts and philosophy. Dody reacted to this new world with enthusiasm, and she filled Vogue with poetry, architecture and literary articles from authors like Virginia Woolf and Aldous Huxley. Championing what she called ‘dual responsibility’, she believed it was her job to keep women in the know about trends in thought, not just trends in fashion. 

Dody’s Vogue was one of the first publications that allowed women access to typically ‘male’ subjects, like news. It was ground-breaking for the time. Further, Dody was a huge supporter of talent: she was the first to hire Cecil Beaton, to publish Man Ray in London, and all her writers were paid far higher fees than offered elsewhere. She wanted to make sure they made a decent living off their work. 

Dody was a patron to starving artists, a mentor and a guardian, but none of this would save her. Vogue headquarters disapproved of the ‘bookish’ take; they wanted more fashion. Worse still, Dody was an unapologetic lesbian and she’d lured the pretty blonde secretary away from her husband. They set up house together and hosted extravagant parties, openly living as a couple. She even promoted the secretary to Fashion Editor. This scandalized puritanical staff in NY – who threatened to report them. The final straw came when Head Office decided Dody was spending too much on expense accounts. After only four years she was forcefully removed. 

Dody never recovered from the insult. For a while she continued hosting her glittering soirees, but soon slid into alcoholism and ran up lunatic debts. She lived out the rest of her life in ‘two messy, cat dominated rooms off the King’s Road’, though she never lost the knack of seducing young wives away from their husbands – her final conquest was her deathbed nurse.

Dody’s contribution to the arts was invaluable, and she certainly does not deserve to have been ‘erased as a blot on the otherwise immaculate history of  Vogue.’

Want more Dody?

Sadly there's very little information on Dorothy Todd outside of archives, but you can read an in-depth account of her love-affair with her former secretary, Madge McHarg-Garland, (a titan in her own right) here

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British Vogue covers from Dody's tenure in the 1920s (copyright of Vogue)

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