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Richesse d’embarras

D. V.

by Diana Vreeland, edited by George Plimpton, by Christopher Hemphill
Knopf, 196 pp., $15.95

Diana Vreeland, once the editor of Harper’s Bazaar and then of Vogue, and now a curator at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a familiar figure to readers of fashion magazines: a spidery woman with the face of an American Indian chief, usually snapped by a photographer as she is gesticulating theatrically with a long index finger, its nail covered in blood-red polish. In recent years, because of her shrewdly maintained reputation and, more importantly, because of her transformation of the Costume Institute into a highly successful business enterprise through its annual exhibitions, she has been promoted by the press into an all-purpose doyenne of style who has outlived all rivals and who now imperiously renders opinions on contemporary life and manners. She has now written her second book—the first was a commentary on her favorite photographs called Allure. It purports to be her autobiography, but it is rather less than that and more like an oriental pillow book, a series of haiku glimpses into the highly circumscribed world of fashion she has belonged to all her life. Depending on your point of view, it is likely to strike you as an embarras de richesses or vice versa.

Mrs. Vreeland was born Diana Dalziel in Paris. By her own account, her mother was an extravagant, hedonistic American who loved clothes and who entertained Diaghilev and Nijinsky and Ida Rubenstein. Mother and daughter did not get along very well: according to Mrs. Vreeland, “I was always her ugly little monster.” Her father was a stout English stockbroker in the habit of saying “worse things happen at sea” if any unpleasantness occurred. Mrs. Vreeland witnessed the coronation of George V in 1911; three years later, she came with her family to the United States and was enrolled in the Brearley School in New York, although in retrospect she says, “I was looking for something Brearley couldn’t offer.” She therefore left it and entered dancing school, where she was taught by Fokine and others. In 1917 she and her sister were sent by their mother to Montana, for the reason, she says, that “during the night, there was an outbreak of infantile paralysis in Southampton.” In Montana she met Buffalo Bill Cody and saw drunk men shoot each other to death. She “came out” in 1923, was blackballed from the Colony Club in New York City for being too “fast,” and spent a great deal of time dancing with “gigolos.”

In 1924 she met her future husband, T. Reed Vreeland, who was in the banking business, and they were married just after her mother was named as a correspondent in a divorce case; perhaps as a result, very few people came to their wedding. The Vreelands lived first in Albany, New York, and then in London. In 1937, when Mrs. Vreeland was in her thirties, the Vreelands returned to New York and she started to work at Harper’s Bazaar, where she wrote a column entitled “Why Don’t You?”, which contained such advice as the following: “Why don’t you rinse your blond child’s hair in dead champagne, as they do in France?…Why don’t you twist her pigtails around her ears like macaroons?” Mrs. Vreeland sketches her story up to the present, through her rise at Harper’s Bazaar to editor in chief, then her tenure at Vogue in the Sixties, when her power was at its height, and finally her current job at the Metropolitan. There are also memories of her travels in Russia and Tunisia and of Munich and Budapest and Paris during the Thirties (“I stayed at this ghastly hotel on the boulevard Haussmann with third-rate Indians in it. They were always strangling women across the court”). She has also included somewhat blurred portraits of friends such as Coco Chanel, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and Cole Porter.

The book is apparently designed to read as if it were “spoken” to a sympathetic, sophisticated visitor to Mrs. Vreeland’s house, as when she says, “The Grand Hotel in Rome is attractive to me because of its divine concierge, Buzo. Do you know him?” Indeed, it seems to be little more than an artfully edited series of transcriptions from a tape recording. Perhaps this is preferable to what Mrs. Vreeland would have produced if she had written a book, but the policy of faithfully transcribing the rhythm and inflection of her spoken voice is not always an advantage. Here, for example, is her description of a Russian nobleman: “The Grand Duke Dimitri was the hand-somest…the hang of his suits! His leg in a boot! Oh God! He was more interested in fishing and shooting—like all Russian men—but he was a beauty! Now, whether he killed Rasputin or not, who knows?”

Although there is rather too much in the book about half-forgotten society people, a number of Mrs. Vreeland’s stories are about people and events that we would like to know more about from someone who knew or saw them at first hand. But unfortunately Mrs. Vreeland views history from an extraordinarily narrow perspective. Her focus is almost always on considerations of style and fashion. For example, although Isak Dinesen was “a great friend of mine” who came to tea “every Saturday afternoon,” all we learn about her is what she ate and drank at these teas. She says that she saw Legs Diamond threaten a man at a speak-easy by patting the guns he wore under his coat—it is the “elegance of the gesture” that counts. What was Buffalo Bill Cody like? He “was essentially an entertainer. But what chic old Bill had! With his beard he looked like Edward VII, and he wore the fringed leather clothes that the hippies all wore in the sixties.”

In Hitler’s Germany, where she and her husband were vacationing, she says she pushed her way through a Nazi demonstration to get to her bath in time to make a concert. “We got through that evening all right,” she says. “Actually, we were having the time of our lives. Every day we went out into the lovely, sweet-smelling countryside…having picnics and revisiting the castles of mad King Ludwig, which we could never see enough of.” In the “pornographic museum” in Pompeii, where a part of the ancient city and the people in it are preserved exactly as they were when Vesuvius erupted, to which she had access through “a friend in the Mussolini government,” she saw a slave making love to his mistress, frozen in time and space. She—and perhaps only she—noticed that “he wore the simplest sandal in the world. It had just one thong which went between the big toe and the one next to it, and one strap around the ankle attached to the heel.” She had it copied and in her capacity as fashion magazine editor she introduced it to the American woman; it was, she says, “the Birth of the Thonged Sandal.”

On at least one occasion, it seems, Mrs. Vreeland’s preoccupation with clothes threatened to engulf her reason. During the phony war, on the eve of the most serious European crisis of her lifetime, when the Vreelands were in Paris and were urged to return to America, she chose to remain alone in Paris to continue with her fittings. As she says, her husband knew that it was futile to separate her from her clothes and shoes; he “was a man with such a marvelous sense of…how women are. He got on a ship with a lot of American friends leaving France, and he left me behind.” By her account, she finally consented to leave when a friend begged her to take the “last passenger ship with private cabins out of Europe.” On her last afternoon in Paris, with war impending, she walked down the Champs Elysées with a friend. “I’d just had my last fitting at Chanel,” she says. “I can remember exactly what I had on: a little black moiré tailleur from Chanel, a little piece of black lace wrapped around my head, and beautiful, absolutely exquisite black slippers like kid gloves.” After the war, she returned at once to Paris and noticed that it had changed. “I realized this when I went for my fittings. You don’t know what a part of life fittings once were. Remember I told you that before the war I used to have three fittings on a nightgown…. After the war you were no longer fitted for nightgowns.”

Anyone seeking Mrs. Vreeland’s opinions on the larger questions of life will be somewhat disappointed by this book. But she has included dozens of observations about clothes, food, health, colors, countries. If some of these can only be described as little summaries of a lifetime of ignorance, in other places she speaks with the cold analytical tone of La Rochefoucauld: “The French are very generous if you offer them money.” There are lessons in behavioristic psychology: “It is a form of anger if you can’t control the foot…the heavy tread is a form of anger.” And sociological speculations: “The world will go to lines of color—there’s no question about it. It won’t be just the Africans…and it won’t be just the Chinese—it will be every part of the world that has any streak of color other than white. The Western world will go.” She has learned that “all English are actors, and there are very few actors who are not English.” She provides a cure for hiccups and the advice to go early in the morning to the dentist because “dealing with a tired dentist is really very tough on you.” Some of her remarks achieve a kind of perfection of insignificance: “I’m crazy about Indiana. So many people with style come from Indiana—not that I can give you a long list, but it’s true.”

Mrs. Vreeland admits that she has a fondness for exaggeration; she says she has “always had a strong Kabuki streak.” And indeed she seems unable to qualify her appraisals of people and events. When she went to Paris for a clothes collection, “the whole of Chad” was at her hotel, and then a few years later, “there was the whole of Africa—but I mean the whole of Africa.” She travels to Devonshire to see a tilting green and “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful in my life”; on the previous page she says that “to me, a gauntlet is the most beautiful thing,” and, later, that “the children of royalty…are always the most beautiful children in the world.” Her uncontrolled enthusiasms and frequent use of gallicisms—“I knew,” she writes, “that we were heading toward rien“—make it easy to believe she had a hand in the development of the style of expression used in fashion magazines when they speak, for example, of “the passion of cold cream” or claim that “the thrill of the season is the little black jupe.”

Such prose contributes to the impression one has after reading her book that while Mrs. Vreeland undoubtedly has led a full life she has made it even fuller in the recounting. There is a distinct flavor of monkeyshines in some of her stories. How, for example, did she come to use a now famous singer as a fashion model? As she tells it, she and her husband were staying in Morocco, and one day, “on a little strip of beach between Mohammadia and Rabat,” there was a gust of wind and “a piece of newspaper blew our way. It must have been from a Czechoslovakian paper or something, because I couldn’t read the language—I know it wasn’t Arabic, which, naturally, I read fluently—but on the scrap of newspaper was a picture of this perfectly marvelous-looking girl. It was Cher.”

In Marseille, she and her husband arrive at a hotel. Quite suddenly, the recently deposed king of Spain arrives with his entire retinue of servants, courtiers, children, and so forth. The same evening, it so happens, the Vreelands and two others are invited to sightsee the red-light district of the city by the prefect of police, who sternly warns them that the British consul disappeared off the face of the earth some weeks before doing the same thing. He asks them whether they are still prepared to go. “Listen, can a duck swim? What the hell did we care?” says Mrs. Vreeland. And so they take off and walk through darkened alleys and squares, passing “these Pepe le Mokos. The only thing you’d see was the ends of their cigarettes.” They finally reach a brothel, where they are met by the madam, “who was quite padded out and had a moustache about the size of Adolphe Menjou’s,” and who took them on a tour of the establishment: “We saw silver rooms, we saw gold rooms, we saw rooms of mirrors…and then we went into an enormous red-and-gold Edward VII ballroom with little gold chairs all around and a band tuning up, led by this little hunchback,” who turns out to be “the most important musician in Marseilles.” As Mrs. Vreeland says elsewhere in her book, “now I exaggerate—always. And, of course, I’m terrible on facts. But a good story…some of the details…are in the imagination. I don’t call this lying.”

Even if Mrs. Vreeland may have invented or touched up some of her past, at least she doesn’t bother to stick to just one myth about herself, and her book gains a certain charm from her ability to blow the whistle on some of her own absurdities with an unexpected blunt remark and then to shift comfortably to a quite different character. From some of the things she says one might easily think of Mrs. Vreeland as nothing but another woman of style and wealth, a sybarite like her mother, who attends polo matches and dancing parties and finds just about everything “totally great.” In this mood, she leaves everything to men; she is Odette de Crécy, a geisha. Business recedes into the background almost as a hobby; she lives only for fantasy.

But in the pages she devotes to her business career, there is an unmistakable change in voice. Mrs. Vreeland becomes a tough-talking magazine editor who says her lunch consisted of a peanut butter and marmalade sandwich and a shot of Scotch, and whose motto was “give ‘em what they never knew they wanted.” In this mood she can write that fashion “was always unreal to me.” When in the Sixties she showed in Vogue a photograph of a bare midriff and received complaints from some readers, and was asked why she had run the picture, she reports herself as having responded, “because I’m a reporter. I know news when I see it! What are we talking about, for Christ’s sake—pleasing the bourgeoisie of North Dakota?” (Some of her ideas, unlike this one, she admits “never reached the general public,” such as her decision “to lay an entire issue of Vogue out backward, like a Japanese book, because that’s how I thought everyone looked at magazines.”)

Odette de Crécy and Hildy Johnson do not quite fit together: it is odd to hear Mrs. Vreeland denounce feminism and the free press on one page of her book, and on another recount how, when she failed to get a raise from the Hearst press lords running Harper’s Bazaar, she jumped to its competitor Vogue because “they offered me a very large salary, an endless expense account…and Europe whenever I wanted to go.” And when Mrs. Vreeland narrates episodes in her life when she tried to satisfy both her penchant for stylish fantasy and for business, a bizarre effect is created that is uniquely hers. “I was in the middle of my Dynel period then,” she writes of one phase of her career at Vogue, “one of the happiest periods of my life, to tell you the truth, because I was mad about all the things you could do with Dynel hair.”

The “Dynel period” coincided with what Mrs. Vreeland calls “the romantic years at Vogue,” when she organized a trip to photograph a group of models in Tahiti. She was aware, she says, that Gauguin had already painted the “big girls who sit there with one flower in their hair,” and so she chose, for reasons she does not divulge, to send the group—models, photographer, hairdresser, Dynel—to Tahiti to photograph “the most beautiful white horse with a long white tail on a pink beach—no little horse like a Gauguin, but a big romantic horse like the ones they have in a big way in Friesland in Northern Holland,” with the understanding that if the horse’s tail was too short, Dynel could be used.

On its arrival the group was unable to find a Friesland horse in Tahiti, where there had apparently not been many horses at all in the previous century. Mrs. Vreeland thereupon communicated the terse instruction from New York to “fake it,” and according to her, after three weeks of looking, and no doubt at considerable expense, they found an “ancient stallion” and pinned a section of Dynel hair to its tail. In the end, Mrs. Vreeland received a photograph, although she does not describe it, claiming that it is “too delicious for words.” As she summarizes this curious episode, in words that could serve as a motto for her book: “I only take results. I’ve worked all my life on results. I didn’t give a good goddamn if there were no horses in Tahiti—by God, we’d get some there, white ones, and get them outfitted with Dynel tails.”

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