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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.