FROM 1979, A GAZE BACK AT A REMARKABLE CAREER LIVED IN BRIGHT RED.
Byline: Ben Brantley, November 1979
Diana Vreeland — whose cheeks and earlobes have been skillfully flushed with a very red rouge through most of the 40-some years she’s been in the public eye — once asked a friend in a taxi en route to a party if she had enough rouge on.
The friend said she wasn’t sure, but observed Vreeland was wearing a fair amount of rouge already. “I know that, girl,” retorted Vreeland. “But is it enough?”
Perhaps it wasn’t. Vreeland — the former editor in chief of Vogue magazine and current special consultant to the Metropolitan Museum of Arts Costume Institute — has traditionally thrived on pulsating colors most people relegate to pocket handkerchiefs or sofa cushions. The deep rouge of the cheeks has for years been complemented by the polished luster of the boot-black hair and the ruby-bright mouth. Much of her life has been set against a brilliant backdrop of lacquer-red rooms — the series of offices that had to be crimsoned before she could move into them, the famous living room of her Park Avenue apartment. And almost everything she does — whether it’s sashing a bright purple scarf about her waist, answering the telephone or telling you how divine a certain woman’s nostrils are — is pitched at the same bright-red level of intensity. As a close friend comments, “She makes extravagance seem normal.”
Behind the dazzle of the dramatic gestures, the illuminated colors, the panoply of eccentricities is the fiercely individual, uncompromising esthetic that shaped Vogue into the most ornately imaginative publication of the Sixties and — since Vreeland joined the Met in 1972 — has brought record crowds to the Costume Institute to see precisely staged exhibits of history’s most extravagant clothes.
“She’s bold about everything,” pronounces Francoise de la Renta. “She’s much more than an eccentric. If you go down deep, she’s really not an eccentric at all. There’s never an ounce of vulgarity in anything she does — in dressing, talking or behaving.”
The subject of these observations is seated with customary straight-backed poise against the vividly striped, L-shaped banquette in her sitting room. No matter what one has read about Vreeland’s red room, the first impression is inevitably a little staggering. (Of visiting Vreeland for the first time in the Sixties, Oscar de la Renta recalls, “Everything was sort of bigger than life; I felt I was entering into not the Emerald City, but the Ruby City.”) But Vreeland, wearing a black sweater and slacks, ornamented by a necklace of rubies and purple scarves around her shoulders and hips, is in no way overshadowed by her surroundings.
She is describing the upcoming exhibition at the Costume Institute — “Fashions at the Hapsburg Era: Austria-Hungary,” which opens Dec. 3 — with passionate enthusiasm, occasionally stopping to draw briskly on an unfiltered Lucky Strike or lightly spray herself with a small atomizer of scent.
Halston has described Vreeland as “Scheherazade — she can tell you the most beguiling, extravagant stories and make you believe them completely.” And as Vreeland discourses excitedly on the exhibit, her bent for the dramatic is evident. The litany of BP superlatives — “I adore it”; “It’s to die for”; “divine” — echoes through the conversation, but for once she feels there’s sincerity behind them. And you hear the italics and exclamation points in every sentence.
“The colors, the colors,” Vreeland is saying of the Hapsburg uniforms, in a deep voice that swells like a pipe organ. “You have no idea how beautiful: pale ice blue, an off-white that is whiter than white. They’re perfection, just perfection… And the boots — oh, the throat of a boot. Always edged with gold lace. I can’t get over the beauty of leather with gold lace.”
Vreeland says she is particularly glad such clothes will be on display because she feels Central Europe has been too long neglected by most Americans. “You know, no one’s ever heard of the beautiful Elizabeth (the Empress of Austria in the mid-19th century),” she says with reproving incredulity. “You’ll say, ‘Who was the most beautiful woman in the 19th century?’ and they don’t know.”
With unflagging animation, Vreeland hits upon details of the exhibit that especially delight her: the white gloves; the cloth “as supple as satin, but as thick as that”; the outriders’ uniforms — “just little jackets to here, with rows of braid.” With quick, precisely angular movements of her arms, she draws the lines of a coat or the fit of a cap.
She detours to describe Austria and Hungary as she knew them before World War II. She remembers hearing “Stormy Weather” sung by a woman in gray flannel pants and a leather jacket in Budapest, a city of which she says, with a clap of the hands, “The animals were everything. We’d have lunch at the zoo there, which was very charming, because the animals were allowed to roam free — not the meat-eating animals, but the pretty, delicious ones, who never ate off our plate like somebody’s badly brought-up dogs.”
Returning to the subject of her fascination with the Hapsburg Empire, she says, “I love 19th-century words, such as ‘dove’ — all those words in the descriptions in ‘Beau Brummel.’ I always remember the word ‘melton cloth.”‘ Here she describes her shock when “a perfectly good Englishman” told her he had never heard of it. “I have a particular thing, naturally, about the Edwardian era, in which I was born. La Belle Epoque casts a very long shadow.”
It is the “fantaisie of the Belle Epoque” that Vreeland identifies as the source of her personal style and esthetic energy — that, she says, and having been born in Paris. “Leave the year a blank,” she says with a gangsterish toughness and a quick sweep of a red-nailed hand. “There’s nothing more debilitating than the way Americans carry on about age. Whatever age you are, you’re always older than you ought to be.”
Her early childhood, as she reports it, was an enchanted realm of Proustian dukes and duchesses, very casual schooling, walking the Bois de Boulogne and enchanted visits to her English stockbroker father and chic American mother from the likes of Diaghilev and the Castles. It is, as they say, the stuff of legends. “I can remember a lot of beautiful things,” says Vreeland. “The men, the women, the clothes. It had a lot to do with my happiness in life.”
The refined sybaritism and sense of the drama of elegance suggested by such images remain an important part of the Vreeland cachet. When she was ill recently and found her appetite waning, she took to bed with figs and prosciutto rather than tea and toast. Long before it was a vogue, she kept scented floral candles burning in her apartment. She has always demanded the finest fabrics for herself.
“I don’t think the New York theater is for New Yorkers anymore. It used to be the greatest event,” she says with a quiet breathlessness. “I’d go with my husband (the late Reed Vreeland). He was beautifully dressed, I was beautifully dressed. We walked in. There was that hush before the curtain. The lights went out, the stage lights went on. That was paradise. That was going to the theater.”
Carol Phillips, who worked as a managing editor when Vreeland was at Vogue, recalls a conversation with Vreeland on narcissism. “What she was talking about was creating your own life, creating yourself and making demands that life be attractive for you. And in her quest for making life more attractive, she tends to romanticize every human being; to color us pinker or more magenta or greener than whatever we are. Everybody — whether a difficult, resentful secretary or somebody with a new way of cutting hair — she glamorizes them in their minds, as well as her own.”
Correspondingly, if there is one chord that sounds throughout Vreeland’s conversation, it is that she is a happy woman. Friends say since her husband’s death over a decade ago, she’s become increasingly afraid of loneliness, but Vreeland herself makes a point of betraying no signs of this. “I was born happy, thank God,” she says assertively. “I think it doesn’t come in a tube.”
“What’s most important is her positive approach to everything,” comments Halston. “She’s one person who never shows you her downside; if she’s ill, she never lets anyone see her that way.”
Bill Blass echoes that Vreeland rarely speaks disparagingly of others. “If she’s not interested in people, they simply don’t exist.”
The same romanticizing vision finds expression in a language dense in surprising metaphors and hyperbole. Trying to define what style is, Vreeland says, “It’s got an animalistic, steely whip.” She recalls Hattie Carnegie as “a beautiful pair of hands going forth selecting….” And Gloria Vanderbilt remembers posing for Richard Avedon while Vreeland spoke in a soothing monolog describing Vanderbilt’s appearance: “I had short hair then, like a little cap, and Diana said, ‘It reminds me of marvelous black grapes.”‘
The phrases are often more than just bon mots. As Henri Bendel’s Geraldine Stutz observes: “She is able to go immediately to the specific that explains the generality.” And this economical use of images bore lavish fruit on the pages of Harper’s Bazaar, where she worked as a fashion editor from 1937 to 1962, and at Vogue. Alexander Liberman, Vogue’s editorial director, says she brought “an extraordinary poetic exuberance” to Vogue — “A great sense of visual drama and a dramatic conception of the ornament of life.”
“She spoke in code,” recalls Avedon of working with Vreeland on photography. “She expected photographers to catch the ball, run with it, then return it to her. She once said, ‘Don’t photograph that model. She uses her eyes the way some girls use their legs. All you have to do is look at her, and she falls on them as if they were knees.’ All she meant was no more pictures of empty sockets, no more photographs of mindless eyes.”
Vreeland’s decade as editor in chief of Vogue was a bravura climax to her years in journalism. “Boy, was I in the greatest seat, at the greatest hour of the greatest time,” she says like a trumpet. “I went into Vogue in 1962 — the year of the jet, the Pill. A completely different social world was being created.”
At Harper’s, Vreeland turned a young milliner named Halston into a star when she put one of his organdy hats on a model in a swimsuit on the cover. And Giorgio Sant’Angelo — who says Vreeland is the first person he calls when he has a personal problem — designed his first clothes when Vreeland sent him to Arizona with photographer Franco Rubartelli, model Veruschka and “wires, scissors and tape and two suitcases of fabric. She said, ‘Just get up in the morning and wrap and tie and cut — whatever you want to do.”‘
She also is known to be insatiably exacting. One Vogue employee is reported to have made the unfortunate mistake of assuming Vreeland wanted fur hats for a winter shooting, when in fact she wanted straw. Francoise de la Renta remembers Vreeland “taking the girl by the nape of the neck with those strong hands (when she hits you, you don’t recover for a day) and saying, ‘Fur hats in November! Are you mad?”‘
Of her demand for perfection, Yves Saint Laurent has commented, “Everything becomes simple, because Mrs. Vreeland wants it. And no one resists Mrs. Vreeland…her power lies in her fascination.”
Whether it’s at magazines or the Met, Vreeland says it’s hard work that has kept her content. “I don’t think people work hard enough today to get the enjoyment out of life I’ve had,” she says, although she didn’t discover this until she was in her 30s. At that time, she joined Harper’s, soon after having, very reluctantly, moved from London with her husband. “I didn’t know what a job was,” she says. “I’d never been dressed before 1:30 in my life.”
Today, asked how she would describe herself to someone who has never heard of her, she is able to respond only in terms of work. “I really couldn’t tell you; I have no idea. I love working people; I love the Metropolitan Museum; I loved Vogue; I loved Harper’s Bazaar. I love all the clash and smash and variety and other people’s views, and their demands, and not agreeing with them. I love all the tough treatment I’ve been given. I’d suddenly like a bit gentler treatment, perhaps — I’m feeling a bit soft, perhaps because I’ve been ill.”
Some acquaintances suggest Vreeland has frozen herself in the fading world of European aristocratic values and ignores American virtues. Certainly, when it comes to fashion, Vreeland shows a decidedly Francophile penchant. She says she believes America’s greatest contribution to fashion is blue jeans (“It helped more people cross the street all over the world than anything else”), and adds, “American fashion has always been terrifically handicapped by the lack of fabric.”
Similarly, when she recalls great moments in fashion-watching, it’s Balenciaga, Chanel, Mme. Gres, Yves Saint Laurent or Givenchy of whom she speaks most frequently.
But there’s no question that Vreeland lives in the present tense. She cultivates young friends, is delighted with her 20ish grandson, Nicky, a photographer, who is staying with her and [about whom] says boomingly, “There’s never been such a generation as now — it’s their respect for every age, including their own. They’re sweet, absolutely sweet.”
“There is no society anymore,” she says at another point. “I don’t think anyone’s missed anything, but I’m glad to have seen both sides of the coin. I’m very glad to have seen Cole Porter going down the Grand Canal in the morning, when the fruits and vegetables were coming in.”
But though she may lavish a particularly tender sentimentality on this description, she is able to imbue her memories of the Sixties with the same halcyon glow: “The girls in their white stockings, the boys carrying flowers. It was so beautiful. Then all gone in a puff of smoke. You can’t live in a dream forever.”
One final image that captured Vreeland very immediately in the present: Vreeland is preparing to go out to dinner with a 40ish friend who has arrived complaining of back trouble.
Vreeland announces she will therapeutically crack the friend’s back. She leaves the room, returns with a leopard-skin cushion and white linen handkerchief which she asks her friend to lie down on. “I’ve spent all of my life making people happy,” she says with mock martyrdom.
Suddenly, she’s astride her friend’s back, as if on one of the white Hungarian horses she’s spoken of earlier, kneading muscles with firm, supple hands, finally producing the small sound of a cork popping from a bottle of flat champagne.
Vreeland rises on her long, delicately boned legs like a sure-footed giraffe.
“That was a bit of a disappointment,” she says. “I was expecting cannons.”