Polly Mellen makes no bones about what some might call her over-amplified life: “I don’t have trouble finding my voice,” she told Fern Mallis in a Q&A Wednesday night at 92Y in New York City.
So true that Richard Avedon initially didn’t want to work with her because she was too noisy, the stylist and fashion editor said. “When I was moved, I expressed myself. And I guess it was a bit much for Dick. He said, ‘I can’t work with her Diana [Vreeland] — she’s too noisy,’” Mellen said.
The duo, of course, sorted things out and collaborated for years, starting off by jetting to Japan with Veruschka for a five-week shoot that is still regarded as the most expensive one to date. Relaxed in her signature turtleneck with bronze sequined Vera Wang pants, Mellen reminisced about how she wound her way from Miss Porter’s School to working as a World War II nurse’s aide in a soldier’s hospital before starting her fashion career at Lord & Taylor. Known as Vreeland’s protégé, Mellen left her mark on Harper’s Bazaar, American Vogue and Allure.
Impressed as she is by “the genius” of Nicolas Ghesquière, as well as the talents of Alexander Wang, Michael Kors, Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren, Mellen also praised Fabien Baron and photographers Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott. Even at 88, she wasn’t about to name the most difficult model she worked with (the unnamed is still working), but Raquel Welch, Faye Dunaway and Barbra Streisand weren’t exactly cupcakes on set. Mellen mused about her first-in-last-to-leave way of working, recalling how Arthur Elgort advised her about interviewing potential hires: “Drop something and if you pick it up quicker than they do, they’re not for you.”
Elgort and his wife Grethe, along with Bruce Weber, Nan Bush, Joanna Mastroianni, Gideon Lewin and Norma Stevens chatted with Mellen afterwards. “I was spoiled but I knew it, I know it and I loved it. I ran to work and I have no regrets,” she said.
Meeting Diana Vreeland
“Sally [Kirkland] wanted me to take the job of an editor who was leaving, Constance Woodworth, who was this glamorous, fantastic woman and I said, ‘Please don’t do that to me. I am sick.’ She talked me into it. We sat at Henry Halper’s drugstore on 56th Street and Madison because Bazaar was there, I believe on the 10th floor. Sally took a bottle out of her bag and said, ‘I have a little brandy here. Do you want it?’ I said, ‘No, no, no, that’s all right.’ It was the most wonderful interview. Another time I went to see Mrs. Vreeland with my two children and she said, ‘Now, Polly, I’ve seen you. Now I want to be with your children. You go do something.’ So the door was closed, the two children were in there and I was thinking, ‘They are never going to forgive me.’ When I was called back into her office, Baker had on her earrings, Leslie had on a couple of her gold chains, they were laughing and having a ball. The only trouble was Mrs. Vreeland would send me every Christmas two beautiful little dresses. She had forgotten that Baker was a boy. But he did wear the earrings. He didn’t take that farther — thank God.”
Career advice from Carmel Snow
“Go see every designer everywhere. You never know where the next talent is coming from. Open your eyes, have a little humility and let go of ego.”
“Never would I let anyone go to a William Holden movie with me. Once watching ‘Picnic’ — I had such a crush on William Holden — someone tapped my shoulder and said, ‘Polly, you were here when we came in.’ And I said, ‘I know. I am going to see it again. Please go away.’ When I was on my honeymoon with Louis Bell in Portofino we went to the [Hotel] Splendido where there was a wonderful pool that went on into the ocean. There were two rafts in the ocean. So I quickly went into the ocean and got onto one of the rafts and I noticed this fellow on the other raft. He said, ‘Why don’t you come over here to my raft?’ It was William Holden. I quickly, if you can believe this, dove into the water and swam home to where my husband was. I don’t know if I regretted that or not. He was gorgeous. Brown. White trunks.”
The 1981 Serpentine Nastassja Kinsky shoot
“We did some pictures that were interesting, not great. I went to her dressing room and asked if she had any favorite pets. She said, ‘Yes, I love snakes.’ I asked her if she would want to do a picture with a snake and she said that would really interest her. I ran down and got Dick [Avedon], and we called an animal trainer who brought the snake. She held it and I could tell she was really fascinated and turned on by it. Holding this snake, I mean, you can’t believe it. It is so very seductive. Dick asked her if she would lie down and be nude with the snake. The snake wound up her body very slowly. Nobody was telling it what to do. I could hardly believe what I was seeing. When the snake got to her ear, he kissed her and put out his tongue. Then the shoot was over and I was crying.”
“I am not sure that I believe in doubt, because if you’re learning and curious something else takes over and doubt can be erased. I think doubt is a negative feeling and I don’t think I am a negative person. There is no need to feel negative. It is much better to feel rosy, to look forward. That’s what I do.”