New Again: Diana Vreeland
In celebration of Independence Day, we’ve flipped back through our archives to an interview with Diana Vreeland, Grande Dame of fashion and a true American hero. Like most heroes of this nation, Vreeland was not exactly an American: she was born to an English father and an American mother in Paris in 1903, where she resided until World War One. In her teens and early 20s, she lived in New York. In her late 20s and early 30s, she flitted between London and Paris with her husband, Thomas Reed Vreeland. But Vreeland shaped two of the U.S.’s oldest fashion magazines: Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, where she worked from 1936 to 1963 and 1963 to 1971, respectively. Today, she is America’s answer to Coco Chanel, credited with inventing words like “pizzazz” and on everybody’s inspiration list—from Gianni Versace to contemporary models like Amanda Wellsh. In December of 1980, Vreeland graced the cover of Interview. It’s a long read—even in the slightly abridged version below—but well worth it.
Diana Vreeland: Empress of Fashion
By Jonathan Lieberson
A few weeks ago, a journalist of my acquaintance rang me up and told me to meet him as soon as possible in the crush bar of Carnegie Hall, which I did. That the man was verging on hysteria was transparently clear even to a mind as untrained in psychopathology as mine. “It’s Diana Vreeland,” he said, “You know her. Who is she? I’ve been trying to get a story.” “Nonsense, man, it’s simple,” I reposted authoritatively, “She was until 1970-something, the editor of Vogue magazine—and before that an editor at Harper’s Bazaar—and now works as a special consultant to the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She’s been awarded the Légion d’honneur and many other—” “No, no, no, no, no, no!” he bellowed, his trembling hand trying to elevate a second bourbon to his lips, “What is she like? I can’t find out anything from her. What are her opinions? I can’t even find out where she was born.” “Have you established whether she was, in fact, born?” I queried. When he proceeded to burst into tears, sobbing uncontrollably, I realized that my probing had been just what a doctor would have ordered. “There, there, there,” I said, “Tears will solve nothing. Chin up. Tell me about it.” It transpired that he had gone to interview Mrs. Vreeland and had failed to unearth a single stable fact. History never repeated itself with her. At one interview, from what he could perceive, her birthplace had been somewhere in the Atlas Mountains, in a nomad community accompanied by Berber ululations. Then, sentences later, it would be Nebraska, with Indians dancing around the natal tepee, then the City of Light, then Dusseldorf. Peru had been the site of her education, Arabian satraps had sponsored her wedding, Scottish farmers had told her the facts of life, etc. The deadline for an article about her was approaching, notebooks filled with contradictory materials were piled high on his desk, his electric and gas bills had to be paid. “You must help me!” he cried, his eyes brimming with hot salt tears. Then he sank into an alcoholic coma, allowing me time to think. Yes, here was a problem, a problem as difficult as any the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes had ever confronted. If only out of loyalty to my unhinged friend, I was determined to get to the bottom of this case and face Mrs. Vreeland with these allegations. To my delight, the opportunity to do so arose that very night, as the two of us were dining out together.
DIANA VREELAND: There is a Who’s who, you know.
JONATHAN LIEBERSON: Yes, but what the man was hinting at was, to put it bluntly, that you seem to be… self-invested.
VREELAND: But don’t we all invent ourselves? Look here, I was naturally influenced by the literature of my youth and tried to exploit the idea, you know…
LIEBERSON: That the personality is a work of art. Oscar Wilde, Pierre Loti, etc. The idea that every gesture, every utterance, is part of a total design, an economy, just as words are combined in a poem or dabs of oil in a painting.
VREELAND: Yes. But I think that is all very true. I did tell you I forgot for a long time to be like other people. Of course, I was always sort of a loner, I suppose. I always had to think out everything for myself… I suppose that is what you call a loner. Now where do you put this screen? Where do you put that sofa? How do you arrange that dressing table… but my room never came out like anyone else’s. It used to kill me!
LIEBERSON: So when did you give up the struggle?
VREELAND: Hmmmmmm. You know, many years ago, I mean many, many years ago, I was on the train to Chicago—the 20th century train—and Frisco was there. Now don’t you know who I mean? Oh, but he was marvelous! A black dancer, with a bowler hat and the most exquisite shoes. And he woke up and asked the waiter for ice cream and apple juice. This was breakfast, you understand. And the waiter said, “But we don’t have it,” and Frisco said, “Fake it!” That story has always been a big influence on me. Fake it!
LIEBERSON: [lamely] So you don’t really care for mechanical conformists.
VREELAND: I don’t like the jambon tonight either. It’s too harsh. I don’t like harsh food.
An abrupt exchange, admittedly, but I felt sure that part of the case had been cracked. If I could break down her resistance further… but then she raised a disturbing thought.
VREELAND: To tell you the truth, should we spend this much time on ourselves? I mean, I’ve lived all my life working very hard and in the last two to three years, so many people have asked me so many questions—and none of them are interesting to anybody, not even interesting to answer. You can say, that’s part of business, okay. But don’t you think we should rather be going on with our lives? Look, nothing I’ve ever done is extraordinary. Of course, I worked, but there’s nothing extraordinary about that. Why did I go to work? It was a hell of a long time ago.
LIEBERSON: You had your husband Reed and two children…
VREELAND: No, I was married 12 or 13 years before I went to work. Those were the wonderful years in which I read. You see, I was just an idle woman. I had a nurse. I had a nanny, a luxurious life in London. What small education I ever got I got in those years.
LIEBERSON: What did you read?
VREELAND: I read everything! I would have read the phone book if you put it in front of me. I just read. Naturally, the whole 19th century. The French, the Russian writers. Stendhal. The typical literature of young girls. I never read Jane Austen, but I will someday… Also, a lot of books on painters and literary men, a lot of memoirs… but I went to work to make money, not because I was bored. It was money that I wanted. Reed was a very gentle man. He was the youngest of five children, the only one who got with it. He had a rich father, but when the inheritance was divided up, it came too little. Reed looked after everybody—he was a wonderful, wonderful man. Now of course he didn’t say, “Go to work and make some dough,” for heaven’s sake. Carmel Snow asked me to work. I mean, Reed and I were married, but I never believed that he should look after me and I lead the life of Riley.
LIEBERSON: I imagine that was hardly the typical attitude of wives at that time, a half century ago.
VREELAND: I daresay, but perhaps they had more money at their disposal. We had no heritage. I always felt that money was important. Isn’t that curious? And just think how far back I go. There was a time when it was considered vulgar and unnecessary to pursue money, but today anyone who doesn’t believe in money must be out of their minds! I mean, it’s only intelligent to wish to look after yourself properly. It is wonderful to have a lot of it—I was brought up with people like that—but we just weren’t that rich. Consequently, I thought about it all the time. I’ve never stopped thinking about it all my life. But, you know, it’s not anything that’s terribly attractive to have on one’s mind all the time… but it’s always been on mine. Not that I was in shame or had any reason to be ashamed. I do not want you to get that impression that there was any sort of money grubbing.
LIEBERSON: But you have never been really poor…
VREELAND: But I didn’t know how to handle money. When I first came here, for example. You’ve got to believe me, I’m not telling you the monkeyshines! I’d go to lunch and rather than handle money and give the man a tip… I had no standard to go by. I’d always had a car and driver in London… I’d keep the taxi until after lunch! But your question… Yes, I’ve had periods in which I literally had nothing. I couldn’t afford another cake of soap. No more bills! We just had to catch up. Once I got myself into debt. This was a real lesson in life. It had nothing to so with my family, just me. It was quite a lot of money. So I told myself, “You gotta watch it.” I just didn’t spend any money… like if you are fat, you just don’t eat. And then one day, Reed breezed into my room and he said, “Well, I’ve just spoken to the office and gotten the news. You don’t owe anybody in the world a cent.”
LIEBERSON: What a relief.
VREELAND: Oh, you are wrong. It felt like nothing at all. For three years I had on my back this terrible load. It meant nothing to me to be rid of it because I had no right to be in debt in the first place. You know, I wonder about prisoners. They’re told, “You are free, you are innocent, you can go anywhere.” I’m sure they usually feel nothing. They don’t burst into tears or hysterics or joy or “I told you so.” It’s nothing. To be on the straight path isn’t a bloody thing. It’s just ordinary.
LIEBERSON: In your case, the “straight path” meant working pretty hard.
VREELAND: No one knows how hard one works. Don’t you loathe the word “workaholic”? It has nothing to do with an important thing, that you and your secretary are at the office until 6:30. But that’s life, kiddo. 24-hour work doesn’t go on in America. 24-hour work is what Italy and Holland did after the war. The lights never went out! Reed and I went to Paris right after the war. When we arrived, there as no bread except from potato flour, no soles except for wooden soles. You could tell the time of day by looking at people going to and from their offices.
LIEBERSON: Going back to the question of career, it seems to me that many, many people not only want to do something other than what they do, but are something else. Let me explain. This ad man is a painter who suppressed his interest in painting because of the pressure of making a living. He isn’t someone who secretly wishes to be something else, he is a painter, but he extinguishes this creative direction because he has to make money. That telephone operator is a singer, that editor is a writer…
VREELAND: Well, if I hadn’t done what I did, I’d have nothing at all. Very few people are creative, don’t you think? I mean all people are meant to be creative in a certain way. What way? Perhaps I was cut out to be a wonderful housewife, with a marvelous sense of cooking, being with my friends, running a perfect house. But I am not ambitious towards anything. Life has rolled my way… you know I’ve always had such wonderful opportunities, but I never made the effort, haven’t put on the pressure. Naturally, I’ve been offered many jobs—and many years ago—a company of my own in which I’d call the shots. But I never took them. I’d have more money if I had, but I wouldn’t have the privileges I have today. I’ve always remained totally myself, which is to say, without an idea… of what to do. Basically, I’m a person who is only invested in the pleasures and enjoyments of life. All the rest is left to the men. I’ve always remained what you might call “feminine” about the whole thing.
LIEBERSON: This is curious. Your actions, your career do not seem as if they were hampered by narrow little conventions about femininity—they were, in today’s jargon, the actions of a “liberated woman.” But your description of yourself, your view of women—
VREELAND: Oh hell, what does “liberation” mean? About 10 years ago, some girls came into my office and told me they had discovered women are free. This is a weakness of the world. Someone thinks they’ve discovered something for the first time. They want to be authoritative about it. Now these girls said, “Aren’t you ashamed to be talking about decorativeness, about ornamentation,” blah-blah-blah. Now look, these girls had had the pill for 10 years. How free can you get? Isadora Duncan was free. How liberated can you get? I remember my grandmother very well. She was an impossible, extraordinary woman. If anyone was liberated, she was… Outside her bedroom, she had a big balcony overlooking the garden, and she had all these Italians working for her. Then one day, she said, “Where is Elsa?” Elsa was a maid and she was not available by bell. Anyway, “Where is Elsa?” Now it was six in the morning. “She’s gone to church, Madam.” “Church? I come before God!” It was six in the morning and I remember her shouting. Of course, I went straight back to sleep. But servants never stayed with my grandmother.
LIEBERSON: When we’re on the subjects of groups, causes and movements, you don’t strike me as identifying with much of anything.
VREELAND: Well, I haven’t spent much time looking into other people’s lives. There is no question about it: when I was at the mags, I was at the center of the town and now I’m not. But I’ve never been part of any group. I’ve always had my own tea and toast at home. I think it comes from being born in Paris, being brought up by a strict English father. Of course, there were a lot of other things in my family—Francis Scott Key was my great, great, great-uncle. Anyway, my father believed totally in the purest sense in being English. He would say, “You are a British woman! A woman of England!” My father was not at all preposterous. He was just my hero. But look here, I’m for everybody. There are no set rules. But if one’s not a joiner. To hell with all of them!
I must confess that the picture of Diana Vreeland as a loner applying cost-benefit analysis, leaving everything to the men, sticking in the background, shying from the fray, is somehow unsatisfactory. If it is an accurate picture, then I must have been hallucinating when I first met her in the ’60s—a condition not uncommon if you care to recall the period. Like everyone else, I was not introduced to her but to her index finger, extended as a kind of barrier to trade. But even with an eye jaundiced by the psychotropic tastes of the time, I asked myself: Could it be true? She was improbable in the extreme: a strange figure, sitting cross-legged, with erect spine, stroking the arch of an extended foot, her fingers stretching and kneading the air, her mouth and out-thrust jaw in constant motion, authoritatively humming and purring. Her black hair looked concretized, hard enough to repel, say, a length of galvanized steel pipe. Her face reminded me of something Erich Maria Remarque had written about a film star of the ’30s: the face of a star, he said, was like an empty room: you could fill it as you wished: some made it into an office, others into a museum, still others into a bedroom. With its large nose, enormous lips and vigilant eyes, Mrs. Vreeland’s face had no such ambiguity at all. There was no room for rent in it.
LIEBERSON: So the waitress brought in a gigot, lo, and beh—
VREELAND: Gigolos! GIG-O-LOS. I knew a lot of gigolos, because I love to dance. This was years ago in Paris, but… mmmmm, gigolos. You see, when Gertrude Whitney and the other old girls went home, I was still up there in Montmartre… Of course, you must avoid meeting your parents in night clubs, but this was late. The gigolos—oh, they were charming. And they adored me and roared with laughter at everything I said. Now of course, I was always with someone else. But my dances didn’t cost me a penny!
I am informed by top sources (whose friendship means so little that their identity can be secured by dropping me an inquiring postcard) that Mrs. Vreeland’s habit of rolling words around in her mouth like peppermints led to one of the most curious episodes in magazine history. One day at Vogue, she hit upon an idea. Yes, it was vague, but it just might work, given patience, imagination, skill. Assembling the full editorial staff, she shrieked, “I want an issue, not an article, but the book on R-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-u-sh-sh-sh-are. Now get onto it, pronto!” Quivering, the pert sub-editors fled the room like frightened deer, their heels clicking like the triphammers as they scurried down the hall to collect their reporter’s notebooks and hit the pavements. Weeks went by as they worked overtime in a febrile state, assembling at great expense photographers, layouts and such story ideas as, “If you’re working late and have to go out, wear your evening clothes to the office and take a helicopter home,” etc… Hiro photographed the chic but harried commuter trying to catch the 5:10, and Avedon contributed shots of a girl standing on her head near the triborough pedestrian’s lane. When the accumulated material was finally presented to Mrs. Vreeland, a wintry expression formed on her features. “Girls, I’m disappointed. These ideas have absolutely nothing to do with the romance, the power, the glory that Russia means to me. Where were you kids educated? Scrap all this. Go out and come up with something fresh, for God’s sake!”
Then there were the pronouncing and spelling phrases. “Chicago” would be “Chick-ago,” “Cincinnati” “Chin-chin-ati,” and most curious of all, “video” as in “Montevideo.” Then Mrs. Vreeland would deliberately spell words in, shall we say, unusual ways. “If you want cash, get cash,” she’d say, “K-A-S-H, that’s how I spell it!” Or: “But that’s not real, R-E-E-L, you get me?” I often speculated what would happen if the ad people behind Rolaids could get their hands on her. In any case, the significance and purpose of these linguistic innovations is obscure; no one knows whether these phases of Mrs. Vreeland are over or not, but let’s keep in constant touch about it.
Mrs. Vreeland speaks one-third of the time like a gangster, one-third of the time like the head of a multinational corporation—forgive me for repeating myself—and the rest of the time like an émigré from one of the French-speaking pixie kingdoms. Her command of French is easily explained by the fact that she was born in Paris and didn’t come to America until 1914 (and then only briefly). The authoritative tone and imperial posture, on the other hand, is natural for one who has held considerable power for many years. But that her vocabulary also includes the racy argot of the underworld was not fully apparent to me until I took a peculiar cab ride with her some years ago. Our cab driver, a pinhead with a scar running down his cheek and missing front tooth, by all appearances a hardened criminal who had just been sprung from a high-security cooler, tried to trifle with us by diversifying out intended course of travel—in fact, by giving us a screeching sightseeing tour of Little Italy. Although my fists were doubled in rage, I managed to retain my composure and only unclenched them to light up a cigarette with my Binaca breath spray and enumerate the uses of the sawed-off shotgun I saw resting on the driver’s seat. Then to my astonishment I heard something like the following conversation.
VREELAND: Skip the gingerbread, buster, and hit the pedal up Sixth—we can’t stay here jawboning with you at a smacker a minute.
CAB DRIVER: Don’t blow a fuse, Granny.
VREELAND: Okay, you want my pal here to give you a slip on the button or a fist up the smeller? You’ll be seeing the Vegas lights in your research center unless you groove the jimmy on the rubber. No more chin music outta you!
CAB DRIVER: [chastened, turning on to Sixth Avenue] Whattdya want, a cross-town sled?
VREELAND: Okay, now we’re cookin’ on the front burner. Let’s play ball, fatso, and flam the coppers by gypsying on the 14th.
When I reminded Mrs. Vreeland of this cultural exchange recently, she said, “Oh I don’t recall that particular conversation at all, do you? But we did get from A to B!”
Regardless of individual words and their pronunciation or spelling, it’s the thought that counts. A whispering campaign has it that Diana Vreeland is frivolous, interested in surfaces, and consequently says weird and silly things. This is gross calumny. Most of her remarks derive from her rich knowledge of folk wisdom, like, “Once upon a time I knew all the Wall Street people—they all died of dry martinis, we all know that.” Of course, it is true that she has been credited with originating such remarks as, “The Civil War was nothing compared to the smell of a San Diego orange” and “Peanut butter is the greatest invention since Christianity,” but these were probably inventions of press agents or agents of the press. But in any case, the slanderous criticism backfired: first off, it assumes Mrs. Vreeland’s remarks are meant to be apothegms or even witticisms, whereas in fact, an entirely new word is needed to describe them I hereby suggest they be called, not maxims or aphorisms or apothegms or even witticisms, but “crypticisms,” i.e. terse expressions of occult knowledge, usually of some enthusiasm of her own. Among things I’ve heard her say recently, I think, “The day you give a dinner in my honor, tell everybody, including me, it’s for someone else” is clear-cut crypticism, as is, “I love forks—but I don’t like spoons very much.” I would also include “All style is based on style—some other style” and (when I told her I thought she knew a lot about doctors) “I wish the doctors knew that.” “A sense of humor always goes with elegance of mind” is just a commonplace profound observation, but I’m not sure about the command she gave a friend of her in Hong Kong: “If you’re getting up at the crack of dawn, go out and buy some plates at some of the Russian Communistic ships.” Other cases are more difficult to categorize, such as: “I don’t think I’m neurotic because I’ve never reacted to events in a neurotic way. If you said, ‘Diana, I can’t stand your food, I’m going to leave this room,’ I’d never become neurotic—I’d just give you a smack in the face.” One time a bitter war of words broke out between two elderly guests at one of her dinner parties. The hissing and snapping rose in volume until the opponents were puffed up like mambas about to strike a mongoose. Reaching across the table tapping one of them on the arm, she said, “You two kids having fun?”
The production of crypticisms is perhaps encouraged by the sometimes—obscure way in which Mrs. Vreeland tells a story:
LIEBERSON: I understand you were in Germany in 1936 and witnessed some remarkable things.
VREELAND: Oh, but it was extraordinary. We went up this sort of… and everyone was having a tout petit splash of mmmmmm… and we did a bit of this and that until we got to I don’t know where, and I said I don’t know what to I don’t know who, blah-blah-blah… Of course, I wouldn’t be telling you this any more than you’d be telling I don’t know what to… Oh, the hell with it.
(It turned out that Mrs. Vreeland had stayed with her maid at the Vierjahrzeiten in Munich on the “Night of the Long Knives” and that 14 people had been killed in a room two floors above her. “Elsie Mendl’s maid,” she added characteristically, “saw men dressed in lingerie.”)
There is an old debate in the advertising business (and why confine it to them?) as to whether the successful businessman responds to consumer demand that already exists or, in fact, creates it. I imagine Diana Vreeland could well be used as an example of a successful “businessperson” who creates demand. Her collected memos at Vogue, I have been assured, would alone disclose an inventory of fantastic ideas unparalleled even in the imagination of… Diana Vreeland.
VREELAND: You see, I don’t think I’ve ever been terribly normal. If I read in the papers that someone got the Pulitzer Prize and someone called me up and said, “But isn’t that person quite a friend of yours? Aren’t you excited?” No, not terribly, no. You see what I’m trying to tell you? I’ve always known that certain thing, that certain thing about people before they get that kind of recognition.
LIEBERSON: Maybe I’m wrong. I’ve had the impression that sometimes these people are vehicles for some idea you have and that certain thing is that idea embodied. I saw you the other night at a gathering of prep-school and college kids, debutantes, a low-key rock band etc… There was no place to sit down—except the place you found, the drummer’s seat (the bad hadn’t started yet). There you sat alone in front of the whole room. At least you were comfortable. But anyway, suddenly, amidst all f this dreariness, an imp, a girl wearing army fatigues, jumped out of nowhere and started to gyrate frenetically. She was brandishing a startlingly accurate replica of a machine gun and pointing it savagely, even obscenely, at different people in the room. Most of the guests were in a collegiate stupor and paid no attention to her. But you turned to me and said, “That’s the only girl here who has it.” Well, maybe you could make something of her…
VREELAND: You see, I’m what you might call an idea-rist. You take my idea, and you do something with it and I’ll be behind you and follow it up and through. I have these… spasms of ideas.
LIEBERSON: I know. My favorite recent example is when you were wondering how your new show on Chinese costumes, costumes from 1650 to—
VREELAND: 1644 to 1912.
LIEBERSON: How this show would be mounted. The “housepainters,” as you call them, were standing around, awaiting specific instructions and you said, “I want the moon, I want the moon, I want these figures to be like people touched by the moon.”
For an idea-rist, and especially one who dislikes nostalgia so much, it might appear odd that Mrs. Vreeland has worked at a museum so long, handling materials of the past.
LIEBERSON: You said to me the other day, “It’s terrible to talk about your contemporaries but what if they’re standing next to you?”
VREELAND: I don’t care for nostalgia; I like history. That is different! I love history, history and geography. But no one knows anything about geography anymore. A boy came into my office when I was going my Russian show and he said, “I’m interested, sure. But what’s all this fuss over two small towns, St. Petersburg and Moscow. Small stuff.” My God, it’s half the world. Russia is the crown of Europe and Asia, Indian and China… Oh, I’m so fascinated by the place and the distance… I think about these things all the time. Genghis Khan and those boys really moved. I never moved, but they moved.
LIEBERSON: I suppose you must have known a sizeable number of Russians in the ’20s—
VREELAND: Oh, Paris was really guzzling with the stuff in the ’20s and ’30s because of the Russians—and they weren’t uninteresting. Look, I want after Russians. But they were all so up. They didn’t go out for nothing, but to be something.
LIEBERSON: I understand that when Prince Felix Yousopoff went to register at Oxford University, he rather surprised the administration of his college by bringing along his furniture, his menservants, horses, equerries…
VREELAND: But why shouldn’t he bring his retinue? It was his life, his world! Why shouldn’t he bring it? I or you couldn’t bring anything. Of course, I’d have bought along my family, but maybe they’d have had other plans. I got such a kick out of Russia—but then I visited it 60 years later.
LIEBERSON: This brings me to a painful subject. I’ve heard you criticized for going to Russia rather as Lady Londonderry did in another century, treating it as if it were still in the hands of the Tsarist dynasties.
VREELAND: Now look here, this is extraordinary. I went for beauty, not politics. A Russian commissioner of the arts said to me, “You seem very interested in palaces, jewelry, imperial carriages, the thrones of the Tsars.” But of course I was! Oh, I saw all those Uzbek people huddling over fires. But it is too boring—those clothes are up and down Lexington Avenue. So when she said this to me, I said, “But that is all you’ve shown us.” And of course I meant the Russians. Look, communism is okay if you’ve got a car and driver. Thank God, I saw the splendor and grandeur of great societies, which I believed in, because they existed, because they were legitimate.
(These are purely political judgments. In case you were wondering about religion, I once asked Mrs. Vreeland whether she had ever seen the famous passion plays at Oberammergau, plays which would induce religious ecstasy in the devout, and she said, “Of course. It didn’t touch me that much, but I loved the countryside.”)
LIEBERSON: What about China?
VREELAND: But that is a different subject. People say to me, “Why do you know so much about China?” Because I went to school, and when I went to school, China was as existent as Missouri! All the dreams of all my life have been in China. When I was living in London, the only way to get there was to take a boat to Shanghai, which was our port. Shanghai was the London of the East. Anyway, that took a month. Then you’d stay three weeks here and travel four weeks there, and then four weeks travel back home. My God, it took three months! I had a young husband who was very busy, so how could we go? But don’t think we ever stopped discussing it, every hour on the hour. It was the only really deep interest in our lives. There is no question about it: China is the most totally compact glory of the world. There is nothing faded about China—it is spontaneous!
Diana Vreeland has worked with photography and costumes all her life, and now works in the Costume Institute of a museum of art, and yet she doesn’t think either are art forms. In fact, her attitude towards photography—which is briefly discussed (as is everything else) in Allure, the book she has written with Christopher Hemphill—seems perilously like that of a cook towards the ingredients he works with: take a pinch of this and a dash of that, make a good meal, and throw out the rest or save it for another meal.
VREELAND: But in the book I was talking about commercial photography.
LIEBERSON: Why does it matter? The Mona Lisa was commercial painting. But you wouldn’t say, “I’m awfully fond of the smile. Let’s keep it and patch it on to something else”
VREELAND: But you cannot call photography art. It’s being in the right place at the right time. It’s like using a computer…Well, there is Penn and maybe others. But look, photography is a wonderful way of making money, but it’s not art. You ask, then, what is art? I don’t know. I have no idea. Artistry is something one never ceases to grab for and admire—but to know what it is… is impossible for someone like myself to say.
LIEBERSON: But you can feel it and detect it when you see it, like in the work of your friend Christian Brénard…
VREELAND: You know, it’s very hard to discuss Bébé. He was my best friend in France. He was totally an artist… When I was sitting in my hotel room, having my nails done, he would watch the manicurist painting, he would watch the stroke of the brush— he was fascinated. He was a wonderful friend. When he put his hand on the shoulder of anyone, he created… a golden life. Now you might say, when France lost him, what did they lose? A few watercolors. He painted some portraits. But most of his things are for the theater. He loved movement. He was totally exuberant, and never interested in anything static. I did tell you, didn’t I, the story of my son Timmy and Bébé? At his very last production at the Comedie Française, he called up Timmy—who was living in Paris studying I don’t know what. So Bébé said, ” I know you will want to see the dress rehearsal.” And Timmy went. Then he wrote me this letter, saying, “Bébé wanted me to see the play from the wings, to see the movement. All evening he kept his arm around me, squeezing my shoulder, saying, ‘Ah, I wish Diane was here,’ so instead of going to supper with him after the performance, I came home to write this letter because I knew it would make you happy to hear about the greys, the violets, the yellows, the colors you associate with Bébé. So I will stop this letter and set it to you.” That was the letter. But, you see, Timmy left the theater to write me the letter, but Bébé never did. He died right there, that night, in the theater. Oh, God, if I could only find this letter!
Writing and editing are topic on which Mrs. Vreeland has some firm opinions.
VREELAND: Someone called me up for a quote. I said this and that. Of course, I didn’t speak in full sentences. But I said, “Leave my words as they are. Don’t finish the sentences.”
VREELAND: To me, it’s a bore to do that. Why finish them? Look, I believe in tidy housekeeping, I believe in neatness, I believe in a fresh bed, a clean dressing table. But these are first things.
LIEBERSON: But what precisely is the point? Should published writing be closer to how we think? Do you think people think less in sentences than they have done before?
VREELAND: Oh, yes. We’re all so together that we know the end of the sentence, and we’re taking up my time and yours by finishing it. Of course, in England there are proper talkers; they’re riveting, riveting. They know their business. You can listen to their full sentences. But most people just project ideas, and what do they have going for them? You simply don’t have to make a big thing about it.
LIEBERSON: Suppose I say, “So and so is losing his hair because…” and just trail off. That is what I thought; it just stopped there—
VREELAND: Well, the whole thing depends on whether there is anything of consequence that follows.
LIEBERSON: Very funny. You’re quite a punstress. Do you think this phenomenon we are talking about has some strong connections with advertising or the more relaxed journalistic habits of today?
VREELAND: What, baldness?
LIEBERSON: No, this point of yours that it is undesirable to finish sentences because we know the end of them.
VREELAND: I don’t know.
LIEBERSON: So you think that, say, an editor of a magazine should not edit out what they often do but reproduce the pauses, the “ahs,” “glorps,” “oofs,” and “ers”—
VREELAND: I don’t know if I’d go that far.
LIEBERSON: Why not? To “er” is human.
VREELAND: But look, this business of editing. Editing is not just in magazines. I consider that editing should be in everything—thoughts, friendships, life. Everything in life is editing. Of course, you don’t necessarily have to do it yourself, but you have to see that it happens around you, with your friends and the ones who love you.
LIEBERSON: Yes, and what about these maxims and sayings that float around? Take your own slogan, “Elegance is refusal.” It is tantalizing, but what does it mean? What are you supposed to refuse? Theater tickets? A second helping at dinner? I don’t quite understand the slogan. It is like Proust, who said somewhere that the word “No” is the most powerful stimulant to a suitor.
VREELAND: Well, I don’t agree. Playing hard to get is hardly the point… Elegance is, as the French say, la réfus. But of course that has to be edited. If you refuse everything, you are as dry as a bone. Selection is the point…
LIEBERSON: Or maintaining certain standards. You told me once of going with your husband to Rome after the war—
VREELAND: Yes, we went to the Hotel Excelsior. I came into our room. And I said, “I can’t open this window. I can’t stand this room. It’s so stuffy.” The concierge went up to Reed and said: “Please say that the rooms are stuffy, please say that the bed is badly made, please say that the bathroom isn’t properly washed. We’ve got to retrain these people. We’ve got to keep our standards. Please don’t be a tourist. Please be a man who understands what we stand for. We’ve got to keep our standards…” Naturally we did our best.
LIEBERSON: But wouldn’t it mislead people if you were taken to hold the position that we must maintain some snobbish standards concerning how you dress or wash? Weren’t you making a general point? Of course, it is splendid to have some flowers of luxury in your life—
VREELAND: Why are they just flowers? Why aren’t they your whole life? What’s the matter with the best things in life? Look, the hell with most people. Why aren’t they working? Perhaps, for one day, to be able to see or know beauty, humanity, softness…
LIEBERSON: No, what I meant is that you regard standards as key. It is a general point. You are not identifying yourself with some particular standards held by, say the English upper class of the Virginia horse crowd.
VREELAND: Not by a gunshot! Now don’t forget, there was no thought, no intention, behind our book, no intellectuality. But standards, selectivity, is what we were speaking of.
We are all accustomed to hearing people, old and young, mourn the passing of forms of life—the civic and intellectual unity of the ancient Greek polis, the blossoming of arts in the Renaissance, the courteous liberal society of 19th-century England. Diana Vreeland is a woman who has witnessed decades if social change and mourns little—except perhaps the passing of the ’60s. She was in her element in those years and quite a success with the young. I wish to avoid nostalgia as much as she does but a sentimental tear forms in my eye when I recall attending a blaring rock concert with her in those years. We saw the Rolling Stones amidst caterwauling, sexually stoked-up, rock-and-rollers freaked out on nose candy and puffing at reefers—
VREELAND: I received all these fumes and I was in the most gorgeous condition.
LIEBERSON: I don’t recall you being shocked by anything at all. The impudent young pups were terribly disappointed; they weren’t accustomed to being treated with such respect.
VREELAND: Right! I was for youth, yes. Because I was brought up in a period when you had to wait six or seven years before you became… normal. In the ’60s, youth went out to life instead of life going out to youth.
LIEBERSON: Many people of that period, especially in England, certainly resembled in their costumed the Diaghilev types you saw in your parents’ house when you were a child. I recall seeing the Diaghilev costumes feverishly auctioned off by wealthy hippies at Sotheby’s at the time.
VREELAND: I’ve told you about Ida Rubinstein’s black suede boots? I first saw her in 1909 or 1910. She was shocking—but you cannot shock children. She was in the demimonde, the half-world. But it was a whole world. They had their own newspapers, their own dressmakers, their own chefs, their own horses. I saw Rubinstein later, in 1930, dancing the Bolero of Ravel and the St. Sebastien of Debussy. She wasn’t young. But she was remarkable, an educated woman apparently and not poor. All those men fell in love with her—Garibaldi, D’Annunzio—they weren’t cheap skates.
LIEBERSON: Whereas La Duse, D’Annunzio’s great love—
VREELAND: Looked like a grey nanny to me. But the boots! Ira Rubinstein had something I had never seen before: suede boots. I had to wait for the ’60s to get black suede boots!
LIEBERSON: So that is the explanation of why you liked the ’60s?
VREELAND: Oh, but the kids were innocent with flowers in their arms—they were up to all sorts of things—the music changed, then the Pill came on, the jets came on, everything changed.
LIEBERSON: You hold the Pill in an esteemed position. Wait until the Synod of Catholic Bishops hears about this.
VREELAND: To me, the Pill was the turning point in the whole younger generation, because it created a totally different society. It was much more important than, say, the TV set, which was something you had to have because it amused you. The pill was true freedom. Girls and boys could do anything; they were protected. It changed everything—
LIEBERSON: It changed sexual habits, everyone’s favorite subject.
VREELAND: But sex is everything! We all know people were as stiff as starch before they met their… mmmmm. Sex loosens up. Let’s not discuss the word “love.” Love is the power in a woman’s life—there’s no question about it—but people think that love is sending postcards from island to island. Sex is physically releasing… And in the ’60s, the kids escaped from their puritanical background in which they were brought up. I mean, there was nothing disgraceful about being really promiscuous. Personally, I don’t think promiscuity is anything to anybody’s credit, only selectivity is—
LIEBERSON: Selective promiscuity.
VREELAND: Well, if you must be promiscuous. But you see, in the ’60s, there was something new all the time. You were on the air. You were running down the street with flames in your nose! And there was no little snort connected with that.
LIEBERSON: You mention music and entertainment have changed. I was walking with you to a restaurant the other day in a wind, a gale-force-10 wind. We were turning a corner, flattened to the wall of a building, when a paroxysm of air blew a gnomish reporter from behind a fire hydrant. He leaped in front of you and took this odd opportunity to ask you, “What were the great entertainments of the last 10 years?” And you said, “What, among my friends?” That took a certain presence of mind.
VREELAND: Well, that’s where they have been. No one demands great performances any more. You know I loved Callas, who animalized me, and there is Mick Jagger.
LIEBERSON: The reporter then asked you, “Have you heard of the New Wave stuff? Do you groove on Marsha and the Vendettas? Do Dingdong and the Thumbs have style? Do you think Shelley and the Digits have allure?”
VREELAND: It’s not pretty. It has no curves, no voluptuousness. Look, you can’t be pro-everything. But why don’t people take entertainment more seriously? In a disciplined world, entertainment could be very well handled. In an undisciplined world, it is not always entertainment, just dissipation… stout, stoutness, strict—all these words are out today. But I think there are standards of the past and that they are very important—courtesy, manners, especially manner. The world today is so average—I’m so aware if it. And that is very serious, don’t you think? Everybody’s fascinated by sex, by drugs, by certain rhythms of the modern world, but there is no avant-garde. Having no respect for politics, and only being interested in great men, I’m ashamed to know so little about politics. Of course, I don’t think the country is, shall we say, leaning on me. But I do feel a lot of things and I don’t think I’m wrong on one instinct. It is pretty easy to think your own thoughts today.
LIEBERMAN: I’m not sure I understand what you mean by the missing avant-garde.
VREELAND: I don’t know, the avant-garde is the herald that comes before the fact. It’s something I always counted on. In the ’60s, there was a new herald every 10 minutes! But no one is heralding anything today. They spend too much time on definition. There is too much definition. Definition’s got to go. Can’t anything just flow freely? Does everybody sit down and give the best recipe for sleeping late…? And most people are too lonely. I think New York is a lonely town. You say maybe? Aren’t you aware? I mean “lonely” in the sense that people are terrified to be alone.
LIEBERSON: And why do you suppose that is so?
VREELAND: Well, I’m sort of square and oversimplify matters. I think it has to do with cooking. That’s all I have to say about the matter.
THIS ARTICLE INTIALLY APPEARED IN THE DECEMBER 1980 ISSUE OF INTERVIEW.
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