Hail, Diana Vreeland, Editor, Author, Curator and the Woman Jackie O Has Loved for 45 Years
She is an exotic creature only Vogue could imagine, an arresting silhouette in black, dazzling an international audience with her grand style. Her elegant hands with their tapered red nails grasp a gold hoop rimmed in vibrant strips of tissue-thin silk—shocking pink, black, yellow, purple, red, green. The models and designers who have stepped through these colors are magically transformed. Voilà: Beautiful People. First the jeunes filles: Lauren Bacall, Cher, Lauren Hutton, Marisa Berenson, Marella Agnelli, Veruschka, Penelope Tree, Jean Shrimpton, "Baby Jane" Holzer, Twiggy. Then the tastemakers: Halston, Oscar de la Renta, Giorgio Sant'Angelo, Kenneth Lane. In the breathlessly glamorous circus of haute couture, Diana Vreeland is ringmaster extraordinaire, the oracle of opulence, a master illusionist who has made, she says, "a specialty of pleasure."
It is a remarkable life. "Dee-ahnn," as some friends pronounce her name, grew up with the 20th century. She was born in 1902. The smart set (Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Isadora Duncan, Irene and Vernon Castle) waltzed through her parents' Parisian drawing room. As a society wife to a dashing banker-boulevardier, she entertained the likes of Charlie Chaplin in her London townhouse. Chaplin once arrived scandalously late for a dinner party and charmed his hostess by entering as if he were a matador challenging an enraged bull. She ruled American couture for more than three decades, first as the fashion editor of Harper's Bazaar (where her assistants included Ali MacGraw and Lee Radziwill, and her discoveries a nobody named Lauren Bacall). After that she was editor of Vogue, where she apotheosized the Beatles and Youth Culture and put fun furs and fake jewelry in women's lives.
Now she is bringing her inimitable airs and graces to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. As consultant to the Costume Institute there, Vreeland has staged nine flamboyant period shows. They include "Costumes and Designs of the Ballets Russes," "Fashions of the Hapsburg Era" and, beginning next week, the splendor of China's Ch'ing dynasty.
This fall D.V. (another sobriquet) also published her first book, Allure (Doubleday, $35), a sophisticated collection of favorite photographs and reminiscences written with Christopher Hemphill. It was edited by no less a friend than Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. She enlisted Vreeland as fashion adviser during the White House days. "I have loved her since I was 6," says Jackie, 51, who defers to Vreeland to the point of lighting her Lucky Strikes. "She is an original. You don't get many, and when you do you should tip your hat to them."
A troublesome perfectionist, Vreeland was diplomatically helped to meet her publishing deadline for Allure by a triple alliance of Mrs. Onassis, Hemphill and Vreeland's grandson Nicky, a 26-year-old photographer. "I didn't read the galley proofs," she says. "I have not read the book cover to cover. It is verrry good, but some of the pictures are much too black." Still, reviewers praised it, one calling Vreeland "bizarre, bitchy and fun to read."
In the pale and painted flesh, Vreeland is an intimidating figure, a woman who looks at the world down the most regal nose in fashion and whose ex cathedra pronouncements are passed along by her minions. "Pink is the navy blue of India," she once quipped. Another Vreelandism: "The bikini is the biggest thing since the atom bomb." But to younger femmes du monde she has been an inspiration. "Mrs. Vreeland has helped me from the moment I was born by the things she has said," volunteers Gloria Vanderbilt. "It's her philosophy that we are put on this earth to be happy, not miserable. And we should take our dreams from above, not below." Adds Jackie Onassis: "To say Diana Vreeland has dealt only with fashion trivializes what she has done. She has commented on the times in a wise and witty manner. She has lived a life."
It began in la belle époque in Paris. Her father was a tall Scottish stockbroker, Frederick Dalziel; her mother a Baltimore beauty, Emily Key Hoffman, a distant relative of Francis Scott Key. "She had a great sense of fun—merry and wise and all that sort of thing," recalls Diana, "but we oppressed and frightened her. I don't think she had enough money to have the sort of time that she really wanted." Alexandra—her pretty blond, violet-eyed sister—appeared four and a half years after Diana. Once after a spat Diana ran to her mother only to be told she was jealous of Alexandra because of her beauty. "I didn't tell her that I loved my sister more than anything in the world," Vreeland once recalled. "I just walked away."
The girls grew up lonely with separate nannies as their parents traveled, pulling them out of school when necessary. World War I brought the family to Manhattan in 1914. "I didn't know English, and I wasn't allowed to speak French at school or home. Naturally, I developed a stutter, and needed all kinds of doctors. It was the most terrible period! If I am at all tired I still stutter." She quickly gave up traditional education for dance, studying with Russian ballet choreographer Michel Fokine. Three magical summers (1917-19) were spent riding Indian ponies in Cody, Wyo., where she met Buffalo Bill.
A year after making her social debut in 1922 Diana met her future husband, T. Reed Vreeland (Yale '22), while vacationing in Saratoga. "I thought him the most ravishing, devastating killer-diller," she raves. They were married nine months later and honeymooned among the rich in Cuba. "It was winter," recalls Diana, "and the women were in velvet and sables." After a stint in Albany, where her husband was a bank trainee, the Vreelands moved to London. They had 11 servants and toured Europe in a black, custom-made Bugatti. "We were tiny people compared to what our friends had," Vreeland protests. In Europe they raised two sons: Timothy, now 55, is an architect and professor at UCLA, where he once chaired the department; Frederick, 54, is counselor for political affairs at the U.S. embassy in Rome. Brought up by a British nanny and a French nursery maid, Frederick remembers his parents dropping in to say good night. "My father would come in wearing white tie and tails, and would do a tap dance to entertain us. Then my mother would come dancing in wearing an evening dress and give us a kiss. She was completely dependent on my father for any practical things. She lived as a guest in her house."
Returning to the U.S. in 1936, Vreeland began writing a monthly column for Harper's Bazaar called "Why Don't You?" Some of the tips for women of luxury during the Depression were enough to trigger a revolution. ("Why don't you own, as does one extremely smart woman, 12 diamond roses of all sizes?")
By 1939 Vreeland was fashion editor. The job helped her through perhaps the first adult crisis of her life: a seven-year separation from Reed. Some say there was another woman; Diana maintains he was on war duty in Montreal. "She just worked and prayed he would come back to her, and he did," says one acquaintance. "She was devoted to him." His death in 1967 from cancer "totally destroyed her," says Françoise de la Renta. "He was the most important thing in her life."
By then Vreeland had startled the fashion world by quitting Harper's after 25 years—and a single $1,000 raise in all that time. She moved over as editor of Vogue, becoming the undisputed doyenne of the rag trade (and later the prototype of the hard-driving magazine editor in the movie Funny Face). To ingenues at Vogue, she often seemed aloof—a woman set off by a shock of jet-black hair, heavily rouged cheeks and earlobes, bird-like nose and imperious voice. "To someone young," remembers one staffer, "she was scary."
Vreeland kept up her energy with vitamin B-12 shots. "The nurse would come in her office," remembers former secretary Diane Pratt, "and Mrs. Vreeland would casually roll up her skirt, continue dictating in the most ladylike fashion and never miss a beat of what she was saying."
Diana championed outrageous fashions such as harem pants with blouses in a hodgepodge of prints. Her models sometimes looked almost clownish in thick makeup and a mountain of jewels. But many of the pages of Vogue radiated pizzazz—a word popularized by Vreeland—and vibrated with Beautiful People, a phrase coined by Vogue writer Rebecca Warfield. In the recession of 1970 Vreeland's showmanship became a liability, and in May 1971 she was fired. "Diana was out of Vogue in one day," recalls a friend. "It was very shabby and hurtful to her."
With typical resourcefulness, D.V. landed her next job, at the Met, in 1972 at age 70. "Her exhibitions," says Mrs. Onassis, "are blockbusters. She's like Diaghilev. She takes everything—all those things that impressed her growing up in Paris—and brings in the masses." Her past eight shows have drawn 4,041,828. Among her lures are scent-filled rooms (Yves Saint Laurent is donating six gallons of his Opium perfume for the new Chinese exhibit) and taped music. Naturally, such innovations have raised eyebrows. "There is a lot of contempt by some staff members for this outsider," confides one employee. "I get things like, 'What is she doing today?' "
Mrs. Vreeland often works out of her two-bedroom Park Avenue apartment, spending mornings in her spacious white bathroom combining her toilette with business calls. She employs six people, including a lady's maid, Yvonne, who has attended to her clothes for almost 35 years, ironing her money for neatness and blacking the soles of her shoes to make them look new. Vreeland's 19th-century lifestyle sometimes leaves her at a loss with 20th-century technology. When grandson Nicky once whipped up a meal on the cook's night off, Mrs. Vreeland came into the kitchen and marveled: "My God! How do you know how to do that!" Recalls Nicky: "I watched her put the salt and pepper into the refrigerator. She had no idea it didn't go there." (Vreeland dotes on Nicky and her three other grandchildren, aged 19 to 25.)
She stays fit by eating simply (lamb chops, vegetable puree), exercising five minutes a day, taking Swiss vitamins and procaine—a controversial drug with alleged rejuvenating qualities. "I am blind," she says, blaming her poor vision on astigmatism. She worries about a mysterious loss of 20 pounds in the last 18 months. It has left her self-conscious about her figure and her legs—one reason she wears only pants or long gowns.
Vreeland is exceptionally guarded about her comings and goings, even among friends, a trait that baffles her son Frederick. "In the diplomatic service," he says, "I am in contact with many strange people. I find mother very much the same: paranoid and secretive." She has received a $100,000 advance from Knopf for a memoir which she denies she is writing.
Only at parties does Vreeland fully unfold her wings. There she prefers the company of young people—especially men. "I can't go out with people my own age," she explains, "because they are all dead." Just as well. Few could compete with Vreeland in her natural habitat. "It's phenomenal," marvels designer Bill Blass. "You could go to a party and see the most beautiful and most beautifully dressed women in the world, and all the attractive men would be around one person: D.V."