Diana Vreeland’s legendary Harper’s Bazaar column was called, suggestively, “Why Don’t You…?” but during her tenure as the editor in chief of Vogue, from 1962 to 1971, she developed a reputation for being quite a dictator. Most mornings, before coming into work, Vreeland would take to her bathroom, where she had a specially installed phone, a wicker armchair, and a steady supply of cigarettes, and fire off missives to her secretaries. A lion’s share of her professional correspondence has been collected by her grandson Alexander Vreeland, in a new book published by Rizzoli, succinctly titled "Memos."
In his introduction, he fondly recalls the lunches he had at her office. (Him: rare cheeseburger. Her: peanut butter and marmalade sandwich and a glass of whiskey.) “She was an amazing listener, and I remember feeling empowered by her support and interest in what I was doing. She never told me what to do or tried to impose her ideas on me.” With her staff, however, Vreeland could be relentless: “Don’t forget dark clear legs.” “Don’t forget huge brilliant metal trimmings.” “Don’t forget mink comes in bright green, bright yellow, etc.” “For goodness sakes, beware of curls.” “I repeat, again, the importance of knee socks.” Occasionally, her directives had the mysterious elegance of haiku: “We are starting a new year. Faint, faint, if any, eyebrows.” But at the end of the day, her strategy, like that of any great leader, was to embolden those around her. “Forget hemlines, and study and maintain your figure and your skin,” she wrote in a letter to the actress and model Anita Colby in 1968. “The greatest vulgarity is any imitation of youth and beauty—this is vital. You must always look your best, not try to look someone else’s…”
RE: DIANA VREELAND MEMOS: THE VOGUE YEARS
Darlings, this new collection is a must-read. The book is made up of reprints of memos from the late Diana Vreeland, the editor of Vogue from 1962 to 1971, to her staff. She talks about various designer collections, discusses ideas with her photographers, and shares a fashion philosophy that is to die.
Vreeland was one of the most important figures in fashion. We love her because:
She was not pretty, but she was chic. She proved that style transcends one’s physical appearance. She said, “Beauty is in all beings that love and are loved.”
Her approach to fashion was one of utmost seriousness. In one memo she wrote to her staff, “This is urgent! I am alerting you to something. Every picture in which the girls appear in dresses below the knee they look bowlegged.”
She had edgy taste. In 1955 she moved into a new apartment and decorated it exclusively in red. She said she wanted her new interior to look like “a garden in hell.”
She advised Jacqueline Kennedy in matters of style during John F. Kennedy’s presidency and helped the first lady connect with Oleg Cassini, who would become Mrs. Kennedy’s chief fashion designer.
She dictated all her memos to her secretary from her apartment bathroom while chain-smoking.
“Our cover situation is drastic…We are on the verge of a drastic emergency.” So reads the first entry in the latest Diana Vreeland tome, "Memos: The Vogue Years." Compiled by Vreeland’s grandson Alexander (the husband of Lisa Immordino Vreeland, who directed "The Eye Has to Travel"), the book features more than 250 of Vreeland’s infamous notes from her time at Vogue, which she’d dictate over the phone to her secretary while puffing on cigarettes in a wicker chair in the bathroom of her Park Avenue apartment. This, Alexander told us, was her preferred mode of communication. “She didn’t believe in meetings,” he said. His assertion is backed up by Diana’s memo to the Vogue team on page fifty-nine, in which she considers holding a meeting about the “controversial” topic of dress lengths, but resolves, “Usually, when we have meetings, we don’t get ideas and views from people.”
But it wasn’t just her staff whom she’d confront about everything from the importance of pearls and bangles to her annoyance with the mistreatment of her initials in her editor’s letter (above), to the necessity that Vogue‘s spreads “never, ever copy…any kind of coiffure that is reminiscent of the 30s, 40s, 50s,” via her rapier dictations. The book—which is available now from Rizzoli—also includes her correspondences with the likes of Richard (or Dick, as she called him) Avedon, Irving Penn (to whom she complains about lackluster tulips), Cecil Beaton, Cristobal Balenciaga (above), Halston, Veruschka, and beyond.
“These memos and letters give a really good sense of how she used to speak,” offered Alexander (so does her fantastically hyperbolic memoir, "D.V.," which we highly recommend). “She was very elegant, and she was not this loudmouth person who was just coming up with these funny sayings about fashion that we all love. She was running a major magazine, and she was very precise.”
Not only was she running a major magazine, she transformed a tired little social publication into a leading voice in fashion. Her resounding influence—on the magazine, the industry, and culture as a whole—is detailed in anecdotes by former co-workers like Polly Mellen, Felicity Clark, and Susan Train.
“I think my grandmother is still relevant today to a new generation of people who have a real passion for fashion, style, and living,” said Alexander. “This is an opportunity for people to hear her in her own words.” Indeed, Vreeland’s razor-sharp eye, embrace of the new, and poignant insights can teach today’s fashion folk a thing or two. And in addition to "Memos," Vreeland will be introduced to anyone walking down 58th Street in New York via Bergdorf Goodman’s new window installation. On view through the end of October, the display showcases the tome’s most memorable excerpts (both serious and hysterical), Fall ’13 ensembles that no doubt would have been Vreeland-approved, and images of the late, great editor in chief.
If you are looking for a comprehensive biography of this legendary fashion icon’s personality and private thoughts, this is not the book you are seeking. "Diana Vreeland Memos: The Vogue Years" is a serious examination of what made this genius tick on a day to day basis when it came to her work, and it focuses on a particular span of time during her tenure at Vogue. And when it comes to her Vogue years, to say that the reader gets a behind the scenes look at the machinations and mechanics of how Mrs. Vreeland steered that ship is an understatement.
“When fashion turns over it brings in little tiny creaks and cracks. That is the fascination and that is where you have to watch every step.”
The "Diana Vreeland Memos" is clearly a more revelatory reading as the subject is so laser focused on the day to day life for Ms. Vreeland and her editors. Having read quite a few books about La Vreeland, it is safe to say that this volume provides an exceptionally personal and single-minded view that focuses on her incredibly and all-consuming views of fashion and contemporary culture.
“A great fault is the length of the girl’s neck, position of the collar, and more than anything the thickness of the underarm in tailored clothes”
Clearly, The "Memos" is not a book for those who only have a fleeting interest in fashion or the inner workings of a highly successful fashion magazine. The reader should be heavily steeped in the history of fashion as well as possessing a worshipful level of admiration for Ms. Vreeland.
“Do by all means use real jewels on these clothes. Luxury is a point of view. It is not what you pay for them but what you make of yourself.”
Diana Vreeland is one of those once in a lifetime, larger than life, almost surreal personalities who come along only once in a generation. If you have read any books about this dynamo, you know she spoke in words that reflected a rigid set of personal codes and was very unconventional in her approach. There was absolutely nothing that escaped her eagle eye when she was at Vogue, where she gave her readers her vision of fashion as she saw it and did not bend to any sort of popular notion of beauty and fashion. To paraphrase, Ms. Vreeland gave them what they never knew they wanted or needed.
“To bewitch is to me always slightly artificial as it is always put on—whereas witchery is a form of naturalness that some people can’t help, and the world judges that they don’t create it.”
The "Diana Vreeland Memos" exposes the reader to Ms. Vreeland’s micromanaging style at Vogue as well as her irreverence, her humor, her visionary ideas, her quirks, her codes, her politesse, and most of all her unique talents.
If you love Diana Vreeland and can’t get enough, this is surely a book for you. If you seek another side of Ms. Vreeland that is only alluded to in most other books dealing with her life, this is a book for you. If you are looking for another life story of the fashion icon, I suggest you move on. Basically, these are her words, her way, her life!
“Any young woman who started to read Vogue during the Vreeland years wanted to digest every issue and find something that titillated her. Every new issue would be a learning process; every new article could enhance her life and give her a sense of fantasy, or it could make her look with fresh eyes at the clothes in her closet.”
"Diana Vreeland Memos: The Vogue Years", a new book from Rizzoli, chronicles the editor’s tenure at this magazine from 1962 to 1971. Though she rarely held meetings, Vreeland was in constant communication with her staff and photographers through letters, typed out on carbon and onionskin paper to make copies. “Nonina liked to receive her morning calls in the bathroom, on a telephone specially mounted on the wall near a large window,” writes Diana Vreeland’s grandson and September issue contributor Alexander Vreeland in the introduction. “Nonina would sit there for hours, dressed in a bathrobe, chain-smoking Lucky Strikes while she dictated memos and letters to her secretaries at Vogue. By the time Nonina arrived in the office, which was never before noon, she had already finished her daily correspondence.”
The word “icon” is bandied about much too freely today, but Diana Vreeland, fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar, editor in chief of Vogue and curator of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, really was one. She fascinated everyone in the fashion world and many outside it. So it’s good news that her grandson Alexander Vreeland has gathered together a large group of the memos she wrote at Vogue in a new book, "Diana Vreeland Memos: The Vogue Years" (Rizzoli New York), which he edited. Memos and letters were the way she communicated with her staff, and the book gives a unique set of insights into the way she worked. Alexander Vreeland makes the point that Harper’s Bazaar was the leading fashion magazine of its time, while Vogue was considered more of a society publication, but his grandmother changed that.
Alexander Vreeland has been a high-ranking executive at Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani, owned his own fashion company, and is currently working as a consultant on a number of ventures. His father, Frederick, a former diplomat, believed that his son’s background — and the fact that he had helped care for her late in life — made him the ideal person to handle his grandmother’s legacy, and he has done that, seeing that her books Allure and D.V. have made it back into print, and also creating this one. Bergdorf Goodman dedicated windows to the book and will be throwing a book party in the store tonight.
Vreeland and his wife, Lisa Immordino Vreeland, live in an apartment in a beautiful brownstone in Manhattan, which they share with their son Reed, daughter Olivia and charming boxer Fischio, which means “whistle” in Italian. Lisa’s film, “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel,” came out last year. Reed, who worked at The Paris Review, helped put together the "Memos" book.
Diana Vreeland was a marvelous, self-invented character. Never a beauty, she transformed herself through style, will and charm into a sought-after debutante and married banker T. Reed Vreeland, one of the handsomest men of his day, who was always impeccably dressed, too. In the early years of their marriage, they lived in Albany, N.Y., then moved to Europe, where they spent six-and-a-half years. A legacy from her grandmother helped them live stylishly. While they were there, designers began approaching Diana to be their mannequin du monde, borrowing or buying their creations at reduced rates to show them off on the social circuit.
She hadn’t been to college and never expected to work, but, when the couple returned to the U.S., she met Carmel Snow, editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar, where she began writing a column, “Why Don’t You…” It featured style and fashion suggestions for the rich, as in “Why Don’t You start a topiary garden of box or yew and clip the bushes into peacocks and poodles?” or “Why Don’t You give a new note to your sitting room by introducing a Victorian chair upholstered by Jensen in bright emerald green cotton, buttoned in white with little white chenille earrings on either side?” The engaging, often silly, ideas attracted a lot of attention, and the column was satirized by S.J. Perelman in The New Yorker.
The memos in the book communicate in the crisp, clear voice of someone who usually knows what she wants, and, if she doesn’t, will recognize it when she sees it. They are intelligent, well-written, frisky and highly evocative of a time when a great deal of exciting fashion was created.
Condé Nast had not kept copies of Vreeland’s memos, but her grandson solicited them from people who had worked with her. He rounded up about 2,000, many of them from Grace Mirabella and Pilar Crespi, daughter of Consuelo Crespi, who worked closely with Vreeland. He believes that there are more out there, but was surprised to find that quite a few of her former colleagues had thrown theirs out. “They show how to work with creative people, how to manage creative people,” he says.
Another surprise for Vreeland was that the great model Veruschka had played such a key role at Vogue. Some of the photos written about in the memos that he then tracked down seemed dated; none of those with Veruschka ever did, he says. One of his favorite memos was written to Cristóbal Balenciaga when he closed his house. He also likes a Feb. 19, 1965 memo, referring to her initials, in which she says that she “does not tilt.”
He notes that all the memos were dictated, since D.V. couldn’t type. Those which were directed to a group of staff members, she usually never saw again, but on letters, which she reviewed, she would add corrections in her characteristically dramatic handwriting. She would communicate an idea to a photographer or a stylist, but let them “figure out by themselves how to execute it,” he adds. She said to Richard Avedon, for instance, of a shoot in Egypt, “Think of a young Cleopatra pacing around on a roof.”
Alexander is at pains to point out that she got the best work out of people through encouragement, not by being a tough taskmaster. As Amanda Mackenzie Stuart, whose biography “Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland” (Harper Perennial) is just coming out in paperback, said, “She was not a bitch.” Her longtime colleague Sarah Slavin called her “a joy to work with.” She also changed few of the staff members when she arrived at Vogue from Harper’s Bazaar.
One memo, from Feb. 17, 1967, says: “Brigitte Bardot travelled halfway across the world to get married barefoot.…Mrs. George Harrison, wife of the Beatle, arrived on her honeymoon from Nassau to London Airport in a miniskirt — published by us last winter.…The tote bag is the thing.…The great trip into unknown rough country is the thing...”
'GOLD GALLOON—GOLD BRAID" exclaims the title of a 1968 staff memo at Vogue, calling up the metallic trims that once gave dash to military uniforms. The memo begins, "Don't you think it will be especially attractive with an all black leotight—a 16th Century short tunic—everything black . . . To put on one leg a garter of gold galloon with a beautiful loop with a jewel."
You can see it, can't you? A late-1960s take on the medieval knight-errant, a girl channeling an Arthurian boy, that gold bow glittering like a star-crossed kiss on her slender thigh. Perhaps Twiggy was the imagined model, or, more likely, the androgynous Veruschka. The '60s, we realize from a distance, were the decade of Lancelots and Britomarts, of spirited quests and swingin' transformations. It's all there in the memo, which was written by the one and only Diana Vreeland.
A cross between Auntie Mame and John Berger, with a little Methuselah thrown in, Vreeland took the helm of Vogue in 1962 and steered it through one of the most visually stimulating and sexually energized decades in the history of civilization. Possessed of a fierce eye for details of form, craft and color; equipped with 26 years' experience as fashion editor at the innovative Harper's Bazaar; and unleashing her instinct for echoes between epochs, Vreeland used the pages of Vogue to zero in on human culture and human nature (the former, eternally evolving, tempering the latter, primal and unchanging). In Memos, an illustrated selection of Vreeland's daily communiqués to staff, we have a behind-the-scenes look at how fashion editing was once creational, leading the industry while at the same time offering readers a monthly display of aesthetics dressed à la mode. As Vreeland cc'd her staff on April 2, 1965: "It is the interest of beauty that we wish to project." The interest! She meant to stir curiosity, not lay down the law.
Vreeland's missives didn't issue from behind her famous black-lacquer desk at Vogue, but from her apartment on Park Avenue, where she began the day's business cozily on the phone in a favorite wicker chair in her bathroom. There she took calls from colleagues and dictated memos to her secretaries, of which she had three. This insulated morning routine—Vreeland didn't arrive at the office until noon—gave space to her peregrine flights, her bravura imagination. The memos are both conversational and final ("We are working towards the naked foot"), authoritative and brisk ("Beware of curls"). The tone is often quite droll ("Let's give the Arabs a boost, they are very down in the mouth because of the war"), and exasperation is frequent: "It is really essential that you all re-think these terrible looking curls next to the face . . . we agreed long ago they look dipped in salad oil."
Whatever the tone, Vreeland was making distinctions. In the memo titled "GYPSIES," she said, "Do remember that these skirts are like loose petticoats—and should not be to the ground. . . . Otherwise they will look like peasants. . . This is not the point. The anklebone of a gypsy always shows." Who knew?
And many of Vreeland's distinctions are philosophical at the core. "We are not looking for endless variety," she reminded her staff, "we are looking for fashion." In other words, fashion is not a democracy, not equal opportunity on the page. Fashion is heightened, intangible, ephemeral. It is a proportion, a suggestion, a color that hews to a new meaning, a silhouette glimpsed from afar and winging in fast. "When fashion turns over it brings in little tiny creaks and cracks," Vreeland wrote. "That is the fascination and that is where you have to watch every step." Like a tremor or a quake, fashion is a force that changes the landscape.
She was keen on forces of nature and the wonders of the world—extraordinary artists like Pablo Picasso and Maria Callas, extraordinary beasts like white whales and Arabian stallions. Physical beauty was one of these wonders, and Vreeland was especially drawn to the creaturely. "Animals are the original beauties of the world and people have a long way to go," she wrote in 1967. She did not favor small-nosed, conventionally baby-faced models. She was looking for the phenomenal—extreme bones, strange radiance—and this called for photographic styling that would render faces clean, glossy and gleaming, as if the camera had captured urban animals in fresh coat or spring plumage. Vreeland's continual word of criticism was "vulgar," as in "beware of little girl gestures—fingers in the mouth and all that . . . as they are terribly, terribly vulgar." It is well to remember that animals cannot, by definition, be vulgar. Except, that is, for Homo sapiens.
Vreeland had an endless vocabulary and always seemed to have the right word at hand.Peruke. Guiche. Turquerie. But there are some words, used over and over again, that are clearly expressive of qualities she wanted alive in her magazine and in the women who read it. Spirit. Amusing. Vital and vitality. Many memos are punctuated with the line, "This is vital!" The word means energetic, lively, but it also means "needed by your body in order to keep living." This is the sense in which Vreeland used the word. She believed in both the glorious lift fashion brought to life and the underlying discipline it required. Answering a question about fashion and old age, she wrote, "no-one looks for perfection as it is static, but everyone expects an amusing effort, well planned and thought through, and carefully maintained." When, near the end of her life, Vreeland could no longer dye her hair its signature blue-black, and thus had to let it go gray, she no longer went out. Some have seen this as superficial or prideful. But Vreeland was living by her own lights. With the "amusing effort" beyond her, a life in fashion was over.
—Ms. Jacobs is a writer at Vanity Fair. Her second novel, "The Bird Catcher," is out in paperback from Picador.