A.L.T. , by André Leon Talley. Villard, 232 pages, $24.95.
If Vogue is the Coca-Cola of fashion magazines-glossy, tantalizing and pointlessly dominant as it pours forth eachmonth-then AndréLeonTalley, Vogue ‘saptlytitled “editor at large” (he’s 6-foot-7) is the foam that floats on top. He writes a column of personal whimsy called “Style Fax” and appears regularly on television, often clad in what looks like a baron’s robes, issuing sartorial judgments as if they were royal decrees. One might be forgiven for mentally jumbling him together with the many red-carpet “style commentators” that have sprouted like wriggling tentacles from the hydra head of Joan Rivers over the past decade: People ‘s Muppetish Steven Cojocaru, also author of a recent memoir, and the E! network’s Leon Hall, who, like Mr. Talley, is an outsized Southerner.
But this book eliminates any confusion: Like his mentor Diana Vreeland (a.k.a. D.V.) before him, A.L.T. reveals himself as a “one and only” in every way that matters. The towering physique, it turns out, frames a colossal intellect and a jumbo emotional repertoire.
As with so many singular characters, there’s a tugging conflict-a duality-at Mr. Talley’s core, personified by the two matriarchs who dominated his life: Ms. Vreeland, the brutally efficient drama queen who granted him entrée to Manhattan society, and his soft-spoken, God-fearing grandmother, his “Mama,” Bennie Frances Davis, who raised him in Durham, N.C., and only occasionally applied a switch to his buttocks. Both women died in 1989, when he was 40, and their respective virtues-urbane and excessive versus countrified and modest-are apparently still conducting a kind of Civil War within their darling’s soul.
Take the matter of bed linens, for instance, with which the author is completely obsessed. (Hey, you would be, too, if you’d grown up with your bubbe washing them by hand in a gigantic pot, stirring them with a tree limb, and hanging them out to dry in the sunshine!) “There was no pleasure more delicious than climbing into a bed piled six-deep with homemade quilts and snuggling down into those crispy, crispy, clean, clean, clean white sheets,” Mr. Talley writes in one of many appealing, nostalgia-soaked passages about growing up in the leafy South. “Sleep was never so fine as between those sheets, cooked, ironed, and arranged by loving hands.” It’s an entirely different thrill when he encounters the vast, walk-in linen closet in Ms. Vreeland’s Park Avenue seraglio-”her apartment was my Parnassus,” he exhales-with its still-sealed packs of broderie anglaise and “patterns so wild I couldn’t see how anyone could sleep on them.” When she craves a pair of red sheets, he goes with Paloma Picasso to buy her a set at Pratesi; the great editor effuses over the gift, but never puts the sheets on her bed. Which is the more gorgeous extreme: thrift or wastefulness?
The former, it seems. For though he indulges in his share of glamorous shoptalk, in his autobiography Mr. Talley displays an acid ambivalence about the “fickle,” “flamboyant,” and “fabulous” circle in which he traffics, with all its “gossamer and gilt.” About a lime-green Easter suit of his grandma’s, he writes, “I’m sure the fashion world would say it was an awful suit-a mere rip-off of some Givenchy item, ‘Lord only knows how it filtered down to Durham.’” He’d rather get fan mail from “ordinary women” than “ladies of fashion,” he claims. “I love what I do,” Mr. Talley declares point-blank in a section about how church-going and belief in God keep him grounded, “but I think there are many pockets of emptiness and shallowness that come from its being such a jet-set industry.” Globe-trotting and name-dropping may be his day job (“It is always a great pleasure to stay at Karl Lagerfeld’s home in France … his laundry maid, Annette, a white-haired woman who wears a pink candy-striped uniform, knows how to do sheets”), but at the end of the day he just wants to return to his Southern roots-never mind Jim Crow, snakes, chiggers in the testicles and torment from schoolmates who couldn’t cope with his budding foppishness.
It’s touching and somewhat hilarious watching the larger-than-life André emerge, resplendent, from his humble childhood. It all starts with a pair of yellow paisley Christian Dior pajamas, a gift from Mama (he now sleeps in a Phat Farm T-shirt in size XXXL, “or maybe an old Versace silk wrapper, if I feel like it”). His Cub Scout days are enlivened by the uniform (“that sprightly yellow kerchief, the hat”-supply your own italics), and his den leader’s “pseudo-French country furniture.” When his estranged father gives him a pair of roller-skates, he finds himself reveling in “the solitude and isolation they afforded me, the freedom to daydream, and the feeling of gliding that must be one of the closest things we humans can experience to winged flight.” And this was years before he boogied down with the in-crowd at the Roxy!
By the time his college years roll around, Mr. Talley is swathing himself in a secondhand black oilcoth rain cape from the East Village, decorated Scarlett O’Hara style with black tassels filched from an old curtain. He makes a multi-paragraph case for why it’s O.K. for modern men to wear huge, glittering diamonds. But it would be wrong to dismiss him as just a dandy. To invoke his beloved Baudelaire (about whom he wrote his master’s thesis at Brown), he is really the consummate flâneur , completely democratic in his gaze, flitting with ease from Voltaire to Austin Powers. In a chapter on cooking as mouthwatering as anything by his excellent colleague, Vogue food critic Jeffrey Steingarten, we are wormholed at warp speed from the porch of his coon-hunting Uncle George to Ms. Vreeland’s kitchen, where he’s downing Skippy creamy peanut butter, to a cocaine dinner by the fireplace with the designer Halston (who was the same size as the author and showered him with cast-offs).
One can’t help marveling at the scope of this life: The cheap, silvery hairnets from Woolworth’s his Mama used to use on her blued hair find their way onto the faces of the mannequins at the Met’s Costume Institute. “Do you think Heaven is an actual place, like Albany?” Fran Lebowitz asks him at one point. “I hope it’s nicer than Albany,” he retorts. Only in André’s world could such exchanges occur. Only in André’s world could one get away with sighing, “I’d still like to shine the bottoms of my shoes with a rhinoceros horn, but the truth is that one has to make choices and has to get on with it …. This is a wash-and-wear world we live in now, and I make my peace with that.”
While on the subject of cleanliness: One of the major-and unusual-pleasures of the book is how cleanly edited it is, how smoothly the narrative unfurls, without a typo in sight. It’s as velvety as the Ultrasuede favored by the Warhol crowd; or perhaps more fittingly, as clean as Mama’s pastewax-polished floors. We all knew A.L.T. was Vogue , but who knew he could also pull off Real Simple ?
Alexandra Jacobs has moved to Los Angeles.