The Fabulous D.V.

All right, children, you have only one guess. Who said, “Peanut butter is the greatest invention since Christianity”? No fair-you peeked at the headline and the pictures. But did you know that she practiced what she preached? Diana Vreeland’s lunch every day at her desk was a glass of Scotch and a peanut-butter-and-marmalade sandwich on whole wheat bread. (White bread? “How common, you know, flour and water. That’s what white bread’s made of and that’s what we use to make library paste out of.”)

And do you know who said, “The Civil War was nothing compared to the smell of a San Diego orange”?

And do you know (and do you believe) that when President Kennedy was shot, her first reaction was: “My God, Lady Bird in the White House. We can’t use her in the magazine!”? (I’m not sure I do believe that, given her long friendship with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.)

But then Mrs. Vreeland-D.V.-wouldn’t have objected to an invented, orexaggerated, story about herself: She had made it clear from the start that a good story was more important to her than a goodfact. Fantasy, imagination, glamour were her stock in trade; why bother saying you were born in Paris when it was so much more amusing to have been born in Vladivostock, as she insisted one day to her grandson that she had been. Or in the Atlas Mountains-“in a nomad community, accompanied by Berber ululations.” To the famous model Veruschka she insisted, “If somebody asks you about where you are from or where you were born, never say what is true. It’s too boring ! You have to always be dramatic …. ”

Lies, or exaggerations, or tall tales, or self-mythologizing are essential to anyone who completely invents herself, as Diana Dalziel Vreeland did. Even at 14 she wanted to be a Chinese princess, and though she didn’t quite make it, she did turn herself into some kind of Kabuki figure, surrounded in her red apartment by swags and sconces and torchères and fur throws and blackamoors. In the diary she kept when she was about 15, she wrote, “I am Diana, a goddess, therefore ought to be wonderful, pure, marvelous, as only I alone can make myself …. Dalziel-I dare, therefore I dare, I dare change today, & make myself exactly how I want to be.” The D.V. she invented was a triumph of personality and will, but why should she have to invent herself in the first place? As usual, the roots go back to childhood, and in particular to her mother’s rejection of her. In a new biography, Diana Vreeland by Eleanor Dwight, we get the whole picture, but D.V. has already told the story, chillingly, in her memoirs: “There was the most terrible scene between my mother and me. One day she said to me, ‘It’s too bad that you have such a beautiful sister and that you are so extremely ugly and so terribly jealous of her. This, of course, is why you are so impossible to deal with.'”

Her mother was a spoiled American beauty, who became embroiled in a scandal just as Diana was getting married. Her father ignored it: “Worse things happen at sea.” He was an Edwardian gent-Frederick Dalziel (pronounced “Dee-el,” Diana tells us). In her memoir, she hardly comments on her mother’s antipathy to her beyond saying, “My mother and I were not really sympathetic,” but her being judged extremely ugly by her beautiful mother was obviously the central trauma of her life; all she knew as a child, she tells us, was that “my mother wasn’t proud of me. I was always her ugly little monster.” Not only did this view of herself focus her attention on surface beauty as a crucial element of life, but it led to her choice of husband: “I never felt comfortable about my looks until I married Reed Vreeland. He was the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen.” And she went on worshipping Reed until his death. “Isn’t it curious,” she wrote, “that even after more than forty years of marriage, I was always slightly shy of him? I can remember his coming home in the evening-the way the door would close and the sound of his step …. If I was in my bath or in my bedroom making up, I can remember always pulling myself up, thinking, ‘I must be at my very best.’ There was never a time when I didn’t have that reaction- ever .”

The marriage flourished, first in Albany, where Reed was training to be a banker and the Vreelands had a little house and a little baby and a totally domestic life, and where Diana was in bliss. (“I loved our life there. I was totally happy. I didn’t care what any other place was like. I’d still be there now if Reed hadn’t wanted to move to London.”) It flourished in London, where the Vreelands slipped effortlessly into high society (and where Diana first met her great-friend-to-be Wallis Simpson). It flourished back in New York, when-transformed by financial necessity into a working woman-Diana went to work first at Harper’s Bazaar , then Vogue . During the war-for seven years-Reed was working in Canada and Diana lived alone; her two boys were mostly off at school. The marriage survived the separation, as well as Reed’s apparent infidelities (with, among others, Edwina Mountbatten), about which Diana never spoke. She took him as he was-good-natured, easygoing and, above all, elegant. But he accepted her quirks, too. In 1940, as the phony war was drawing to an end, he sailed for America, leaving her behind in Paris. “Look,” he said, “there’s no point taking Diana away from Chanel and her shoes. If she hasn’t got her shoes and her clothes, there’s no point in bringing her home. That’s how it’s always been and that’s how it has to be.” Talk about priorities!

D.V. is direct on why she left Bazaar for Vogue : money. In 28 years, she says, she never got a raise until finally they came through-with a thousand dollars. (“I was the most economical thing that ever happened to the Hearst Corporation.”) “We’re offering you the moon and sixpence,” Vogue said, and so in 1962 she switched. It was the perfect moment, because she got not only the moon and the sixpence but the 60’s, her favorite decade except for the 20’s. You can see why-everything suddenly topsy-turvy and exciting, just waiting to be harnessed to her aesthetic ambitions. And with all that Condé Nast money to back her up! (Imagine Hearst sitting still for those elaborate photo shoots around the world.) Just check out the pictures in Dwight’s book of the model Antonia perched between some giant crumbling stone heads at the summit of Nemrud Dagh (that’s in Turkey’s Valley of Göreme, in case you didn’t know) and of Lauren Hutton in the middle of a male initiation rite in Bali. These were the great days of Avedon and Penn and David Bailey, of Twiggy and Penelope Tree and Marisa Berenson and Veruschka. No expense spared.

In these years, her invention never flagged. Dwight quotes Kenneth Jay Lane: “She made me realize the importance of positive thinking. She would say, ‘Don’t look back. Just go ahead. Give ideas away. Under every idea there’s a new idea waiting to be born.'”

And these were the years when D.V., rapidly turning into an official legend, was able to indulge her passion for others of her kind. She adored Nureyev, Callas, Plisetskaya. And of course the Windsors-cozy little evenings at Les Moulins. (“Did I tell you about the Duke of Windsor’s bathroom … ? Oh, I’m sure he took showers. There was nothing unwashed about the Duke.”) Chanel was never off her list: “Peasants and geniuses are the only people who count, and she was both,” and “Coco was never a kind woman … she was a monstre sacré . But she was the most interesting person I’ve ever met.” Andy Warhol. And of course Jackie O., whom she advised on fashion, who edited her book Allure , and who, Dwight tells us, was the last person to call the apartment on the day Diana died. There’s something a little fawning in her behavior to Jackie, and to Katharine Graham as well-I’ve seen some of the letters she wrote to Graham, whom she also advised on clothes, and who occasionally helped her financially. But D.V. had always known how to please the great and the near-great.

Her enthusiasms ranged from peanut butter, as we’ve seen, to boiled chicken “the way Queen Victoria used to like it,” to certain colors (“All my life I’ve pursued the perfect red”), to blacks (“almost the only people I can stand to look at nowadays”), to Clark Gables’ eyelashes (“the most beautiful eyelashes I’ve ever seen on a man-on a human being “). “How I miss fringe!” she cries. “Where is fringe today?”

The extravagance, the luxe, the bizarrerie -their time passed, and in 1971 she was abruptly ousted from Vogue by Alex Liberman, who both believed she had outlived her usefulness and resented her high-and-mighty ways. As she herself might have said, “Talk about turf wars!” The new Vogue , under Grace Mirabella, shot up in circulation even as it came down to earth. D.V. felt betrayed and bereft-the brilliant impersonation of her by Mary Louise Wilson in the play Full Gallop caught her at this low point of her life.

But rescue was at hand, and soon she’d moved on to what some people, including Eleanor Dwight, clearly feel to be the apogee of her career: curating the fashion shows at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dolly was definitely back in town! By now she knew everyone as well as everything, and there was no one she couldn’t call on to make these shows exactly what she wanted them to be. The first one-on the career of Balenciaga-set the tone. If you need proof of how central Balenciaga was to the world D.V. had made her own, here’s a passage from her memoirs which I take to be more or less literally true: “I was staying with Mona Bismark in Capri when the news came. I was downstairs, dressed for dinner, having a drink. Consuelo Crespi telephoned me from Rome, saying it had just come over the radio that Balenciaga had closed his doors forever that afternoon, and that he’d never open them again. Mona didn’t come out of her room for three days. I mean, she went into a complete … I mean, it was the end of a certain part of her life !”

And if you look at the color photos of some of the Balenciaga gowns that Dwight displays in her book, you can hardly blame poor Mona-they’re as close to great art, I would think, as clothes can get. But if Mona mourned, Diana eventually did something about it when she got her chance at the Met. This is a hallmark of her life: She may have looked like a Kabuki puppet, spent hours putting on her maquillage , palled around with the Windsors and their like, but at heart she was a worker. From her stint at Bazaar when, as fashion editor, she spent days clambering up flights of stairs to vet what was going on in Seventh Avenue ateliers, to her manic observations and commands to her staff at Vogue , to her determination to acquire for her Met shows everything from Peter the Great’s boots to the dresses Vivien Leigh wore in Gone with the Wind , she pursued her goals with unflagging energy and cunning. In other words, she earned her success.

Eleanor Dwight’s book is strongest when dealing with the Met years-she’s comfortable in that world, and knowledgeable. A lot of the earlier material is déjà vu all over again; anecdotes already recycled from Allure to D.V. , and a lot of secondary sources. The early diaries are fascinating, but where are the wonderful Vogue memos that have recently surfaced and been published both in The New Yorker and in Visionaire ? (“For goodness sakes, beware of curls.” “I am extremely disappointed that no one has taken the slightest interest in freckles on the models.” “I repeat again the importance of knee socks.” “Is there anybody in the Village or slightly out of work or a poor old Arab who would make us some passamenterie ornamental belts? … Let’s give the Arabs a boost ….”) And why no quotes from George Trow, who anatomized Vreeland lovingly through the years in The New Yorker ? Why not even a hint of certain darker matters that troubled some of Diana’s intimates: her drinking, her possible anti-Semitism? The Dwight book is a celebration, almost a hagiography, and as such it’s fun to read, despite some odd carelessness (no, J.F.K. was not shot on Nov. 21). It’s also an appropriately handsome artifact, beginning with its gleaming red cover and binding and endpapers and, inside, its lavish illustrations.

But then, Diana Vreeland was herself a superb artifact. I had never met her before I began working with her-editing her memoirs-and I was wary. As it turned out, I found in her an irresistible charm (no surprise), and an enviable energy and grasp (again, no surprise), and a warmth that was surprising, because it really did seem genuine. I don’t believe it was personal; I think it sprang from her insatiable curiosity, her passionate interest, in whatever came into her line of vision. It could be you, it could be Peter the Great’s boots, it could be Gable’s eyelashes.

Not that she was equally interested in everything. Nothing takes precedence over shoes (“Unshined shoes are the end of civilization”), certainly not feminism (“I stand with the French line-women and children last”). Everyone knows that she polished the soles of her shoes, but equally important is never putting scent on immediately after your bath: “That’s the biggest mistake going-there’s nothing for it to cling to.” Yes, this is all superficial, but as she said, “I am entirely superficial and I mean to stay that way.” She also said, “What’s wrong with pleasure? What are we here for but for pleasure?” Yet she could stand on the outside and judge: “I was always fascinated by the absurdities and the luxuries and the snobbism of the world that the fashion magazines showed.”

And then there was her core of resolute privacy. She may have made a spectacle of herself, but no one ever knew what she was feeling. Just as she never spoke of the painful seven years when she and Reed were living apart, she was silent while he was dying. Years later, she told George Plimpton, when he was collaborating with her on D.V. , that she didn’t want Reed to be told that he had cancer. “This Godforsaken doctor said, ‘Mrs. Vreeland, you’re not at all modern. You’re very old-fashioned. We always tell our patients.’ But I said, ‘What do you take my husband for, an idiot? Don’t you suppose he knows he has cancer?'” The doctor asked if she had discussed it with him, and she answered, “Of course not, why would he and I discuss cancer?” When the doctor ignored her wishes and informed his patient, Reed turned his face to the wall. “Well,” he said to her that night, “they’ve told you and they told me and now it’s on the table and now there’s nothing to do about it.” They were two of a kind. Maybe it was this quality in her that Pierre Bergé was thinking of when he spoke of “the elegance of her soul and the elegance of her heart.”

Her last words, which she cried out as she lay dying in 1989, were, “Don’t stop the music or I’ll tell my father!” Until then, for her, the music had never stopped.

Robert Gottlieb was the editor of Diana Vreeland’s memoir D.V. (Knopf;DaCapo).

The Fabulous D.V.