TODAY’S WRITING TIP: USE THE FACTS TO CREATE A FANTASY AND USE FANTASIES TO CREATE A FACT.
Over the past few weeks, it’s been Diana Vreeland, a renaissance of all that she stood for of sorts. To borrow her favorite expression, I am mad, mad, mad about Diana Vreeland—and I’ve lived much of my life, as a dreamer and as an editor, in awe of her.
My only regret is I don’t recall the particular instance, that crucial moment, in which I had the privilege to make her a part of my world. I suspect it has to do with all the reading I used to do, all the Vogues and Town&Countrys and Harper’s Bazaars that I read as a boy as though my life depended on them. Maybe it was my father’s “Great American Dream,” but I went past it. Barely in my teens, I was enamored of all the trappings of the good life, from the Waldorf Astoria to the Ritz in Paris, from the Hamptons to Cote d’Azur, all that Edith Wharton, all that F. Scott Fitzgerald. Throw in Honore de Balzac, maybe a little Truman Capote, maybe a little Gertrude Stein, whom Vreeland read with great interest, maybe a lot of Oscar Wilde, whom she idolized.
I’ve read Vreeland’s memoir, D.V., long ago, but all I remember is the caprice, the whimsical approach with which she tackled life. In truth, despite my Vreeland obsession, the book was as much an experience for me as it was a blur, a social register of all the namedroppables of American and European society, a swirl of colors, such as pink, “the navy blue of India,” billiard-table green, not the color of a billiard table, but “the idea of billiard-table green,” or the perfect red, that which, as Vreeland put it, “I can never get any painter to mix for me. I want rococo with a spot of Gothic in it and a bit of Buddhist temple.”
‘A lie to get out of something, or take an advantage for oneself, that’s one thing; but a lie to make life more interesting—well, that’s entirely different.’
A few weeks ago, I had the chance to see The Eye Has to Travel, a documentary produced and directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland and Bent-Jorgen Perimutt, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2011. Shortly afterward, clamoring for more, I got hold of Empress of Fashion by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart, one of very few books on the fashion pioneer, who rocked the world of women as columnist and later fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar (1936-1962), as editor-in-chief at the American Vogue (1963-1971), and as consultant to the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It is only now that I’m piecing together the details of Diana Vreeland’s life, many of them rather too ordinary for a woman who had no patience for anything boring, but just as many of them so damaging that she must have developed the strength of character as well as the eccentricity needed to survive them.
The biography is as inspiring and eye-opening as the life I imagine Diana Vreeland lived, replete with the comings and goings of wealth, the rising and falling of reputations, the vicissitudes of fashion, the changing fabric of life and dreams, which all help entertain and enlighten us not so much on the life of its subject as on that of everybody around her, from her mother, the unhappy, disillusioned American socialite Emily Daziel, to all the women of the thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, who had had an impact on her or whom her genius had touched.
Like all biographies, Empress of Fashion would earnestly present the facts of such a life, at once blessed and cursed, but its subject’s knack for fantasy always overpowers them. Diana Vreeland grew up so tormented by the idea that her mother considered her ugly—her sister Alexandra Daziel in contrast had always been praised for her beauty and “pleasantness”—that she exerted a great deal of effort to improve herself, a lifelong mission that led her one day to become “the powerful fashion editor [who] would be the judge and decide who was and who wasn’t beautiful.”
I am barely halfway through the book, but already I realize that most other stylish women I knew from that time—Coco Chanel, Carmel Snow, Mona Bismarck, Audrey Hepburn, Wallis Simpson, Elsie de Wolfe, Daisy Fellowes, Pauline de Rothschild, Diane von Furstenberg, Jackie O—had a connection to Diana Vreeland.
Her life was far from easy. She was fired from Vogue unceremoniously, at the peak of her power, on account of always overshooting her editorial budget. The one and only love of her life, her husband Thomas Reed Vreeland, cheated on her for seven years, out of the entire lifetime they were committed to each other — “We were married for forty-three years and this is only seven of them but it was a very vivid period in my life. For seven years, I was by myself, by myself!” She died blind, but even that condition she turned into something poetic, suggesting that she went blind “because I’ve seen enough beauty.”
You must read the book to know more about her legacy in fashion and the art of living, both practical and profound, but for me, as an editor and still as a dreamer, her ultimate legacy is a kind of freedom from the truth, which is not about lying or falsehood. Although Vreeland was fond of saying things like “The truth is a hell of a big point with me. Now I exaggerate—always,” it’s not exactly about twisting the truth, either, to suit your purposes or to wear a hat that isn’t yours.
Her legacy, as I see it, is the idea that the truth doesn’t always have to bind you, to keep you in a cage, to limit or define you, or, more important, to hold you back from other possibilities. Reality isn’t all there is, because what we can make up in our minds, what we can reach out for in a dream, does exist, too.
“It’s very touching,” she once wrote in her diary when she was young, “—the things that exist and come true if you believe and insist… if you just have an idea…if you just have a dream.”
This was the story of Diana Vreeland’s life, a testament to the power of dreaming, a showcase of pure, unapologetic originality.