Words and Photography JOHN WILLIAM
Diana Vreeland wrote, spoke and lived her life en italique. “Like a poet, she gives the impression of inventing her own syntax as she goes along” wrote author Christopher Hemphill, who edited her memoirs. Diana’s dialect first found a home on the pages of Harpers Bazaar in the shape of her proclamatory column Why don’t you… Genius humorist S. J. Perelman parodied Diana in The New Yorker, in 1938 writing “If a perfectly strange lady came up to you on the street and demanded ‘Why don’t you travel with a little raspberry-colored cashmere blanket to throw over yourself in hotels and trains?’ the chances are that you would turn on your heel with dignity and hit her with a bottle. Yet that is exactly what has been happening for the past twenty months in the pages of a little raspberry-colored magazine called Harper’s Bazaar … The first time I noticed this ‘Why Don’t You?’ department was a year ago last August while hungrily devouring news of the midsummer Paris openings. Without any preamble came the stinging query ‘Why don’t you rinse your blond child’s hair in dead champagne, as they do in France? Or pat her face gently with cream before she goes to bed, as they do in England?’ After a quick look into the nursery I decided to let my blond child go to hell her own way, as they do in America.”
Diana was later parodied in Stanley Donen’s Funny Face (1957) by Kay Thompson playing Miss Prescott, the pink-thinking imperious grand-high-editor of ‘Quality’ magazine. Then it was William Klein’s takedown of the Fashion World Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966) with Grayson Hall playing divinely barbed Miss Maxwell. Perhaps a Diana-ism is the best response to the endless caricatures: “Don’t you know? Exaggeration is my only reality.” The navy blue boot polish curve of her bouffant, her endless fingers stretched like the claws of a wild cat, the cockamamie autobiography (dancing with Nijinsky, riding with Buffalo Bill.) It’s all glorious red lacquer. As Jean Cocteau told Vanity Fair in 1922, “I am a lie that tells the truth.”
“You know, the most lingering memory is really sitting around her dining room table and talking.” Alexander Vreeland, Diana’s grandson was previously in charge of marketing at sales at Ralph Lauren and Armani. Now he is the custodian of her archive, and the creator of Diana Vreeland Parfums – a beautiful tribute to such a fragrant character. “She would invite me over to her home for dinner, and then we’d sit around and talk for several hours. She wasn’t very big on food or eating – so the meal was not the main event. It was really her smoking…” (Lucky Strike was Diana’s favourite fag) “…and our talking. She would ask me a lot of questions and she had that ability to speak to you in such a way that you felt like you’re the only person on the entire planet who mattered. She was really interested in what choices I was making and what I was doing with my life. So many times you discover that people don’t really have that much interest in other people. They only wanna find an opportunity to speak, and not necessarily to listen and to have other people speak.”
“Why don’t you… have an elk-hide trunk for the back of your car?Hermès of Paris will make this. Why don’t you… put all your dogs in bright yellow collars and leads like all the dogs in Paris?”
When thinking about the bombastic reign of Empress Vreeland, the ability to listen doesn’t immediately come to mind. “I think that part of my Grandmother’s genius was that she really surrounded herself with talented, creative people and she listened to them, and she worked with them, and she inspired them and she helped them achieve their thing in life. I think that’s a huge skill and talent, and she was very good at it, and when you look back and you speak to these creative people, they also felt that they really did their most important work in that partnership with my Grandmother.” Alumni of Diana include Richard Avedon, Manolo Blahnik, Oscar de la Renta, Marisa Berenson, Polly Mellen, André Leon Talley, Yves Saint Laurent… how long have you got? “One of the pieces of advice that she gave me, and to put it in context this was when I just moved to New York and I started working in fashion, and I was a young father, and she said to me, ‘Just concentrate on work and family, and don’t worry about anything else,’ and I always thought that was a really good piece of advice.”
"Why don't you… give someone an enormous white handkerchief linen tablecloth, and in different handwriting and colours (black, acid green, pink, scarlet and pale blue) have embroidered all the bon mots you can possible think of?"
“She gave energy and pep to anything she touched” Richard Avedon remembered of Diana. The pep given to young Alexander was delivered across a white tablecloth that had been ironed before and after being spread across the table. Ashtrays everywhere. “She’d have lots of cigarettes in the house, so everything was always at arms length, you could always find an ashtray or a cigarette.” This was at 550 Park Avenue – the Billy Baldwin decorated jewellery box of an apartment that for a time was redeye of the storm of New York society. “She felt very strongly that if you invited somebody to your home, it needed to be a certain way. Not only was all of the silver and copper and whatever polished, but she had potpourri in certain places, she had these porcelain bowls filled with sand with incense burning, and then she had these white teflon-y things that she put on top of light bulbs that she dropped fragrance oils into.” Alexander laughs. “I think they’re probably illegal now, because they probably blew up or something. And then she also had room spray, and candles, she was very big on scented candles, so she had a couple of scented candles burning, and on top of all of this, she had a hypodermic needle and she used to inject fragrance into the cushions.” Truly – the most fabulous garden in hell.
“All of that was going on, and her house was covered in flowers, and it was never a case of a bouquet or a little arrangement, it was always dozens of different types of flowers that were just magnificent in vases… a huge outpouring of flowers. She wouldn’t think of having somebody over unless all of that was done. Even if she said, ‘It’s just the two of us!’ That did not mean that any corners could be cut. It had to be done a certain way and it always was.” Diana would have her helper Yvonne iron not only the clothes she planned to wear the following day, but the dollar bills that would go into her handbag. “She would get ready, and the last thing she would do before she walked out of the house was put on a little dab of sandalwood oil behind each ear.”
It seems perfume was the perfect tribute to keep the spirit of his grandmother extant. “I think that it really was after Lisa [Immordino Vreeland]’s film The Eye Has to Travel came out, that it became clear to me that the interest in my Grandmother, the respect in my Grandmother, was far broader than I’d anticipated.” Alexander worked with art director Fabien Baron and perfumers like Pascal Gaurin and Carlos Benaim to develop a confection of fragrances named after some of Diana’s declarations (Simply Divine! Smashingly Brilliant! Full Gallop!) “As celebrity brands were crashing and burning, and the fashion brands were being so over distributed in so many locations, there started to become this culture of effective excellence and beautiful fragrance that a lot of people were pursuing. I just felt that that would be an interesting way to enter this, because my Grandmother had a big passion for fragrance.” The beautiful jewel coloured bottles were developed by Brosse (the family who did the original Chanel No. 5 bottle) with a lovely elongated cap. “My Grandmother loved the concept of elongation and loved making tall people look taller and extending necks and extending earrings and extending long braids of hair. This sense of seven feet tall. So the elongated neck, the cap, is a nod to that.”
“Why don’t you… have the most beautiful necklaces in the world made of huge pink spiky coral with big Siberian emeralds? Why don’t you… twist you child’s pigtails round her ears like macaroons?”
The perfumes are theatrical, and full of colour. “With Staggeringly Beautiful for example, we loved the idea of a citrus fragrance… you could immediately transport yourself to walking along the Mediterranean and smelling these different figs, and lemons, and the richness of ocean air and fresh herbs. But half an hour later the fragrance disappeared. So we spent over a year trying to figure out how can it remain? And how can it keep that beauty for a long time? My Grandmother has left a very lasting impression on people, and I think with the fragrances we do, it has to be part of our DNA. To leave a lasting impression. A sort of cloud that stays with you for a long time. And that takes a tremendous amount of luxurious ingredients and huge abandon to have enough of them that it really will stay on your skin.”
"Why don't you... have a private staircase from your bedroom to the library with a needlework carpet with notes of music worked on each step – the whole spelling your favourite tune?"
At Diana Vreeland’s funeral Richard Avedeon gave a eulogy. “I am here as a witness, Diana lived for imagination ruled by discipline, and created a totally new profession. Vreeland invented the fashion editor. Before her, it was society ladies who put hats on other society ladies. Now, it’s promotion ladies who compete with other promotion ladies.” Diana once warned the photographer Horst P. Horst “Beware of the legend!” (a staff memo also included the caveat “For goodness sakes, beware of curls.”) I wonder if Diana was aware of the respect and adoration surrounding her. How could she know that decades later her name, her proclamations, her iconoclastic ways (even her fingernails) would still pepper Fashion’s conversations – like her proverbial paprika (of which “A little bad taste is like a nice splash of.”) “I think that there’s a fascinating historical leap that happens.” Alexander muses. “I’m a big student of history and you can take Presidents, and Kings and Prime Ministers, and it sort of takes twenty to fifty years after they die to see how relevant that legacy becomes. Sometimes we think at the time ‘This is gonna be really important,’ and you know, within twenty years it’s totally forgotten and the world moves on. What is fascinating with my Grandmother is that her legacy continues to be very relevant and very inspirational to a lot of people. I think that her relevance is greater today than when she died, and I don’t think that she was aware of that at the time, at the end of her life.”