Who can fail to admire a woman who called her scarlet sitting room a garden in hell? Who, when sacked at 70, instead of retiring into her closet with her shoes, said to the man who terminated her golden age as editor of Vogue, “I’ve known white Russians and Reds, but you’re the first yellow Russian.”
If Diana Vreeland is sitting on a crimson cloud looking down on the fashion world, she would have been disappointed by the audience of not so thin bland bitches in LBDs who came to the world premiere of the film about her life, The Eye Has to Travel, in London. I could almost hear her say, in her faux-European voice, “Lack of artifice is bloody boring.”
Hosted by Manolo Blahnik, one of those men who mysteriously always has more hair this year than he did last year, and Penelope Tree, whose round face looks less like an old oak and more like a dehydrated shrub, the evening rightly focused a gimlet eye on the real star, Ms. Vreeland.
“Water is God’s tranquillizer,” she says to George Plimpton, apropos of nothing. On Planet Lash, God’s trank is vodka, but swap the black hair dye for peroxide and DV could be my Aunt Irene the Slut, staying in bed till noon, having at least four fittings for her silk underwear, whispering the same advice to me that DV gave to her sons: “If you can’t be top of the class, make sure you are bottom.” Heaven forbid the mediocrity in the middle. That would be like shitting on Chanel’s grave.
DV couldn’t be beautiful like her sister so she embraced her ugly-duckling looks and married a beautiful man. What did he see in her? Everything. DV had the sex appeal that confidence, exuberance and originality can afford. She was a glamorous star who could be profound as well as trivial. “A strong face comes not just from bone structure but inner thinking.”
The only other editor who came close to Vreeland’s audacity and style was Issy Blow, who swallowed weed killer when she got bored with the world and everyone in it. But while Blow suffered from black depression, DV seduced or destroyed everything that crossed her red carpet with a gleeful throaty laugh. Anna Wintour scares her staff, but doesn’t seduce them. She’s more bossy headmistress than exotic creative, wearing clothes which, if I were kind, I’d describe as mid-Atlantic Marks & Spencer.
Alex Shulman at British Vogue is more ready-to-wear than ready-to-scare. She knows fuck-all about fashion and boasts about it. And who in her right mind allows a classic name like Alexandra to be diminished to Alex?
DV understood the genius of vulgarity before it was fashionable. She was the first editor to reinvent models by accentuating rather than airbrushing their faults. Barbra Streisand’s nose was celebrated, rather than pitied, on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar. A star was born. Models like Twiggy were becoming celebrities and Ms. Vreeland was the first to use celebrities as models.
Her former assistant Ali McGraw didn’t much like Ms. Vreeland and the feeling was probably mutual. In an unintentionally comic moment in the film, McGraw tells her dog to shut up and appears to kick it under the table. If looks could kill, the pooch would be dead. Suddenly McGraw can act, or maybe she’s just playing herself.
Addicted to red, DV rouged even her ears, was better dressed than Wallis Simpson, and twice as glammy tranny. Who doesn’t admire an octogenarian whose hair was blacker than Satan’s? She said, “A new dress doesn’t get you anywhere, it’s what you do in the dress.” Insert evil vodka-smeared laugh.
DV loved nostalgia, but was a modern at heart. But paradise couldn’t last forever. She was costing Conde Nast too much money. Advertisers didn’t care for her, oddly, since she was reinventing the future and wrote better copy than Don Draper. But, “Americans have no taste.”
The last word should go to her disciple Andre Leon Talley, possibly the world’s most glamorous Falstaff, whose presence is missed in The Eye Has to Travel. Talley, who read Anna Karenina to DV while she lounged on her deathbed, once said, “Some would say I live in the past. But without the past, you cannot go toward the future.”
But no, the last word always goes to the shallow-not-stupid Diana Vreeland herself: “Give them what they never knew they wanted.”
Follow Vivien Lash