Alexander Vreeland on His New Book, His Grandmother and Her Vogue Years

Vogue Memos, a Rizzoli tome out next month, has quite a ring to it. One imagines it to crackle with all the scandal and intrigue of, say, the Pentagon Papers — as if some dark fashion-world secret lurks between its pages. But actually, given its long title, Diana Vreeland Memos: The Vogue Years promises less in the way of scandal, but all the intrigue one could hope for.

It’s a fascinating compilation of the memos — reprinted in their original form — that Diana Vreeland, Vogue’s editor-in-chief in the 1960s, sent to her staff and photographers, some of them giants in the field like Cecil Beaton, Horst P. Horst, and Richard Avedon. Usually dictated by phone each morning from her Park Avenue apartment (she was rarely in the office before noon, and didn’t like formal meetings anyway), the memos were typed up by a secretary, annotated further by Vreeland’s hand, and dispatched by post and courier wherever her team may be.

The book has been lovingly edited by her grandson and president of her estate, Alexander Vreeland. (His wife, Lisa Immordino Vreeland, created the definitive documentary on Diana Vreeland, The Eye Has to Travel.) He presents a novel, riveting means of understanding one of the most outlandish cultural icons of the 20th century. As he explains here, surprises and maybe a few guffaws await even the most knowledgeable Vreeland-phile…

Lee Carter: First of all, the book is fascinating. I love it.
Alexander Vreeland: Thank you. Glad you liked it. Usually coffee-table books aren’t read.

Can you walk me through the process of how she made these memos from her Park Avenue pad each morning?
Sure. She would call her office and speak to one of her secretaries, as they were called at that time, and she would just dictate the different things that she was thinking about, or things she wanted done, or correspondence to people she was working with. Some memos were just sent to her senior staff and she would never see them again. Others were more like letters. She would be given a folder of these letters that she had already dictated, and she would go through them and mark them up with changes and corrections, but she never had them re-typed. They were sent with her punctuations, underlining, word changes…

And extra declarations!
Yeah. And they went out that way. So the book is partly her notes to her staff and partly her personal letters.

As you were researching them, were there any memos that really stood out?
What stood out to me was how knowledgeable and eloquent she was on so many things, how she had a point of view on jewelry and fashion and accessories and hair and photography and budgets and business. There was just so much that she was dealing with and thinking about, and she shared them so clearly. So the writing, I think, is so interesting.

It’s also clear that she was very encouraging and congratulatory. Only occasionally would she express dissatisfaction, like a memo she sent to Richard Avedon about the model’s hair in a photo of his. She described it as “bits of hair dipped in dressing” and “the most horrifying thing to hit hairdressing.”
And it was a reshoot! But you know, she was a very positive woman. She came from the school that if you had nothing positive to say you just didn’t say anything. While she was not somebody who would hold back her punches, she was very, very positive and she was very, very encouraging. I think that’s why she had such a fascinating role in so many creative people’s lives, because she really saw what they could do and wanted to have them do their greatest work.

I’d be curious to know how the memos were received. These were the most accomplished professionals working in fashion at the time. I imagine they took her notes well.
I would assume so. It’s interesting because some of her senior team was inherited. She didn’t do a total clean sweep, which happens all the time today, like a new editor takes over somewhere and they sweep out all the old staff and bring in their team. She didn’t do that. The only photographer she brought to Vogue from [Harper’s] Bazaar was Richard Avedon. She really worked with the team that was there. But what’s fascinating is how transformative her years at Vogue were for the magazine’s business and the imagery for that decade.

In many ways she created the language for Vogue that still exists today.
I think that’s very accurate. And also the dominant position in terms of magazines, because you have to put it into context. At the time, Harper’s Bazaar was the dominant fashion magazine, and it was only when my grandmother went to Vogue that Vogue took on that mantle and has never given it up.

And by creating the Met Ball, she really invented that universe.
She created the Met Ball, but what’s really important was that when she was pushed out of Vogue, she was hired at the Costume Institute. At that time it was a very professorial, studious place that studied the dress of the courts of England and that sort of thing. It was poorly lit and had no atmosphere, and [the mannequins] all stood in a long line. Very few people would go to these exhibits. She created the modern role between fashion and museums, and the dynamism that made possible something like the Alexander McQueen show. Now every major museum in the world has a fashion exhibit component, because it draws people in, and it has life and resources and energy. That whole category of experience in a museum is something she created.

In the book you wrote about visiting your grandmother on Park Avenue and spending lunches with her in the Vogue office. Were you able to spend other time with her? Did you travel with her?I spent quite a lot of time with her. I grew up overseas because my father was an American diplomat, and she would come visit us every year and we would also go back to visit New York every other year. And so we spent time together that way when I was very small. Then from ages 12 to 16, I lived in New York and we spent a lot of time together then. In the last four years of her life, I was the only member of the family in New York and was with her a lot of that time. It was very exciting for me because I’d just started working in fashion. I was head of communications at Ralph Lauren and my office was five blocks away from her home. I would see her several times a week and we’d talk several times a day. So we were very close.

I can only imagine what that was like, all the crazy stories she must have told you that lit up your imagination.
When we lived in Morocco, she was convinced that my brother and I were riding to school on a camel. We used to ride horses a lot and she imagined that we sort of lived on the horses. She always took whatever pieces there were and made it all seem much more exciting and fantastic than our lives seemed to us.

The art of storytelling, she had that down.
Yes, yes.

As you continue in your role as president of her estate, do you find that you still stumble upon something new about your grandmother that you didn’t know existed?
Well, I think I’ve seen the documentary my wife made about my grandmother (The Eye Has to Travel) over a hundred times and every time I still laugh. It gives me a great warm loving feeling because it always brings her back to me. And I find in these memos a fascinating and insightful craziness that I think is so reflective of fashion at its best. They’re like little grains of her that I come across. It always gives me great pleasure and makes me laugh.

To me it almost doesn’t matter whether her stories are completely true or not. Yes, at times they do go into surreal territory. But I find that to be fun and I think fashion should be entertaining. She brought a lot of liveliness to fashion, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
I totally agree, but I think that it’s important to put it in context because the 26 years that she was the fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar are an important body of fashion imagery and a real inspiration for today’s most important fashion photographers. The Bazaar years, the Vogue years, and the Met years are still so hugely relevant today that even though she told wild stories and exaggerated certain details, behind it is a crazy body of work. It’s not as if she was some social lady who told funny stories. She was a powerhouse who did transformative work that still affects a lot of people.

I think that comes across in the book. I went into it having one idea of who she was, and walked away with another. She was very much involved in the nitty-gritty of running the business of Vogue. Everything came from her vision, and she made sure that her vision was enacted exactly as she saw it. So even though sometimes she was fanciful with her stories, she was really hands-on.
She was very hands-on. She worked in a way that inspired people to do their own thing. Her MO was to give ideas to these creative people and they would go off and do their amazing work. There are wonderful stories of her talking about how a geisha moves, or telling Dick Avedon when he’s going to shoot in Egypt to think of a young Cleopatra pacing rooms in the desert heat. And that’s all that Dick needed to create amazing imagery. She planted that idea.  

Which is the genius of Diana Vreeland.
Yes. And I think that these memos show how involved she was. There’s a wonderful memo of her to Cecil Beaton about a very famous picture of Lee Radziwill. And you can see in the memo she’s laying out what the picture should be and what the clothes should be. She wasn’t standing there saying do it this or that way, but she knew that Lee’s apartment in London had just been redone by [Lorenzo] Mongiardino, and she knew it had a Turkish area with amazing fabrics, so she wanted Lee in a caftan. She knew what that could be and Cecil Beaton created it. 

She was working in a collaborative spirit with these photographers, very carefully treading the line between telling them what to do and inviting them to think for themselves.
Yes. And that’s really important. You don’t want to beat them down. You know, when [Vogue’s fashion editor] Polly Mellen and Dick Avedon took those amazing pictures in Japan over five weeks, all she told Polly was to read The Tale of Genji. That was her insight into the whole five-week photo shoot with Veruschka. That was it. They didn’t use the phone, didn’t use the fax, and they had no email. She didn’t have meetings or off-site retreats. If a certain photographer was in New York, she’d sit down and talk to him, but a lot of it came through these letters and memos.