Recalling a particular picture of Maria Callas, Diana Vreeland once quipped, “If eyes were bullets, everyone in sight would be dead!”
As a minter of epigrams, Vreeland is surely up there with Andy Warhol. Before she died in 1989, aged 86, she had been a fixture at Harper’s Bazaar for 26 years and then editor-in-chief at Vogue from 1963 until 1971. When she was fired from Vogue, Vreeland went on to work as a special consultant to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she helped to arrange exhibitions for the Costume Institute. She was known for her exacting tastes, her personal style and her bon mots, many of which are collected in a reissue of her 1980 book “Allure”. The volume assembles Vreeland’s favourite photographs with her personal commentary on each one. The subjects range from Gertrude Stein to Martha Graham and the photographers include Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and Cecil Beaton.
Vreeland was a natural editor: evaluative by nature and never content to remain a neutral observer. Her selections reveal a sharp eye and sharper mind. She liked big personalities, big noses, the colour red and aggressively fashionable socialites, such as Babe Paley. A photograph of Evita Peron on her deathbed, with her glistening blond braid coiled around her head and a portrait of her husband mounted two feet above the bed, is a beautiful lesson in political theatre. “She’s like a face on a coin,” Vreeland observes. Of Marilyn Monroe, she says, “She was a geisha. She was born to give pleasure, spent her whole life doing it, and knew no other way.” On Brigitte Bardot: “Her lips made Mick Jagger’s lips possible.” Vreeland’s vocabulary was sui generis; she might describe a street as “exactly like Levittown” but “a bit more Black Foresty”, and she might call a photograph of Maria Callas “killer-diller”. Next to the images, these neologisms make perfect sense.
“Allure” captures what it might have been like to flip through a stack of magazines with Vreeland—which is, as it happens, how the book was compiled. Christopher Hemphill, the editor’s collaborator, met weekly with his boss at a satin banquette in her New York apartment to tape-record Vreeland’s musings as they paged through photographs. (“Mrs. Vreeland’s method of work has a logic of its own,” Hemphill writes in an introduction to the book. “It is never obvious; it moves like a Ouija board.”) Given the way the book was created, “Allure” is best read in invigorating spurts rather than straight through. A little Vreeland, in other words, goes a long way.
"Allure" by Diana Vreeland is out now, published by Chronicle Books