In the early spring of 1936, Carmel Snow, the legendary editor of Harper's Bazaar, watched as a young, dark-haired woman glided across the dance floor at the St. Regis hotel. She wore a white Chanel lace dress with a bolero and roses in her jet-black hair; her high cheekbones were heavily rouged. Snow was entranced and offered the woman -- a wife and mother of two just returned with her husband from six years abroad -- a job. And the rest is fashion history.
"I'd only been here for six months," Diana Vreeland later recalled. Though her husband, Reed, had been working at a bank, she also needed a job, badly. "I was going through money like one goes through . . . a bottle of scotch, I suppose, if you're an alcoholic." Thus began a tenure at Bazaar that would last 26 years, launching Vreeland as an American fashion icon.
She stood out from the start. Readers were introduced to her signature epigrammatic style with the typically colorful "Why Don't You?" column, which she began writing in August of 1936. "Why don't you . . . Turn your child into an Infanta for a fancy-dress party?" she asked readers. "Why don't you own, as does one extremely smart woman, twelve diamond roses of all sizes?" The theme repeated over and over in Vreeland's column was a personal credo: Don't just be your ordinary dull self. Why don't you be ingenious and make yourself into something else?
This maxim had served her well in the past. Raised in New York by her American mother, Emily Key Hoffman, and English father, Frederick Young Dalziel, little Diana -- with her dark, curly hair, deep-set eyes, and aquiline nose -- had to contend with being the plain girl in a family of beauties. Her mother, a free-spirited socialite who ran with a bohemian crowd, was dubbed the "Society Carmencita" after John Singer Sargent's popular painting of a Spanish dancer; her younger sister, Alexandra, was blonde and angelic. As a child, Diana was told by her mother, "It's too bad that you have such a beautiful sister and that you are so extremely ugly and so terribly jealous of her. This, of course, is why you are so impossible to deal with." Vreeland later summed up, with her typical aplomb: "Parents, you know, can be terrible."
For her part, Vreeland found her mother's flamboyance embarrassing. She claimed Emily came to Mother's Day at Brearley in "a bright green tweed suit and a little golden-yellow Tyrolean fedora with a little black feather, gilt at the end, that was short but sharp -- I'm talking sharp -- and she was very made up." In her teenage journal, she confided that "Mother and I agree on practically nothing." Instead, Diana emulated her classmates in how to dress; she worked on becoming tidy, enlarging her vocabulary, improving her manners. For the rest of her life, Vreeland would refine this ability to reinvent herself. "For years I am and always have been looking out for girls to idealize because they are things to look up to, because they are perfect," she wrote in her diary. But since she had never discovered "that girl or that woman," she announced, "I shall be that girl."
At Bazaar, Vreeland set about reinventing the job of fashion editor. She chose the American clothes to be featured in the magazine, oversaw the photography, and worked with the models. "I know what they're going to wear before they wear it, what they're going to eat before they eat it," she announced. "I know where they're going before it's even there!"
Photographer Richard Avedon credits Vreeland with starting "a totally new profession." Before her, the fashion editor was a society lady putting hats on other society ladies. Vreeland, on the other hand, felt that "to-day only personality counts . . . I do not believe we should put in [the magazine] so-called society, as it is démodé and practically doesn't exist . . . but ravishing personalities are the most riveting things in the world -- conversation, people's interests, the atmosphere that they create round them -- these are the things that I feel are worth putting in any issue."
When Avedon first met Vreeland, he was standing at the doorway of her long, narrow office, at the far end of which stood a model in a stiff wedding dress. "Mrs. Vreeland never looked at me. She cried, 'Baron!' Beside her stood Baron de Gunzburg, the only male fashion editor in the world, a pincushion hanging like a Croix de Guerre from a ribbon at his throat, and she cried, 'Baron! Baron, the pins!' She took one pin and walked swinging her hips down to the end of the office. She stuck the pin not only into the dress but into the girl, who let out a little scream. Vreeland returned to her desk, looked up at me for the first time and said, 'Aberdeen, Aberdeen, doesn't it make you want to cry?' Well, it did. I went back to Carmel Snow and said, 'I can't work with that woman. She calls me Aberdeen.' And Carmel Snow said, 'You're going to work with her.' And I did, to my enormous benefit, for almost 40 years."
Vreeland's home life was just as dramatic. When the war began in Europe in 1939, Reed moved to Canada, while Diana stayed in New York in order to keep her job at Bazaar. "Reed was living in Montreal through the war, working for British interests," Vreeland wrote in her memoir, DV. "It was a very vivid period in my life. For seven years, I was by myself." She was devoted to her dashing husband, whom she had met in 1923 and married the following year; she was so smitten, on their first meeting, that when he asked her to play golf, she jumped at the chance, although she barely knew how to play. She showed up at the first tee with a bandaged arm and announced that she could only walk around the course with him.
And yet the relationship was far from perfect. There had always been rumors about Reed's liaisons, but Diana had looked the other way. Now people said that Reed had left his wife and was living in Canada with another woman. It was even rumored that Diana went to Montreal and confronted his girlfriend. She sat her down in front of a mirror and said, "Look at you, you are young and beautiful, and you have everything ahead of you. I am getting older and I have only my wonderful husband."