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The Divine Mrs. V

STYLISH PAIR: Diana and Reed Vreeland--her stylish, urbane husband with whom she had two sons, and whose death in 1966 devastated her--on the steps of the Southampton Bathing Corporation in the late forties.

After the war, Reed returned to Manhattan, and the couple resumed a schedule filled with chic parties animated by their coterie of society friends -- C. Z. Guest, Cecil Beaton, Cole Porter. By 1955 the crowd was dining at the Vreelands' new apartment at 550 Park Avenue. The living room was bloodred; as Diana announced: "I want this place to look like a garden, but a garden in hell." Scarlet chintz covered with brilliant Persian flowers cloaked the room. Red carpeting spread over the floors of the living room and hallway. As Vreeland pointed out, "Red is the great clarifier -- bright and revealing. I can't imagine becoming bored with red -- it would be like becoming bored with the person you love."

To 21-year-old Ali McGraw, the apartment represented a world filled with enticing possibilities. In 1960, McGraw, a recent Wellesley graduate, was Vreeland's assistant. Picking up her boss's portfolio every morning, she was greeted by the scent of Rigaud candles, good oatmeal, and bath soap: "I would drink in the sight of things, the Persian miniatures, the photographs of everyone I had ever heard of, the Scottish snuff horns." She realized, she says, that she "had everything to learn."

By the end of the fifties, Vreeland herself was itching to take on new challenges. As Carmel Snow prepared to resign her post at Harper's Bazaar, Vreeland was keen to get her job. Hearst executives had other ideas. According to Adrian Allen, art director Alexey Brodovitch's assistant, Snow warned Bazaar's higher-ups that Vreeland "was a brilliant fashion editor who should never, ever, be editor-in-chief of a magazine." In late 1957, they chose to bring in Nancy White, Carmel Snow's niece. When Vreeland learned of White's appointment, she said, "We needed an artist and they sent us a house-painter."

Though she stuck it out for four more years, by early March 1962, the rumor began circulating that Diana Vreeland was leaving Bazaar. Sam Newhouse had bought Condé Nast, and, as one story has it, he hired Vreeland as a present to his wife, who wanted the best editor in the business for Vogue. In January 1963, Vreeland became Vogue's editor-in-chief.

Vreeland's humor and enthusiasm for the job immediately filled the nineteenth floor of the Graybar Building. According to former accessories editor Nuala Boylan, "A limousine would arrive, in the late morning or at lunchtime, and the door would snap open, and she would step out dressed in her usual head-to-foot black -- cashmere sweater, black wrap skirt, the pointed shoes, now famous, that were polished on the bottoms. The hands were beautifully manicured, the hair just so. It was a helmet -- once when her maid bumped into it by mistake with a tray, it clinked. And waiting at the curb, there would always be one assistant. . . . We would hear the clicking of feet and her loud voice over her shoulder dictating memos at a mile a minute."

Her secretary from 1964 to 1969, Felicity Clark, remembers an urgent memo, "a two-liner saying, 'Bring me shoes with chains on them.' Someone would come in swearing, saying, 'What's she on about now? There's no such thing as a shoe with a chain on it!' But you know, in six months' time everybody was wearing a shoe with a chain on it!" Another of Vreeland's memos stated that the Vogue staff should all wear bells at the office, according to fashion editor Carrie Donovan: "You know the sort of bells. Bells little kittens wear so they don't get lost in closets." So all the young women bought little bells, draping them around their necks and waists. "By the time she came in, we were all walking around with bells on. She pretended she didn't notice anything."

Donovan was always impressed with the abundance of Vreeland's ideas, and the intuitive sense she had for her readers. When Donovan planned to do a presentation using long skirts, which she had just seen in the French ready-to-wear, Vreeland admonished her. "'Oh, no, Carrie, modern women aren't going to go for that. They have to drive kids to school.' She never went anywhere except in a chauffeur-driven car; still, she understood all that."

Vreeland loved the sixties; her eclectic style fit right in with the times. "The idea of beauty was changing," she said. "If you had a bump on your nose, it made no difference so long as you had a marvelous body and good carriage. You held your head high, and you were a beauty. . . . You knew how to water-ski, and how to take a jet plane fast in the morning, arrive anywhere, and be anyone when you got off."

Vreeland's enthusiasm about the jet plane propelled her into producing fantastic, far-flung -- and wildly expensive -- fashion stories. Photographers went with models to Asia, Africa, the Middle East. But Vreeland, a perfectionist, was not always happy with the results. Model Penelope Tree remembers: "In England one time, David Bailey and I worked really hard on some photographs -- three days and three nights. We flew to America and triumphantly slapped them down on her desk. She got out her white gloves and she looked through the light box.

" 'Bailey, they're great!' Then there was a long pause. 'But we can't use them.'

" 'You fucking old bag! Why not?'

" 'There's no languor in the lips!' "

"We were furious, but we had to laugh," continues Tree. "She rather liked being called an old bag by Bailey."