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The Divine Mrs. V

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In the spring of '72, Vreeland's lawyer, Peter Tufo, approached Ashton Hawkins, counsel to the Metropolitan Museum, about her working with the Costume Institute. When curator Ted Rousseau met with C. Z. Guest to discuss improvements at the Institute, he asked, "What do you think about Diana Vreeland?" She replied, "Well, if you don't have her, don't bother to open it. Nobody else can even do it." At 69, Vreeland was about to begin the most successful act of her career.

Ostensibly, Vreeland had been hired to persuade people to give their high-fashion wardrobes to the museum: She could get, the reasoning went, a lot of people to open their trunks. It soon became clear, however, that she would also orchestrate the exhibitions in a whole new way. She once said, "The trouble with this country [is that] they want to give the public what it wants. Well, the public wants what it can't get, and it's up to the museum to teach them what to want."

While the staff members wanted the costumes to appear as they would have in the time period they represented, Vreeland wanted the clothes to look now. When a mannequin was being dressed for a historical show, Vreeland might say, "Oh, no, those shoes are wrong," and insist on better-looking shoes. The curator would reply that "these" shoes hadn't existed then. Mrs. Vreeland would say, "Well, if this woman looked like this mannequin . . . she would have thought of them."

In her off hours, Vreeland was living very much in the present. Although she had a string of male companions to escort her around town, she was particularly fond of Fred Hughes, a prominent member of Andy Warhol's crowd whom Warhol described as "one of the only young people around who insisted on Savile Row suits."

When Fred had flings with young women, Vreeland became jealous. Warhol, too, felt some jealousy; he complained that when Fred was drunk, he would "talk like Mrs. Vreeland." In 1986, long after Vreeland and Andy had stopped seeing each other regularly, Warhol wrote in his diary: "I told Fred that the kitchen was dirty and he looked at me and said, 'Well, I'm not going to do the dishes.' Diana Vreeland has been a really bad influence on him. I should've broken that up."

Although Vreeland enjoyed the Studio 54 culture, she didn't become part of it. As art critic John Richardson recalls, "Diana drank quite a bit" and preferred vodka and scotch to drugs. One night, while having dinner at his house on 38th Street, Kenny Lane said to her, "You're always talking about mara-ju-wanna" -- which was how she pronounced it -- "I think it's about time you smoke some." He gave her a "joint," and she lit up. "Oh, my God! Oh, my God!" she exclaimed, and then she became trancelike. "Mmmmmm. Ohhh. Ohhh. I feel so strange, so wonderful." And, as Lane remembered, "she finished the performance and I said, 'Darling, I'm afraid it's not marijuana. It's a joint made with regular tobacco put back in.' 'Oh, no! How could you have done this to me?' " Vreeland's nonstop social life included older friends as well. As fashion executive Boaz Mazor remembers, there were two places you wanted to go in the seventies: the parties of "the Paleys and the de la Rentas, and Vreeland was always there, naturally."

In the winter of 1976, Vreeland visited her old friend Kitty Miller in Palm Beach. Her friend Lou Gartner remembers sitting with Vreeland at a large party. When dinner was over, at about 10:30, guests started to get up. Vreeland said, "What the hell is this, Scarsdale?" She said, "I want to go dancing." Gartner took her to a club in West Palm Beach. Gartner recalls, "I was talking to her and this shadow came across the table. And I looked up and there was the biggest black man I have ever seen in my life and he said, 'Do you want to dance?' Vreeland looked up and smiled at him, and he said, 'Not you, him.' And I said, 'I don't dance, but she's wild, she's great.' " Diana got up and, Gartner continues, "I've never seen anything like the two of them on the dance floor. I mean, you talk about dirty dancing, it was unreal." When she finally sat down, Vreeland said, " 'He's the most marvelous man. He's just out of prison. He needs help and support.' I said, 'We're going home.' "

After 1984, Vreeland started coming to the museum less and less, and as the eighties wore on, her health forced her to retire to the privacy of her red Park Avenue apartment, where she received only family and very close friends. Although she had a good salary from the Met and a pension from Condé Nast, Vreeland's expenses still exceeded her income. In 1987, she decided to sell some of her costume jewelry and called Kenny Lane to ask what her "junk" jewels might bring at auction. He replied, "More than they're worth. Thirty or forty thousand dollars." Astonished, she replied, "That much? My God!" Vreeland's friends and acolytes packed themselves into Sotheby's for the event. The sale of the jewelry brought in $167,000, well over Lane's estimate. As he recalled, "When I told D.V. over the phone what the results were, she said, 'Is that all?' And I said, 'Well, I'm glad I'm sitting down.' "

As her emphysema worsened, Vreeland secluded herself in her bedroom and refused to let anyone see her. When she invited people to dinner, she'd call her guests on the telephone in the dining room, where the meal was served, and conversation would proceed over the wire. Very good friends, like Lane, Oscar de la Renta, André Leon Talley, and Jacqueline Onassis, would come and read to her.

Several times an ambulance was called for her, only to have Vreeland revive -- once, famously, she shot straight up on the stretcher and ordered herself returned. In Vreeland's last hours, her household manager remembered, "she was hallucinating, talking to her mother. From what she was saying now, she was young again, dancing at a party, enjoying herself." Suddenly she cried out in her strong voice, speaking to the bandleader, "Don't stop the music or I'll tell my father!" These were her last words. She sank into a coma and did not revive again. Diana Vreeland died on August 2, 1989, in the New York Hospital. At the apartment, in the nurses' register, the last entry read "Mrs. Onassis called."

From the book Diana Vreeland by Eleanor Dwight, published this month by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright @ 2002 by Eleanor Dwight.

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