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By Diana Vreeland and Christopher Hemphill
ISBN: 0821227890
Genre: Arts

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Chapter Excerpt from: Allure , by Diana Vreeland and Christopher Hemphill


"Never say 'I'!" Diana Vreeland said to me recently. "Always say 'we'!"

She was speaking not only of our collaboration on the book you now hold in your hands, an adventure that has engaged us for more than three years, but of her entire career. As Fashion Editor of Harper's Bazaar, as Editor-in-Chief of Vogue, and, now, as Special Consultant to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mrs. Vreeland has always worked in collaboration with others. Knowing this, one can begin to understand her legion of singularities.

My first impression of Mrs. Vreeland was distinctly startling. One afternoon she entered the large, empty front room of Andy Warhol's studio where I was working alone at a long, Mussolini‑era desk. Wearing a black sweater, black pants, a purple scarf knotted around her waist, and round sunglasses, gliding on the balls of her feet like a ballerina, she advanced several paces into the room before coming to a complete stop several yards from where I was sitting. I rose from my seat. Raising her sunglasses to her forehead, exposing "the Modigliani eyelids and the generously large nose that almost quivers with the sensitive vibrations of her personality" (Cecil Beaton—The Glass of Fashion), she fixed me with a gaze both critical and sympathetic. I waited for her to speak. She extended her hand.

"Hello there," she said archly.

A friendship began that grew out of work.

One Sunday not long after that first meeting I was sitting opposite Mrs. Vreeland at lunch while she told me a story set in the Black Forest in the 1930's involving Baron de Meyer, the first great fashion photographer, his wife, Olga, and an extraordinary room that opened up, as in a dream, where it was least expected. Having introduced the subject, Mrs. Vreeland proposed an idea I eagerly embraced. She asked me to collaborate with her on a book about the great fashion photographers.

Later that day in Mrs. Vreeland's perfumed apartment, she showed me an example of the kind of picture she was looking for. She had clipped it from an issue of Vogue, where I doubt anyone else noticed it; it was no bigger than her fingernail. "My immediate instinct," she said, "is to want to blow it up—make it big! It can't look as if it's been taken out of a silver frame! You've got to make something out of it!"

Although Mrs. Vreeland's method of work has a logic of its own I would later discover, it is never obvious, it moves like a Ouija board. The next Sunday, having decided that the book would include more than just fashion photography, she asked me to find a picture of Maria Callas she remembered clipping from an Italian paparazzi magazine during her years at Vogue. "If eyes were bullets," she said, essaying a description of Callas's expression in this picture, "everyone in sight would be dead!"

Many Sundays later, after a determined search, I produced a picture that seemed to fit Mrs. Vreeland's description. "It's violent, all right," she said, examining it critically, "but that isn't quite it. Of course, you understand I'm looking for the most farfetched perfection...and I'm terrible on facts. But I always have an idea. If you have the idea, you're well ahead!"

Eventually I found the picture you see here of Mrs. Vreeland sitting before her bulletin board at Vogue, catching her, as I always imagine her, in the middle of a gesture. On the wall behind her you will notice a picture of Callas in which the diva's hands describe a motion in the air not unlike Mrs. Vreeland's. Using this picture as a guide, I was able to find what I thought to be the elusive picture within the picture. Throughout our collaboration it remained our touchstone of photographic excellence.

Shortly before going to press, Mrs. Vreeland found fault with the picture. She now considered it insufficiently violent. Rather feebly, I showed her the picture of the picture on the bulletin board. "I had a lot of Callas pictures on that board," she replied. "The picture I'm looking for may never have existed."

Finally, we have decided to include almost all of the Callas pictures.

In every picture Mrs. Vreeland seeks an emanation of personality, a power of suggestion going beyond the picture itself. Her pursuit of the Callas picture illuminates a habit of mind. For all her singularities, she is free of narcissism; endlessly demanding, she remains artless and unspoiled. An intuitive Platonist, proceeding by associations, she seeks an ideal. She values others for interpreting this ideal to her; in turn, I discovered, she demands to be interpreted.

As custodian of Andy Warhol's tape recordings, I had had an opportunity of making a study of Mrs. Vreeland before I met her. Here, I decided, was someone whose Rococo speech justified Warhol's brilliant, if rather maniacal, idea of tape-recording his life, someone for whom the tape recorder might have been invented. Although her voice itself almost allows one to see the italics she speaks in, her choice of words is even more arresting than their delivery. "One would think she spend hours in ambiguous Times Square drugstores," Beaton says of her slang, while her use of foreign words, which she regularly introduces into conversation, is as natural and unaffected as breathing. This may be due to the unusual circumstances of her upbringing. Born in Paris of English-speaking parents, she didn't speak English until she moved to America as a young girl. Whatever the reasons, now, like a poet, she gives the impression of inventing her own syntax as she goes along.

Early in the collaboration Mrs. Vreeland agreed to an idea I had long entertained—that I tape-record her. I took to doing this everywhere—in restaurants, in taxicabs, and at what she called our "s?ances," sitting around a table on a banquette covered in the same brilliantly striped satin as the walls of her apartment as we looked at the pictures. She wanted pictures from the formative years she had spent looking at magazines as well as from the years she had worked on magazines, and in my research, I went through archives going back to the beginnings of the century. Mrs. Vreeland often emphasized that we were only re-editing other people's editing, but in our working and reworking of the material, it became our own.

"We're in our own little world here, out of space and time..." Mrs. Vreeland might muse at the table, only to become suddenly practical. "All right, let's have old Daisy with the pearls and on the double!" By this time I knew that Daisy was the Honorable Mrs. Reginald Fellowes and I knew which of the many pictures we had of her Mrs. Vreeland wanted. By an extraordinary transformation, Mrs. Fellowes, whom I never had the opportunity of knowing, now seemed like a contemporary.

For the most part Mrs. Vreeland remained oblivious to the intrusive presence of the tape recorder at our s?ances, or at least she gave that impression. Only occasionally did self-consciousness arise. Once, during a rare conversational lapse, the machine turned itself off loudly at the end of a tape. "Poor little thing," Mrs. Vreeland said sympathetically, "it has a mind of its own—it gets bored. We musn't let the splash drop! We must be amusing all the time!"

This last remark was animated by the spirit of what used to be called "society," a world or worldly women such as Mrs. Fellowes that Mrs. Vreeland continues to admire and remember, although she is aware that the term itself is an anachronism. With her, not letting "the splash drop" refers not to society's determined frivolity but rather to a highly developed sense of discipline and rhythm. This sense pervades everything she does—her walk, her speech, and in our case, the layout of this book.

"All my old magazine habits are coming back to me," Mrs. Vreeland would often say as the work progressed. In her parlance "the book" means what it means in the magazine business—the issue that is going to press—and drawings on her experience, we laid out this book as a sort of idealized magazine. From Alexey Brodovitch, the Art Director of Harper's Bazaar, she had learned to oppose two pictures—a "spread"—of contrasting scale and form. She has also learned rhythmic variations of scale and form in the sequence of pages. As we worked, pages began to follow with the same artfully cadenced non sequiturs that characterize Mrs. Vreeland's conversation. "I want heads, I want arms, I want legs!" she demanded one day, tearing up a layout that had seemed settled. "I want feet! I want hands!"

Well over a year ago, when the book had begun to acquire a finished look, a mutual friend surveyed our work and remarked that it had "a certain unity."

"Mmm..." Mrs. Vreeland said, her nose indicating displeasure at what had been intended as a compliment. "What this book needs is some more dis-unity!"

We went back to work.

Many of the most arresting pictures surfaced during the last phase of our collaboration, among them the picture of an eye-life operation included here, commissioned by Mrs. Vreeland at Vogue but never published. Also during this phase the text I was preparing from tape recordings suffered Mrs. Vreeland's critical scrutiny: "There's too much direction, too much pattern-making..." she said of an earlier draft, and whatever you do, don't try to make it grammatical! Don't forget the dots and dashes! As this is entirely a visual age..."

She never finished the sentence but her intention was clear. We have tried to impart the immediacy of our adventure. Nothing, Mrs. Vreeland understands, demands more artifice than the impression of naturalness, and in the text that accompanies these pictures I have combined phrases of hers separated by years in time, using a method not unlike the draconian retouching she describes at Vogue when she would combine parts of different mannequins' bodies in a single picture. Her intention was to create "the perfect whole"; mine, to borrow two seemingly contradictory phrases from Beaton, has been to approximate both Mrs. Vreeland's "haphazard genius" and her "exact poetic approach." When she addresses me as "you," I hope she speaks to you, the reader.

The title came last.

Some titles generate ideas; others summarize them. Ours was evidently to be one of the latter. Near the end of our work, I proposed the title Beyond Fashion.

"Mmm..." Mrs. Vreeland replied. "Is there anything beyond fashion?" (Her thoughts about what may lie beyond fashion are found at the end of the book.)

Finally, we settled on Allure, a word Mrs. Vreeland uses repeatedly to describe an elusive quality she seeks in all pictures, in all people, and in all things." 'Allure' is a word very few people use nowadays," she said recently, "but it's something that exists. Allure holds you, doesn't it? whether it's a gaze or a glance in the street or a face in the crowd or someone sitting opposite you at are held."

Listening to Mrs. Vreeland's definition, I though about her memories of others and I thought about her. Like all of us, when speaking of others, she speaks ultimately about herself. Proust describes this phenomenon near the end of his book where he sees himself in all his characters, even his old Aunt Leonie. In much the same way, the pictures included here have a unity Mrs. Vreeland resisted; together, they form a picture of her personality.

Mrs. Vreeland remains consistent even when she contradicts herself. Just before going to press, she offered a new definition of "allure." "Now I think it's something around you," she said, "like a perfume or like a scent. It's like pervades."

Christopher Hemphill—New York City, January 1980

These photographs selected run the gamut of many styles: studio portraits, paparazzi and news pictures, advertisements, and photos, though posed, done in natural light.

Many have been published before—in some cases the originals were unobtainable or have been lost forever—many have been reproduced from newspaper and magazine pages.

This is a potpourri which I chose to amuse and perhaps please the reader.

Diana Vreeland

Excerpted from Allure , by Diana Vreeland and Christopher Hemphill. Copyright (c) 1980 The Estate of Diana Vreeland. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company,New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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