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The Friday Fierceness: Mrs Diana Vreeland | Manolo for the Big Girl

The Friday Fierceness: Mrs Diana Vreeland

Thomas Jefferson, who had the decency to do many sensible things like write the Declaration of Independence, create the Library of Congress, found the University of Virginia (well okay, jury’s still out on this one) and –most importantly– grew up in my part of Virginia, is know affectionately as TJ all over his old stomping grounds, but on the University of Virginia campus he is know exclusively as Mister Jefferson. It is a sign of respect.

In that vein, please note we will refer to today’s Friday Fierceness, editrix and icon par excellence Diana Vreeland strictly as Mrs Vreeland.

I don’t think I can overstate how much I love Mrs Vreeland, so let me try to paint you a picture:

Whenever faced with a sticky situation, I have an imaginary dinner party in my head (because I am, as well we know, completely mad). I go around the table and listen to my five regular guests argue out their opinions.

Here’s the guest list:

Jesus –the free space on any ethical bingo card

Mister Jefferson — for that diplomatic polymath touch

Socrates –an ethicist who damned the torpedos

Sheriff Andy Taylor –for gentleness and the people’s touch

Mrs Vreeland –for wit, vision and a healthy sense of the ridiculous

It’s hard to say where to start with Mrs Vreeland, because my admiration runs so deep.

Yes, she was a great editor, the best Harper’s and American Vogue ever had.

Her influence in the publishing world is still felt through countless people she discovered, inspired or worked with, including the most powerful big girl in fashion, Andre Leon Talley, her protégé.

If you’re a fan of Audrey Hepburn movies you’ll probably know Kay Thompson did a note-perfect homage in Funny Face as Maggie Prescott, the larger-than-life editor of Quality magazine. “Think Pink” was doubtlessly inspired by Mrs Vreeland’s famed quote: “Pink is the navy blue of India

After the entire scene is painted pink, Maggie Prescott is asked why she wasn’t wearing the new “it” color she championed, since everyone one else was. Her perfect Mrs Vreeland line was a dismissive “I wouldn’t be caught dead.”

Mrs Vreeland wasn’t pretty. With her enormous nose, tilted pelvis and mannish features she came down on the laide side of jolie-laide, which always makes for the most interesting beauty. I’ve always said Sarah Jessica Parker must have a copy of the editrix’s playbook somewhere, so it was no surprise when SJP posed as Mrs Vreeland for Harper’s in March.


Her memoir D.V. should be required reading for every man, woman and child with even a glimmer of intellect or style.

It’s a tremendous read that begins with a perfectly aged Mrs Vreeland applying a back plaster to young Jack Nicholson’s naked backside, slides through her relationship with Wallis Simpson, Jackie Kennedy, Balenciaga and hits every note along the way with pizzazz (a word she made famous but probably did not coin. She became editor of Harper’s in 1937 where the word first appeared in print, attributed to a Harvard Lampoon editor.)

Here, just read the first page:

(click image to enlarge)

How much of the story is true? Probably more than she gets credit for, but it doesn’t really matter. Memoirs aren’t autobiographies.

So what can big girls learn from the reed-thin Mrs Vreeland?

She knew how to occupy space.

We all occupy space, that’s science. Learning how to occupy space is an art. I don’t suggest adopting her trademark pelvis-tilting swan slouch, but learning how to hold your body with unapologetic grace and power –even if it’s not traditional grace– is, like diamonds and the herp, a gift that gives forever.

When she sat in a chair, she didn’t perch on it trying to take up as little space as possible, she was in that chair.

It all comes down to honesty of being.

Mrs Vreeland was honest. She wasn’t necessarily factual but she was honest. I was astounded after my interview with The Daily Beast went public because dozens of my beloved readers thought I was actually a team of gay men because Plumcake couldn’t possible be real.  I loathe dishonesty of personality, especially in publishing. That’s not how I roll. I am what I appear (although I am more than I appear, like the rest of us) and I have Mrs Vreeland to thank for that.

She liked what she liked, said what she thought, wore what she pleased –usually black with wild statement pieces, which might be from ancient Greece or the costume shop around the corner– and knew she was the most fabulous creature on earth.

She didn’t pretend to fit traditional beauty, and that was fine with her because her concern was elegance and elegance was something far broader than black sheaths and knowing what fork to use.

“The only real elegance is in the mind; if you’ve got that, the rest really comes from it.”

She had a vocabulary of elegance. When describing her hunt of the perfect red:

“All my life I’ve pursued the perfect red. I can never get painters to mix it for me. It’s exactly as if I’d said, “I want Rococo with a spot of Gothic in it and a bit of Buddhist temple”…About the best red is to copy the color of a child’s cap in ANY Renaissance portrait.”

…and Mrs Vreeland did love her red. Her crimson nails and lips set against her kabuki white face and black lacquered hair, and of course her famed “Garden in Hell” living room.

I could go on and on, but I’ve been drinking tea since 8:00 this morning and there are tides in the affairs of men that reallyneedtogorightnowzomgow.

So have a fabulous weekend, have fun, be glorious and remember:

“I’m a great believer in vulgarity- if it’s got vitality. A little bad taste is like a nice splash of paprika. We all need a splash of bad taste- it’s hearty, it’s healthy, it’s physical. I think we could use more of it. No taste is what I’m against.”

9 Responses to “The Friday Fierceness: Mrs Diana Vreeland”

  1. Christine September 25, 2009 at 6:39 pm #

    How wonderful that you chose Mrs. Vreeland! I loved DV, and have read everything I can find about her. I love her ‘Garden in Hell” living room, her love of red polish and lips, and her. I tried to create a red bedroom in hell, but apparently achieved more of a New Orleans brothel. I still think she would approve.

    She would definitely be on my guest list.

  2. Jane September 25, 2009 at 8:34 pm #

    Vida Boheme: This book has been sort of a Bible for me and, well… here.

    Young man: “DV. The Au-au-autobiography Of Diana V-Vreeland.” And l-I-I-I should read this?

    Vida: Oh, hon, you should commit sections to memory.

  3. Alexis September 25, 2009 at 10:03 pm #

    What a delightful homage! I have to confess never having read her memoir, but sense I would feel a strong affinity for her.

  4. klee September 26, 2009 at 11:02 am #

    Wonderfully written, your friday fierceness columns are always my favorites, this one a favorite amongst them.

  5. Madame Suggia September 26, 2009 at 2:25 pm #

    J’ADORE Mrs Vreeland! I love how she owns it, owns everything, makes it fabulous by sheer dint of it being HERS. I’m still plotting my own homage to the red drawing room from hell, oh yes indeedy, I’m gathering my needlepoint cushions and my chinoiserie goodies in preparation of the glorious day when I too can have a crimson couch in a crimson room with huge mirrors on the crimson-curtain-bedecked walls….*sigh*….

  6. Plumcake September 26, 2009 at 2:27 pm #

    Christine, my sister! If you haven’t read A.L.T., Andre Leon Talley’s memoir, you must do so immediately. It’s a stand-alone delight, but he also speaks tenderly of his time with Mrs Vreeland. When this blog first started I toyed with a Why Don’t You feature…hmmm, maybe we could use another one.

    Jane, EXACTLY.

    Alexis, you must. You’ll read it in an afternoon, but go back to it forever.

    Klee, thank you! I was hesitant to do her because I love her so much I wanted to do her justice. I’m not sure I was able to do that, but hopefully I got folks interested.

  7. B.S.A.G. September 26, 2009 at 4:22 pm #

    The SJP homage is interesting, but I’m struck by how much that top photo bears a resemblance to actor Anne Ramsay (not to be confused with Anne Ramsey).

  8. Christine September 27, 2009 at 1:07 pm #

    Sister Plumcake! I have just ordered A.L.T., and am looking forward to reading it. I actually did do some of Mrs. Vreeland’s “Why Don’t You…” suggestions. My son woke up to silver balloons on Christmas Day, I used dead champange on my neice’s hair..etc.

    Have you read her memos from Visionnaire? I found them fascinating.

    You really should do a ‘”Why Don’t you…” column here…I love thinking them up. Excellent way to cheer up on a down day.

    Christine

  9. ChloeMireille September 28, 2009 at 10:55 am #

    One of my best friends(who Plumcake reminds me of) tried to get me to read this in college. Unfortunately, her campaign was poorly timed due to the fact that I’d just finished taking my last English class EVER and didn’t want to read squat.

    That said, I will be making my way to the library this week to read it.