Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Under the circumstances

Sunday fun. 1:25 PM. Photo: JH.
Wednesday, September 20, 2017.  Overcast all day yesterday with some rain in the mid-afternoon and much more forecast along the way — although it remains damp but no precipitation as of this writing at midnight.

Storms are on everyone’s mind what with more violent hurricanes stirring in south Atlantic towards the Caribbean, Jose moving farther up the East Coast and heading out to sea, and the major earthquake (7.1) in Mexico City. Los Angeles had a small quake (3.2) the day before. I read somewhere that Los Angelenos were “laughing it off” as if to imply it wasn’t “big” enough to make an impression. I don’t believe that for a minute. Los Angelenos often have to deal with earthquakes, floods and fires and any little shake could be presaging a much larger one. They’re not funny when you’re in them.

Yesterday I went down to Michael’s to meet with JH for a business lunch with a potential contributor. I took the Q from Second Avenue and 86th Street. I got to the station at 12:14 (for a 12:30 lunch). The train arrived a minute later and I boarded. I emerged from the West 57th Street station at the 55th Street entrance/exit at 12:21.  From there it’s a three minute, block and a half walk east to Michael’s.
Looking north up Fifth Avenue from 63rd Street.
Looking south along Fifth.
Had I taken a cab, it could have taken the better part of an hour (or more) and thirty bucks fare. The UN Week has bollixed up midtown to the point of absurdity. You find yourself wondering who or what the “threat” is: 55th and 56th Streets going east were closed from all vehicular traffic (except for the food delivery boys), and there are cops everywhere directing traffic and keeping things moving as efficiently as possible under the circumstances.
The police presence on the northwest corner of 57th and Fifth.
Looking diagonally across the street towards Trump Tower, which is barricaded by half a dozen garbage trucks.
On one hand, it’s a good idea that the United Nations is here in New York. I was first taken there as a kid back in the early 50s on a school day field trip (from Massachusetts). It had just opened for business and to this young boy’s eyes it was magnificent. For more than a minute there I wanted to be an architect. On the other hand these “conventions” – like Presidential visits of ANY President of this country – tie up traffic to standstill in a city of many millions of people, with an implied message for everyone: FEAR. This is not healthy for human progress, daily or otherwise.
Looking east across 57th Street from 6th Avenue.
Looking east across 56th Street and Sixth.
Looking east across 55th Street between 5th and 6th.
Today we’re re-running a Diary written five years ago this month about the now legendary Diana Vreeland and a documentary made by her granddaughter-in-law, Lisa Immordino Vreeland. The wonderful Manolo Blahnik documentary that we saw last week at the Cinema Society’s screening at the Frick reminded us once again of the great lady of 20th century American fashion, and we couldn’t resist the reminder.

In the scheme of things her role as a fashion editor was re-defined because of the universality of her approach to life. Fashion always takes on the role of the superficial naturally because it fashion ... but of the universal. Mrs. Vreeland encapsulated that and presented it in a way that was light and comfortable, and maybe even absurd. Her presence is/was a pleasure to think about, an escape from all the barriers we’ve planted around ourselves in the new century.
Monday, September 10, 2012. Saturday night Peggy Siegal ran a big screening at MoMA in the big theater for Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s documentary based on her book, "Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel," about her grandmother-in-law, the late Diana Vreeland. 

Click to order.
There were several hundred in the audience including Lizzie and Jon Tisch, Alexander Vreeland, Hope Atherton, Andre Balazs, Christine Baranski, Dennis Basso and Michael Cominotto, Natasha Bedingfield, Nate Berkus, Hannah Bronfman, Sophie Buhai, China Chow, Maria Cornejo, Jeffrey Costello and Robert Tagliapietra, Alan Cumming, Lisa Marie Fernandez, Erin Fetherston, Douglas Friedman, Sami Gayle, Valentino and Giancarlo Giametti, Hailey Gates, Gina Gershon, Liz Goldwyn, Bruce Weber and Nan Bush, Zani Gugelmann, Michelle Harper, Mary Hilliard, Kenny Lane, Michele Gerber Klein, Daysee and Paul Kanavos, Stefano Tonchi, Marcia and Richard Mishaan, Brooke Shields, Reinaldo Herrera, Tommy Hilfiger, Ally Hilfiger, Jessica Joffe, Kelly Klein, Karlie Kloss, Angela Lindvall, Masha Markova, Tamara Mellon, Charlie Scheips, Marianne Harrison, Philip Calrson, Carlos Mota, Bridget Moynahan, Elise Overland, Jesse Peretz and Sarah Sophie Flicker, Lauren Remington Platt, Anja Rubik, Marina Rust, Gabe Saporta, Brooke Shields, Peter Som, Franca Sozzani, Tennesse Thomas, Robert Verdi, Arden Wohl. This is a scant identification list because as many of the above mentioned are 20- and 30-something, there were many others who were old enough to know the lady, or know who she was in the world.

A great many people in the audience were not even on the planet when Vreeland died in 1989. Many others were too young to understand who she was. So they didn’t know about her allure and her charisma. And the fun of it. This film grabs them. She was famous in the publishing and fashion world when she was editor of Harper’s Bazaar and then Vogue, but it was a compartmental fame – known in her industry and by her readership. However, her image gained stature with age, with professional reversals, and her moving over to the Metropolitan Museum to run the Costume Institute.
I met her three or four times, one most memorably. I was with Sarah Churchill and Suzie Frankfort and Bob Colacello at Suzie's apartment on a Sunday afternoon in the fall of 1980 in New York. Sarah and I had come in from California for a business matter. She had known Vreeland for years. Despite her Americanization, Sarah was still very British with her a la francais — describing Vreeland beforehand as "belle laide."

To me the moment rests in memory as being like an “audience" with the lady; sitting there on an ottoman, one leg crossed under her, wearing white and black large houndstooth suit, black stockings and shoes, she was a character of simple, smart, distinction. Suzie had arranged the meeting because she knew I had wanted to “meet” her, and Bob Colacello was doing a piece in Interview on Lady Sarah at home in Beverly Hills.

Caught in my mind’s eye, sitting across from me was this woman who wore a big grin, in a room still lighted only by the mid-afternoon sun and shadows. Sarah’s description of her was technically correct but not quite adequate. Her physical-ness was  secondary to her vibe: she was just there, and glad to be there, and curious. Or so it seemed. This is unusual behavior for people who have some public prominence — especially in media and show business. They have all kinds of excuses for not being there when they are, all of which which add up to a kind of proletarian snobbery, otherwise known as high school. Not Vreeland.
I don’t know how we got onto the subject, but I was telling her about “The Diaries of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun” which I’d been reading, and about Marie Antoinette and the affair of the muslins.

The French explorers had returned to France with, among their possessions, some Native American women who were presented at court to Louis XVI and the Queen. The Queen was so taken by their muslin dresses that she had them made up for herself and for her ladies of the court, and then painted in a portrait.

The portrait caused a sensation in the court — against — the Queen for dressing inappropriately. Another nail in the coffin that was a-building. It was an entirely innocent choice on her part. Yet ironically it presaged not only her fate but also the Revolution.

Mrs. Vreeland hadn’t known the story and loved it. In the documentary, you learn, as she admits, that she had no education, but she was a natural learner and always learning.
That afternoon at Suzie Frankfort’s, she was entirely engaged. It was the way she looked at you, (i.e. the way she looked at me) — a stranger looking at a stranger full of curiosity and simply glad to see a new person. She gave you the same opportunity — to look and to listen. This is not habit among most of us no matter our status. It is especially unusual among those who are regarded (including self-regard themselves) as quite important compared to the rest of us. Vreeland lived in that world daily.

She later in the conversation commented on my "most amazing eyes." That isn't how she put it because it was much more imaginative but highly flattering to feel interest to such a remarkable personality.  I think what was showing was my almost childlike intense curiosity.

I saw her a couple of times after that in Los Angeles — once at a dinner party at Jean Howard’s (another unique character of fashion although entirely different) on Coldwater Canyon in Beverly Hills. She was a bit like a fish out of water at the dinner party, outdoors in the courtyard of Jean’s hacienda where the energy of New York seems almost sedated by the southern California climate.

I knew her son Tim, who was interviewed in the documentary, in Los Angeles. I saw him every now and then at a dinner. He was a tall, slim agreeable man, like Gary Cooper; an architect with a gracious, gentle manner. I emphasize that because the film demonstrates that both her sons had the same kindness that you got from their mother's eyes.

I don't doubt her other son Frederick (always known as Frecky), whom I did not know, has the same quality. It is a very winning. There’s a smile and a tenderness to it. Although both boys remember her as not putting too much emphasis on their childhood. Tim confided — without anger — that when he was a kid he use to “wish” he had “another mom” (who paid some attention to him). Nevertheless, the grown sons recognize the uniqueness of their amazing mother.

There are clips from her interview with Dick Cavett after she been kicked out of Vogue and had a triumph at the Costume Institute at the Met.  The firing came as a result of Alex Liberman who had an executive power that sounds like it resembled an tyrannical impresario or director. Liberman was a controversial figure, and his stepdaughter Francine du Plessix Gray’s autobiographical portrait of him could give you the idea that he was nobody’s friend and potentially anybody’s enemy.

“He hated women,” a female friend of mine who knew him at that time told me. The official story was that the advertisers were complaining about Vreeland’s direction of the magazine. The sexy, stormy '70s were in full force and Diana’s kind of Vogue was out of it, according to some. It was corporate, bottom line. For her it was devastating. She was gobsmacked.

She recovered, as you will see.

She wasn't like any other fashion editor, which is not to say she was "better than," etc. — although some might successfully argue that she was. What it was, I've concluded, was that the magazines were her easels, her palettes for her own brand of pastiche and real beauty. She was just a remarkable piece of human art. There was a lot of heart in it — always just around the corner, just outside the cottage door. She was cozy and spectacular at the same time. She came of age when Chanel was putting women in pants for the first time in recorded history of the human race. She was affected deeply by the transformation. Over time, she had acquired (or streamlined) the madness — I don't know the word, but the French have one I'm sure — that was her kind of genius. It bloomed fully. Like any exceptional or great artist.

You can see I loved watching it.

Ali McGraw is one of those interviewed. When she was a young girl she was an assistant (lowly, lowly) in Mrs. V’s office. She recounted one of those scenes right out of Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada,” with Vreeland flinging her coat at McGraw as she entered the office in the morning. Put off by it, one day McGraw threw it back at her. Shocked, Vreeland stopped and said: “That is very rude.” This assistant then went on not that long after to become a great movie star of the age when Vreeland was being removed from Vogue.

All the people interviewed were interesting because the subject was so interesting. Everyone has a good story about her and at the bottom of it is a respect and often affection as well as admiration. Her mother told her at a very young age that she was ugly. “Your sister is beautiful and you are ugly.” Thanks Mom.

Evidently she told her enough times that the child got the message. So what did she do? She went out in life and found all the beauty. Everywhere. And in Everything. And Everybody. And enjoyed it the way you'd think a beautiful woman would.
She lived to be 86. Kenny Lane told me Saturday night that the business in "Full Gallop," the play about her, not having the money to pay the cook, and having to borrow from Kitty Miller’s cook wasn't true. She had enough money, but it worked as a good dramatic device.  

But the film shows you that in the later years after her great successes both at magazines and the Costume Institute, she'd become something of a performer, playing herself on camera or "in the room." My memory of that time when I saw her was mainly her presence. She wasn’t playing to anyone. She had definite charisma to a stranger, and probably to many who knew her well. It was like watching a great actress, overall mesmerizing. And like any great actress, she was enjoying the great performance.

Although off-camera, that “performance” was toned down a few decibels. Because she was basically a listener and an observer. In the film she makes several references to horses — racehorses especially — and their movement, and their beauty. You understand that that is how she related to herself. In a funny way, it was her mother's harsh, apparently insensitive comments that gave her the eye for beauty, "The Eye Has To Travel ..." including that within herself. We do work that way, as humanoids, when we're in the best of form. Like a great racehorse.

It was a wonderful experience seeing not only what this woman was, and what she did, but WHO she was, a rather remarkable creature whose Self was her greatest masterpiece. It must have been quite a pleasing eye-opener to the younger viewers.

After the screening, I was walking with Mary Hilliard and Kenny Lane talking about her because Kenny knew her well and saw her frequently over the years. We were talking about her tendency to “embellish” stories so that it could sometimes be hard for a biographer to distinguished the “truth” with Vreeland’s “creative imagination.”

He told us of the time when “Deep Throat” was the big sensation and everyone was sneaking off to see it. One day Diana and he were discussing seeing a movie and she asked him if he’d seen “Sore Throat.” He asked her if she’d like to see it? She said yes. So they went. She loved it.

One day a few weeks later, she and he were invited to lunch at Kitty (Mrs. Gilbert) Miller’s apartment (both she and Vreeland lived in the same building — 550 Park Avenue). At the lunch they were discussing movies, and Kitty Miller asked Diana what she had seen lately. Diana responded by telling Miller that she had taken another neighbor, Mrs. Clarkson Carr, a very proper dowager in everybody’s eyes, to see “Deep Throat.” Miller was shocked. Vreeland was delighted. Fade Out.

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