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Diana Vreeland’s Memos, For Vogue and the Ages

BY Damion Matthews - December 5, 2013


diana vreeland memos
Diana Vreeland Memos: The Vogue Years
Available from Rizzoli.com

Diana Vreeland is more famous now than she ever was when alive, having recently been the subject of a popular documentary which received wide international distribution, and with numerous biographies having been published about her, and even a play. One wonders if there’s anything else to be said?

And so it was a delight to read through “Diana Vreeland Memos: The Vogue Years” and get the feeling that indeed, much had still been left undiscovered. The book is a wonderful oddity — comprised mostly of copies of memos that Vreeland sent to her staff at Vogue when she was the magazine’s editor in chief from 1962 to 1971.


A memo to Diane Von Furstenberg, April 9, 1970

Content aside, I must say it gave me great pleasure simply to study the memos from an aesthetic point of view. Simply to LOOK at the memos, with their variations of fonts and inks and uneven type shapes, the smudged ink, and handwritten edits and personal notes added in bright green pen (occasionally in red.)

“Kids today” in the age of e-mail and text will never know the frustration of using a typewriter, will not know the intricacies and formalities of physically writing a letter, will not understand the need executives once had for a secretary to compose such things. Bully for them! But they will also never have their e-mails compiled into a beautifully bound book by Rizzoli 24 years after their death to be revered like cultural relics from a golden age.

And that’s what this book represents to me — memos from a golden age, though one that existed, perhaps, only in their author’s mind.


Kay Thompson, dictating a memo like Diana Vreeland, in Funny Face (1957)

The 1957 film “Funny Face,” whose characters were based on Diana Vreeland and photographer Richard Avedon, shows Vreeland’s character comedically dictating to her team of secretaries in a florid yet despotic style. “A magazine must have blood and brains and pizzazz!” she bellowed. The film captured Vreeland’s personality, but not quite her poetry.

Vreeland’s memos are an odd sort of writing, a poetry of someone whose vocabulary is not literate but aesthetic — words, for her, were just images and sounds, and their meanings usually meant something else. One reads through the memos a feverish grappling with the world about her, in proportions that to sensible people would seem misapplied. Large matters are handled trivially, while small details, such as the length of an earring, are handled with great intensity.

“The sticky situation with fringe is, of course, extremely serious,” she declared on April 3, 1969.


Fringe skirt by Michael Mott for Paraphernalia
Photos: “Gypsy!” by Richard Avedon for Vogue, April 15, 1969

The memos also provide an exciting glimpse at Vreeland’s relationship with some of the big figures of the fashionable world. I love her letters to Cecil Beaton, one of her closest friends and collaborators.

“Cecil — I am spellbound on your snapshots of Chanel,” she writes in 1965. “I am desperate to hear that you had a picture of Balenciaga.” “I am fascinated by the pictures you sent me of Pamela Wyndham Egremont.” Again in 1965 she writes “Cecil — Your Picasso pictures are so beautiful, heart-breaking and extraordinary.” In another she says, “Would you write us everything you know about the Queen of Bhutan — also about Princess Ibrahim.” And elsewhere, “Your Moroccan pictures — the abstracts — are the most beautiful mirage of form and colour.”

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There’s such passion in those letters — a shared sensual passion for beauty and greatness, and a magical sense that the entire world of art and culture was available for them to explore together.


Cecil Beaton and Diana Vreeland
Photo: James Karales, 1965, for Look Magazine

It’s a passion she shared with other recipients of her letters and memos, such as Cristobal Balenciaga, Halston (when he was still a milliner), Horst P. Horst, Richard Avedon, Veruschka, even Her Majesty The Maharani of Sikkim (a fascinating woman named Hope Cooke who now lives in New York.)

In this 300-page book there are many interesting parts, but here are some lines I particularly enjoy:

“Henry, You have made me the most happy girl in all the world that you are going to photograph… Callas.” — February 4, 1964, to Henry Clarke. Callas is, of course, Maria Callas.

“You are such a wow at photographing very small English children in very large rooms.” June 21, 1965, to Cecil Beaton.

“I assure you this association with people with broken hair, no hairdresser, no money, no vitality — and the will to live is gone…” — August 16, 1967.

“Guerlain’s Plant Marine and Floris’ Tantivy. You are immediately alerted to the presence and whole aspect of the house and owner when you come in the door, you smell this.” — February 24, 1969.


Cecil Beaton and Barbra Streisand in London, April, 1969
Photo: Lawrence Schiller, via vmagazine.com

“We all know she is impossible and has just left her husband etc. and I believe her husband made life possible not only for her but for the people around her. Anyway, that seems to be Barbra’s way.” March 10, 1969, to Cecil Beaton. Referring to Barbra Streisand, a diva even in 1969.


Alexis de Rede at Le Bal Oriental, costumed by Pierre Cardin
Photo: Patrick Anson, 5th Earl of Lichfield, December 5, 1969

“Dear Alexis: Very secretly and through strange sources, I have head that you are going to give a very beautiful party in October.” — June 13, 1969. The party was to be Alexis de Rede’s infamous Oriental Ball.

“As I have said it is the skull that counts.” — September 8, 1969.

“Is there nobody in the village or slightly out of work or a poor old Arab who would make us some passamenterie ornamental belts.” — September 25, 1969.

French Actress Claudine Auger
Claudine Auger in Stavropolous dress
Photo: Bert Stern for Vogue, March 1, 1970

“These pictures are the best pictures I have ever seen in my life of anybody.” December 11, 1969, to Bert Stern, regarding his photos of Claudine Auger.

“She moves like a dancer and there is no question she is the most attractive modern girl I have ever seen in my life.” — March 24, 1970, in reference to Jane Birkin in “Slogan.”


Gilles Millinaire in “Slogan” (1969)

Gilles Millinaire… is the best looking boy I have seen in my life.” — March 24, 1970.

And finally:

“There is nothing so wonderful as people who appreciate the happiness that has been bestowed on them.” — July 29, 1970.

You can purchase “Diana Vreeland Memos” directly from Rizzoli here.



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