DIANA VR EEL AND
Diana Vreeland spent 26 years as an editor of Harper’s Bazaar, blazing an indelible trail with her daring approach to fashion. Ahead of a new book, her grandson Alexander
Vreeland recalls her impeccable eye for the unexpected. As told to Charlotte Cowles.
My Grandmother had a tendency to romanticize. My family and I lived in Morocco for a while when I was a child, and she was convinced that I went to school on a horse and had a camel in the backyard. To this day she would still believe that. That was just her version. And it didn’t seem necessary to tamper with it. I didn’t want to say, “No, I go to school on a bus.” Her romantic visions were part of why she was so successful. It’s how she inspired people like Richard Avedon to create these amazing, fantastic pictures. Of course, if she had been a bookkeeper or a newscaster and was romanticizing facts and figures, then that would be worrisome. But her imagination gave her images that sense of dreaminess.
My first memory of my grandmother is from when I was about five years old. She was working at Harper’s BAZAAR at the time, and I was living in Germany with my family. She and my grandfather came to Bonn and spent a week with us. We visited German castles, and I remember having a wonderful picnic lunch in Remagen, where the Allies crossed the Rhine during World War II. I also remember all the bags she had. If you have to count the bags, you know it’s too many! There was always a major procession of Louis Vuitton trunks, and after every trip she took they had to go back to An evening silhouette,
Louis Vuitton to be refitted. snapped by Avedon I knew from the beginning that my grandmother was different. She certainly wasn’t the kind of grandmama who would cook a big pot of pasta on the stove. But she was never intimidating to me. In my teens, I went to school in Paris, and she would visit me whenever she came for work. She always wanted to know what my life was like and what I was doing and seeing, but she wasn’t the kind of person to pepper you with questions; the conversation was always spontaneous. She liked to walk and talk – not that we’d go very far, just a block or two, and then we’d get back in the car. Her used of words, her cadence, her playing with volume was so rich and dynamic that there was an exotic quality to her communication.
Fashion people can be very catty and judgmental, and put down others and criticize what they’re wearing, but my grandmother wasn’t from that school. She really believed that if you didn’t have something positive to say, don’t say anything. And that was such a relief in a world of people who can be so outspoken in their criticism. You see so many people who say, “Oh, that jacket is too short,” or “Her bun is terrible, and it shouldn’t be there.” She didn’t work that way. Her outlook was tremendously empowering, because she didn’t impose anything on anyone. She had a unique character in that she wasn’t really a society woman, nor a critic or a social activist. She wasn’t a lot of things, but she felt that she had plenty on her plate, and she'd just do what she did. She didn’t feel that her work was a trampoline for something else.
I was born in 1955, and my grandmother left BAZAAR in ’62. I was very, very close with her, but she never talked about her career. I think it’s because she didn’t look at her job that way. She saw it as what she was working on at the time, and she was not the type of person to talk about work outside of work. She was never political about her job. She didn’t have management retreats, she didn’t have meetings, she didn’t have agendas and goals or lists of who we’re going to be and who we’re going to talk to. She had no marketing department. She just wrote memos and letters to the people she worked with who were good, and put out a great magazine. Supposedly, my grandmother got to BAZAAR because Carmel Snow, who was then the editor-in-chief, saw my grandparents out dancing one night. She thought my grandmother looked amazing, so she said, “Come see me at Harper’s BAZAAR,” and then gave her a job. I don’t know if it really did happen that way, although I think the bones of the story are pretty solid.
My grandmother was at BAZAAR for 26 years, and the body of work she helped This Avedon porfolio kick-started China Machado's modeling career in the US
Vreeland with her son Frederick and grandson
Alexander, circa 1960.