Immoderation: On Sharing an Idol


Arts & Culture

Last year, I was given the birthday gift of a lifetime: I got to spend the occasion with Diana Vreeland. A friend, who has long been close with the Vreeland family, took me on a weeklong pilgrimage to the Marrakech home of one of Vreeland’s sons. Our hosts, aware of my longstanding obsession with Diana, settled me into what is alternately known as the “D.V. Room” and the “T.V. Room,” for it boasted a rather ancient television set that looked like it might electrocute anyone who dared near it. Above it hung the splendid William Acton portrait of Vreeland that graced the first edition of her memoir, D.V. (edited, incidentally, with gusto by Paris Review cofounder George Plimpton). The painting lovingly depicted her trademark red talons, lacquer-black hair, and the leather thong sandals she claimed to have had recreated from those donned by a slave perfectly preserved (in coitus, no less) by the ashes of Vesuvius. For Vreeland, inspiration came from the most unlikely of sources.

The local souk held countless wonders for the other houseguests, but the sprawling, glamorously disheveled Vreeland house engrossed me far more. The D.V. imprint was everywhere. First of all, nothing quite made sense—at least to the orderly, pedestrian mind. You had to resign yourself to wandering the labyrinth and surrendering to the various unexpected delights along the way, such as a turret room festooned entirely with leopard print, or a dark hidden library, filled with hundreds of Vreeland’s books, many (if not most) of which had been inscribed to her by their authors. In yet another room stood one of her famed Louis Vuitton traveling trunks, her initials D.D.V. emblazoned in imperial red ink on one side. One evening, after too many bottles of Moroccan wine, our party took a vote and elected to open it up. The candles in the room blew out as we lifted the lid. Vreeland was clearly present—and making it known that she could only tolerate so much reverential curiosity.

Five years ago, few of my contemporaries talked much about Diana Vreeland. In the prerecession realm, eccentricity and individuality had not yet come back into fashion; Vreeland seemed, in the mass consciousness, to be a faded presence making some faint rattling noises in the attic. I first became acquainted with her in the early 2000s, when I returned to the U.S. after living abroad and was woefully pining for the Sebastian Flyte–inspired eccentricity that perfumed the air of the British universities I’d attended. Vreeland’s memoir, gifted to me by an aunt, restored me like a tonic. The book has since been read so many times that it resembles a frayed accordian; red exclamation points and underlinings mar its pages, and a piece of string must be wound around it to keep the shedding pages from fluttering away.

My takeaway upon the first reading: so it is possible to be American and eccentric (as opposed to American and a character, a word that has always evoked corn-cob pipes and log-cabin grit to me). This seemed terribly encouraging. Equally compelling: Vreeland’s limitless appreciation of beauty (her later blindness was, she once said, the result of “looking at too many beautiful things”), oddity, (she taught her sons never to fear “anything physical or strange or bizarre”), and even vulgarity (“We all need a splash of bad taste—it’s hearty, it’s healthy”) not to mention her relentless, devil-may-care acts of self-reinvention. Finally, here was a credible role model. What’s more, I reveled in her comparative obscurity: being alone in her world was like scoring an invitation to a lavish feast for two, a banquet table heavy with roasts and cakes and wine and gleaming silver candleabras.

Recently, however, the spotlight has swung around to Vreeland again. This autumn, two new Vreeland biographies are being released, not to mention a Vreeland documentary, The Eye Has to Travel. Suddenly she has become everyone’s role model—and I have to be honest: her renewed ubiquity fills me with anxiety. Vreeland’s sudden surge in popularity should, in theory, make me happy: after all, I’ve long wished for a society that once again tolerates Vreeland’s particular brand of eccentricity. What right do I have to hoard her? She certainly doesn’t belong to me by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I’m fairly certain that I detected a trace of disapproval on her portrait’s face as I lurked around the D.V. Room, as though she was chiding me to stop siphoning off her creativity and go manufacture some of my own. And that filmmaker is a relative of Mrs. Vreeland’s, for God’s sake, while I’m just an anonymous disciple. Doesn’t that place her much higher in the ranks of the Diana Vreeland Admiration Society?

Nevertheless, I still don’t want to share. This reluctance resembles a particular strain of sibling rivalry, usually reserved for children who must suddenly share their adored mother with interloping new brothers and sisters. I find myself asking, Do these newcoming fans deserve Diana Vreeland? Do they deserve to know about “faction,” that is, Vreeland’s irreverent habit of blending of fact and fiction? (There is, of course, the uncomfortable question about whether I deserve her as well, but I try hard to ignore it.) Furthermore, I loathe the idea that my Vreeland idolatry may seem suddenly trite or trendy. You see, I’ve been through this sort of thing before. Consider this unhappy example: for decades, my family and I worshipped Zero Mostel’s 1968 film The Producers: we quoted it at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We reveled in its black humor and outlandishness. And just look what happened when that film got reincarnated. We, the early devotees, were instantly relegated to the bandwagon—and we may never recover.

There’s yet another issue at play. When you truly, utterly love an idiosyncratic and comparatively obscure historical luminary, and that luminary suddenly comes back into vogue, there is always a fear that this icon will devolve into caricature during the current revisitation—or worse, get played for laughs in the wrong way. To be fair, Vreeland has always seemed ready-made for parody, but at least her send-up as dictatorial fashion editor Maggie Prescott in the 1957 film Funny Face tacitly acknowledged Vreeland’s gravitas as an influencer and shrewd businesswoman. These days, on the other hand, as a cultural point of reference, she often seems regarded as a kooky, shellacked version of the visionary who ushered in the era of modern fashion journalism. One hears the same Vreeland bons mots regurgitated ad naseum (“Pink is the navy blue of India,” for instance); the same anecdotes about how she had her maid iron money and polish shoe bottoms are trotted out with unimaginative regularity. How would Vreeland herself have felt about having her persona watered down to the point of such banality? And, as another longtime Vreeland admirer recently pointed out to me, Vreeland’s own enthusiasms were myriad and often obscure; she staked claim to them, interpreted them, and then exported them in a defiantly unique manner. Would she have felt uneasy or impinged upon by the mass appropriation of her references, or delighted that the world was, once again, ready to embrace her worldview, even via these snackable tidbits?

I worry that Vreeland is, in short, being treated as a wacky character, and much of her sophistication is getting lost in translation. (We won’t even discuss the ghoulish animation sequence at the end of The Eye Has to Travel, in which a grinning, cartoon Vreeland sails off into the sky, tucked in the backseat of Charles Lindbergh’s plane.) Vreeland did have her sillinesses. But the remnants of her library include dozens of repeatedly read books about Diaghilev and Kabuki and Russian history. Her interests were deep, intelligent, and rarified. Let’s honor that side of her life and personality as well.

The author chez D.V.

No feast lasts forever. I realize that I must surrender to Vreeland’s newfound popularity, as I surrendered to the Vreeland home in Marrakech—and hope that there’s enough of her to go around. I flirted with the idea of digging up a new, vaguely obscure, historical heroine, but no one can really replace the great D.V. I suppose that’s why she deserves this new moment in the sun, as well as a permanent place in our cultural landscape—and why I should celebrate it in the end. And even if my enthusiasm lacks conviction at first, I’ll try to follow my icon’s advice: “Who cares—fake it!”

Lesley M. M. Blume is an author and journalist based in New York City.