Deborah Ross

Divine Diana

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Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel

Nationwide, PG

I don’t care much for fashion — ask anyone; I’ve even lately surrendered to the fleece — and don’t care for fashion magazines at all. They have nothing to say to my life. They’ve never even featured ‘top ten fleeces of the season’, as far as I know. But this isn’t to say I don’t enjoy the odd mischievous trip behind the scenes. I loved The Devil Wears Prada, starring my friend Meryl, with whom I have dined. I loved The September Issue, the fly-on-the-wall about American Vogue and Anna Wintour, although the only thing I can now remember is being fixated with Ms Wintour’s bob which, one day, will surely join under the chin, as if she’d grown her own snood.

And this film about Diana Vreeland, who presided over Harper’s and Vogue during the glory days of couture, when you had to have three fittings just for a nightie, is also fantastic fun. It’s full of energy and zing, just like its subject, although, just like its subject, it also feels less than truthful somehow. Then, again, she was such an extraordinary, outlandish woman perhaps it just doesn’t matter. Let’s not get all picky in our old age.

Made by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, the wife of one of Diana’s grandsons, this is a straight up and down documentary. Vintage footage. Vintage interviews with the subject herself. Talking heads. Plus the transcript of recorded interviews she gave to George Plimpton when he helped her write her biography, modestly called DV. These are read as a voiceover by an actress (Annette Miller) imitating Ms Vreeland’s raspy drawl and, I like to think, capturing her cadences, particularly when it comes to the most delicious words, like ‘pizzazz’ and ‘divine’, which are said as if they include their own exclamation marks. At the onset of her discussions with Plimpton, she remarks, ‘I don’t give a damn what’s in the book, George, as long as it sells.’ And that was her attitude to life.

She was born in Paris to an American socialite mother and British businessman father. She had a big nose and was not compared favourably with her pretty little sister. Her mother would even introduce her as ‘the ugly one’, which was nice. The family emigrated to New York at the outbreak of the first world war, although Paris would remain her great love. She married Reed Vreeland, a banker, in 1922, and moved to London where she had her two sons.

She was, I think, a natural comedienne. When Plimpton asks her what the best thing about London was she says, ‘The best thing about London? Paris.’ Initially, stylish Diana (she was personally dressed by Coco Chanel) was recruited to Harper’s Bazaar to write a hints and tips column. ‘Draw maps on your kids’ walls,’ she advised, ‘so they don’t grow up provincial.’ She rose to editor and was there for 25 years before decamping to Vogue.

She was extraordinary. She used her impervious will to turn herself into an unconventional beauty with white skin, black hair and scarlet lips. She was a self-invention who never stopped inventing. She said that, in her time, she had hung out with Buffalo Bill, caroused with Nijinsky, danced with the Tiller Girls, sold sexy lingerie to Mrs Simpson prior to Edward’s abdication. She wasn’t a liar as such. She just wanted life to be splendid and perfect and gorgeous and, when it wasn’t, she filled in the gaps with her imagination. I don’t care what’s in it, George, as long as it sells.

At Vogue, she blew all those girls with pearls out of the water. She got Avedon and Bailey and Twiggy before they even got themselves. She drove the Newhouse family bananas. One minute she’d be swearing to stick to the budget and the next she’d be ordering 500 rare orchids to be flown to Alaska for a photoshoot. Her visual imagination was phenomenal. And she was as feared as she was admired. Ali McGraw was once her assistant and remembers how someone in the office would always be in tears.

The subject keeps this film zinging along but, still, there are holes where information should be. I was dying to know what her relationship with Reed was like. How did he manage her? What was she like with her mother in their later years? The sons, Tim and Frecky, hint she was no great shakes as a mother herself, yet this isn’t explored at all. Still, like I said, it may not matter that much. Or, as she would probably say herself: the important thing is being divine, and having pizzazz. And she had all that in spades.