Reviewed: Diana Vreeland by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart

Strike a pose.

Diana Vreeland: Empress of Fashion
Amanda Mackenzie Stuart
Thames & Hudson, 448pp, £19.95

A life that burns short and bright is one thing but in the case of Diana Vreeland, who was fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar and editor in- chief of American Vogue, life was not only bright but long. Amanda Mackenzie Stuart’s well-paced biography is an account of impressive self-invention by a woman from whom gravelly aperçus coiled like the endless smoke from her cigarette holder (she died from emphysema in 1989).

Through the pages of Vogue, Vreeland introduced America to Lauren Bacall, celebrated the Beatles, championed modernity and started or boosted many careers. She didn’t need to work and always gave the (false) impression that she fell into Bazaar in 1936 by accident after meeting the then editor, Carmel Snow, at a party. In reality, Snow had written about her in the society pages a decade earlier. Despite Vreeland’s stance of inadvertent amateurism, Richard Avedon called her the “most hard-working person he had ever known”.

Diana Dalziel was born rich in 1903 in Paris. The money came from her mother, Emily Hoffman, a Wharton-esque American heiress, who went to Paris at 25. Stuart shows how the young Diana’s Parisian origins permeated the rest of her life, both in a keen appreciation of European glamour and in her habit of making up whatever suited her story. She maintained that she had come to America at the age of 11, speaking only French; the truth is that she arrived in New York as a one-year-old baby.

At school, Diana was bright, imaginative and cut counter to convention: tall, skinny, beaky and squinty. Thought ugly by some, she retired to her adolescent diary to create the perfect “girl”, excitingly dressed and fascinating, who enslaves all around her. At 20, she married the handsome Reed Vreeland and they set off to Paris, then London.

When Vreeland was asked to work at Harper’s Bazaar, she leapt. She began a series of columns called “Why Don’t You?” that encouraged readers to enter a fantastic, upper-crust world: “Why don’t you rinse your blond child’s head in dead champagne to keep its gold, as they do in France?” She also cultivated the appearance that would last a lifetime: thinness, black hair, red lips and often black clothes, plus a “loping camel’s gait, with her long neck thrust forwards like an inquisitive tortoise”.

Promoted to American-fashion editor, Vreeland set about coercing Seventh Avenue manufacturers to compete with Paris and promoted American clothes alongside the reigning Parisian ones. War, which blockaded French imports, helped this.

As years passed and Vreeland became a powerful grande dame, her imperial foibles, satirised in films such as Funny Face (1957) and, much later, Factory Girl (2006), developed. She called all her assistants “Girl” and threw her coat at one of them. Yet, in 1957, when Carmel Snow was fired, the obvious successor was passed over. Later approached by Vogue, Vreeland quit Bazaar to start the most influential period of her life.

Vogue was caught in a 1950s girls-andpearls time warp whose clasp Vreeland violently snapped. Fit and slim herself, she promoted lithe bodies, bare skin, miniskirts, personal verve and sexuality. David Bailey, Jean Shrimpton, Nicholas Haslam, Andy Warhol and Mary Quant were all brought in to play. There were photo shoots of models perched on top of mountains, horses caparisoned in tinsel, the first black supermodel and Nijinsky dancing naked: heady stuff and part of the “youthquake” phenomenon that she named, applauded, packaged and sold.

Yet, Stuart notes, by 1970, the 67-year-old Vreeland missed how young women wanted to work and in easier clothes. With her vision of luxurious unreality, Vreeland, who felt that the Pill had given women all the freedom they needed, fell out of step. Accusing her of having too much power and her work of being “too daring for its time”, the Condé Nast supremo Alexander Liberman (who had brought her in) pushed her upstairs. At this point, most people would take to slippers and a pipe. Instead, Vreeland entered the third phase of her career, organising 12 blockbuster costume exhibitions at the Met in New York. Though they were unorthodox, often unhistorical and eventually lambasted, her shows were hits: her 1976 exhibition “The Glory of Russian Costume” broke box-office records.

Vreeland lived out her fantasies and for decades encouraged others to invent and imagine theirs. The fashion designer Bill Blass said that she combined “Twain’s reverence for the reinvented self with Barnum’s love of showmanship”. This vigorous biography offers a near-perfect example of the American dream.

Philippa Stockley is a writer and critic. Her most recent novel is “A Factory of Cunning” (Little, Brown, £19.95)

Diana Vreeland: the first lady of fashion. Photograph: Thomas Hoepker / Magnum Photos (Main)

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius

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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times