Chapter 1 “A WITNESS”
A chilly rain was falling on November 6, 1989, when several generations of New York’s fashion and social elite gathered in the medieval-sculpture hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a memorial celebrating Diana Vreeland, the fashion editor, curator, and quintessence of self-creation.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, for whom Vreeland was a fashion godmother, and Lauren Bacall, who’d been discovered by her, both arrived alone. Dorinda Dixon Ryan, known as D.D., who’d worked under Vreeland at Harper’s Bazaar, was seated next to Carolyne Roehm, one among many fashion designers in attendance. Mica Ertegun and Chessy Rayner, the society decorators, sat with Reinaldo Herrera, holder of the Spanish title Marqués of Torre Casa, whose family estate in Venezuela, built in 1590, is said to be the oldest continuously inhabited home in the Western Hemisphere.
One of Vreeland’s sons delivered a eulogy, as did socialite C. Z. Guest; Pierre Bergé, the business partner of Yves Saint Laurent; Oscar de la Renta, the society dressmaker; Philippe de Montebello, then the museum’s director and Vreeland’s final boss when she ran its Costume Institute; and George Plimpton, who cowrote her memoir, D.V. But the afternoon’s most telling fashion moment came in between Montebello and Plimpton, when photographer Richard Avedon, who’d worked with Vreeland from the start of his career, took the stage.
Avedon was a giant in fashion and society, an insider and an iconoclast, a trenchant critic of the very worlds that had made him a star, arguably the most celebrated photographer of the twentieth century. Never one to mince words or spare the feelings of others (“Oh, Dick, Dick, Dick is such a dick,” a junior fashion editor once said), he used his eulogy as a gun aimed at Vreeland’s latest successor at Vogue, Anna Wintour.
Though he never once mentioned her name, he sought to wound Wintour, who’d arrived at the memorial with her bosses, the heads of Condé Nast Publications, S. I. “Si” Newhouse Jr., the company’s chairman, and Alexander Liberman, its editorial director. Just a year earlier, they’d let Wintour replace Avedon as the photographer of Vogue’s covers. Only a few in the audience knew that Avedon had actually shot a cover for the November 1988 issue, Wintour’s first as editor in chief of Vogue, and that no one had bothered to alert him that Wintour had replaced it with a picture by the much-younger Peter Lindbergh. Avedon only found out when the printed issue arrived at his studio.
He never shot for Vogue again.
A year later, Avedon served up his revenge dressed in a tribute to the woman he’d sometimes refer to as his “crazy aunt” Diana. Avedon recalled their first meeting in 1945 when he was twenty-two and fresh out of the merchant marine. Carmel Snow was about to make true his short lifetime’s dream of taking photographs for Harper’s Bazaar, the magazine she edited that he’d first encountered as the son of a Fifth Avenue fashion retailer. Newspaper and magazine stories about the Vreeland memorial would linger on in Avedon’s recollections of their first meeting, how he watched her stick a pin into both a dress and the model wearing it, “who let out a little scream,” he remembered. Vreeland turned to him for the very first time and said, “Aberdeen, Aberdeen, doesn’t it make you want to cry?”
It did, he went on, but not because he loved the dress or appreciated the mangling of his name. He went back to Carmel Snow and said, “I can’t work with that woman.” Snow replied that he would, “and I did,” Avedon continued, “to my enormous benefit, for almost forty years.”
But that charming opening anecdote was nothing compared to what followed. Avedon extolled Vreeland’s virtues, “the amazing gallop of her imagination,” her preternatural understanding of what women would want to wear, her “sense of humor so large, so generous, she was ever ready to make a joke of herself,” and the diligence that made her “the hardest-working person I’ve ever known. . . .
“I am here as a witness,” Avedon concluded. “Diana lived for imagination ruled by discipline, and created a totally new profession. Vreeland invented the fashion editor. Before her, it was society ladies who put hats on other society
ladies. Now, it’s promotion ladies who compete with other promotion ladies. No one has equaled her—not nearly. And the form has died with her. It’s just staggering how lost her standards are to the fashion world.”
Sitting at the front of the audience between her two bosses, wearing a Chanel suit that mixed Vreeland’s signature color, red, with the black of mourning, the haughty Wintour, her eyes hidden behind sunglasses, gave no hint that she knew Avedon was speaking to her. But even though he saw her ascendance as a sign of the fashion Apocalypse, it’s unlikely that even the prescient Avedon could have foreseen all the other, related forces then taking shape that would, in little more than a decade, fundamentally alter the role—fashion photographer—that he’d not only mastered but embodied.