Diana Vreeland’s legendary Harper’s Bazaar column was called, suggestively, “Why Don’t You...?” but during her tenure as the editor in chief of Vogue, from 1962 to 1971, she developed a reputation for being quite a dictator. Most mornings, before coming into work, Vreeland would take to her bathroom, where she had a specially installed phone, a wicker armchair, and a steady supply of cigarettes, and fire off missives to her secretaries. A lion’s share of her professional correspondence has been collected by her grandson Alexander Vreeland, in a new book published by Rizzoli, succinctly titled Memos.
In his introduction, he fondly recalls the lunches he had at her office. (Him: rare cheeseburger. Her: peanut butter and marmalade sandwich and a glass of whiskey.) “She was an amazing listener, and I remember feeling empowered by her support and interest in what I was doing. She never told me what to do or tried to impose her ideas on me.” With her staff, however, Vreeland could be relentless: “Don’t forget dark clear legs.” “Don’t forget huge brilliant metal trimmings.” “Don’t forget mink comes in bright green, bright yellow, etc.” “For goodness sakes, beware of curls.” “I repeat, again, the importance of knee socks.” Occasionally, her directives had the mysterious elegance of haiku: “We are starting a new year. Faint, faint, if any, eyebrows.” But at the end of the day, her strategy, like that of any great leader, was to embolden those around her. “Forget hemlines, and study and maintain your figure and your skin,” she wrote in a letter to the actress and model Anita Colby in 1968. “The greatest vulgarity is any imitation of youth and beauty—this is vital. You must always look your best, not try to look someone else’s…”