Joan Juliet Buck’s Library Is Full of CIA Secrets

Fresh off publishing her dishy memoir, The Price of Illusion, the writer and former editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris overshares even more in her culture diet, here.


In 1968, a 19-year-old Joan Juliet Buck, fresh from publishing her first piece of writing in a glossy magazine, got a congratulatory phone call from Gay Talese. As it turned, though, he was actually referring not to her review of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in Glamour, but to another article out in New York magazine that week, by another writer named Joan Buck. It was at that point that she hung up, called 411, tracked down the other Joan Buck, and together they resolved to start adding “Juliet” to her byline—effectively kicking off a career that’s seen her name end up everywhere from Women’s Wear Daily to Vanity Fair to Harper’s Bazaar, and eventually atop the masthead of Vogue Paris, where she notably served as the magazine’s only American editor-in-chief.

That last gig was back in the ’90s—well in the rearview, as Buck makes very clear in her new memoir The Price of Illusion, a dishy yet self-aware account of her long career that stretches all the way back to her star-studded childhood, too. (The book’s index, essentially a guide to Buck and her producer father’s closest enemies and friends, also doubles as a veritable who’s who, from Avedon to Bacall to Huston to Saint Laurent.) These days, Buck resides in upstate New York, but on a recent morning that found her on the Upper West Side, she paused to look back at both her life and the past six years she spent on the book in her culture diet, here.

What’s the first thing you read in the morning? Shamefully, the news on my iPad or my iPhone, whichever one is next to me. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the Guardian. And then those weird new alerts that come through on the iPhone like, ah!

What books are on your bedside table right now? Patricia Bosworth’s memoir, The Men in My Life; Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow, and David Salle’s How to See, which is a wonderful book of essays. He’s a painter and friend of mine, and I had no idea he could write. I’m loving Patricia Bosworth’s book, I’m loving A Gentleman in Moscow, and then I turn to these extraordinary essays about contemporary art by a great artist, and that’s a real treasure. But I do have a lot more books on my bedside table.

From the look of it in the Times, you have a pretty amazing collection. What are the most prized books in your possession? Really weird books. I once read a script about American executives in Paris murdering their wives, and I went and interviewed the French police. I went to their headquarters and asked, Well, you know, if you murdered your wife, where would you bury her? [Laughs.] I asked them so many questions that, in desperation, they sent me to this shop that sells textbooks by what’s called the Manual of Police Technique, written for French policemen. I also have a book I got in Bulgaria, in the ‘70s, when I was there with my scary boyfriend Harold. It was these short science-fiction stories that were communist propaganda, like this guy that has to stop his friends from defecting, so he turns back time. [Laughs.] But books of poetry are the only thing I can really re-read. I can’t re-read a novel, because I know how it turns out, but poetry, which is the simple and total pleasure of words producing emotion, I can re-read forever. T.S. Eliot, Leonard Cohen, W. H. Auden, Yeats—any of the classics. I’ve also got a copy of Valerie Plame’s memoir that’s full of redacted lines. I’m not quite sure how I got that, but if I told you I’d have to kill you. [Laughs.] I also have Klaus Kinski’s autobiography, which was banned and never put on sale.

Do you have any favorite bookstores you typically go to? Well, because I live in Rhinebeck, I adore Oblong Books. It’s a very large bookstore that’s just one floor, but there’s nothing stagnant about it; right now, they’ve got two different editions of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, and quite a few copies that keep selling out. In the city, I like Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side and Bookmarc and McNally Jackson. The Strand is kind of weird because it’s where everyone used to go to sell their review copies, but it’s become a mixture of a new bookstore and thrift shop.

Do you also have an archive of magazines from over the years? Yes, but the magazines are actually in a storage unit. I think because I’m an only child and my parents loved me, there’s actually a copy of every magazine I have ever had a piece in ever since day one.

Wow. Where is this storage unit? In Poughkeepsie; it’s called Extra Space Storage. Their prices have just gone up. [Laughs.] Before Penelope Green came from the Times, I thought, I really should have a couple of magazines. I don’t keep the French Vogue’s around me in the library, but I felt kind of lucky because I went down to the unit, which is 25 feet by 10 feet, kind of fuming, wondering how I was going to find anything. But somebody at some point had labeled the boxes; it was like, oh my god, how wonderful! [Laughs.] It starts with my first piece, which was a book review of Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in 1968, when I was 19. Then there are my pages from when I was at Women’s Wear Daily in London and Rome—which my parents kept, and they’re dead so I ended up with them—which have, you know, what people were wearing on the street in Rome on … May 7, 1974. [Laughs.] There’s also my interview with Fellini for the BBC magazine called Radio Times. Anyway, they’re all in there, but I don’t like opening the boxes.

How come? You know, it’s old newspaper.

They’re probably pretty yellow now, I suppose. They’re kind of yellow. It’s funny; some magazines age faster than others, and some are kind of healthy all the way through. But they seem to exert a pull. They’re not neutral, and I find that you fall into them. It’s kind of funny looking at them because of the ads and other things, because a magazine really is like a time capsule—that’s what it’s supposed to be, and that’s fascinating. But why go back over the past again? I just spent six years doing that. Enough already.

True. What are the magazines you do read today? I love New York magazine. I think it fulfills a very necessary function, which is to tell us what’s happening today, and it does it so well: high-low, from every angle. I love the New Yorker, the London Review of Books, and the Hollywood Reporter—I think they do a really good job of business plus glamour and gossip. But there’re two kinds of magazines: magazines that provide an escape—women’s magazines—and magazines that are a road map to the present.

Do you ever look at French Vogue? No. [Laughs.] Why?

When was the last time you looked at it? Do you remember? No. Well, my friend Inès [de la Fressange] guest-edited it at one point, and I saw that issue.

What about TV? Are there any shows you’ve been particularly into lately? Oh, god. For the six years that I was writing my book, I was alone. I had to be alone. So my friends—did you ever watch Borgen? Borgen is a Danish series about a woman prime minister who has a moral problem she has to deal with in each one. There’s a charming bit where her husband leaves her because, you know, she’s too involved in her work, which, hello [laughs] and so she phones her no. 2 one morning and says, “Kasper, can you come and pick me up to go to work today?” He says, “Well, what happened to your driver?” And she says, “I f—ed him!” [Laughs.] It’s the best series ever, because it’s so human, and it’s so humane. I don’t like watching House of Cards because I don’t like watching people doing nasty things. I love Orange Is the New Black. I love Girls.

Have you started watching the sixth season? Yeah. I don’t have a lot of downtime right now, so I’ve only gotten to the bit where she’s in Poughkeepsie. But again, humanity. There I was, alone, putting together my past, rewriting and writing endlessly, for years and years, and when I would break off from writing—usually about 10:00 or 11:00 at night—I would then spend a couple of hours with people I wanted to be with: the women in Orange Is the New Black, the people in Borgen. And because there are only 30 Borgen’s, I’d only watch half an episode at night to make them last longer. You know, I was Vogue’s TV critic for about seven years, and I would have to watch all the screeners. My boyfriend would say, “I’ll watch it with you, but what is it?” And I’d say, “I have no idea.” But I remember when I first saw Melissa McCarthy in Mike & Molly, I said to Vogue, “this woman is a genius,” and they looked at the photo and said, “no way.” Shonda Rhimes—when I saw the first Grey’s Anatomy, I said, “I think this woman is brilliant, because this is a show about ambitious women wanting to do a good job,” and they took a look at her photo and said no. I was addicted to Grey’s Anatomy until about a year ago, when Patrick Dempsey died, and I began to get grossed out by the operations. [Laughs.] I also watch French things, because I’m always homesick for France and I just like to hear people speaking French. And of course, the genius John Oliver.

What’s the last movie you saw at the theater? I’m trying to think, because I have a lot of friends who have screeners, but I’ve been trying to go see Elle. In Barcelona, I went to see Allied, which was a waste of time. But you know what I saw that was wonderful, was The Edge of Seventeen. It’s the only movie this year that moved me. Hidden Figures is good, but it’s so manipulative. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I can understand the thing about running across the entire campus to pee, but would you really take all your files with you if you were working on top secret stuff? It was theatrical.

Do you ever go to the theater? I do. I saw Sunday in the Park with George two nights ago, which was very beautiful. Jake Gyllenhaal is fantastic. And because I wanted to take my mind off the book launch, I’ve done two plays in the last month. I was in an 18th-century play in the rooms at the Frick, which has never been done, and I’ve narrated and done the character treatments for two quarters of a theater version of Babette’s Feast, which is going to be downtown next week. In the build-up for all this, I wanted to have to learn lines. I wanted to participate in a common endeavor with other people that had nothing to do with me.

What’s the last piece of art you either bought or fell in love with? I’m staying with some friends who have the catalogue of the Sergei Shchukin collection—the Russian who collected Picasso’s and Matisse’s and all that, which was at the Vuitton [museum] in Paris. I didn’t see the show, but they had this catalogue, and I spent an entire Saturday on the sofa looking at it and reading Shchukin and his diaries on his visit to the Sinai Desert in 1907. It was extraordinary, and I spent the day with it. And when I’m feeling a little fragile, I go to the Met, to the armor, and I spend time with it. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] I actually do that, too. Do you?

Well, it’s mostly the sculptures from antiquity that I find really do it for me. Oh, well antiquity—I have a big antiquity thing. I love those Greek and Roman rooms on the left; I love the Pompeian houses. It fills me with such joy and excitement to be near those things.

Right. Thinking about how old things are really helps put things into perspective. Exactly. They’re sculpted so beautifully. And the sphinxes. I loved sphinxes for years, and then I realized sphinxes were actually harpies, that carried away the souls of the dead. Like, okay. [Laughs.]

Have you seen any museum exhibitions lately that you loved? I’m still trying to get to the constructivist show at MoMA. I missed the masterpieces of Native American art at the Met, which pisses me off. But in Barcelona, I saw an astonishing exhibition of fourth-century church frescoes I’d never seen before.

What about music? Is there a song you’ve been listening to on repeat lately? [Laughs.] The change in technology really has me messed up, because I have probably 800 CDs from that period, but I don’t have speakers set up. So I’ll listen to a lot of Bach on a boombox, which sounds like shit. Obviously, I’ve been listening to Leonard Cohen. But on repeat, there are certain tunes that really do it for me, like the Barcarolle—the song at the end of Margaret by Kenny Lonergan, when she goes with her mother to the opera.

Do you ever look at social media? Yes. On Instagram, I follow John Patrick Shanley, the playwright who wrote Doubt. He’s a friend of mine, it’s insane what he posts; I called him up and said, you should make a magazine. Christopher Niquet posts wonderful things. I of course I look at Jerry Saltz; he’s so funny. I go, Jesus, I’ve never seen that picture! What are they doing? Doesn’t that hurt? But I don’t want to look at people’s sunsets; enough already. And I won’t look at their food, although the other night I did a piece of thyme that fell on a lemon I was about to use for my dinner, because it looked like an olive branch. And then I’ve got three Facebook accounts: me, the public one, and the one for the book. My newsfeed on Facebook—let’s not even talk about that. [Laughs.]

Do you ever look at your horoscope? When I was a lonely teenager, I taught myself how to do horoscopes. So I don’t look at it, but I look at the ephemera, like where the planets are. I do it for me and I do it for friends—not that often, but when things feel nice, and it’s like, what’s going on? Or, oo, things feel creepy, what’s happening? Oh, that’s where Uranus is, okay, got it.

Are there any upcoming releases you’re most excited about, besides your own book? Volker Schlöndorff has a new movie called Return to Montauk starring my favorite actress of today, somebody who slays me because she’s so good: Nina Hoss. She’s the German woman in Homeland, which is another show I watch. And Christopher Niquet has this book called Models Matter that’s about to come out. I don’t know, though—it’s not like waiting for E.T. to come out. Like I said, to get away from my own self-involvement, I’ve been involved in these two plays, so I’m a bit single-visioned right now.

Last thing: What’s the last thing you typically do before you go to bed? I’m a night owl, unrepentant. When I was writing the book, I would watch a couple of episodes of my favorite shows. But usually, I read. I love getting into bed, no social media, no TV or phone in the bedroom, and lying back on the pillows, and finally I’m able to read, oh thank god. Because as a commuter, on Amtrak, I can’t read. I f— around on the iPhone. [Laughs.]

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