A.L.T.: A Memoirby Andre Leon Talley
“My grandmother and Mrs. Vreeland had similar ways of appreciating luxury,” writes André Leon Talley, “because they both believed in the importance of its most essential underpinning:
One of the most striking figures in international style offers a unique and unforgettable memoir of the two women who shaped his dreams, tastes, and character.
“My grandmother and Mrs. Vreeland had similar ways of appreciating luxury,” writes André Leon Talley, “because they both believed in the importance of its most essential underpinning: polish.” In A.L.T., Vogue’s editor at large explains how a six-foot-seven African-American man from North Carolina became the influential fashion figure he is today, learning life’s most enduring lessons from two remarkable women: his maternal grandmother, Bennie Frances Davis, a woman who worked back-breakingly hard as a maid, yet taught him to embrace the world with a warm heart and an open mind; and Diana Vreeland, the inimitable editor in chief of Vogue and director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, who became his peerless professional mentor. In a rich, eloquent voice that resonates with both small-town wisdom and haut monde sophistication, Talley tells of the grandmother who encouraged his dreams and ambitions while instilling in him an abiding sense of dignity and style, and of the legendary fashion doyenne who took him under her wing as he rose to fame in the wild New York of the 1970s. Threaded throughout are stories of the man himself, who has survived thirty years in the “chiffon trenches” with eminent grace and style.
Clear, elegant, and often magical, A.L.T. shines like a rare jewel as it illuminates three extraordinary lives.
- Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt
I shall begin by writing about luxury. I can’t be sure exactly what image you’ll drum up, but I suspect that it will either be swathed in silk and brocade or dressed in a custom-made English suit. You have every right to suppose this is what I’d mean. After all, high fashion is luxury—the luxury of the most beautiful fabrics, tailored to perfection; the luxury of the clothes’ presentation at runway shows, beautifully orchestrated luncheons, or designers’ showrooms; the luxury of having a lifestyle that permits one either the leisure to wear such clothes or the leisure to have opinions about them. If I tell you, “I am going to write about luxury,” perhaps you will think, André wants to write down what he learned from Diana Vreeland, that self-appointed queen of splendor. Or André intends to memorialize the heyday of hedonism with the fashion elite. Or André is about to wax rapturous about the perfect lines of a bespoke shoe. And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Sooner or later, I am going to talk about all of these things.
But they are not what I mean by luxury.
The truth is that I live on a relatively grand scale, because that’s the way fashion is: By its very nature, it is larger than life. It’s fickle, it’s flamboyant, and it’s fabulous. But at the same time, it does not provide the boundaries a person needs in order to live a sane, happy life in service not only to oneself but also to others. Fashion is no substitute for family, and I do not believe I could ever have learned to appreciate haute couture had I not learned to appreciate simpler things first.
Long before I became Mrs. Vreeland’s assistant at the Costume Institute of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, long, long before I became the Paris fashion editor at WWD, or Paris bureau chief at W, or creative director (and now, once again, an editor) at Vogue, I was an African-American man raised by his hardworking grandmother in North Carolina. My grandmother never tried to force me to subscribe to a particular code of behavior, but growing up in her house, I learned how to live just by watching her work, pray, and go about the business of making a home for me. Her life was not easy, but because it was based on clear, sound principles of good behavior, it lacked the tortured complexity that I now so often see around me. Her code of ethics, always unspoken, was nonetheless perfectly straightforward: Church and family, the focal points, were inextricably bound together. She worked hard at her job and kept a clean, welcoming home, so that those in her care (her own mother and I) could be well provided for, and so that we could all serve God. What this meant at a practical level was that every surface in our home glowed—not only through the application of soap, paste wax, or ammonia, but also through the underlying working of love. What it also meant was that my childhood was, by anyone’s standards, a rich one. Faith, Hope, Charity: Add Luxury to the list, because it was that important, taken that seriously in our home.
My earliest experiences of luxury, then, were not experiences of surfeit and sumptuousness, but of the beauty of ordinary tasks done well and in a good frame of mind; of simple things suited to their purpose and well cared for. I will get to evenings with Mrs. Vreeland eventually, and to New York in the ’70s, and to silk faille bespoke shoes, but for me, the only place to begin talking about luxury is with my grandmother’s crisp white sheets.
When I was a child, my great-grandmother China (and my grandmother, when China became too frail), boiled our laundry in a big black iron cauldron in the yard. She would set up everything under our peach trees, for shade. She would build a good fire from wood she had chopped herself. Sheets and table linens always had to be allowed to simmer, and anything white (such as towels, nightgowns, or my Sunday shirts) would be left to boil the longest. The temperature in that cauldron was so high, my great-grandmother or grandmother had to use a rod as thick as a forearm, cut from the limb of a tree, to stir the laundry around the enormous pot. Once clean, the wash was transferred to huge zinc rinsing tubs that rested either on a wooden table or on the tree stump that was normally reserved for the death whack on the neck of a soon-to-be-eaten chicken. The sheets and other whites got a weekly dose of bluing agent, to prevent them from turning yellow, and my grandmother or great-grandmother would wring them out thoroughly by hand before hanging them to dry. I can still see my grandmother, her apron full of clothespins, walking the length of our silvery clothesline (which stretched all the way from the porch to a tree far at the back of the property) with a rag in hand, wiping the natural dust and pollen off the line before she would entrust her laundry to it.
The wall of white sheets flapped in the wind like huge sails rigged by wooden clothespins. They stretched the entire length of our deep backyard. And I loved to run past and between the drying sheets, feeling their roughness on my outstretched hands and inhaling the fresh smell of cotton dried in the open air.
The convenience of a modern tumble dryer doesn’t really compensate for the loss of that wonderful smell. That warm, delicious odor came inside on the folded sheets, which my grandmother stacked shoulder-high on the table. And then she ironed them.
Remember that my grandmother was not a woman of leisure, no bored housewife searching for ways to occupy her time. Until she retired at sixty-five, she worked five mornings a week at her job, and before she left to begin this hard work, she did a lot of hard work at home. On bitter cold, frost-encrusted mornings when I was a child, she would go outside with an ax to chop wood for the stove and our fires. (I sometimes volunteered for this task, but she always said she could chop better and more quickly than I could.) Her night head scarf would still be in place, protecting her curls, and she would be wearing nothing warmer than a pink quilted bed jacket over her flannel nightgown. After she chopped the wood, she started all the fires, put up a steaming breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, grits, and coffee, got me ready for school, and still managed to be at work by 7:30 a.m. (On Sundays she rose even earlier to make her special Sunday breakfast, which included cured country ham, sausages, and homemade biscuits.) After all this work, and after performing manual labor all day, she came home not to rest on the sofa, but to do more work. Every Thursday evening, without fail, she ironed every sheet and pillowcase for three beds—hers, mine, and Great-grandma China’s, until China passed on in January 1960. She did this with an old electric iron. I remember her standing at the ironing board for what seemed hours at a time, sprinkling the sheets with water before she pressed them, to make them more pliable.
As late as 1983, I would sometimes iron my sheets as a form of therapeutic reconnection to my home; but to anyone with a modern sensibility, the idea of ironing sheets is unthinkable. Who has time, when permanent-press (or permanently none-too-smooth) linens can be thrown in the washer and dryer, then tossed on the bed? To my grandmother, however, pressed sheets were a necessity of a well-run, tasteful home. If we could have that luxury—which cost only her willingness for one more labor-intensive task and the time it took to perform it—then she would see to it that we did. Her sheets were always plain white, but they were of high quality, thick Egyptian cotton; and they were always, always immaculate.
Sheets like that are a true delight. Our house was often chilly in the winter, but there was no pleasure more delicious than climbing into a bed piled six-deep with homemade quilts and snuggling down into those crispy, crispy, clean, clean, clean white sheets. Sleep was never so fine as between those sheets, cooked, ironed, and arranged by loving hands.
Our house was full of such simple luxuries. Until I left home, I never used a towel that hadn’t been ironed—and had no idea how much I would miss them when I was out in the world. My boxer shorts, always white, or pale blue for Sunday, were pressed smooth, and my Sunday shirts starched to a shine. The handkerchiefs my grandmother would tuck into her purse before leaving for church were folded neat as letters. And the curtains in her house were, quite plainly, a joy to look out at the world through. In the kitchen she often had printed curtains, but the rest of the curtains were white organdy, with deep ruffles and tiebacks; the kind of curtains you only see now in movies about days gone by. At regular intervals, she would ask that the curtains be taken down (one of many household tasks for which my height particularly suited me) and would launder them so well that they dazzled the eye. Like everything else in the house, they were meticulously ironed and arranged. Even the lace doilies on the backs of chairs were starched.
Of course, these luxuries are only luxuries if you see them that way. We always had clothes to wear and food on the table, but we lived on limited means. Our roof leaked buckets of water when the snow melted, and if the pipes froze, my grandmother heated water on the wood-burning stove so I could take a “bird bath” before school. Of course, the toilet didn’t flush during hard freezing spells, so at those times we took turns dumping buckets of water down the commode as a hygienic measure. The wind had a way of screaming through our paper-thin walls, but my grandmother never lit a fire in her own bedroom at night. (She always said this was for health reasons—and indeed, I hardly ever remember her taking ill until she grew old.) The love we had for one another was the only luxury we had in that house, but because of that love, and because of my grandmother’s faith, our simple life was suffused with dignity and grace.
My grandmother taught me very early to seek out the clean lines of true elegance. Luxury in the greatest sense, in the grand sense, could be something as simple as watching two or three cardinals cavorting outside my bedroom window, or receiving from my uncle’s big, callused hands a basket of tomatoes, freshly picked and still smelling of the salt and sunshine of the vine. It might be a glossy, store-bought bow on a birthday present wrapped in glossier paper from the five-and-dime. There was tremendous beauty in the white picket fence that divided my grandmother’s rose garden from her occasional experiments at vegetable gardening, especially when that fence stood out, in the fall of the year, against the blanket of scarlet and yellow sycamore leaves that drifted down to cover our yard. And though my grandmother had no formal training as a gardener, had never read a gardening book, and had no big bags of Miracle-Gro to assist her, her peach trees, rosebushes, and begonias were lush, and the terra-cotta pots of red geraniums she kept on our porch in summer were among the finest in the neighborhood. She had a natural green thumb. Anything she touched blossomed.
It was likely the very plainness of my grandmother’s home that trained me to be an aesthete—not in the sense of someone who seeks out, like the protagonist of Joris Karl Huysmans’s Against the Grain, ever more rarefied aesthetic pleasures, but in the truer sense, of one whose life is governed by his experience of and relationship to beauty. Certainly by the time I was six or seven years old, I was a luxury addict. I loved waking up on Sunday mornings, savoring my breakfast, and then carefully stepping into my best clothes. I loved watching my grandmother perform the ministrations she did only on that day—the application of such wonders as powder and lipstick. And although I had rarely eaten in anyone else’s kitchen, I knew it was a stroke of good fortune always to be presented with the delicious food she cooked me. (I will return to talk about it more fully later, as my grandmother’s cooking was of such epic proportions that it deserves its own chapter.) And when beautiful things came into the house, they always made a profound impression on me.
I will never forget the yellow paisley pajamas my grandmother bought for my twelfth birthday. Until that time, my pajamas had been, like my underwear, white or pale blue cotton. But that year, for whatever reason, my grandmother went downtown to a Main Street store called Belk’s and picked out these yellow cotton flannel Christian Dior pajamas. Christian Dior! She didn’t know who he was; she just had an innate sense of what was beautiful. I, of course, knew perfectly well who Christian Dior was—I was already a devoted reader of fashion magazines such as Mrs. Vreeland’s Vogue—and I was greatly impressed by these exotic and unusual pajamas. They were lemon yellow with red and green paisleys, and they were unlike anything I’d ever seen. I decided to sleep in them only on special occasions, such as Christmas.
I’m sure the pajamas were Christian Dior licensing—they couldn’t have come all the way from Paris to Durham, North Carolina—but I also know that they must have been expensive on my grandmother’s salary as a maid. She knew that the occasional taste of true luxury is very important. She was always scrupulous about budgeting and saving, but after her husband died in 1951, she bought herself the diamond ring he could not afford when they were courting. Also after his death, she purchased a sterling silver flatware service for twelve, which we used only on extremely important occasions, such as when the minister came to dinner. Her pleasure in this silverware was not vanity but the true pride of having worked hard to bring something lovely into her life. Since my childhood, I have eaten from silverware far more costly and ornate than my grandmother’s; but I have never known a hostess to take such uncomplicated pleasure in its beauty as she did.
Meet the Author
André Leon Talley received his M.A. in French studies from Brown University. He joined Vogue in 1983 as fashion news director and served as creative director from 1988 to 1995. After living in Paris for a number of years, he returned to Vogue in 1998 as editor at large. He was nominated for an Emmy Award for his weekly segment on Metro TV’s Full Frontal Fashion called “Vogue’s Talley.” He is a member of the board of trustees of the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia, where a Lifetime Achievement Award has been named for him. He lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.
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I am an avid reader and was greatly disappointed by this book. I expected so much more. Having problems with insomnia this might help. Otherwise, save your money.
Andre waited 50+ years to write this book and I waited 20+ years to read it. It is with pure sadness that I state that, in this case, there is no more than meets the eye. What a surprise to learn that Mr. Talley is so one-sided, even the models on the pages of Vogue have 2 dimensions! One gets the distinct sense that a great deal was held back; God bless the editors who obviously had to pull teeth to get what they got. Ghost writer? I am arguably THE biggest fan of Mr. Talley's StyleFax column and my only hope is that, in the spirit of Richard Rodriguez, this is the first in a series of works about his great life.