Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreelandby Amanda Mackenzie Stuart
Vreeland personified twentieth-century American couture and helped transform modern culture. As the innovative fashion editor of Harper's Bazaar and the legendary editor-in-chief of Vogue during the tumultuous 1960s, she redefined women's sense of beauty and style, provoking and challenging accepted ideas in the fashion world and leaving a legacy that/b>/b>
Vreeland personified twentieth-century American couture and helped transform modern culture. As the innovative fashion editor of Harper's Bazaar and the legendary editor-in-chief of Vogue during the tumultuous 1960s, she redefined women's sense of beauty and style, provoking and challenging accepted ideas in the fashion world and leaving a legacy that resonates today. From Seventh Avenue to leopard print scarves to her red lacquered office, Diana (pronounced DEE-ana, as she demanded) made American fashion relevant. She launched the careers of such luminous beauties as Lauren Bacall, Penelope Tree, and Lauren Hutton, and she knew everyone, including Coco Chanel, Oscar de la Renta, Salvador Dali, Swifty Lazar, Truman Capote, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the Kennedys, Andy Warhol, Jack Nicholson, and Mick Jagger. Nearly twenty-five years after her death, this icon of style's influence is more prevalent than ever.
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Empress of Fashion
A Life of Diana Vreeland
By Amanda Mackenzie Stuart
HarperCollins PublishersCopyright © 2012 Amanda Mackenzie Stuart
All rights reserved.
There is no doubt that Diana Vreeland disdained an inconvenient truth in a manner that could be startling. She once ejected a friend from her apartment, the jewelry designer Kenneth Jay Lane, for suggesting that her beloved England had been invaded by the Normans; and she enjoyed polishing up birth moments when she thought they needed it, a compliment extended even to the most exotic of her acquaintances. In the 1960s the model and actress Vera von Lehndorff, known as Veruschka, told a story at a New York party about noticing the time as she was born. "I said, 'The first image I saw of this world was an enormous round watch with a black frame, black numbers, and black pointers. It was 6 o'clock and 10. I was born at the hospital in Königsberg, East Prussia, now called Kaliningrad.'" Everyone laughed. But a little while later Diana took Veruschka aside and gave her some advice in a low whisper. "Veruschka darling ... when asked where you are born, never say East Germany, Prussia, Königsberg, or Kaliningrad, that's boring, just say 'I am born on the border, right on the border, between Germany and Poland, in the swamps of the Masurian lakes.'"
Diana liked to spread a little mystery about her own arrival in the world too. She was coy about her age, and genuinely perplexed in later life by the discovery of an apparent discrepancy between the dates of her birth on two official documents, her French bulletin de naissance and her actual birth certificate. However, Diana was indisputably born on September 29, 1903. She was born in Paris; and apart from moments when it amused her to outline more extreme birth scenarios, such as appearing to the sound of Berber ululations in the Atlas Mountains, she liked to maintain that her French beginnings set her apart. People born in Paris were different from other people, she once said. The event was registered at the British consulate in Paris because Diana was the daughter of a British father, Frederick Young Dalziel. Dalziel is a Scots name, with a range of spellings that derives from the barony of Dalziel, in Lanarkshire, and pronounced dee-ell. "People used to say to me, why don't you cut out all that and just put the 'D' and the 'L'?" said Diana. "I'd say - do it yourself. For me, it's the whole way because I love the spelling. I love Zs." She delighted in her "medieval" Scottish clan origins throughout her life. As a girl she took the clan motto, "I Dare," seriously. As an adult she owned a print of the Dalziel coat of arms and sported the Dalziel tartan at the right sort of parties.
Her father, Frederick Young Dalziel, however, was not quite what he appeared to be. He was not very Scots - his line of Dalziels came from England - and his background was much more modest than he found socially convenient. His family lived in Haringey in North London, where he was brought up by a stepmother and a father who worked for the General Post Office, alongside a younger half brother named Edelsten. This was a family in which even middle-class status hung in the balance. Frederick and his half brother were sent to Highgate School, a school educating young gentlemen from North London, but they went there late and all the evidence suggests that money was extremely tight. Though Frederick gained a place at Oxford University and started at Brasenose College in 1888, he left just a year later at the end of 1889, probably, because that was as long as his family could afford. A year at Oxford was enough to give him a marked fondness for aristocratic tone. It also allowed him to describe himself as Oxford educated" forever more, sidestepping the fact that he never actually obtained an Oxford degree.
Diana's father was tall - over six and a half feet - strikingly handsome, and she loved him. "He was so wonderful looking - so charming. For every daughter, the first love of her life is her father. To this day I just adore him. He was wonderfully affectionate.... A great beauty; and really nothing to do with the modern world at all. Totally Edwardian, you know." In 1890 the obvious destination for an "Oxford educated" young man with good looks, energy, charm, no private income, and a socially undistinguished family was some part of the British Empire where lack of pedigree was not an impediment and there was no prejudice against earning money. Frederick Dalziel was so evasive about the five years that followed his departure from Oxford that it started a family myth that he became a spy. It is more certain that from 1895 he worked as a representative for South African gold-mining interests and lived in Paris. Speculation in the discovery of gold and diamonds was extremely risky and was only for the spectacularly rich. In the 1890s some of the wealthiest people in the world were rich Americans of the Gilded Age who regarded Paris as both their playground and their second home. These were his clients, and eventually his friends too.
By 1901 Frederick Dalziel was mixing with American millionaires in Paris in a manner that suggests he was already migrating from a suburban middle-class to an upper-class persona. Those who remember Frederick Dalziel in old age confirm Diana's description of her father as the model of an Edwardian English gentleman; but he projected this image quite self-consciously, cultivated smart acquaintances, and masked his background with a grand mien, having himself photographed at this period in hunting pink by French society photographer Numa Blanc. "There's only one very good life and that's the life that you know you want and you make it yourself," said Diana later. It was an attitude she inherited from her father; and in 1901, the solution to the gap between Frederick Dalziel's background and the life he knew he wanted presented itself in Paris in the form of Diana's American mother, Miss Emily Key Hoffman.
Diana's mother arrived in Paris by a very different route from a prominent Southern family. The surname has led to claims that this side of Diana's family was Jewish, but Hoffman is also a non-Jewish name, and there is no record of Judaism in the family tree. Diana's Hoffman forebears were gentlemen farmers in Virginia, and at least one of her Southern great-grandmothers was socially distinguished. "We're top drawer from Baltimore," went a family expression, and "Key holds the key" was another. The "Key" was George Hoffman's mother, Emily Key, a member of a well-known family of the American South whose lineage connected Diana to Francis Scott Key, composer of "The Star-Spangled Banner." The only thing that Diana knew about her Baltimore great-grandmother was that she and her sister went to law over a dining room table, so exasperating the judge that he solomonically ordered a carpenter to cut it in two and give each of them a half. Judged by bloodline rather than passion or pigheadedness, however, Diana Vreeland's colonial antecedents on her mother's side were impeccable. In New York society this kind of pedigree mattered, and after the Civil War ended in 1865, it was also essential to have riches. In Diana's case the family money came from her maternal grandfather, John Washington Ellis, who made his first fortune as partner of a wholesale dry goods firm in Cincinnati before helping to found the First National Bank of Cincinnati and then moving to New York, where he ran a private investment bank. As New York became America's financial and cultural capital after the Civil War, the city drew in hundreds of families made newly rich by the extraordinarily rapid postwar boom that soon came to be termed the Gilded Age. New York's finest reacted by becoming much more self-consciously elitist, with resistance led by Mrs. William Backhouse Astor, who could famously fit only "Four Hundred" top people into her ballroom, a notion that then became shorthand for New York's most exclusive clique. However, Mrs. Astor welcomed those with money of whom she approved, to the extent that after 1865 a large fortune became the sine qua non for joining her circle.
On arriving in New York, the well-to-do Ellis family were among the lucky ones, quickly joining the "Four Hundred." The family rode to hounds and hunted with the right packs. The New York family home was just off Fifth Avenue, and John Washington Ellis helped by building a huge Shingle-style summer "cottage" called Stone Acre on Bellevue Avenue in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1882. Newport was well on its way to becoming New-York-Society-by-the-Sea in the 1880s. The Ellises became closely identified with Newport's growing exclusivity; and they were listed in the first edition of the social bible, The Social Register, in 1886. Diana's mother, Emily Key Hoffman, was therefore brought up at the heart of the New York world of Mrs. Astor's "Four Hundred." Her father died young in 1885, and thereafter Emily was raised by her widowed mother in a house on West Fiftieth Street, just off Fifth Avenue. Between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, she was sent to the highly academic Brearley School, soon after it was founded. But that was as far as her education went and in 1896 Emily's mother launched her into New York society. The 1890s marked an era of great transatlantic marriages, when hundreds of daughters of well-to-do Americans married impoverished European aristocrats, enriching noble families in Europe and ennobling the plutocrats back home. Young women from New York's gratin who did not marry European nobility were expected to make good matches with scions of American dynasties. Their stories were lapped up by press and public alike, with the result that any attractive young society woman in New York was minutely scrutinized by even respectable newspapers, which ranked a debutante in terms of appearance, family connections, and likely dowry.
The newspaper columnists were enchanted when Miss Emily Hoffman became a debutante. They waxed lyrical about her dark brown eyes, fine features, chestnut hair, charming conversation, and exceptional elegance. Even before her formal debut, she was regarded as "the most beautiful young lady on the floor" at the Newport ball given by Alva Vanderbilt for the Duke of Marlborough when he came courting Consuelo Vanderbilt in 1895; and she was frequently referred to as the most beautiful of the belles of Newport once she was out in society. Throughout the second half of the 1890s, Emily appeared with her mother on the guest lists of every important "Four Hundred" event of the late 1890s. She was one of three hundred guests at Mrs. Astor's annual ball. She had her portrait painted by the very fashionable Adolfo Müller-Ury, who was so overcome by her pulchritude that he was inspired to paint her as the Virgin Mary, leading to dazzled descriptions of her as "the Madonna of the 400." In 1898 Emily was reported to have been the success of the season in Rome, too. She loved hunting, riding out with the Monmouth County hounds. She was sportif, playing her way to victory in tennis tournaments, and she was often to be found leading high jinks from the front. "A merry party of Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish's guests took a midnight bath at Bailey's Beach last night led by Mr. and Mrs. Whitney Warren and Miss Emily Hoffman," read the News of Newport in 1900.
What really set Emily apart from other socialites of the day, however, was the way she danced, a natural talent that would later have a great impact on Diana and an indirect influence on twentieth-century American fashion. Had she been born two generations later, Emily might well have succeeded in a professional career. As it was, she was celebrated as the "society exponent of Spanish dances," which she performed with "grace and fire," a talent that was regarded as all of a piece with her dark Spanish coloring. She had a pronounced theatrical streak. Dubbed the Carmencita of New York society by the press, her star turn as an amateur was a dance called the cachucha. This involved Emily in much clicking of castanets and flashing of ankle in public. The high point of her dancing career was a performance of the cachucha for charity in January 1900 at the Waldorf-Astoria, which earned her a standing ovation, fan letters, and rave reviews in New York's newspapers. One critic noted that "although it was near midnight when she came on the masculine enthusiasm that she aroused was of the most unmistakable sort." It was reported afterward that the great vaudeville impresarios, Weber and Fields, offered her hundreds of dollars to perform her Spanish dances at their music hall on Broadway - an offer that caused her circle much hilarity and that she naturally had to refuse.
Excerpted from Empress of Fashion by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart. Copyright © 2012 by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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Meet the Author
Amanda Mackenzie Stuart is the author of Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age. She lives in Oxford, England.
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