The Aesthete

Resurrecting Vreeland

Vogue magazine's most infamous editor-in-chief makes her big screen debut two decades after her death in a revealing documentary

by David Kaufman

Back in the days before editors were celebrities, models were “role models” and stylists were superstars, there was Diana Vreeland: the chain-smoking, rouge-padded, barb-tongued magazine titan who single-handedly invented the concept of media personality as bona fide pop icon. Born at the dawn of America’s Progressive Age — and amid the dusk of Europe’s Belle Époque — Vreeland was a witness to nearly a century of political, cultural and social revolution which she charted with grace and gravitas on the pages of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue magazines during her reign as America’s first true print media powerhouse.

Nearly 25 years after her death in 1989, the new biographical film Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel gives renewed life to Vreeland’s legacy as both a historical and inspirational figure. Created and co-directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland — wife of Vreeland’s grandson, Alexander Vreeland — The Eye Has to Travel is as much about the director’s own relationship with her famous relative as about Mrs. Vreeland herself. “I don’t feel myself a Vreeland at all,” says Immordino Vreeland, a first-time filmmaker who previously worked in Europe in fashion marketing and PR. “I just happen to be married to Diana's grandson.”

Happenstance is a strong subtext of both Vreeland’s own life and Immordino Vreeland’s efforts to bring the editor’s story to film. A true global nomad who crisscrossed the Atlantic and America from birth to her early 30s, Vreeland was an accidental fashion player. After returning to New York from London with her banker husband, two young sons and Chanel-dense wardrobe, Vreeland – more an unconventional intellectual than conventional beauty – was spotted by Bazaar’s then editor, Carmel Snow, who brought her into the business. 

“Vreeland was part of society, but not necessarily from society, so she intuitively understood how to mix high and low culture.”

“Vreeland was now a wife, a mother and a working woman” during the late-1930s, long before it was socially “acceptable,” explains Immordino Vreeland, who originally sought to write a book, rather than a film, about her legendary relative. “Vreeland was part of society, but not necessarily from society,” she adds, “so she intuitively understood how to mix high and low culture.”

The marriage of high with fabulous flourishes of low also describes Immordino Vreeland’s approach to The Eye Has to Travel, which she co-directed with the team behind Valentino: The Last Emperor, the 2008 bio-pic of the fashion designer. Her narrative is based on audio recordings made between Vreeland and The Paris Review founder George Plimpton during their collaboration on Vreeland’s celebrated 1984 autobiography, D.V. Although the recordings ultimately proved too poor quality for film, “we had all of this wonderful dialogue to work with,” Immordino Vreeland says. 

That dialogue ultimately anchored the structure of The Eye Has to Travel, which is segmented into three historical periods: Vreeland’s early years and married life; her time at Harper’s Bazaar (1937-1962) and Vogue (1962-1971); and her 70s and 80s-era tenure at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she overhauled its now wildly-popular Costume Institute. Throughout the film, actors portray both Vreeland and Plimpton, Immordino Vreeland concedes, “while Plimpton’s lines are scripted, Vreeland is pure Vreeland.” As is her great-granddaughter, 10-year-old Olivia Vreeland, who appears in the film’s first half reading snippets of the elder Vreeland’s famed “Why Don’t You?” columns from Bazaar.

“We initially thought about having some of the movie’s famous interview subjects read the ‘Why Don’t Yous’, but it didn’t play out right,” Immordino Vreeland says of the endless fashion worlders who appear in the film including Diane von Furstenberg, Reinaldo Herrera, John Fairchild and Hubert de Givenchy. “But we didn’t tell Olivia we were actually shooting for the film,” she adds of her daughter's scenes, “we told her they were test shots so she would feel more natural and fun.”

In the end, Olivia’s whimsical, youthful delivery imbues the columns with the exact tenor of timelessness Diana Vreeland has come to embody. Overlaid with archival magazine spreads, numerous original Vreeland interviews and those celebrity on-air appearances, The Eye Has to Travel feels far more historical than Valentino: The Last Emperor and more monumental than Anna Wintour’s The September Issue. Vreeland, a child of the 20s, may have been old by the 60s, but thrived in its atmosphere of tolerance, exploration and self-expression. And while she may have held court in her salon on Park Avenue, she could just as easily be found enjoying the cinema in Harlem.

“She had an openness that was way ahead of its time,” Immordino Vreeland reflects. “She certainly inhabited a truly rarified world, but Vreeland was never a snob." 

For Immordino Vreeland, making a film that also appeals to uptown princesses, both the Fifth Avenue and 125th Street varieties, was equally essential. Rich in Vreeland’s endless prognostications, the film is noticeably short on “Vreeland-at-work” shots, leaving the viewer to conjure their own take on her “power-editor” persona. “The footage simply did not exist,” Immordino Vreeland explains. Nor is there much film of Vreeland as a mother or wife, despite her 40+ year marriage and two sons.

Diana certainly did not have it all.

Both Thomas and Frederick Vreeland, however, do appear on-screen – lovingly, charmingly, frustratingly recounting their famous mother’s professional escapades and personal failures. Like the legions of working women she predated, Vreeland paid a price at home for her success in the office. “Diana certainly did not have it all,” Immordino Vreeland says. “There were extraordinarily tough times: losing her husband, her firing from Vogue, a mother who called her ‘my ugly little duckling,’ but Diana simply never showed them.”

Still, Immordino Vreeland ultimately describes The Eye Has to Travel as a "feel good" film, challenging viewers, much as she was challenged by Diana's legacy, to take risks, abandon perfection and embrace self-invention even when logic suggests otherwise. "Diana's message completely transcends fashion," says Immordino-Vreeland, who is herself moving beyond fashion for her next film, a biography of art world maverick Peggy Guggenheim. "It's about letting your mind travel and letting your eye travel while always allowing fashion to lead you."

 

Photography by James Karales (courtesy of Estate of James P.Karales); Samuel Goldwyn Films.