New Doc Explores the Life of Legendary Fashion Editor Diana Vreeland

Personal friends like Cher and Warren Beatty share their recollections of the woman dubbed "the oracle of opulence."

This story first appeared in the Sept. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

It was me and Jack [Nicholson] and Toots [Anjelica Huston] and Warren [Beatty] and Michelle Phillips and Diana Vreeland." Cher tells the story, about a night in 1968 when the legendary Harper's Bazaar (1937 to 1962) and Vogue editrix (1962 to 1971) was visiting Los Angeles and invited to corral with the creme de la creme of young Hollywood. "And we were all just cool enough to know" -- this is Cher talking, remember -- "that she was definitely the coolest person in the room."

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It's that coolness -- cool before it was cool to be cool -- that "pizzazz!" as Vreeland (once tagged "the oracle of opulence") pronounced, that's reflected in the stunning new documentary Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, a former fashion PR maven (and married to Vreeland's grandson Alexander, the executor of her estate). The film has been on the festival circuit but finally will be released Sept. 21. Valentino: The Last Emperor producers Frederic Cheng and Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt served as producers and co-directors; and Barneys president Mark Lee is an executive producer.

Because Meryl Streep's portrayal of the icy editor in The Devil Wears Prada was so memorable, and because Anna Wintour, on whom that book is based, has been editor of Vogue since 1988 -- long enough to make her iconic -- many people aren't aware that Vreeland was the flamboyant first in many categories. She changed the face of beauty after World War II through the 1970s by dethroning America's wholesome corn-fed blue-eyed blondes and putting such asymmetrical exotic beauties as Cher and Penelope Tree on her pages. She exalted both the ordinary ("the blue jean is the most beautiful thing since the gondola") and the extraordinary, putting the first celebrity on the cover of any fashion magazine: Sophia Loren, in 1962, on Vogue.

In her later years, at age 68, Vreeland became special consultant to the Costume Institute of the Met Museum and oversaw the first blockbuster costume shows, doing 12 in all, in turn elevating the annual Met Ball in New York, started by Eleanor Lambert and others, into THE New York event of every season. It remains that way today.

Of course, Vreeland, known to rouge her ears and lunch on peanut butter and marmalade sandwiches with a shot of scotch, was the eccentric Empress of Manhattan. But her idiosyncratic appearance never got in the way of her Hollywood relationships, which weren't merely cultivated but actual friendships.

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"At the opening of the [1984] Met Ball, I couldn't see Mother in the crowd," recalls Vreeland's son Tim (whose father was banker Reed Vreeland, with whom Diana had two sons, Tim and Frekky), the first architecture chair at UCLA now retired. "Then I saw flashbulbs. There was Diana, arm in arm with Raquel Welch and Diana Ross! As we descended the stairs, I said, 'I'll bet you've never had photos taken with such amazing creatures.' She turned around and snapped, 'They're my best friends!' She knew them intimately. She had that ability to immediately put herself on equal footing with them." (One reason for that: She was brought up in Paris by aristocratic parents, surrounded by the likes of Nijinsky, Diaghilev, Charlie Chaplin and Isadora Duncan.)

Vreeland's other Hollywood friends included Lauren Bacall (whom she discovered and turned into a cover model), Marisa Berenson, Ali MacGraw (who worked for her at Vogue) and even Clark Gable, who was having an affair with Vreeland's wealthy pal Millicent Rogers during World War II. She accompanied Gable to El Morocco nightclub one night ("He wasn't all that handsome," she wrote in her memoir DV, "his head was too big"), only to discover that her friend set flashbulbs afire. It was then that Vreeland began to realize, "Of all forms of power, fame is the most intoxicating."

Huston eventually modeled for Vogue and photographer Richard Avedon, but on a day in 1969, when she first met Vreeland, "she seemed almost alien. She had this incredibly royal approach to things, dressed all in black. When she looked at me, it was both terrifying and challenging at the same time." Huston's response? "I promptly fainted on the floor," she laughs. "When I came to, she was patting my cheek and offering me a whiskey. But even when she was very sweet, she scared me."

Of Cher's own unique introduction: "I was 19, and Sonny and I were invited to play at a private party for Jackie Kennedy," she says. "This strange-looking woman suddenly grabs my chin and pulls my face: 'My dear, you're lovely, but you have a pointed head!' "

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Although Vreeland was not fond of Los Angeles ("She said California was a country God never visited," recalls Tim), she had to fly out in 1984 to gather costumes for the Met's "Hollywood Glamour" exhibition -- but she couldn't drive. When Tim wasn't chauffeuring her to meet with Paramount's Edith Head for breakfast or to Mary Pickford's attic, Beatty would pick her up at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Says Tim: "She cultivated people like him and Jack and Mick Jagger for her youthquake thing. She'd say, 'Timmy, I'd love to introduce you to all my friends on the West Coast -- but they're all so young!' "

In the doc, narrated by actress Annette Miller reading Vreeland's own words, there's a moment where the editor coos over Nicholson. "She just loved him," says Immordino Vreeland. One famous story is a night in 1978, when Vreeland dined with Nicholson at San Lorenzo's in London. Nicholson's back was killing him; he couldn't sit. Vreeland grabbed his driver, went to a drugstore and bought a back plaster. Near the "Gents" bathroom, which faced a window, Nicholson promptly dropped trou -- the full Monty -- and Vreeland applied the plaster. An audience gathered on the street to watch. Vreeland's comment? "I must say, your chemistry is really good," she said to Nicholson. "Plump and pink." It's not clear which part of his anatomy she was referring to.

The bossy editor character of Maggie Prescott in 1959's Funny Face who opens the movie with the famous number "Think Pink!" was based on Vreeland. Despite Fred Astaire playing Avedon and Audrey Hepburn the model Dovima, Vreeland "told everyone who knew her, 'I will not speak of it again,' " says Immordino Vreeland. As for the bug-eyed fashion editor based on her in photographer William Klein's French fashion farce, 1966's Who Are You, Polly Magoo?, "I don't think she and William Klein had a great relationship, but we never knew what she thought of that one," she adds.

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The filmmaker credits Vreeland's "accessibility -- she loved pop stars as much as she loved opera and art stars" as the trait that made her famous with the famous. One has to wonder what Vreeland, who died in 1989, would think of the current culture of reality stars and the fast fashion of H&M and Forever 21.

"She would have adapted to it -- but she wouldn't have liked it," says Immordino Vreeland. "Because none of it comes from the imagination."

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