Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Out of Vogue: Joan Juliet Buck and The Price of Illusion

Joan Juliet Buck and her father, Jules Buck, in London, 1968. (Photo courtesy of Joan Juliet Buck)

The shiny surfaces in The Price of Illusion reflect a high-gloss world of celebrity and glamour which the author, former Vogue and Vanity Fair editor and writer Joan Juliet Buck, has polished to brittle brilliance. As the title of her recently published memoir suggests, the book is less a hedonistic romp through a high life made fabulous by the ubiquitous presence of Hollywood royalty and designer labels, and more an archly ironic reflection on the pitfalls of vanity and a preoccupation with appearances. Witty and stylishly written, it is an absorbing and entertaining read, a richly sashed window looking onto a whirlwind time. It has just the right amount of A-list love affairs (Donald Sutherland and Brian De Palma figure large) mixed in with insider fashion gossip concerning the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Bergé and André Leon Tally, to make it juicy, even as the narrative skirts the edges of personal tragedy.

"It is a morality tale," says Buck, 69, during a recent telephone call from her home in the Hudson Valley countryside outside New York. The bucolic setting is deliberate. Buck recently chose it over Manhattan to be as far away from her former life in the fast lane as she could comfortably get. A pop-culture chronicler whose four-and-a-half-decades-long career started at age 23 when she became the London correspondent for Andy Warhol's Interview Magazine and then features editor for British Vogue and a foreign correspondent for Women's Wear Daily the same year, she speaks through drags of an ever-present cigarette, a habit picked up around the time a young Tom Wolfe made her the subject of "The Life and Hard Times of a Teenage London Society Girl," his essay about the 1960s counterculture. Her voice sounds dry, and slightly gravelly. But her intelligent commentary is as sharp as her prose. "I was always looking for the truth,"she exhales. "But growing up I didn't have many guidelines."

A former editor-in-chief of Paris Vogue, the only American to ever hold that position, the fully bilingual Buck suffered an ignoble fall after seven successful years at the helm when removed from her position over a trumped-up charge of drug addiction in 2001. Buck went into rehab as ordered, mainly to exercise a journalist's curiosity as to what it might be like. She took up acting, appearing in the 2009 film Julie & Julia opposite Meryl Streep, and returned to Vogue, the New York edition, to write television criticism and features for her old friend, Anna Wintour. It was a short-lived reprieve. Buck very publicly crashed again in 2011 after a noncritical profile on the wife of Bashar al-Assad of Syria, a puff piece that ran under the headline "A Rose in the Desert," drew widespread ire across the internet.

Wintour, Vogue's high-profile editor-in-chief, had assigned the article herself. Buck was forced to rewrite it four times to emphasize the chic, not the shock, of Syria's new regime. It was assigned late in 2010, before the outbreak of civil war, but it was published months later just as President Assad was reported to have begun his brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters. For a magazine claiming to have its finger on the pulse, the article showed Vogue to have widely missed the mark. But as Buck's was name was on it, she took all the flack. The condemnation was enormous.

But instead of sheltering their writer or admitting they had been wrong, Condé Nast, publisher of Vogue and Buck's employer for 23 years, threw her under the proverbial bus. The company scapegoated her for what was an obvious editorial gaffe, a lapse of judgement at the highest level. Her contract with the magazine was terminated the same year the story was published. Buck hasn't worked for Vogue since.

Today, her articles can be found in Harper's Bazaar, published by the rival Hearst Corporation. It's a kind of revenge. And so is this book. Buck took nearly five years to write it, painstakingly cutting and reshaping an original draft of over 1,000 pages by more than half. The Price of Illusion is her version of events good, bad and ugly, despite the heaps of gorgeous clothes. "I have reclaimed my story," Buck says in conversation. And it's quite the tale.

Fashion and film, industries where images rule supreme, had shaped her life early on. She is the only child born to Jules Buck, the American-born movie producer whose discovery of Irish actor Peter O'Toole and subsequent highly lucrative business association with him at their jointly-held production company, Keep Films, kept the family in luxury for many years. Her mother, Jules' wife, was Joyce Gates (née Getz), a screen actress and legendary beauty whose best girlfriend was Lauren (Betty) Bacall (she appears throughout the book, with and without Bogey) and whose many lovers included Kirk Douglas (seen in one of the book's collection of black-and-white photographs standing hunkily beside her in his bathing suit). Director John Huston, Jules's army buddy, was another close family friend. He was also Joan's godfather. Buck grew up alongside his actress-daughter Anjelica, forming a life-long friendship, as a result of frequent stays at Huston's St. Clerans estate in Ireland. Ricki, a former ballerina who was Anjelica's mother and Huston's jilted wife, was like a surrogate parent, the mom Buck wanted more than her own.

Her real family was elsewhere, in a pink marble palace located in a Paris suburb and modelled on the Grand Trianon at Versailles. The 1900 replica came with elaborate gardens and a fountain. A Fernand Léger hung on the wall, among other priceless works of art. The Bucks had moved to France after Jules had bundled the family up in a grand gesture of self-exile to escape the House Un-American Activities Committee and its Red Scare, responsible for destroying many a Hollywood career. "Jules was not a Communist; he had the American mistrust of socialism," writes Buck in her book,"but he knew every American had a right to his beliefs." Yet her father also maintained that life was a game and that the look of success was just as important as the real thing. He made his daughter believe it. "The appearance of success, looking good ... I just accepted it," she says now.

Joan Juliet Buck. (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)
When the family relocated to London, settling in Belgravia, where the social scene was as dizzying as it has been in Paris, the senior Buck handed his daughter a handful of candy bars and told her to distribute them at school in order to buy herself some friends. A dutiful daughter the book is an extended love letter to her father she did as she was told. Her whole life would be shaped by her father's seemingly contradictory values of being true to yourself while at the same time selling yourself short. Depth of purpose would not become a pursuit until later in life. Buck lived the gilded life for so long.

Largely thanks to her parents' social and cultural prominence in the 1960s and early 1970s, she right away had her pick of jet-setter jobs, starting with Glamour Magazine, whose staff she joined as a book critic after convincing her father she needed to drop out of prestigious Sarah Lawrence College, where she had briefly studied Anthropology, because working taught her more. If she didn't then have the credentials she at least had the contacts. Buck knew Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Peter Brook, Gore Vidal and Leonard Cohen, the Montreal poet whose ardent advances she turned down, declining an invitation to run off with him to Greece. Assigned to cover the making of the Bernardo Bertolucci film 1900, she fell head over heels in love with another Canadian, Donald Sutherland, then married and with a newborn child. A former assistant to photographer Guy Bourdin, Buck also fell in hard with the fashion set, befriending designers, models and other creatives from around the world. Lagerfeld designed and personally altered the ruffled mauve wedding gown she wore when she married The New York Observer's drama critic, John Heilpern, in 1977. It was a brief union. The dress now hangs in the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. There were other designer friends besides: Manolo Blahnik, Tai and Rosita Missoni, Miuccia Prada and Jean Muir, the Brit who had created the costumes for The Ruling Class, the 1972 Jules Buck film for which O'Toole earned yet another in a string of best actor Oscar nominations. Perhaps unwisely, Buck insisted on wearing the English designer's "priestly" tunics when, in 1997, she took the top job at Paris Vogue. Her proudly Gallic staff, she writes, seemed to hate her for it. Certainly, they despised her shoes.

Buck was an American in a French world. She could handle it in many ways. Her first language had been French, learned when living as a child in faux ancien régime splendour. But refusing to dress in the current French style tight skirts, little sweaters and high heels as worn by Carine Roitfeld, the magazine's then-stylist and soon to be Buck's successor she showed herself above playing by their rules of the game. And her father had warned her. Despite having doubled circulation at the establishment fashion magazine, and doing away with such entrenched French fashion clichés as black turtlenecks and bustiers with garters in favour of themed issues exploring art and quantum physics, Buck eventually, and fatally, found herself on the wrong side of the in-crowd.

Her highly competitive publisher, a woman she had nominated for the job, likely concocted the story that Buck was an addict, claiming that the vials of sea water she carried in her handbag ("for my electrolytes," she writes) were filled with junk. It was an outrageous accusation but, at the time, Buck had few allies, none anyway who appeared to want to defend her. When Condé Nast International chief executive Jonathan Newhouse abruptly told her on the first day of the European collections that she needed to go on a two-month sabbatical "starting now," it was a "guillotine" moment. "I had nowhere to go," Buck writes. She had fallen out of Vogue. But then she found a more authentic form of beauty in the simple life. A style predicted to last.

– Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail for 32 years, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

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