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The 2 1⁄2-page prologue may be the very best part of The Price of Illusion (Atria Books), the not-nearly-smart-enough title of an often interesting memoir by Joan Juliet Buck, the now 69-year-old and first American (and probably last, based on her “controversial” tenure) to ever edit French Vogue. Creepy and fascinating, those first few pages tell how Jonathan Newhouse, the all-powerful Euro chief of Condé Nast, basically told our heroine that her days were numbered at the chicest Vogue of them all. Part Devil Wears Prada, part Gaslight, the scene has our Joan flying in to Milan’s Linate airport on a dark and stormy night for the Prada ready-to-wear show in 2000, with a stop before at the very Milanese Caffè Cova on Via Montenapoleone, where Newhouse had summoned her. “I want you to take a sabbatical, starting today,” he begins. “This is between us, don’t talk to anyone. It’s just two months, then you’ll come back. I’m doing this because I’m your friend.”
Really? With friends like this...
“Sudden stillness. Ice water in my veins. Guillotine. It’s over. What did I do?” writes Joan.
Who knows if Joan’s devil actually wore Prada, though we do know that he instructed her to go to Cottonwood rehab center in Arizona, even though she didn’t abuse drugs or alcohol. What she was addicted to was the world of luxury and French Vogue to which she would never return.
For those fascinated/interested/mildly amused by the comings and goings of the global media elite, and in particular those 20th-century dinosaurs known as over-the-top, overindulged, self-important fashion editors, it makes for off-and-on fun reading. Yes, she bogs down somewhere in the middle with tiresome scenes of Paris fashion, looking for apartments, and an endless stream of luxury adjectives, brands, products, designers, celebrities, and titans of industry, but...Lady Buck picks up steam near the 400-page finish line when she finally checks into Cottonwood.
Joan Juliet Buck grew up in L.A., Cannes, Paris, London, New York. Her father was a movie producer, and her model-cum-actress mother was best friends with Lauren Bacall. The Bucks lived at times frivolously, sumptuously, precariously. It was all terribly glamorous and charmed. John Huston was her godfather, Anjelica was her best friend. Everyone from Tom Wolfe (who had a crush) and Brian De Palma (with whom she shacked up) to Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour (ouch! that whole contretemps is very ooh-la-la Condé Nasty) make appearances. So too tragedy, suicides, depressions, backbiting publishers, and a cocaine-addicted poodle groomer with “flat hair to her hips and a shiny face” and sugar-pink parka. This groomer meets Joan at Cottonwood and changes her life by making our Joan realize that, yes, she too was an addict. “Something inside me clicked....All those clothes, all those outfits, all those pretty things to make life beautiful, weren’t they drugs?...‘I understand everything now. The poodle groomer and I are the same person! Her cocaine is my Vogue. I’m addicted to Vogue!’”
And so it goes. The writing can at times be terrific, full of deliciously observed anecdotes and shrewd knowing details. At other times, it can be downright, well, not so good. What are we to make of sentences like:
“A loud rustle of taffeta kept summoning me to Paris.”
“Hélène Rochas gave a dinner for Pamela Harriman and me, because, she said, ‘You are both American ambassadresses to France.’”
“A froth of luxury coated everything, and the demands of inanimate objects begin to eat my soul.”
More importantly what are we to make of this cautionary tale of a poor little sometimes rich and often troubled It Girl who seems to have it all—jewels, furs, “a custom-made rust-red Hermès Kelly bag,” even her own name at the top of the fashion bible? As the king of Siam might have put it, it’s a puzzlement.