Joan Juliet Buck is petite, no taller than 5 feet and half an inch. But that small stature belongs to a larger-than-life woman, whose list of accomplishments in fashion and culture is surpassed only by the girth of her Rolodex.
Even if you’ve never heard of Buck, you’ve surely heard of her famous friends, acquaintances, business partners, and paramours — such as Leonard Cohen, who once invited her to his Greek island house (she turned him down), or Karl Lagerfeld, who offered to make her wedding dress for a ceremony in which Manolo Blahnik was her “matron of honor.”
But Buck isn’t name-dropping. Instead, she’s using them to chronicle her life — which just so happens to capture the Zeitgeist of the last 50 years — through the untold stories of a once-thought-to-be glamorous career in her new memoir, The Price of Illusion.
In Buck’s most notable position, she sat at the helm of French Vogue from 1994 to 2001, the only American editor ever to do so. That, as Buck reveals, ended in an almost unbelievable way: She was sent on a two-month “sabbatical” to a drug rehabilitation facility — for a drug problem she didn’t have. That’s when her illusion of Vogue, the venerable institution, shattered.
The 68-year-old iconoclast recently shared this story and others with fans who had come to hear her speak at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York. There, she discussed how, after years among elites, she realized the absurdity and posturing and frailty of the image she’d struggled to maintain.
Wearing Zac Posen (who happens to be a friend she “respects enormously”), Buck described ephemeral fashion — wearing one thing one season only to toss it away for whatever “it” bag or shoe or whatever it was that elicited cachet the next. She said she only wore a designer’s coats to appease the advertisers who kept the money coming into Vogue. And now, she noted, she recognizes the sham of it all.
But the book isn’t just for those interested in fashion. One look at the memoir’s index reveals hundreds of people from the realms of politics, high society, philosophy, and science with whom Buck worked or admired or was affected by in some way: Guy Bourdin, Bill Cunningham, Andy Warhol, Orson Welles, Tom Wolfe, Gianni Versace, Anjelica Huston, Lauren Bacall, Katharine Hepburn — the list goes on.
After she was at French Vogue, Buck worked as a contributor for other editions of Vogue, including the American and British titles. In 2011, she was commissioned to write a profile on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s wife, Asma, an assignment she initially flinched at taking, though ultimately accepted.
Just a few weeks after Vogue published Buck’s profile, news outlets reported the human rights atrocities to come out of the Assad regime. In her article, Buck had been uncritical of a political subject attracting criticism from everywhere, instead noting that her “old friend Christian Louboutin” bought himself a “small palace in Aleppo and knew the Assads,” and she called Asma “glamorous, young, and very chic.”
The backlash for the piece (Buck now says it was “fluff”) was swift and unrelenting and made her, she said, a “pariah.”
In another part of the book, Buck recounts how she debated having Princess Diana — someone with whom she shared bites of caviar and says she “wanted to be” — on the cover of French Vogue. That cover never happened — nor did Helmut Newton’s pitch to shoot crash-test dummies in couture. Ironically (and luckily), that pitch was rejected just before Diana’s fatal car accident.
For the rest of Buck’s sometimes funny, sometimes serious, always candid accounts, you’ll have to read the book, lest the illusion remain.
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Alexandra Mondalek is a writer for Yahoo Style and Beauty. Follow her on Twitter @amondalek.