Not long after being outed as a boss from hell in The Devil Wears Prada, Vogue brain Anna Wintour suddenly appeared in The September Issue, a doc that functioned in part as damage control. No longer was she a catty tyrant but rather a calm, warm working girl. Diana Vreeland, who reigned over Harper’s Bazaar starting in the ‘30s and Vogue in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, is very much the Wintour model: a behind-the-scenes Wizard of Oz who broke through into the culture she was helping to shape. But she was less thin-skinned than Wintour: Dictatorial Vreeland stand-ins appeared in Funny Face and, on the outskirts, William Klein’s Who Are You, Polly Magoo? When she came to set the record straight, to reveal her cuddly, witty self–via the memoir D.V.—it was shortly before her death, when she had no more to prove.
Vreeland’s official Great Person doc, subtitled The Eye Has to Travel, is culled from the recording sessions for D.V., which she wrote with a George Plimpton assist. Her personality, magnetic and inspiring, and her voice, booming and fearless, help fuel a portrait that could stand some rougher edges, to be less fawning. Her controversial stint at the Metropolitan of Art—where the decidedly non-academic Vreeland fêted the still-alive Yves Saint Laurent, in what functioned as an advertisement–is broadly painted in snob-vs.-slob terms. (Albeit a sartorially flawless slob.) Talking about her suspiciously magical youth, she rhapsodizes on spotting Charles Lindbergh soar above her during his Transatlantic flight. Only later does someone point out that Lindbergh’s path never came close to where she had been.
Then again, this is the fashion world, and this is someone who preached that “life is artifice,” especially for herself, a non-classical not-quite-beauty. She nevertheless liked to stress what were traditionally viewed as imperfections: spreads showed off, rather than obscured, Verushka’s Amazonian height, Barbra Streisand’s Nefertiti nose. Likewise, Eye’s own imperfections are glaring, but it has Vreeland herself, whose life force is such that, even in death, she can overpower any amount of talking heads ass-kissing.