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Invitation to the Dance

An internship at the Costume Institute under the oracular Diana Vreeland introduced the author to the art of extravagant gestures.

Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Arad. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Arad. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

When I graduated from high school in 1981, the Metropolitan Museum of Art hired me for an internship. A few days after I began, I was in the office of the woman who had selected me, and saw the note I had sent her after our interview hanging on her pinboard. She said, “You know, there were over a hundred applicants for this job, and given that you’re mostly going to be proofreading and xeroxing, I thought you were all pretty well qualified. But that stationery happens to be my favorite shade of blue, so you got the job.”

My desk was at the back of the department library, and there was a nail sticking out of the wall above it, inviting art. When my parents had married, one of my father’s most treasured possessions was a photograph of the Bulgarian soprano Ljuba Welitsch as Tosca, clutching a fur stole, and my mother had said she didn’t want photos of other women all over the house but that he could hang it in the bathroom. The summer of 1981, my parents’ bathroom was being redone, so my father offered me Ljuba on temporary loan, and since it was the only thing around that was actually framed, I brought it in and hung it up.

A week later, the charismatic chairman of the editorial department, John O’Neill, made one of his rare forays into the library and, seeing the picture, said, “When she sang Rosalinda, New York wept; and when she sang Donna Anna, New York cried; but when she sang Salome, New York was speechless.” John had not seemed to notice until that moment that I was working in his department, but that day, after I had managed to repeat some of my father’s raptures on Welitsch, he invited me out for a drink at the Stanhope, and I met Philippe de Montebello, director of the museum, and Ashton Hawkins, vice president and chief counsel. I still consider it the first day of my adult life.

The summer after my sophomore year of college, I was put to work on the Costume Institute catalog for the Yves Saint Laurent show, sent down to the archives to scour hundreds of old magazines, looking for striking images that might be interspersed with the documentary pictures that constituted the bulk of the catalog. I met Diana Vreeland and her amanuensis Katell le Bourhis. At lunchtime, we drank Badoit water that was flown in specially and had expensive sandwiches from William Poll, and Mrs. Vreeland took a bit of a shine to me, as she often did to presentable boys. I took to wearing a straw boater and a blazer, and I was an earnest little mess of affectations, but in the basement offices of the Costume Institute, these were taken to be endearing.

Katell appointed herself my champion, and she took me to marvelous parties. I visited Mrs. Vreeland in her apartment on Park Avenue and sat in the celebrated, indomitably red living room and listened wide-eared to stories of a life beyond my wildest imaginings. Mrs. Vreeland plied me with ludicrous advice. I remember particularly being told to go watch the film of Death in Venice and make myself look as much like Tadzio as I could (which was not much, alas). When we entered the Great Hall of the Museum together one afternoon, Mrs. Vreeland put one clawlike hand on my shoulder, gestured widely with the other one, and said with her inimitable diction, “I want you to think for a minute about the fact that every person in this room walked into a store where other things were available and CHOSE what he’s wearing right now.” She shuddered at the horrifying thought.

At summer’s end, I was given responsibility for editing Mrs. Vreeland’s introduction to the Saint Laurent catalog, a job that I considered a tremendous honor but that was in fact given to me because no one else in the editorial department could bear to work with her. The introduction had been composed in a session in which Mrs. Vreeland sat like the Delphic oracle and spewed aphorisms, which were hastily recorded by her acolytes, most of them handsome men, and then assembled into a sort of textual collage that was impossibly charming and completely inchoate, stylistically evocative of an intellectually impoverished Gertrude Stein trying to channel Oscar Wilde. Editing it proved to be a nightmare: Mrs. Vreeland snapped that she thought I showed a “disappointing paucity of imagination” when I told her that it was absolute museum policy that all verbs agree with their subjects.

In 1986, the Costume Institute show was “Dance,” and by then I was operating at a somewhat higher level, making real decisions about the book. Mrs. Vreeland, of willfully unspecified but very advanced age, was very much slowed down, almost blind, in the office only on rare occasions and barely able to walk. She came in one day to look at the installation in progress and was wheeled from gallery to gallery, saying what was wrong, asking that lights be moved and shoes changed and mannequins repositioned, that some be given hats and others have their hats removed. She seemed an impossible old lady who couldn’t let go of her control and who was making everyone’s lives miserable for no good reason. And then they did everything she’d said, and it was transformed. Her nearly sightless eyes could pick out things my youthful vision could not; enfeebled, she was still supreme at the discipline of chic.

At the end of this process, she came into the office and noticed a copy of Richard Avedon’s nude photo of Nureyev taped over the desk of one of the junior curators. “Oh!” she said as she was wheeled past. “I see you have my photograph there!” There was a slight murmur of curiosity. “Your photograph, Mrs. Vreeland?” the curator in question asked. “Oh, yes,” she said, and chuckled, a throaty, primitive, happy sound that she retained to her dying day. It was one of the indicators that a story was coming on. “It was in the sixties, and I had decided that we needed to photograph that Russian boy for Vogue, and so we flew him in to New York,” she began. “Of course it was wildly, wildly extravagant, but when people questioned it, I said to them, ‘This photo will be the apotheosis of the dance!’ And that calmed them right down. I remember the morning well. We were all in Dicky’s studio, which was huge like a cathedral.” She came down hard on that “e” in the middle of the word and gestured out into space with both arms to indicate the scale in question. “We were waiting, and I was there, and Dicky was there, and his assistants, and my assistants, and everyone else, a mob, and we waited and waited, and finally that Russian boy arrived. My God, but he was handsome,” she said, drawing out the word handsome and chuckling again. “And he began to dance! There was no music, but he just went dancing around the studio to warm himself up! And it was very strange, but it was impossibly beautiful.” She shook her head at the wonder of it.

“So we threw everyone out,” she said. “We threw out Dicky’s assistants and my assistants and everyone else, so it was just Dicky and me and that Russian. This had to be an intimate moment, of course. And he went behind a screen to take off his clothes.” She stopped and looked expectantly at each of us. “And you know how it is with men in the mornings,” she went on, making vertical gestures up from her groin. “And it was like that! And it stayed that way for such a long time! And there was nothing we could do but to wait for it to go down!” And then she let out a belly laugh. “And it was very strange, but it was,” and here she paused for a second, “impossibly beautiful!

“And then we took the pictures,” she went on. “Of course, if I’d been behind the camera, we would have started photographing considerably sooner. But Dicky was so American, a prude. So this is what we ended up with.” She turned to go, but as she did she gave the final verdict. “I was right, however,” she said. “That’s why you have it hanging here. It’s the apotheosis of the dance.” And then she produced that chuckle again.

I never again thought of dance as anything but — to borrow one of her favorite quotations of that summer — “the vertical expression of a horizontal idea.”