Joan Juliet Buck became the first and only American woman ever to fill Paris Vogue‘s coveted position of Editor in Chief, a “figurehead in the cult of fashion and beauty”, but she has been a writer all her life. In her book The Price of Illusion Joan Juliet Buck chronicles turbulent decades spent in the creative heart of London, New York, Rome, Milan, Los Angeles and Paris, and her intense relationship with her volatile father.
You have just published The Price of Illusion. What is it, a memoir?
It is a memoir, but the first draft went over a thousand pages. Maybe it is more like an autobiography than a memoir.
You had very creative parents and a sort of nomadic life?
Yes, a very nomadic life. I was born in L.A. and left when I was three years old. My parents took me to Paris and French became my first language because at three my English was not very good. My father could not learn French, and after six years we moved to London and I had to go to French school as I could neither read nor write English. My father was a producer, but he had not worked for six years in Paris. In London he did a TV series, and then cast Peter O’Toole in a movie and formed a production company with him.
Were you very friendly with Peter O’Toole?
He and his wife took me to movies and the theater and gave me books. Peter became very handsome and blond after his role as Lawrence of Arabia. He was like the magic unicorn that made us all rich.
Was your best friend Anjelica Huston?
Her father John Huston was my godfather, and I wanted her mother Ricki as my mother. I met them at Christmas 1959 in Ireland.
I spent all my holidays with them.
“For me passion was always a visitation from another world.”
Joan Juliet Buck by Jean Baptiste Mondino, 1999
When did you decide to be a writer and a journalist?
I was a child actress. I was in a Disney movie called Greyfriars Bobby at 11, and I did theater, a lot of French theater. I wrote but I wanted to act. I left higher French studies to go to college in America to study anthropology and theater, but my father said, “I don’t want you to be an actress,” and so I obeyed. I thought I could write and be a journalist. I wrote for the college paper, and at 19 became the book critic for Glamour magazine. Since I wrote at night, I took a day job as a fashion assistant at Glamour, and dropped out of college and into Condé Nast.
Did you become a fashion writer?
No, I wrote about books, but I also worked as a baby fashion editor.
Were you living in New York?
Yes, in my uncle’s apartment in New York, but three people who stayed in that apartment died in less than a year, before I was 21. It was terrible. I went back to London traumatized, not allowed to work, and I did nothing. Then Peter O’Toole’s brother in law was running for parliament as a Conservative and asked me to write a letter to the 18 year-old voters. The conservatives won by a landslide — and at 21 I was editing a magazine for Rupert Murdoch, to get a Union card, and finally, at 23, I was made features editor at British Vogue, where I earned ten pounds a week. So I went to Women’s Wear Daily where they paid me ten times more, first in London and then in Italy.
How was fashion different at the time?
It was interesting in Italy, the end of fashion as tourism, the beginning of real Milanese fashion — the Missonis, Krizia, the beginning of Versace, ready to wear.
Did you write a book at that time?
I fell passionately in love with an actor and realized I had to write fiction to express what I was feeling. I left Women’s Wear Daily, went to California, and started to write The Only Place To Be. Everything got in the way — the articles I had to write for Vogue, scripts, life. My father had lost everything; I needed to work. I moved back to London and got married; to finish the book, I borrowed a chalet out of season in Switzerland where I could write alone in the mountains. In 1979 we moved to New York, and the book came out in 1982. After our divorce, alone in New York, I wrote my second novel, Daughter of the Swan, which had a connection to the story of Leda and the swan: for me passion was always a visitation from another world. I never finished the third novel.
How come you became editor of French Vogue?
Because — in 1989 a psychiatrist convinced me that I had been abused by someone who worked for my grandfather, his driver. I’d been writing to figure out a mystery, and now I felt had been given the key to the mystery, and I had no more impetus to write. I was lost for five years. I could only write articles, nothing personal. And then, as I’d been writing constantly for Vogue since I was 23, then Vanity Fair and Traveler and The New Yorker, Condé Nast trusted me, they knew that my French was good, so for a third time they offered me the job of editing Paris Vogue. I said yes this time, as I was glad to leave New York. I went to Paris in 1994 and I became the Vogue editor-in-chief until the end of 2000.
“I had not worked in an office since 1978 and I was not used to seeing people in the daytime.”
How was the Paris experience?
I’d had exalting times in Paris before, when I lived there as a writer; it was exciting to come back at the head of the French magazine, but the new life was isolating, artificial and difficult.
Did you like power?
No. I like to have the last word, but not power over people.
Was it a fascinating time?
It was difficult. I was perceived as the American invader, and I had brought nobody with me, so it was very lonely because I had to act like the boss, which seemed a peculiar role to me and probably to everybody else. I had not worked in an office since 1978 and I was not used to seeing people in the daytime.
Was Paris interesting?
Paris was a world where advertisers had to be satisfied, photographers and writers had to be encouraged, and members of my staff had to be reassured or intimidated. None of these were normal modes of relationship to me. What was interesting was putting each issue together and finding a way to use all the different talents. But for almost seven years, I only wrote four obituaries and an essay.
Did you discover anyone?
Yes, there was a young photographer called Taryn Simon, who was as uncomfortable taking photographs for Vogue as I was running Vogue. She got a Guggenheim grant and is now exhibiting in museums all over the world, doing conceptual work of immense force and beauty.
Do you describe the world of fashion in those days in Paris in The Price of Illusion?
It took me six years to write the book, and four years to get to the part about French Vogue, because I did not want to relive these days. And yes, I describe the time at Vogue, and fashion within the larger context of French society, and the changes at the end of the century that would lead to the end of fashion as we knew it. And it’s also about Paris bombs going off, a ghost in my apartment, love affairs, and a sudden death.
What went wrong?
A daily clash of cultures, daily misunderstandings. I thought everything was a Marx Brothers comedy, but Paris is full of complicated plots from ancient tragedy. Everything is a drama. Pierre Bergé, the head of Saint Laurent, got very angry at me because we had interviewed Madame Claude, the famous madam who invented call girls, and put a line on the cover that said, Beauty according to Madame Claude. Pierre Bergé shouted, “You cannot put such a disgusting person on the cover of Vogue!” Everybody in fashion has an agenda, and everybody wants something, and as editor you are in a position to give it or withhold it. I was in a state of constant discomfort because of the pressure of what other people wanted. For every cover I chose there were eight I rejected.
Joan Juliet Buck age 2.
Joan Juliet Buck with Peter O’Toole at the premiere of Lord Jim, 1965
Joan Juliet Buck with Karl Lagerfeld in 1976
Joan Juliet Buck at Womens Wear Daily in 1975
Joan Juliet Buck by Brigitte Lacombe. 1996 Paris Vogue
Paperback cover of The Price of Illusion by Joan Juliet Buck
“My grandmother’s ashes were lost for five years because of a smoked salmon.”
Why did your Vogue experience end?
The president of the company was hoping that I wouldn’t stay in Paris any longer and would go back to America, but after my mother died I brought my father to live in Paris and I spent all my money on recreating my father’s best years for him in Paris. I wanted to make him happy, and I did. As the president of the company saw that I was not going to leave Paris, she invented a story that I was a drug addict, and suddenly the chairman told me that I had to go to rehab. When he said that, I knew that Vogue was over for me and I would have to be a writer again. But for seven years I had not one experience that I consider real. I had nothing to write about. I said ‘yes’ to the rehab, but the big joke was that I never took drugs, I don’t even drink. I am not an addict to anything except dark chocolate. My father was still alive; when I came out, I decided to move us both back to America, but New York was too expensive for a place for both of us, and I was not going to put him in a home. The best place was Santa Fe, in New Mexico. But then my father died, 9/11 happened, and there I was in New Mexico. I wanted to write about my rehab experience as a play, so I began to work in theater, and suddenly I was acting again, doing exactly what my father had forbidden me to do.
What are you doing now?
I am working on a very long essay that is rather complicated, and writing short simple things, and also turning a play into a novel. I am a full time writer again and in the last four to five years I have learned that when I write for a magazine I have to write only things that are surprising and quick to do, and fun for the reader.
What do you consider yourself to be?
Labels don’t work for me. I am going to Boston to give a monologue at The Moth, about how my grandmother’s ashes were lost for five years because of a smoked salmon. The first one I did for them was about the ghost in my apartment on the Rue Jacob.
New York, November 2017
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