Authors: Diana Vreeland
I loathe nostalgia.
One night at dinner in Santo Domingo at the Oscar de la Rentas', Swifty Lazar, the literary agent, turned to me and said, “The problem with you, dollface”âthat's what he always calls meâ“is that your whole world is nostalgic.”
“Listen, Swifty,” I said, “we all have our own ways of making a living, so shut up!”
Then I punched him in the nose. He was quite startled. He picked up a china plate and put it under his dinner jacket to protect his heart. So I took a punch at the china plate!
Nostalgiaâimagine! I don't believe in anything before penicillin.
I'll tell you what I
believe in. I believe in back plasters.
Let me describe this night in the spring of 1978.
I was dining very late at San Lorenzo's, in London, with David Bailey, the great photographer, and Jack Nicholson. Now don't you think Jack is just about the best actor we have? He's got a convincing face, and that funny flare in his nostrils, hasn't he? And there's something else about him which is something all great actors haveâhe's a great mimic. Have you ever seen his takeoff of Ahmet Ertegun,
the Turk who runs Atlantic Records? He gets that
Ahmet has. I think it's only from a takeoff that you can understand another person. Very often, you can't get it straight from the person himself.
But let me tell you about that night.
I was worrying about my darling friend Jack Nicholson, who couldn't sit down because his back was in such terrible shape.
The back, you know, is the most important part of your body. I'm never tired at the end of a dayânever. It's because of the way I sit. At the Metropolitan Museum I have the same kitchen chair I used to have at
. They sent it to me because nobody else would ever use such a hideous-looking thing in their swell officesâbut it supports me at the base of my back, and that's what's important. Then, I have a little rubber cushion which gets me right at the end of my spine and keeps me straight up, up, up. Everyone who comes into my office at the Metropolitan thinks the cushion looks a bit medicalâwell, it
; you buy it at a drugstoreâbut for me, it means that I sit straight and high, and it's marvelous.
But to get back to that night. Jack's back was in such awful condition that he couldn't even sit down in the restaurantâ¦walking around, tearing cigarettes apartâ¦in
. So I said, “I'm fed up with your back! You take every pill on the market but you don't do as I say. Tonight I'm fixing you up. May I take your driver?”
Of course, here's old Bailey, sitting there like a lump, saying in his
way, “You can't get anything at this time of night, Vreeland. You're crazy. You don't know anything about this town.”
I wish I'd made him a bet. I said, “I know this town better than you. I know where to goâBoots the Chemist in Piccadilly Circus. Open all night. Buy anything. Ask for it, it's yours.”
So I got out onto the street alone, found Jack's car, and I said to George, his driver, “I'm fed up with Mr. Nicholson! He doesn't realize that what he has I've had many timesâa bad back. He's got to break the spasm. He needs a back plaster. I want to go to Boots the Chemist in Piccadilly Circus. It still exists, doesn't it?”
“Of course it exists, madam.”
So off we went in the biggest Mercedes you ever saw. But I began thinking there might be something to what old Bailey had said. Maybe Boots
open, but only for emergencies. So I said to the driver, “George, I'm thinking aloudâ¦don't pay any attention to what I'm saying. I'm talking to myself. I do it all the time. It's my way of getting thoughts out. But I think when we get there I'd better
to be the patientâ¦it'll make more of an impression on Boots the Chemist. So I'm now very illâ¦in fact, I've practically lost the use of my legs! How does that sit with you, George?”
“As you say, madam.”
We arrived. Naturally, George could barely get me out of the car. We went in. George was propping me up, and I, naturally, was gripping the sides of the display cases, which were immaculate, beautifully lit, exactly as they were when I left London more than forty years ago.
In those days, people went in to Boots the Chemist at midnight for aphrodisiacsâSpanish fly, Amber Moonâ¦big, very big. You may have heard of Spanish fly. You've probably never heard of Amber Moon, but it was
big. But that night I was not asking for Amber Moon, or even Spanish fly. I was not asking for anything except a back plaster. They put their hands under the counter and came up with one. “I'll take
,” I said. “I'm in terrible shape, as you can see.” I took the plasters and got into the big Mercedes.
I got back to the restaurant, and George and I walked to the table. “Now listen, Bailey,” I said, “you may have been born within the sound of Bow Bells, but I'm no Johnny-come-lately. I know my way around this town. I could have bought anything I asked for in that place.”
Then I said to Georgeâby this time I was very intimate with himâ“Take Mr. Nicholson down to the Gents. You take him in, and I'll tell you exactly what to do with these back plasters.”
“Oh, to hell with that!” said Jack. “You come downstairs and put the back plaster on me yourself.”
How well do you know San Lorenzo's? Well, as you come in off the street, there's the Ladies and Gents. Do you think we bothered? No. Right in the hall. He took down his trousersâ¦.
“Wonderful condition,” I said. “I must say your chemistry is really good! Plump and pink.”
I started taking the paper off the back plaster. Here was this big pink behind waiting for it, but I couldn't get the wrapping off the plaster. “You better get back into your trousers,” I said, “because someone's going to come by in a few minutes and think this is a mighty queer act.”
He shook his head. It didn't seem to bother him. Finally I got the paper off the back plaster and I said, “Now Jack, I'm going to put it on. When I put it on, you have to lean over and wriggle, wriggle, wriggle so it doesn't get too tight.” I showed him myself. “Otherwise,” I said, “you'll never move again.”
By this time, we had a small audience looking in the door from across the street. I got the back plaster on all right. The warmth of it set Jack right up. He pulled his pants back on. Now, at least he could sit down. We went back upstairs. We ate. Don't ask me what time it was when we finished dinnerâit was late. They were going on to some party. So we got back in the Mercedes and I found myself on the north side of Regent's Park.
“Now,” I said, “you must take me home.”
“Oh, c'mon, Vreeland,” Bailey saidâhe always calls me “Vreeland,” and I always call him “Bailey”â“you've been out later than this.”
“I'm not going to any party,” I said. “I don't want to see anyone but you. But as we're up hereâ¦I'd like to go to the other side of Regent's Park to my old house, on Hanover Terrace, which I haven't seen since I left England in 1937.”
You can imagine how interesting this was for them. Every house on Hanover Terrace is identically the same. Mine, naturally, was differentâonce you got inside the door. At the end of the street was Hanover Lodge, which belonged to Lady Ribblesdale, where my great friend Alice Astor livedâthat's Alice Obolensky, Alice von Hofmanns
thal, et cetera, et cetera, Alice Bouverieâ¦in any case, Alice Astor, the daughter of John Jacob Astor, the one who went down on the
. That wonderful, divine womanâthank God she wasn't in the house when it got the direct hit from the bomb, because it was totally destroyed.
I got out of the car and went up to our house. I approached the door. It had belonged to Sir Edmund Gosse, who was quite a literary figure in the early part of this century and the last part of the lastâyou know,
stuff. In half the memoirs of the period the address is 17 Hanover Terrace. We bought it from his widow in '29. The faÃ§ade was
, but the house was divine. Below the garden was a larderâ¦.
I'm big on larders. I could take my bed and put it in a larder and sleep with the cheese and the game and the meat and the good smell of butter and earth. I'm always saying to people here in New York, or anywhere, “What's the matter with you? Everywhere there's a garden, there should be a larder. All you need is some good earthâdig into it and make a larder!” Oh, our larder used to be so attractiveâ¦.
Then, at the end of the garden, on the mews, was the garage, where we kept our wonderful Bugatti. We had a driver who was so young that when my two boys got chicken pox, mumps, measles, etc., he'd get them too. He'd write us letters all through the war. Sometime after we moved to New York, he went to work at Buckingham Palace and became the second driver for Princess Elizabeth. And one day he wrote me: “Now, madam, I drive Her Majesty the Queen.” Isn't that a marvelous life?
Above the garage were the servants' rooms, in which I had radiators and wash basins installed, and a good bathroomâquite unnecessarily, I was told at least three times a week by the servants. They were petrified of the radiatorsâthey were so afraid they'd burst. They never dared turn on the water in any of the bedrooms. Incredible race. They have a horror of running water. But they never left me. When we went to America, the two housemaids went to work at Buckingham Palace also, because the housekeeper knew someone in the royal household. The households of England in my day were a big part of life.
They had their own life. But we all worked together. That's why I could go to work for
when I left EnglandâI knew how to work because I knew how to run a house. My Godâ¦the only chance in life I ever had to learn anything was those twelve years in England!
But I want to stick to that night. I approached the doorâ¦.
The topiary had gone. Of course, we had a topiary garden. At the top of the steps, on either side of the door, I put a topiary bear. Greenery, you know, is as much a part of England as a nose is part of a human face. Inside 17 Hanover Terrace, in front of the long French windows in the drawing room, were orange treesâI went down to Covent Garden at dawn for themâand with pots of cineraria plants in every color you can think of on the floor. The walls were painted a marvelous dull ochre I took from the face of a Chinaman on a Coromandel screen. Then there was Bristol blue chintzâyou know what color Bristol blue isâand on it were bowknots and huge red roses. The windows went right down to the floor, and beyond the windows was Regent's Park with all those wonderful flowers and trees and boxes. Ducks in the morning. Then, as we'd be going to bed, which was invariably late, the lions were being fedâroaring and having their meal. Oh, wonderful to hear a lion roar in the middle of a city!
So that's where we lived. My husband was working in the Guaranty Trust. He left for work every day at quarter past eight, right on time, and beautifully dressed.
Reed took immense care with his clothes. He bought a great number of thingsâsilk shirts, working shirts of discreet design, rows and rows of boiled shirtsâin enormous quantity and of marvelous quality, bang, bang, bang. The hats! They're
beautiful. I've given most of them away. I had some chaps over and they wanted them. I've got five or six leftâI'll give them to the Museum. But they were all measured and fitted. Beautiful feltsâI mean, the felt was like satin. Lock's, St. James's Street. A paradise for men, just a
. I remember the last person who tipped his hat to me; it was so elegant and attractive. I was walking down Fifth Avenue and Ronnie Tree stepped out to the curb. He had on a bowler. If you remember his hair, it was
that marvelous stiff hair that bushed up around the ears. You know how chic that is. Marvelous with a hat. Takes a special head; it has to be very stiff hair. He did it, tipped his hat, and it was so attractive. So beautiful. So memorable.
But then it all stopped, didn't it? Those robust pink English facesâwell weathered and smilingâthey're gone too, haven't they? The high color. They get it being out in those heavy, wet winds. Perhaps these days the chaps aren't out shooting so much. But in the early sixties the hats just died away overnight. I can remember Reed coming to say goodbye to me one morning, very early, and he didn't have a hat on. I said, “But you haven't got a hat.” He was always totally dressed when he came in to say goodbye. He said, “I'm not going to wear a hat.” That was that.
Back to Hanover Terrace. Inside, it was marvelousâbut very ordinary, do you understand? I mean, we didn't have an extraordinary atmosphere ofâ¦light. Orange trees by the window, light coming throughâ¦a very English light.
That night, I stood at the front door and looked. The stoop was very well kept which is that English thing and which makes all the difference. But the door was painted a hideous color. When we lived there it was pickledâevery surface removed and then polished. Every door inside was an Oriental red, but one didn't come
through a red front door. I stood in front of the door. Through the side windows there was nothing to see. It was just a blah house. But there on the door was my old door knocker, a pathetic little hand. It had been on that door since 1930, through the Blitz and that whole bloody bit. A door knocker! Ah, but it was more! I bought it in St. Malo when I was very youngâand we were going to miss the boat to wherever we were going. So I said to Reed, “That little handâI like it so much.” So we knocked on the door and a woman came out and after twenty minutesâthe French are very generous if you offer them moneyâwe came away with the door knocker. It was an interesting little Victorian door knocker, no
about it, but ah, my God! And then I turned around, went back down the steps, got back in the car, and said to David Bailey and Jack Nicholson, “And now we are going to the party!”