Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Book Report Akimbo

Recently I finished reading André Leon Talley’s memoir, entitled simply A.L.T. and felt I had to share, a la Oprah’s Book Club (A HARPO Production). Expecting a series of pronouncements on the wheres, whens and hows of the glamorous life, to my surprise and initial chagrin, the book is full of – can it be? – actual sincerity.

More a memoir of his sainted grandmother and the saintly Diana Vreeland, the two women who helped to mold him into the Chado Ralph Rucci-cape wearing international diva and style icon he is, than an out and out autobiography, A.L.T. spends a great deal of time dwelling in his southern roots. He clearly takes great pride in his humble origins, and rather than try to escape from where he comes from, openly embraces it.

Bennie sans the jets

Bennie Francis Davis, André’s grandmother, whom he refers to as Mama, was a simple woman with great style and strength, under whose care he enjoyed the freedom to be himself. Who that is still remains a bit of a mystery at book’s end, as La Talley rarely goes into anything too personal. For instance, he never goes into his sexual awakening, which is par for the course for any memoir in my opinion. He nver even mentions the topic of his sexuality.

However, this can probably be traced back to his religious and conservative upbringing where it would no doubt be deemed entirely inappropriate to speak of such things in a public forum. A.L.T. still regularly attends church, as a matter of fact, and visits his childhood home in Durham, NC, as a means of grounding himself from the jetset high fashion world.

Diana Vreeland, WORKING.

From Benie Francis Davis, André learned how to find luxury in his everyday world. As a child, luxury was embodied by the crisp, clean white sheets on his bed, his grandmother’s cooking and his Sunday clothes. From Diana Vreeland, he gained his entrée, and a brilliant entrée it was, into the world of fashion. Growing up, as so many little girls did, wrapped up in the pages of Vogue, A.L.T. long regarded Vreeland as one of his personal heroes and his first job was literally a dream come true: assisting her at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute.

Diva and apprentice

André Leon Talley’s story is one of idealism, perseverance, hard work, good luck and unmistakable talent. Girl knows what she is doing. The way he writes about beauty and luxury, no matter how simple or decadent, is inspiring:

“Luxury in the greatest sense, in the grand sense, could be something as simple as watching two cardinals cavorting outside my bedroom window, or receiving from my uncle’s big, callused hands a basket of tomatoes, still smelling of the salt and sunshine of the vine.”

He is a true and passionate connoisseur of beauty and this is evident from his earliest youth as he is marveled by the spectacularly attired ladies of his family, particularly Bennie Francis, and his church. So strong is his grandmother’s influence on his life, that A.L.T. lacks the air of scandal, of sex, drugs and haute couture, that one would expect from someone such as the Editor-at-Large for Vogue. André Leon Talley is, in effect, kind of boring.

Which is, by no means, an insult. Rather, it’s a testament to his family, his faith and his friends that he’s managed to cultivate such a glamorous life, and such an esteemed career, while lacking the usual vices and corruptions rampant in the circles he so frequently travels. That’s not to say there aren’t a few choice tidbits to relish.

Well finally there's photographic proof of my parentage. André Leon Taley and Diana Ross -- 9 months later, I came deathdropping into the world .

One of my favorite anecdotes has to do with Halston inviting André over to dinner, which consisted of a mountain of coke for good old Roy and potatoes and caviar for André. And then there’s Grace Jones showing up late to Monaco for a Chanel show and demanding her gloves from André for “attitude.” He was at 54, he was part of Warhol's circle, he's lived a life I have only dreamed and obsessed about.

A.L.T. name drops everyone: Karl Lagerfeld, Anna Wintour, John Galliano, Jackie O, Truman Capote, Diane von Furstenberg, Miuccia Prada, Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli, Bianca Jagger, etc. But his memoirs

are full more of his grandmother and his mentor, Diana Vreeland, than any of these 20th century luminaries. These two women are really what matter to him most in life: family.

Papa, can you hear me?

André Leon Talley is a real person. Who knew? He has values and morals, a normal life that is punctuated by his deep passion for luxury, beauty and fashion. But as he put it, “Fashion is no substitute for family.” Not a sentiment I particularly share, but one I can respect nonetheless. If anything, reading André Leon Talley's memoirs has given me a little more understanding of someone I've considered an idol since he first came into my consciousness, and a newfound respect for him as more than an idol, but as someone strikingly human.

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