I have to admit, when my friend said, “Diana Vreeland lived here,” it meant nothing to me. Then I saw the poster, newly framed and hanging on the living room wall.
Oh yes, her. I know that face. A bit iconic, an emblem of another era. Someone to do with fashion, about which, as anyone who knows me would testify, I know nothing.
Diana Vreeland, or “D.V.,” was a columnist for Harper’s Bazaar from 1936-1962 and editor-in-chief of Vogue from 1963-1971. She styled Jackie Kennedy. She discovered Lauren Bacall. She invented the annual costume ball at the Met. She also, arguably, is more than a little responsible for our weird celebritization of models.
So when I found out that Vreeland, who was born in Paris, the daughter of a Continental socialite, lived in Albany for a few years in the mid 1920s, I was beyond intrigued.
What could she have thought of here?
In my search for information about D.V.’s time in Albany, I expected one of two outcomes: 1) that she’d have said nothing on record about it because she was sure to have seen it as an unglamorous blip in an otherwise worldly life, or 2) that she’d have straight-up hated her time here so much that she’d have only mentioned it with regard to wanting to escape.
I was wrong on both counts.
“I loved our life there,” she’s recorded as having said. “I was totally happy. I didn’t care what any other place was like.” Albany was, to Diana Vreeland—and this is my favorite part—“this environment of good food, good housekeeping, polished floors, polished brass.”
Sigh. Yes. Now that’s a description of a place I want to be, a city to love.
“She liked Albany’s domestic Dutch style,” writes biographer Amanda Mackenzie Stuart.
It was Vreeland’s husband’s job as vice president of the National Commercial Bank and Trust Company that brought them to Albany and their little “mews house” on Spring Street “at the back of the Van Rensselaer’s mansion on State Street,” when they were young newlyweds. This “diversion to upstate” ended in 1929 when Reed Vreeland’s work moved them to London, and then finally to NYC, where D.V. lived until her death in 1989.
This house, now long occupied and beautifully cared for by my good friends, is essentially in my backyard and looks nothing today like what’s described in Stuart’s account of Vreeland’s time there, but I love knowing this space so well and being able to imagine it, how it might’ve felt when shaped by Vreeland’s edge-pushing style.
In the 1920s, this little brick row house, one of the oldest in the Washington Park Neighborhood and an absolute picture of charm, had a red front door and blue hydrangeas in its window boxes. The furniture, Stuart writes, was arranged “artistically” (Vreeland’s own word for it), “and the predominant color was yellow, offset by a black couch and a lion-skin rug stretched before the fireplace.”
To learn more about the storied life of Diana Vreeland and her adventures in Albany and elsewhere, read Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart. And there’s this, The Eye Has to Travel, about her, made in 2012.
Gotta say, the mind reels a bit to think of this lady loving on my Smalbs. And it makes me want to explore what this “domestic Dutch style” was that impressed her and that was still so palpable in town less than a hundred years ago but would be hard to put our finger on today. But I think it’s safe to say we’d be well served by digging into our reported roots of good food and housekeeping, more polished floors and brass.