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By Design : State of Grace: Mirabella Founder Writes a Memoir

October 12, 1995|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It wasn't a mere meeting of the minds. It was a meeting of the names. Forbes. Mirabella. Malcolm and Grace were colluding in the lobby of L.A.'s Four Seasons Hotel when the business magazine magnate draped his arm around his companion's chic shoulders.

"Grace," Malcolm said, "you and I are the only ones who have our names on a magazine."

"What about Mrs. Lear?" Grace replied.

"It's not her name."

The club of people who were born to be magazine logos is elite indeed. And for Grace Mirabella, doyenne of her eponymous magazine, it has been a dazzling but rocky road to seeing her name up in large-size font. When the first issue of Mirabella came out in 1989, she proudly delivered it like a newborn into the arms of her Italian immigrant mother. But Mirabella's toddlerhood has been rife with problems, and after a six-month suspension, the magazine was resurrected as a bimonthly last month under new owner Hachette Filipacchi.

Mirabella's latest women's magazine has taken something of a Rube Goldberg-ish path. The kick-off came on June 28, 1988, when the editor in chief was unceremoniously kicked off her earlier high-fashion perch, Vogue, the grand dame of fashion magazines. As she recalls in her new memoir, "In and Out of Vogue" (Doubleday), Mirabella heard the news of her dismissal from columnist Liz Smith's lips during a TV news broadcast.

If that was no way to treat a lady, Mirabella nonetheless responded like one at the time. She dryly told the New York Times: "For a magazine devoted to style, this was not a very stylish way of telling me." And she let it go at that.

But now the white gloves are off. In her book, written with political biographer Judith Warner, Mirabella skewers the men who so rudely unseated her. She writes that S.I. Newhouse, publisher of the Conde Nast magazine aristocracy whose queen is Vogue, had "a history of firings [that] had made him as unpopular as a man of his enormous wealth and power could be." Alex Liberman, then Conde Nast's editorial director, had a "honey-soaked delivery [that masked] an iron will, a tin ear for dissension, and an ego the size of the Newhouse fortune." As for the much younger woman they installed in Mirabella's place, Anna Wintour was "a vision of skinniness in black sunglasses and Chanel suits," so "cold, suspicious. . . and autocratic" that her former colleagues at British Vogue had dubbed her editorship there "Nuclear Wintour."

A Vogue representative declined to comment.

Perhaps not surprisingly, book critics are calling her memoir pay-back time. "Ms. Mirabella has a number of scores to settle," said the New York Times, which also found her book "fascinating, humorous, wry and ultimately rather sad."

Mirabella, 66, brushes aside such unattractive suggestions. "I don't have to settle any scores," she says, chalking up her newfound outspokenness to life as a civilian. Even though Mirabella bears her name, she has essentially retired from the publishing fray. She appears on the masthead as "founder" and she consults with Mirabella's heirs when invited.

"I don't have to look left or right because you're protecting turf of some sort," she says.

If the book one-ups some of Mirabella's less-favorite people, it also seeks to make amends. In it, she defends the memory of Diana Vreeland, the legendary eccentric Vogue editor who also lost her job to a younger woman--Mirabella.

The colorful Vreeland, who revolutionized Vogue during the kaleidoscopic '60s, was immortalized for such aphorisms as "Pink is the navy blue of India." Vreeland's bursts of creativity would birth fashion concepts such as the name "Scheherazade," which would call for commissioning outrageous clothes that readers often couldn't buy in stores.

Stories circulated of Vreeland's frenzies of perfectionism, some of them resulting in costly disasters--the magazine once underwrote an airlift of models, photographer and hairdresser to a Peruvian mountain peak, which ended in the group climbing down in high heels and Maximilian furs.

As Vreeland's assistant, Mirabella was the Sensible One left to interpret the editor's fabulous excesses for the perturbed powers that be. And when the sensible '70s overtook the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll '60s, Mirabella was crowned editor.

Mirabella describes herself in the book as "one of Vreeland's all-time greatest fans," who "absolutely adored, with what I can only describe as the passion of a schoolgirl crush, Vreeland the woman." And she chastises other fashion potentates for reducing Vreeland to "a caricature, her humanity lost in public memory."

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