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Grace Under Fire : Stylish editor of Vogue, creator of Mirabella misses big picture : IN AND OUT OF VOGUE: A Memoir, by Grace Mirabella with Judith Warner (Doubleday: $25; 257 pp.)

November 05, 1995|Deborah Mitchell | Deborah Mitchell has written for Vanity Fair, the New York Times and the New York Observer

Grace Mirabella's memoir, "In and Out of Vogue," is perfect reading for bookstore browsing. Basically, all you need to know about this former Vogue editor is right in the introduction, which begins with a scene from 1950. Treating her mother to lunch in a New Jersey coffee shop, Grace shows up in jeans, a boy's camel-hair jacket and worn penny loafers. Mama Mirabella doesn't approve, but Grace launches an impassioned defense of casual American style. "Sportswear and I appeared on Seventh Avenue at just the same time," she notes.

Mirabella paints herself as the ultimate outsider--not just a girl from New Jersey but one from Newark, for god's sake--who doesn't like trendy fashion. She doesn't say "fabulous" or "Think Mink" or wear dark sunglasses during lunch at 21, but is still appointed editor in chief of Vogue. The trick is that Mirabella was handed the magazine in the '70s, an era not known for its fashion. She ran stories about working women and the dangers of smoking and became the antidote to Diana Vreeland, the brilliant Vogue editor of the 1960s.

Halfway into the introduction comes the climax of Mirabella's story, her claim to fame: She heard that she was going to be fired when gossip columnist Liz Smith announced on "Live at Five" that glitz Brit Anna Wintour was getting the job.

Even now, seven years later, Mirabella is proud of her "grace under fire," her sole public comment: "For a magazine devoted to style, this was not a very stylish way of telling me." She understands that she was not in tune with the bubble skirts of Christian Lacroix, but she still defends her record at Vogue. Circulation, which had been 400,000 when she took over in 1971, jumped to 1.2 million by the time of her ouster in 1988.

Two days after the brutal firing came a call for lunch with Rupert Murdoch, and within months Mirabella magazine was born. "We forged a new vision for what a woman's style magazine should be," Mirabella writes--this is all still in the introduction, mind you. "And, until its recent upheaval, it enjoyed some great success."

A lot happens between those two sentences, but Grace Mirabella just doesn't get it. Not until page 245 (of a 257-page book) does she dive into the power struggles at Mirabella, telling us more than we want to know about art directors and malicious rumors and less than we need to know about Murdoch and the powers that be. A reader can forgive Mirabella's obtuseness when Wintour was brought in as creative director of Vogue in 1983, but when the pattern repeats itself seven years later with Gay Bryant at Mirabella, one gets exasperated. Mirabella doesn't get the big picture and doesn't learn from experience.

The daughter of a gambler who sold Ronrico rum and introduced the daiquiri to this country, Grace details heady nights at El Morocco and the Stork Club as a co-ed in the late '40s, and an equally glamorous life as Letitia Baldrige's roommate in Rome in 1954, living across the street from Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini.

She notes but does not dwell on her tendency to befriend those far richer than she--she says that her eye naturally leads her to "whatever is most attractive"--in the same way that she acknowledges but passes over her treatment of Vreeland. Mirabella wasn't a Wintour or Bryant, foisted upon a reigning editor by nervous bosses. She was Vreeland's handpicked and trusted lieutenant; by her own admission, she came to adore Vreeland the woman ("with what I can only describe as the passion of a schoolgirl crush"), talking to her first thing every morning and last thing every night. But once she got Vreeland's job, Mirabella never spoke to her mentor again. She knew that Vreeland would never approach her, that it was her place to make a gesture. "But I simply couldn't do it," she writes. "I am not proud of that particular chapter in my history."

It's not a particularly attractive picture. And it makes Mirabella's bitterness toward Wintour--"a vision of skinniness in black sunglasses and Chanel suits"--hard to swallow. There's not much dish in this book. You can read about how "fashion editors are a separate breed of women, apart from their breeding," about the marital history of one of Mirabella's former assistants, Louise Liberman Savitt Melhado Grunwald, the egotism of photographer Richard Avedon ("He achieved some of his best effects with girls who were utterly strung out on dope", the histrionics of fashion editor Polly Mellen and a failed Helmut Newton photo shoot.

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