Joan Juliet Buck – former Vogue: Paris Editor

A Memoir
By Joan Juliet Buck

Joan Juliet Buck, the only child of larger-than-life film producer Jules Buck, was born into a world of make-believe. 

Her childhood was a whirlwind of famous faces: John Huston, Peter O’Toole, Lauren Bacall, Federico Fellini and many more; ever-changing home addresses: London, Paris, Cannes, Los Angeles; and the unspoken lesson that appearances mattered more than reality. 

When Joan became the first and only American woman ever to fill the coveted position of Editor in Chief of Paris Vogue, she quickly became a force in the cult of fashion and beauty. 

Her job gave her the means to recreate for her aging father, now a widower, the life he’d enjoyed during his high-flying years – a splendid illusion of glamour and luxury. 

But such illusions cannot be sustained indefinitely, and they always come at a cost.       

In THE PRICE OF ILLUSION (Atria Books; $30.00; March 7, 2017) Joan offers up a dazzling, compulsively readable memoir: a fabulous account of six decades spent in the creative heart of London, New York, Los Angeles, Milan, Paris, and more. 

The cues she had gleaned early in life from her family were about how things looked and where they came from. 

The key to success was the perception of success; the only trick to transformation? 

Believing you were what you wanted to be. 

But when her fantasy life at Vogue came to an end, she had to find out who she was after all those years of make-believe. 

Now Buck chronicles her quest to discover the difference between glitter and gold, fantasy and reality, and what merely looks like happiness from the thing itself.

A tiny sampling of highlights and anecdotes detailed in THE PRICE OF ILLUSION includes:

Her family’s move to Europe in the early 1950s, in the midst of the McCarthy era, HUAC and the Red Scare, as the atmosphere in postwar Hollywood turned sour. 

She describes her father’s struggle to rebuild his career as a producer, and reveals how Keep Films—the production company he created with Peter O’Toole at the end of the decade—came into being.

(It was after a bout of all night drinking.)  

 O’Toole was still primarily a stage-actor when Jules got him cast as Lawrence of Arabia, the role that turned him into an international superstar overnight. 

Her father’s admiring relationship with legendary film director John Huston, under whom he served in the Signal Corps during World War II.

 Huston, who would become Joan’s godfather, was a beacon for the family – part of the beginning of her father’s career, part of her parents’ meeting, the best man at their wedding. 

As Jules started to attain success and pull away from Huston’s orbit, a monumental fight over a movie and money ended their friendship forever. 

An account of the “champagne years” for her parents when O’Toole went from one hit film to the next—Becket, Lord Jim, What’s New Pussycat? , How to Steal a Million—and Keep Films prospered.

Joan explains how O’Toole’s passion project The Ruling Class marked the beginning of the end for Keep, and details the film debacles that followed.

She reveals how her parents’ life became marked by a long succession of artworks and possessions sold off or pawned as Jules became consumed with fighting off any evidence of failure.

Joan’s early career bouncing around between NY, London and Paris—a well-dressed, bilingual, stylish daughter and society girl. 

Dropping out of college at Sarah Lawrence, she became a book critic and fashion assistant for Glamour, a correspondent for Interview, features editor for British Vogue at age 23, London, Rome, and Milan correspondent for Women’s Wear Daily.

A frank discussion of many of her relationships—some out in the open, some secret—including a torrid romance with Donald Sutherland with whom she fell deeply in love; a marriage (and subsequent divorce) to journalist John Heilpern; an intensely intellectual relationship with California Governor Jerry Brown; Eric Rothschild, Brian de Palma and many more. 

None of them would last. 

Surface was key.    

The home invasion at her parents’ apartment after they’d moved back to Los Angeles after thirty years in Europe

Joan’s mother heroically stared down the four men who burst into their home.

Her father was pistol-whipped, never fully recovered and descended into increasingly erratic behavior.

Eventually he was diagnosed with severe manic depression and Joan embarked on a frenzy of writing for Vogue and Vanity Fair to pay for his doctors and medications, and to cover damage done by his mishaps and tantrums.

Her private meeting in Paris in 1993 with Jonathan Newhouse, the head of Conde Nast International, during which she offered a frank assessment of what was wrong with French Vogue and what needed to be done to fix it. 

Six months later he would ask her to become editor of the magazine revered as the diamond heart of couture, the byword for French elegance and sophistication.

Joan’s rocky start at French Vogue in 1994, as staffers viewed her with suspicion and obstacles were thrown in her way.

The turning point came with the death of Jackie Onassis, who had been asked by Joan to serve as guest editor for an upcoming issue. 

When American Vogue, under Anna Wintour, blocked Paris Vogue’s access to key material for a tribute issue, her staff saw it as proof Joan was there for them, not for New York and Wintour

She writes, “I lost Jackie Onassis, but I won a staff.” Impediments from American Vogue continued unabated but each incident spurred Joan and her staff into a new improvisation.

A detailed look at how Joan reshaped the magazine, which had a circulation of barely 60,000 and steadfastly pushed the concept of women as objects. 

She saw it as an instrument of subordination, and was determined to vault over the glossy phalanx of press girls and the critical in-crowd to reach a whole new audience of readers.  

Her first issue, in September, 1994 sold better than any French Vogue had in years and brought in an unprecedented number of new advertisers.  

By the time she left the magazine seven years later, circulation had increased by forty percent.

Humorous stories from the constant whirlwind of fashion shows and photo shoots, social obligations and openings, brainstorm meetings and more during her time at the magazine. 

Joan describes the dinner party thrown for her and U.S. Ambassador Pamela Harriman at which the cultured socialites of Paris enthused about Alerte a Malibu (aka Baywatch); why a photographer shooting a life-size doll in a Givenchy dress was imprisoned for public lewdness (it was a blow up sex doll, you could tell by the mouth); and what it took to get Thierry Mugler to approve a photo of a horse with a giant erection.

The story behind the creation of French Vogue’s most popular issues during Joan’s tenure, including the scandalous issue that featured Madame Claude, the legendary madam who invented the term Call-Girl and “whose girls were the most luxurious of whores, the kinds favored by heads of state…who sometimes went on to marry tycoons.

Less humorous are Joan’s stories of Paris on edge: from the AIDS crisis in the ‘80s and ‘90s; from the numerous strikes and work stoppages as the economy worsened; from the murder of Gianni Versace and the death of Princess Diana; and from a series of bomb attacks eerily reminiscent of what’s happening in Paris today. 

One potential bombing incident involved Joan and her mother at an outdoor concert near the Eiffel Tower.

Details of key events contributing to Joan’s ouster at French Vogue including several political missteps, and the deterioration of her relationship with the President of Conde Nast France.

Unbeknownst to Joan rumors were being spread that she was a drug addict—prompted by the phials of seawater she regularly drank under doctor’s orders.

Toward the end of her tenure at the magazine she considered it a prison, but if she quit she’d no longer be able to take care of her father.

How Joan learned her time was done at French Vogue.

 With the Spring-Summer Milan collections about to get underway Jonathan Newhouse abruptly ordered her to take a two-month sabbatical at a drug rehab facility in Arizona

If she refused it would constitute quitting. 

If she obeyed, she’d get severance and be able to continue looking after her father. 

Among the flurry of emotions that overwhelmed her, Joan remembers thinking,

You can’t complain about being exiled from hell.”

HE PRICE OF ILLUSION concludes with a look at the passing of Joan’s father; their last moments together; and the final party she threw in celebration of his life. It was one last, great illusion.

She describes how she slowly rebuilt her professional life as a sometime actor, writer, critic, and journalist—even taking assignments and ultimately signing a contact with American Vogue. 

With more assignments came access, business class travel, and stays at nice hotels. 

It wasn’t long before she had slipped back to the Vogue way of telling things, the praise of surface. 

She writes, “Relapse begins when you start to forget what you know is important.  When you start grabbing at the little treats.”  

A final fall from grace came when was assigned to interview and write a profile of the wife of Syrian President al-Assad

The piece ran online just before Assad embarked on a series of outrages against his people and Joan spent the next two years a pariah.

It was at this dark and hopeless time she decided to do two things: write this book, and find joy.

Joan Juliet Buck’s journey is chronicled in beautiful and at times heartbreaking prose, taking the reader through the parties and the fashion, the celebrities and creative geniuses as well as love, loss, and the loneliness of getting everything you thought you wanted and finding it’s not what you need.

While her story is unique, her journey toward self-discovery is refreshing and universal.

photo credit is Brigitte Lacombe

About the Author:

Joan Juliet Buck is an American novelist, critic, essayist, and editor. 

She served as editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris from 1994 to 2001. 

While a contributing editor to Vogue, Vanity Fair, Traveler, and The New Yorker, she wrote two novels, The Only Place to Be and Daughter of the Swan.

Currently her essays appear in Harper’s Bazaar.

She has been seen onscreen in Julie & Julia and on television in Supergirl.


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