How Longtime Editor Mirabella Went Out of Vogue

The Washington Post

On the 13th floor of the Conde Nast building, outside the office of Grace Mirabella, life at Vogue seems to glide by as expected. A hungry young illustrator pleads with anyone passing through to have a look at his portfolio. Two young women discuss the definition of "chin-length" hair and whether theirs is too short for a ponytail.

The slightly exasperated dowager receptionist answers calls to vacationing staff that are being forwarded to her phone line. A woman photographer dressed in black waits to take a picture of Mirabella, who is finishing up the October issue, her last.

"I'm trying to be attractive about this," says Mirabella, who pouts and shrugs a little and whispers something about "politesse."

She's trying to be attractive when she talks about the way she was fired after 36 years at Vogue--after 17 years as editor in chief.

Learned Truth From TV

Although she was assured all year by the management at Conde Nast Publications that she shouldn't worry about the rumors in print that she was being replaced, Mirabella ultimately learned the truth from the television. Or at least her husband did.

"He got home ahead of me," she says of June 28, "and somebody called and said, 'Listen, have you heard Liz Smith?' "

The gossipy "Live at Five" broadcast announced that Anna Wintour, the former editor of British Vogue who arrived in New York less than a year ago to revamp House and Garden, would be taking over Mirabella's post, the most illustrious in the realm of fashion, Aug. 1.

Thinking at first it was simply another rumor, Mirabella, 58, called chairman S. I. Newhouse at home that night and was shocked to be told the story was true. In Newhouse's office the next morning, she went over the details of her "resignation."

While waiting out the month of July, Wintour, 38, made her presence felt. One week in her House and Garden office, just eight floors below Mirabella's, she sat wearing sunglasses--as she often does indoors--and interviewed Vogue staffers at half-hour intervals. And it was Wintour, not Mirabella, who took the front-row seat as Vogue editor at the couture shows in Paris last month.

"I think you can't fault a company for wanting a change. That's natural," Mirabella says in her tirelessly polite way. "But how it was done--for a stylish company--is kind of tacky."

To understand Grace Mirabella it's important to comprehend the color beige, her favorite. It's common sense amid disorder. It's not fancy or flamboyant. And there's nothing delirious about it.

"Everybody is looking around for whatever follows the Hula-Hoop," Mirabella says. "That's not my style. I have a great interest in fashion, the way you'd expect I would. I don't have an interest in fashion no matter what it is."

Sitting in her Vogue office, she is submerged in beigeness. The walls. The carpet. The desk. The half-closed blinds. It's like walking inside a sand dune. Slides and manila folders are scattered on a side table. It's 2:30 in the afternoon and she has already removed her earrings.

On the horn with the art department, she's a tad unhappy with a story for October.

"There's no glory in it," she says. While her voice isn't extravagant or full of old money, it seems to have been around some of that. Her manner and looks suggest a melding of Jeane Kirkpatrick and Dinah Shore. There's a keenness and intellectual detachment to her, and the sunny beige chin-length hair and soft edge of a woman's woman.

"There is nothing in Grace's emotional setup that would incline her toward anything chichi," says Alexander Liberman, Conde Nast's legendary editorial director, the man who can kibosh a Vogue cover. Liberman has worked with Mirabella and has been a close friend for more than 20 years. "Her whole concept of life has deeper roots," he says.

While Newhouse planned Wintour's takeover, it's been suggested that Liberman--also a Wintour admirer--knew about it and never told Mirabella.

"These rumors and discussions had been going on a long, long time," Liberman says. "There were discussions about it before Anna left (New York magazine) for British Vogue. It was certainly nothing new."

Not the Vogue Type

But did he ever mention it to Mirabella?

"No, never. How can you discuss something like that?"

Mirabella is too kind to explore the matter.

"I'm not being evasive," she says, talking about what Liberman knew and when. "I just don't know. And I have no desire to find out."

This pragmatic woman, with her subdued and sensible ways, must have felt a little bland at Vogue when she began. Raised in suburban Maplewood, N.J., she was the only child of Anthony Mirabella, a wine importer, and his wife, Florence, who was born in Italy. Always good in school, she was the editor of the paper at Skidmore College, where she graduated with an economics degree.

Nothing about her upbringing, she says, prepared her for Vogue.

"It was a very different place," Mirabella says of the magazine where she got a job checking store credits for captions when she was 22. "Oh very. It was very grand. And with wonderful-looking editors who strolled like peacocks through the halls.

"There were wonderful characters. Deeeevine. I mean, you saw them coming. You were very aware of their presence. I can't tell you, to this day, whether you ever could have had a real conversation with any of them. I really don't know."

By 1962, when Diana Vreeland became editor, Mirabella had worked her way up to "my greatest moment in fashion" as the sportswear editor, and later as Vreeland's assistant.

Vreeland, known for issuing her first orders of the day from her morning bath, never came in to work until after noon. Once there, she burned Rigaud candles and incense in her scarlet office, used an inner tube as a chair cushion and seemed to float behind a black lacquer desk, surrounded by leopard skin rugs and upholstery. She didn't have an ounce of beige in her.

According to Vogue lore, being Vreeland's assistant was not always easy. She used them as run-through models--making them try on gloves, sweaters, whatever--and rarely asked their opinion. For the photographers, there were endless re-shoots.

"I was a terror then--just a terror," Vreeland concedes in her colorful, rambling memoirs, "DV."

Tough to Work for Her

"It was very difficult to work for her," Mirabella says. "But you can get along with someone who is difficult if you admire them. And I admired Diana Vreeland--for all of her style and know-how, which she was about. Also, she had the most extraordinary sense of humor. And that could turn impossible moments around."

Mirabella never dreamed of becoming editor. She wasn't flamboyant or bohemian. She was social only when forced. "I never thought of myself as being the person--if you are typecasting--in the style of the movies. I mean, not at all."

The Vogue that she would eventually inherit was entirely Vreeland's. It was avant-garde, exotic, psychedelic and very social--European aristocrats and upper-class Americans posed with nonchalance on the pages. Celebrities--Goldie Hawn, Liz Taylor, Cher--got to be cover girls. And Vreeland's fascinating models--Marisa Berenson, Veruschka, Penelope Tree--were often pulled from society and money.

But the magazine, still a bimonthly, was so cutting-edge that it was failing. Some of the more outrageous clothes couldn't be found in stores, much less worn on the street. And Vogue's reputation among fashion designers had become antagonistic.

New Attitude at Vogue

Witnesses to Vreeland's firing in 1971 have conveniently dim memories of how it was handled. But by all accounts it was sudden and brutal.

Mirabella was on a shoot in California when told she would be the next editor. While "it was a delight to be in," she says, she had never expressed interest in the job and doesn't know who picked her.

"It's that kind of place," Mirabella says of Conde Nast. "They are in the communications business but they don't know how to communicate."

It's hard to know where the '70s leave off and Mirabella begins--they seem so interchangeable.

Together she and Liberman gave Vogue a new attitude, which she calls "easygoing"--without a doubt, still one of her favorite adjectives. She wanted to drop the image of Vogue as a "ladies magazine," to interest a new kind of reader, an intelligent and serious woman who worked for a living--a woman very much like Mirabella.

Within her first year as editor, the Vreelandness of Vogue diminished and it began to take on the sense of Grace Mirabella.

Covers that once boldly announced "The Beautiful People . . . and Where to Find Them" now proclaimed articles about "The Modern Woman." The word modern became Mirabella's mantra. In 1973 the magazine went from bimonthly to monthly. And in 1977 it shrank to standard magazine size, roughly 8 by 11 inches.

The lounging aristocrats and jet set tribes started to vanish from Vogue's pages. Working women--journalists, writers, actresses, artists, playwrights--took their place. The effort was "to make it less grand. Less pompous. Pompous is really the word," she says.

'Natural Look' Ascended

The Vogue models of the '70s--Lisa Taylor, Patti Hansen, Roseanne Vela--had an unadorned wholesomeness. Artifice overall was downplayed, at first because Mirabella had never felt comfortable with it, and later because "the natural look" took hold. Hair became less contrived and the models wore less makeup.

"Artificiality. I think there's a place for it in fashion--that's part of its charm and fantasy," she says. "But I don't think that's the whole package."

With all else neutralized, the clothes were bound to be selected with a different sensibility. While Vreeland had delved into the gypsy looks of Giorgio Di Sant'Angelo, Mirabella fell for the spareness and simplicity of Halston and Geoffrey Beene.

Mirabella, who wears a black-and-white Beene suit for the interview, denies she ever played favorites in the magazine.

"I don't think I did. I think that at certain moments, people rise and you are hard put to ignore them," she says. "Also when a certain designer stands for that point that you are trying to make, trying to make, trying to make--then you tend to lean on them, work with them, the way you do with somebody you think is speaking your language."

In 1974 Mirabella married William Cahan, a surgeon at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. When asked why she had never married before, she says: "I wasn't interested. I think I was really very focused. I loved my work--the whole ease of it. And I hadn't met Bill Cahan."

Cahan, Mirabella admits, influenced her work tremendously. She became more interested in covering health and fitness.

"I don't think you can keep throwing hemlines at women without giving them something about their health, something about their sense of well-being," she says. And when she talks about the things at Vogue she wishes she could have done, it's always in this area. "In some ways, my sense of less artifice is really incompatible with the magazine."

Her sensible Vogue has blossomed at the magazine racks. During Mirabella's reign circulation tripled from 400,000 to 1.3 million. While Vreeland's motto had always been "Give Them What They Never Knew They Wanted," Mirabella's seemed to say "Give Them What They Never Knew They Needed."

What Happens Next?

The speculation about Wintour's Vogue has been great. Sources at Conde Nast are saying that Richard Avedon won't be doing the covers, that Arthur Elgort will be shooting action covers outdoors. And stories have been printed that Wintour wants Liberman's post once he retires.

There is a feeling among those who work on national magazines that an ancient regime is dying. But the hiring and firing of a Vogue editor never happens quietly.

Back in the uncluttered beige dune, Grace Mirabella is on the phone again. Although she has asked the two secretaries outside to hold her calls, there's a sense that it was an impossible request.

She holds up a finger to her audience as if to say, "No, stay. Just a bit more, sorry." She seems totally engaged in what she's doing. It's hard to imagine her leaving, or the office redecorated in something like mahogany and chintz.

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