Skip to main content

The Price of Illusion: A Memoir


The Price of Illusion: A Memoir

It seems strange to describe THE PRICE OF ILLUSION as a memoir about addiction because I’ve known Joan Buck for 35 years, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen her drunk or stoned. In her case, “addiction” is more special than drugs or alcohol or sex. But then, in her case, everything is special.

When we met, I thought we were very much the same: magazine writers making our way up the pole. Joan didn’t talk much about her childhood and the start of her career, but if she had, I’d have quickly understood how little we had in common. Her father more or less discovered Peter O’Toole. Anjelica Huston was her childhood playmate and lifelong friend. Her parents owned a pink marble palace, “a 1900 copy of the Grand Trianon at Versailles, but smaller.” She was writing book reviews for Glamour when she was at Sarah Lawrence. At 22, Andy Warhol anointed her as Interview Magazine’s London correspondent. At 23, she became features editor of British Vogue. The year I met her, she was 32, just starting at American Vogue and writing her first novel.

A few years later, I profiled Alexander Liberman, the legendary editorial director of Conde Nast. “Make your living here,” he told me, “but don’t ignore your own work.” Alex was a good example of that dictum; on weekends and in the summer, he created giant steel sculptures and had a second career as an artist. But Alex’s advice didn’t apply to what Conde Nast was becoming: an all-consuming editorial-advertising machine. Thanks to Tina Brown at Vanity Fair, writers were paid handsomely in the years Joan and I were there. It took me a while to understand that, beyond generosity, there was savvy business logic to those six-figure salaries: When you suddenly earn more money, you want to prove you’re worth it.

"As she recovers from her addiction to Conde Nast and fashion, Joan Juliet Buck is at last free to be the writer she always wanted to be."

The first half of THE PRICE OF ILLUSION explains vividly why Buck --- who became the first American to edit French Vogue --- would so willingly and completely embrace fashion journalism. From her parents, she learned “how things looked and where they came from and how old they were and whether they went together.” In short order, “surface became everything, surface became substance. I clung to inanimate objects and gave my allegiance to things.” This lesson is cemented for her as she watches John Huston draw, “more interested in his pencil than in what anyone said.” The front door of her parents’ home was painted midnight blue, “the same color as the Duke of Windsor’s dinner jackets.” The walls: “Dior gray.”

Her father “knew that the key to success was the perception of success.” But then Peter O’Toole drifts away. The money no longer gushes like oil. The Bucks’ only child will pay dearly for lessons like this --- in the early sections of the book, you feel you’re watching the set-up of a brilliant horror film from a faded era. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Joan’s direction is fixed early: “While my friends were drinking in pubs and discovering marijuana, I got high on color.” She dazzles Tom Wolfe. Leonard Cohen invites her to Greece. She trades apartments with Jeanne Moreau. She is “accepted, inducted, subsumed into what they called le petit clan, a court where the ultimate accolade was to say someone was de bon qualité.”

No one joins a cult; they just forget to leave. That’s the story --- the rise and rise of Joan Buck  --- of the second half of THE PRICE OF ILLUSION. But when she’s offered The Big Job, she doesn’t leap with joy:

I am an artist in a garret who can borrow Saint Laurent couture anytime she wants and would never be caught dead eating lunch at Maxim’s. I might be a serious writer if I could finish my second novel and write a third one. I am American Vogue’s French-speaking creature, Vanity Fair’s French-movie-star correspondent. I don’t want the play-pretend power of a magazine editor. I have play-pretend bohemia instead.

Distance from the mission does not play well in fashion or at Conde Nast. When she’s in, she’s all in, “trapped in an ecology of splendor.” She flew the Concorde: “The caviar was followed by langoustines holding up basil leaves in their claws so that they looked like tiny Martian newscasters.” Is that criticism? I can’t tell. In my first marriage, I too flew the Concorde and ate those meals, and, if memory serves, I was quite delighted to do so. Then.

A book with this title is, by definition, a morality tale, and the price of the knowledge gained is high. Joan Buck gets to that right away, in the prologue, which you can read here. But long before her fall from grace at Conde Nast, she knows how much she enjoys simpler things, like Sunday bike rides where she sees mud and sky and “a leaf no one designed, a leaf I don’t have to praise.”

There’s a problem with THE PRICE OF ILLUSION, and it’s not Joan Buck. It’s the other people in the book, the bold-faced names who are, in the main, beautiful only when their photos are retouched. In these pages, fashion editors and fashion designers are often cruel, but that doesn’t matter to them, as they’re part of an all-important conspiracy --- the merger of fashion and magazines. We know better. Fashion? It’s now irrelevant. Magazines? They’re now fighting for their lives. For most of this memoir, they’re very much alive, unaware of the doom that awaits them, pinned like butterflies in Joan Buck’s colorful, if overly kind prose. A happy ending? Try this: As she recovers from her addiction to Conde Nast and fashion, Joan Juliet Buck is at last free to be the writer she always wanted to be.

Reviewed by Jesse Kornbluth for on March 10, 2017

The Price of Illusion: A Memoir
by Joan Juliet Buck

  • Publication Date: November 7, 2017
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Washington Square Press
  • ISBN-10: 1476762953
  • ISBN-13: 9781476762951