Joan Juliet Buck’s stage for almost her entire lifetime has been her ability to eloquently express her emotions through words. From being an actor, an essayist, a novelist, and an editor-in-chief, Buck has proven time and time again that she is one of those rare individuals that can use many platforms and stages to demonstrate her talent.
In her new memoir “The Price of Illusion: A Memoir,” Buck brilliantly details the circuitous and uncanny incidents in her life. And this fully realized life, though its wanderings, resettlements, and final denouement is played against the backdrop of fashion, film, theatre and eccentric characters. Joan Juliet Buck herself being the most vivid and unpredictable character of any in the memoir.
Fashion Reverie was graced with the incredible opportunity to interview Joan Juliet Buck a few weeks after the release of “The Price of Illusion: A Memoir.” And as in her memoir , this interview is revelatory.
Fashion Reverie: Why title your memoir “The Price of Illusion”?
Joan Juliet Buck: It was the title that fit the story. I didn’t know what the story would be until I finished every single draft of the book. When I finished every single draft—and there must have been about 15 drafts—I had an idea that there had been a lot of illusion in my life, and thus the title.
FR: What prompted you to write this memoir at this point in your life?
Joan Juliet Buck: Well, I’m getting on in age. When I reached the age of 62, I started looking back on my life and what I’ve accomplished. And when I looked back at my life, nothing added up. A lot of things that happened in my life if I tried to tell those things in a work of fiction it would seem like a round of hallucinations. So, I realized, first of all, I am only thinking clearly when I am typing or writing in my diary. I needed to think about every thing that had happened, and make sense of it.
When I started my book I started with some incidents that had happened much later in my life. I stared with a terrible incident that happened while I was on holiday with this guy I thought would be my Prince Charming. That was first thing I had to write about because I had to examine what was going on with me at the time. I had to figure out that story, living in a house with people I didn’t know with a man I didn’t like, holding the corpse of a man who was my host on my knees. That was something I needed to figure out.
After that, I decided to go back to the beginning because the one book that everyone wanted me to write about was my time as editor-in-chief at French Vogue and funnel that knowledge into a book about French couture. Which is something I have never been interested in writing about. (I had written two novels in the 1980s that didn’t sell that well.)
I had to figure out how I ended up at French Vogue in a job in which I was miscast. And when I started writing about that experience, I began to understand that if it had not been for an illusion in Hollywood that began before I was born and continued after I was born—that Communists were running the movie industry, an illusion held by Senator Joseph McCarthy—my parents would not have moved to Paris when I was a young child. Not that my parents were Communists, but it was a ridiculous situation in Hollywood at that time. Everything that happened to me, good, bad or indifferent, all that comes from that fact that I grew up in Paris and the delusion that my parents were Communists and had to become expatriates.
And that is the big price of illusion and things you have to give up for that. And all the other illusions including being very happy to create the illusion for my father after my mother’s death, and making him feel that everything he lost, he had not lost, bringing him to live with me in Paris, and doting on him and making him feel as though he had never lost anything, when in fact, he had.
FR: As a child you moved around a lot from Los Angeles, to Paris, London, and Milan. And from what I’ve read in this book, there were some poignant celebratory times and some times that were isolating and lonely. Through all this meandering what stands out most was your attempt at finding your place in the world, finding out who you are and finding your truth as home. Why do feel that you have that sense of instability as a child, always searching for home. And have you found that now?
Joan Juliet Buck: My home is this book. I made my home out of writing this book. I realized in doing this book what degree I am a wanderer. My parents were wanderers and I’m a wanderer. Wanderers have a lot of textiles they can fold up and stick on the walls and floors of the next place they are going to be and call it home.
FR: You have worked as an actor, an essayist, a novelist, a fashion editor-in-chief, and a film critic. Which role or job do you like best, and why?
Joan Juliet Buck: I like acting because I get to play with others. I like being a movie critic because I liked explaining what I saw to other people. I love writing the essays I do for Harper’s Bazaar because they are improvisations and I never know what I am going to write, so it’s a form of acting. The one job that was kind of painful was being editor-in-chief. There were so many things to deal with in one day. I remember worrying about people wanting other peoples’ parking spaces.
FR: You had written for several American and international publications before you became editor-in-chief at French Vogue or Paris Vogue. You did solicit the position, but why do you think Jonathan Newhouse hired you for the position?
Joan Juliet Buck: Probably, because I had been associated with one Vogue or another for over twenty years. I was reliable, a hard worker, also French is my first language. I was one of them, but also one of the other guys
FR: You detail in the book that Americans were elated with you being awarded editor-in-chief at French Vogue, but the French were perplexed. Why?
Joan Juliet Buck: My friend Clara called up and said, “I am speechless.” That was like screaming what the f**k on the phone. The people who knew me knew that I was not an executive, I was not career minded, I was not someone who worked in an office. I was this dreamy, slightly eccentric person who walked barefoot every day and read a lot of books. That is not the profile of someone is the editor-in-chief of a fashion magazine.
FR: While at French Vogue from 1994–2000, you changed the look of the magazine with weightier content and a different approach to editorial content, as well as significantly increasing circulation, yet Newhouse dismissed you, why?
Joan Juliet Buck: The first few years were glorious and the circulation went up forty percent; that was my triumph, triumph, triumph!! At that time, I was magic and could do no wrong. But, those types of runs end for everyone. Then, later the circulation of French Vogue dipped.
Essentially, someone told Jonathan Newhouse something about me. He was told I was drug addict. I don’t know who told him that. I don’t even know what type of drug I was supposed to be addicted to!! When there is a rumor about you, you don’t actually know what the rumor is because people are talking about you behind your back.
So, there was rumor, there was a plot and I was really unaware of what was going on. I was particularly venerable because at the time I had spent the summer with a man I thought was my Prince Charming and his best friend had ended up dead in my arms through a totally random chance. That had put me in a traumatic state. I came back to work stammering and people started to suspect drug use. All those incidents and situations happened around the same time, so I was let go.
FR: Is the character Jacqueline Follet in “The Devil Wears Prada” a composite of you or based on you?
Joan Juliet Buck: I have no idea because I have no memory of Lauren Weisberger. I wasn’t at American Vogue when she was Anna Wintour’s assistant. When I saw the movie I thought, “Huh, that’s weird, it’s the editor-in-chief of French Vogue who wanted Anna Wintour’s character’s job. But is it me or Carrie Roitfeld, I don’t know?
FR: What do you want readers to get from this phenomenal memoir?
Joan Juliet Buck: I readers to laugh, cry, recognize themselves and the people they love and the people they haven’t loved. I want them to see their whole lives in this book. I am hearing from people that they are seeing themselves in this book and that makes me really happy.
FR: What’s next for you?
Joan Juliet Buck: I have started something that I am very excited about that I cannot talk about quite yet. I have a simple life, I live in the country, I write and every once in a while I act. I performed in two plays this past winter. So, what’s next is more writing, more acting and springtime.
“The Price of Illusion: A Memoir” is published by Atria Books.
—William S. Gooch