When Joan Juliet Buck was growing up in London in the 1960s, one of her secret pleasures was swiping British Vogue from her mother’s bedroom and poring over its glossy pages on the bathroom floor.
“I was looking at how to be beautiful,” she tells Alexa. “All my life I would get the flavor of the time and place from magazines.”
The precocious teenager, an American expat who grew up among the glitterati in palatial homes in Europe, would go on to become the features editor of British Vogue — at the tender age of 23. “I wanted to be bigger than life and make magic,” she writes in her just-released memoir, “The Price of Illusion,” which offers an unvarnished glimpse into the rarefied worlds of celebrity and high fashion.
By the mid ’90s, Buck found herself in Paris, editing French Vogue (the first and only American to do so). She rarely placed celebrities on covers, viewing her mission as “putting light on the rare and the exotic and the unknown.” Publisher Condé Nast didn’t always agree.
“I always had to do what they wanted, and it was always a pain in the ass,” she tells Alexa. “There was no pleasure in that.”
Now 68, Buck remains effortlessly elegant, arriving for our interview in a trim black turtleneck, offset by chunky silver bracelets and a gamine haircut. The daughter of legendary film producer Jules Buck (who discovered the actor Peter O’Toole), she spent childhood vacations at director John Huston’s fabled estate in County Galway, Ireland. Later, she would become Donald Sutherland’s mistress and one of Leonard Cohen’s closest confidantes. She still counts Manolo Blahnik and Anjelica Huston among her closest friends.
But her fairy-tale life took a dark turn when she was abruptly fired in December 2000. In her memoir, Buck recounts that bizarre exit from French Vogue as a surreal experience in which Condé Nast high-ups sent her to an Arizona rehab facility for 40 days — even though she didn’t drink or take drugs. During her sojourn in the desert, Buck came to realize that her real addiction was to the magazine itself — the parties, the clothes, the constant deadlines.
“I was an addict and servant to illusion,” she writes, likening her time as editor-in-chief to a cocaine-fueled trip. Buck says she hasn’t looked at a Vogue magazine in years, not since editors at American Vogue sent her to Damascus in 2010 to write an ill-fated profile of Asma al-Assad, wife of notorious Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Although she now lives far from fashion’s epicenter — in a hamlet on New York’s Hudson River — she still swirls in creative circles, with friends like artist Taryn Simon and style king Zac Posen. (“Unlike many designers, Zac Posen actually cuts clothes!” says Buck, who will appear with Posen at the UWS Barnes & Noble on Thursday.) And she devotes a great deal of her time to acting, something she took up seriously in 2002, appearing in “Julie & Julia” and starring in regional theatrical productions.
She also recently wrote an homage to her iconic friend Cohen, which appears in this month’s issue of Harper’s Bazaar. “Now,” she says, gesturing enthusiastically, “I write to figure things out.”