November 2012

Josh Zajdman

nonfiction

Grace: A Memoir by Grace Coddington

Grace Coddington is not Anna Wintour. This is a fact that's yielded an exceptional amount of attention since the 2009 documentary The September Issue, and is also directly responsible for the book you're reading about. Like so many others, I watched R.J. Cutler's entertaining but not particularly insightful documentary about Vogue magazine and all the mania surrounding its biggest issue of the year. Like so many others, I tuned in for that Prada-wearing devil's bob and shades, but left enchanted by the fiery red hair, mordant wit, and bouts of frustration all belonging to Grace. Previously, I had thought charming, talented, and Welsh was the mantle secure around Richard Burton's shoulders. How delightful to find that it covered both of them. Unfortunately, this doesn't extend to the written word. This much-anticipated memoir offers barely enough interest to cover readers as they slog slowly through its pages. It's not the case of a poor match. If you liked The September Issue, you'd want to pick up Grace.

Ostensibly, Coddington is everywhere in the book as it abounds with pictures, drawings, and photoshoot stills. Yet the writing lacks momentum, with a tone stuck somewhere between conversational and dwindling. It's such a strange tone for a woman who regularly lauds herself for "speaking her mind," meaning what she says and any other of a handful of shooting-from-the-hip-type clichés. In fact, an even stranger sensation occurs. When confronted with one of the many pictures of Grace, you think to yourself "oh, how fun a book by her would be. Sharp, dishy, and so on." What a disappointment to find that this book, by her, isn't sharp or dishy. It's whiny, inconstant, meandering, a little too self-delighted, and a little too long. 

After flipping through the photo gallery that opens the book, one of many that pepper the 400-plus pages, we arrive at the introduction, which bears a description (each chapter does) similar to those seen in English novels of the nineteenth century. This one reads "In which our heroine finds fame on film but, like Greta Garbo, just wishes to be left alone." The book opens with "The first I heard of The September Issue, the movie that is the only reason anyone has ever heard of me..." which immediately struck me as being the Coddingtonian terseness that was such a thrilling part of the documentary. After being informed of the incipient filming, Coddington reflects on a major theme of the memoir: the nature of celebrity. "My reaction to this intrusive idea was naturally one of horror, because my feeling has always been that people should concentrate on their jobs and not all this fashionable 'I want to be a celebrity' shit."

As the introduction draws to a close, Grace speculates as to why her life has changed so dramatically since the release of the documentary. She is "always surprised that people who've seen the movie respond to me in such a positive manner. Maybe it's because I come across on-screen as so emotional. It makes me appear idealistic, in contrast to Anna, who is by nature much more determinedly and quietly controlled. Or maybe it's because I appear to be put upon..." Afterward, as she's recognized at a restaurant, she likens herself to Paris Hilton. As the book begins and one realizes that she's spent nearly sixty years in front of or behind a camera, regardless of life's personal tragedies, it seems that she isn't being entirely sincere about the delights and disasters of fame. Accordingly, the criticism and condescension or indifference and even enjoyment, which she displays toward celebrities or issues of celebrity, absolutely chock full of name-dropping, makes for an exhausting read. If nothing else, a very contradictory one.

Each of the book's nineteen chapters presents itself as a Montaignean treatise "on" something: the first being "On Growing Up" and the last "On Then and Now." There seems to be a conscious attempt to write well and vividly on Coddington's part. She writes of the "monochrome cliffs" and "druid circles" that dot Wales, where she "saw beauty in its bleakness." These are the overblown descriptive moments, which eventually became less irritating, and the only brief bits of hydration in a desert of navel-gazing. Wait, this is a memoir, you'll say. Well, that's true, but that doesn't rule out subjectivity or the occasionally incisive bout of self-criticism. Take a look at Mary Karr, for example. That's an apt example, as Coddington is not without her fair share of tragedy. There are a couple of truly harrowing instances she very calmly recounts, which serve as welcome reminders of the human side of life amidst the name dropping, overly described photo shoots, and itineraries which make up the larger portion of this memoir.

At the end of the book, before another photo gallery, and after a somewhat unclear discussion about the boundaries between art, fashion, and beauty, Coddington promises, "no matter what, my head will always remain firmly attached to my body." I'm not so sure. This book covers many states of Grace, offering a much broader but somehow less enjoyable portrait of that same woman from the documentary. The talent is unparalleled and can't be challenged, but this Grace is less likable, less engaging, and, frankly, less enjoyable. You can't dress that up. 

Grace: A Memoir by Grace Coddington
Random House
ISBN: 978-0812993356
416 pages