Joan Juliet Buck Leaves Paris And New York For…Rhinebeck
By Dan Shaw
Like many other “expats” in our region who’ve traded urban glamour and turmoil for rural simplicity and quietude, Joan Juliet Buck once had power, influence and an expense account. She was formidable, as they say in France, where she was editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris from 1994 to 2001.
For the last few years, Buck has been living in a modest rental apartment in Rhinebeck and writing in the basement of Rhinecliff’s Morton Memorial Library, where she completed her just published memoir, The Price of Illusion. She will be speaking and signing books at Oblong in Rhinebeck on April 1, and at the Chatham Public Library on April 8. Kirkus Reviews describes The Price of Illusion as a “relentlessly candid and often absorbing account of a complex life spent in and out of the fashion spotlight.”
The book chronicles her privileged childhood in Paris and London as the daughter of Jules Buck, the producer of every film made by the actor Peter O’Toole in the 1960s including Lawrence of Arabia and Goodbye, Mr. Chips; her brief college stint at Sarah Lawrence and various interludes in Manhattan; and her eventual return to France and the Vogue job and the concomitant fabulousness, fickleness and backbiting of the high-fashion world.
And then there’s the inevitable downfall: Her parents lost all their money and moved to Los Angeles, where her beautiful mother, Joyce (a former actress who counted Lauren Bacall as one of her best friends), took a job as a saleswoman at Pratesi, the fancy linens boutique on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, to stay solvent. After her mother’s death, she brought her down-and-out, manic-depressive father to live with her in Paris, and then she was fired by Conde Nast (and pushed to enter rehab though she was not an addict). She regrouped by maniacally writing freelance pieces for Vanity Fair and American Vogue (which ended devastatingly as Penelope Greene reported in her recent cover story for The New York Times Style section.).
Nevertheless, Buck is buoyant, not bitter. Like most expats, she stays with friends when she craves the cosmopolitanism of New York, and she suggests we meet at one of her go-to city spots, the venerable Three Guys Greek coffee shop on Madison Avenue near the Met Breuer. “New York without a local diner does not make any sense,” she says, settling into a booth and ordering a double espresso and a Corfu Salad without looking at the menu. Dressed in all black like a chic French intellectual, she is eager to talk about the contentment she’s found living in the Hudson Valley.
“I discovered that the slowness and quiet is my real pace. In New York there are so many distractions,” says Buck, who has been a film critic, a novelist and currently contributes essays to Harper’s Bazaar. Living in the city and riding the subway is antithetical to her writing process. “I get too absorbed in other people.”
She has made new friends in the Hudson Valley, like Carolyn Marks Blackwood, the movie producer and photographer, and Gideon Lester, director of the Theater & Performance Department at Bard College. She enjoys taking walks and scenic drives. “I love going to Saugerties, which has two really good junk stores,” she says. One of the places she treasures in Rhinebeck is Oblong Books & Music. “I wanted a copy of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, and they had two editions! They are on it!”
Of course, country living has its frustrations. Since her “college flat” apartment has no washer and dryer, she longed for the convenience of a “wash-and-fold” laundromat and was elated when she discovered Classic Cleaners on the road to Tivoli. “God bless them!” says Buck. And because she can get lost in her writing until after dark, she wishes there were restaurants that delivered. When she has the time, she cooks and likes to buy fresh chickens at North Wind Farm. “Discovering their chicken was life-changing for me,” she says.
Besides writing, Buck, who appeared in Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia, has been acting again. She did a graduate student’s play at the Frick Collection and a play with Irina Brook in Hudson and at La MaMa in New York.
As much as Buck seems to be made for Manhattan, she calls living there “an illusion, a trap — it takes all your money and keeps taking from you.” She doesn’t miss her old life when “all I had to do was sustain an aura of importance with good clothes and a cheerful attitude,” she writes in the book. “I resented being taken at face value, but that was all I was offering.”
Buck likes the Hudson Valley because she doesn’t feel self-conscious and does not compare and despair. “There are no ‘mirrors’ in the country,” says Buck as she bundles up to go to her friend’s nearby apartment to freshen up before a promotional event at the Upper West Side Barnes & Noble. As she hits the sidewalk and lights up an American Spirit, she bumps into the friend with whom she is staying, Allegra Huston, the sister of her best childhood friend, the Academy Award-winning actress Angelica Huston. Although Buck has flourished and found her “authentic self” living upstate, it seems clear that she could own Manhattan (or London or Paris) if she ever decides to return full time to city life.