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Beyond The Price of Illusion

After reading former French Vogue EIC’s Joan Juliet Buck’s new memoir, Prosper Keating remembers her filmmaker father

Memoirs by former Vogue magazine editors tend to fall into two categories: bitter and angry or just bitter. There are exceptions, but Condé Nast does, after all, have an unchallenged track record when it comes to sacking successful editors for reasons that can seem somewhat opaque. 

Joan Juliet Buck’s book is neither angry nor bitter. Nor is it dedicated solely to her time as the first American editor-in-chief of French Vogue. Many pundits have commented on The Price of Illusion (out now from Atria Books) in the media and the blogosphere. For some, it is the memoir of a Hollywood princess who moved in gilded circles and edited French Vogue for a while, although it should not be forgotten that Joan almost doubled the magazine’s circulation during her seven-year tenure. And while Joan is certainly American, French was her first language, as those tempted to patronize her when she arrived at French Condé Nast quickly found out. 

For others, her book is much more than that. One commentator described it as a coming-of-age book, a description to which Joan does not object. For me, The Price of Illusion is in no small part a homage to Joan’s father, whom I knew in Paris in his final years. The one-word email I got from Joan when I asked if The Price of Illusion was indeed a homage to her father was typically succinct:

“Totally.”

Joan’s father was the Hollywood movie producer Jules Buck, whose American production credits included The Killers, The Naked City, Brute Force, We Were Strangers, Treasure of the Golden Condor and Love Nest, co-starring the young Marilyn Monroe in her first major role, for which Jules pushed hard because he thought she had a openness and freshness few other starlets possessed. Jules also launched and nurtured the career of the Irish actor Peter O’Toole, although it is more accurate to say that he was by then a British film producer. 

No fan of communism, Jules would have had little to fear from Senator Joe McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee but he stood up against it. Jules was a co-founder in 1947 of the Committee for the First Amendment with John Huston, Philip Dunne and others because, as he told me with arresting intensity decades later, he hated all forms of tyranny and bullying. Disillusioned by his country’s easy flirtation with fascism in the shape of McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts and black lists of the late 1940s and early 1950s, Jules exiled himself from the United States in 1952 with his wife, Joyce, and infant daughter, Joan. 

Initially sheltered by Joan’s godfather, John Huston, in his Irish home, the Bucks then lived near Paris for a few years before moving to London in 1957, where Jules applied for British nationality. When he received his British passport, Jules went to the American embassy in London where he ceremoniously tore up his American passport. 

Jules knew John Huston because they had served together in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II. As Huston’s cameraman, Captain Buck had filmed two of the best documentaries produced during that war: the haunting Report From The Aleutians and the shocking The Battle of San Pietro, which was banned for a while because it showed dead American GIs, killed in action during the savage battle to take the small Italian town from its German occupiers. However, the film was defended and promoted by none other than General George Marshall because of its stark realism and the ban was lifted. After the war, Mark Hellinger gave Jules a break as his assistant producer on Naked City, which was released to great acclaim after Hellinger’s death in 1947 from a heart attack. 

Jules eventually returned to the United States with his wife, Joyce, in the mid-1980s after the production company he had cofounded with Peter O’Toole failed, a failure attributed in part to the manic depression diagnosed by doctors. He had nonetheless produced a number of now-classic films like The Day They Robbed The Bank of England, Lord Jim, Becket, The Lion in Winter and What’s New Pussycat? He also made Under Milk Wood and The Ruling Class. When Joan’s mother died in 1996, Joan moved Jules to Paris where I got to know him. 

In her book, Joan treats the subject of her father and the effects on the family’s circumstances of his illness with devastating gentleness, describing it to us through the eyes of the child before the parent. As she wrote in a longer email to me: “Re Dad — and Mum — I deliberately used their real names, not ‘Dad’ or ‘Mum’, so that the strangers who read it would meet Jules and Joyce as full people. Not my parents. And I wrote the book with love.”

“The worst thing about being old is that you’re still young inside!” Jules told me as we inched along a Paris street at tortoise-like speeds towards his favorite local eatery for lunch. Jules’ legs didn’t work so well anymore but he’d have taken a swing at anyone who suggested a wheelchair. Joan describes Jules punching a United Artists executive in the London restaurant Mr Chow’s because of cuts to The Ruling Class. I saw this side of Jules myself, his sudden, violent rages, but I believe, from personal experience, that they were more indicative of the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder suffered by veterans.  

One day, I and another friend had to hold Jules back when he tried to take a swing at a snotty little Parisian waiter who had lied to him about the availability of his preferred brand of mineral water. On his way back from the lavatory, Jules had seen crates of the water in question behind the bar. I wanted to hold the waiter still for Jules but I was more scared of facing Joan than a judge in the event of our being slung in a police cell for public disorder, a likely outcome given Jules’ inability to make a run for it. 

Although he sometimes liked to remind people that he was born in St. Louis, Missouri, Jules grew up in Brooklyn, where his father had quite a posh cigar shop. Seeing his keen interest in photography, his mother bought him a professional Speed Graphic press camera for his sixteenth birthday. Before long, Jules was selling photos of movie stars and celebrities visiting New York for premieres to fan magazines. When he turned eighteen, he went to Hollywood where, as Joan recounts, he lived almost exclusively on peanut butter for a time. Any money he received was spent on photographic supplies. Jules told me with an impish grin that he supplemented this diet by rooting through the garbage cans behind expensive restaurants along Sunset Strip. I got the unshakeable feeling that he wasn’t joking. Before too long, Jules was photographing starlets for various studios, including Twentieth Century Fox, cofounded a couple of years before by Darryl Zanuck. 

“You knew when Zanuck was arriving. His teeth entered the room five minutes before the rest of him,” said Jules one day, in his sun-dappled flat on the Rond Point des Champs-Élysées, as he rooted through his bits-and-pieces box for whatever memento would kickstart that day’s trip down memory lane. One day, it might be the gilt Los Angeles Police Department shield issued to approved photographers. Jules was very proud of that badge. The next time, it might be his World War II medal ribbons. Or a photograph of his wife, the former actress Joyce Gates, whose real name was Getz and whose best friend was Lauren Bacall, who wrote her friend’s obituary for The Independent newspaper in London. 

Another time, he produced an official warning dating from 1939 on Twentieth Century Fox letterhead about his spare time activities with the studio’s starlets. With a flourish, he produced two more. A hat trick. Each warning was hand signed by studio boss Darryl Zanuck himself. “Zanuck was a puritan,” recalled Jules. “And he didn’t want a kid like me devaluing studio property. But I couldn’t help it if the girls liked me. I made them look good!” Jules also made Joan Crawford look good. And feel good. But you can buy Joan’s book to find out about that. 

To make ends meet, Jules got a night gig at the Mocambo Club in 1941, photographing patrons and making the less-famous feel more special. One night, he photographed a handsome man who leapt to his feet and demanded the roll of film. Squaring up, Jules replied that he could have the film if he paid what the other customers already photographed would have paid. The handsome man stared at him before asking: “Are you Jewish?” 

“Yeah. I’m from Brooklyn. What of it? What’s your point?” replied Jules. Even though the Mocambo admitted Jews, Jules was on the defensive. “So am I!” said the handsome man, smiling. He handed Jules a calling card: Benjamin Siegel, the mobster known to some as “Bugsy,” though not to his face if they valued their health. “Benny Siegel bought several prints,” recalled Jules. “He paid me directly for them. Full price. After that, when he came to the club, he would send for me to photograph him with people. He’d make them pay me up front. Full price. The club management said nothing. No more fucking peanut butter and garbage can cuisine for me!”

Zanuck took Jules back on condition that he kept away from the studio’s starlets. Before long, Jules was training as a cameraman, his natural talent as a photographer having been noticed. When America entered World War II after Pearl Harbor, Jules volunteered and was posted to the U.S. Army Signal Corps as a cameraman with the rank of Lieutenant, which is how he came to work with John Huston. Huston described Jules Buck as “my one-man army throughout the war.”

Jules and the question of his PTSD came to mind recently when I saw a trailer for the HBO series Five Came Back, based on Mark Harris’ book about the Hollywood producers who shot documentary films for the U.S. Army during World War II. In his book, Harris suggests that The Battle of San Pietro is no more than a montage of faked combat footage and re-enacted sequences. Harris states that Huston and his team did not arrive in San Pietro until four days after the battle, yet also describes Huston and his team coming under fire in the small Italian town. Jules himself is on record as stating that he and Huston staged scenes so that the narrative would flow better. These scenes were shot with the survivors of the events depicted. 

The British writer Eric Ambler was attached to Huston’s team. Harris describes Huston as screaming, “Filthy little shit! Dirty Jew bastard!” at Jules when their Jeep, driven by Jules, gets stuck on a bridge targeted by German artillery and attributes these quotes to Ambler’s memoirs. Ambler never actually wrote the words “Dirty Jew Bastard” in his book. Had Huston called Jules a dirty Jew bastard, even under battle conditions, and really meant it, it is highly unlikely, knowing Jules as I did, that he would have had Huston as his Best Man when he married Joan’s mother in 1945. Jules and Huston eventually fell out over a business deal but Jules never spoke badly of Huston to me. 

The team came under mortar and small arms fire a number of times during their time in San Pietro. A German counter-attack was expected. In one film sequence, it is clear that Jules has been blown off his feet by an explosion. They also came under rifle and machine gun fire and Jules saved Huston’s life on a couple of occasions. Significantly, Jules never made any references to heroics. He was very quiet when speaking of the war. 

Perhaps Huston embellished his stories of derring-do afterwards, like Hemingway and many an old soldier, but there was no mistaking the look in Jules’ eyes six decades later as he remembered San Pietro and the dead, amongst other things he saw. He showed me some very explicit still photos he had kept. As a veteran myself, the symptoms of PTSD manifested by Jules seemed very obvious. Perhaps Jules Buck was not bipolar, as we are supposed to say nowadays. Perhaps he was suffering from PTSD, which nobody talked about until quite recently. But Harris’ book proved useful as firelighters. 

When the time came for the Condé Nast axe to fall on Joan, she was packed off to rehab in the desert although she was neither a junkie nor a boozer. According to Joan, Jonathan Newhouse wished to save her from such a fate. Knowing Newhouse, he was without any doubt entirely sincere, but Joan would never return to her desk at French Condé Nast. Her job was given to Carine Roitfeld, who took the magazine in a different direction. 

Rumors abounded at the time. Some said Joan was shooting up in the executive toilets. They said the glass vials of homeopathic vitamins in her handbag contained smack or morphine. Others said that Joan had punched CEO Gardner Bellanger in the mouth during a final, stormy meeting. There was little love lost between Joan and Gardner at the end and it was a hilarious story but, like Joan, Gardner always said the tale was nonsense. Others simply said Joan was insane and needed to go. As they used to say in the Dublin of my childhood, opinions are like arseholes: everyone has one. 

All the same, rehab worked for Joan, who realized that she was indeed addicted to something that was bad for her health, as she explains in her book. It is a warning that many of us would do well to heed. Moreover, Joan was formally diagnosed by the clinic’s headshrinkers as not being mad or bipolar, the latter being an everyday fear for someone with a bipolar parent or, to be more precise, a father diagnosed and, implicitly, stigmatized as a manic depressive. 

When I think of Jules, I don’t think of the angry man he sometimes was, even if I still enjoy the memory of the waiter running away from the octogenarian he’d been foolish enough to diss. I think of the cheeky Brooklyn kid inhabiting the body of the old man he could never be. Jules was very proud of his daughter and of her editorship of French Vogue. He once said that she had turned out very well in spite of the fucked-up childhood he had imposed on her. He was being rather hard on himself. As The Price of Illusion shows, his daughter was just as proud of him, and still is. It is a fine, beautifully written, and moving book and is very much more than a former Vogue editor’s memoir. It reminds us of Americans like Jules Buck at a time when we really need to be reminded of them. It is also a testament to its author’s readiness to pay the price of illusion when the bill arrived. 

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