A Brazilian beach scene, Vogue, 1974. (Photo: Barbara Bersell / Condé Nast Archive)
Hired to be the assistant to Vogue’s Travel Editor in 1973, Richard Alleman embarked on the adventure of a lifetime.
In September 1973, after four years as an actor whose career highlight was playing a counter boy in a McDonald’s commercial, I decided it was time to find a real job. Having majored in English, I was drawn to magazines and managed to wangle an interview at Condé Nast. Vogue had two entry-level positions available, I was told, and in an odd nod to women’s lib, for the first time in the magazine’s almost 100-year history, it was looking to fill them with young men.
One of the jobs was assisting the magazine’s Travel Editor, Despina Messinesi. This sounded too good to be true to a small-town boy who collected maps and spent hours immersed in the neighbors’ latest issue of National Geographic. Firmly rooted in Hanover, Pennsylvania, with my parents and older sister—the farthest we ever traveled was New York City—I especially loved the ads for the great ocean liners, the streamlined trains, the sleek Super Constellations and DC-7s, with their onboard lounges. When it came time for college, I went about as far as I could go: Berkeley. And after graduating, I went even farther: Morocco, on a two-year assignment with the Peace Corps, where I perfected my French and Spanish and even learned some Arabic. Clearly, as I made my case to the personnel department, I was the ideal candidate for the job, just as Mark Stein, a budding playwright, was a natural for the other opening, assisting Consulting Feature Editor Leo Lerman.
And so, after sailing through the Condé Nast typing test, we began our grand adventure, entering an exotic women’s world. At first, many editors thought Mark and I worked in the mail room, since in that pre-email era we were always delivering memos. And despite the fact that he was dark-haired and straight, while I was blond and more out than in, editors frequently mixed us up. We were “the boys,” interchangeable.
The mid-1970s were an exciting time to be at Vogue. Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, and Francesco Scavullo were at the top of their games, Lauren Hutton was the model of the moment, and Cher had just made history as the first pop star to grace a Vogue cover. Beverly Johnson would soon do likewise as the magazine’s first African-American cover girl.
It was also an exciting time to be in New York—even on a starting salary of $125 a week, which barely covered my rent-stabilized studio in the West Village. Every day felt like Christmas as Leo’s office doled out invites to screenings, shows, operas, ballets. Our Vogue credentials also gave us access to the newest discos. My favorite was Le Jardin. Wearing a plaid sport coat, flared jeans, and tan leather platforms, I’d lose myself in the crowd of East Village hipsters, Park Avenue socialites, fashion designers, and actors. The magic was in the mix. At Leo’s group lunches, we’d all report on our discoveries, many of whom—Donna Summer, Grace Jones, Meryl Streep—would wind up in his People Are Talking About column.
My main job was to assist Messinesi, but she was MIA at first. All I knew of her was that she was European, divorced, and completely devoted to her job. Supposedly on assignment in Brazil, she had left a sketchy itinerary that had her winding up in Manaus, deep in the Amazon. Leo, who had a mischievous sense of humor, started a rumor that Depy, as she was known, was lost in the jungle. Another rumor had it that she was having a face-lift by the famous Brazilian plastic surgeon Ivo Pitanguy. For me, her absence meant I was able to spend hours in her office, dipping into memos that went back to the 1940s from the likes of Beaton and Horst and scrapbooks of all the travel coverage that had appeared in Vogue since the 1950s. I felt the same sense of wonder that I’d felt as a kid back on Eichelberger Street, poring over National Geographic.
In the meantime, Leo kept me busy. A few days in he called on me to hand-deliver some proofs to Truman Capote. The writer, in a silk dressing gown at one o’clock in the afternoon, opened the door to his apartment in the glass-walled 860 United Nations Plaza building. “So, you’re Leo’s new boy,” he cooed, in his distinctive high-pitched voice. To which I could only stammer, “Y-yes, I guess I am,” suddenly feeling like the newspaper boy with Blanche DuBois. (I would encounter many celebrities at Vogue—from Andy Warhol, whose dachshund got lost in my office, to Lauren Bacall, whom I met at JFK after she had flown the Concorde. When I asked her what the supersonic plane was like, she replied, “Fast.”)
I was relieved when my phantom boss materialized. Wearing one of the Chanel suits she had picked up while serving as American Vogue’s Paris Editor two decades earlier, Depy looked much younger than her 60-some years, with ballerina-straight posture and slicked-back black hair highlighted with a single shock of white. She wasn’t classically beautiful, but she was striking in the way of a Maria Callas or Paloma Picasso. Before I knew what had hit me, I was sorting out her expenses, typing up her notes for an upcoming shoot, and fielding calls. Some of the callers had strong accents and names like Goulandris and Niarchos. A regular on Onassis’s yacht Christina in the sixties, Depy (née Plakias) was deeply connected to the shipowner set.
It was well past 7:00 p.m. before she let me go that first day. The next morning, I found a note on my typewriter, apologizing for the crazy day and for not properly welcoming me to the “little world of Vogue travel.”
I soon gathered that Depy was a woman with a past. Her early marriage had been brief. She never spoke of Mr. Messinesi, nor did she reveal much about her postwar years in Paris, where she was rumored to have had affairs with a famous photographer or two. Once she moved to New York, she lived on East Fiftieth Street, first with her mother, and then alone. But she did get the occasional phone call from a Mr. This or That, with whom she would speak in muffled tones. Whatever her personal life, Depy was what was known at the time as a “career woman.”
I also discovered that she was at her most difficult when she was on deadline. Although she had grown up mainly in Boston, she claimed that English was not her native language. When she was writing (and chain-smoking and maniacally humming), she would struggle with every line, calling on me to weigh in on the work. Even with my encouragement, she would often produce little more than a paragraph or two in a day’s time. But the struggle had less to do with writer’s block than with her wanting to keep the writing fresh. She abhorred “tired” adjectives.
What I admired most about Depy was the childlike joy she took in everything—from walking down Madison Avenue on a sunny morning to having lunch with a friend at Le Cheval Blanc. At first it was a thrill for me to experience her adventures vicariously. Then one day, late on a deadline, she turned over the job of setting up a fashion shoot to me. Here I was booking rooms—by telex, no less—for photographer Kourken Pakchanian and models Cheryl Tiegs and Beverly Johnson in Rio de Janeiro, a place I had always dreamed of visiting. When the issue came out and I leafed through the pages of Cheryl and Beverly looking languid and beautiful on the spectacular Brazilian coast, I found it incredibly exciting to have played some small part. Before long I started traveling for the magazine. Everywhere I went, I took masses of quick notes, jotting them haiku-like into a vest pocket–size notebook (a trick I learned from Depy as a way to capture intense, immediate impressions). The early assignments were close to home—Montreal, Florida, California. Then I started going on location with the photographers, models, and fashion editors. The two most memorable trips were to just-opening-up Russia and China. By that time Depy had left, and I myself had become Vogue’s Travel Editor.
My last memory of Depy is from the 1990s. She had retired by then. I had a little red sports car, and it was fall, and I invited her to take a drive up the Palisades. I picked her up at her apartment. She was wearing a scarf around her hair and sunglasses. I said, “It’s probably too cold to put the top down.” She said, “Absolutely not!” And away we went.