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Despina Messinesi, 92, Long-Time Editor at Vogue

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Jul 31, 2003, 9:01:37 AM7/31/03
Despina Messinesi, 92, Long-Time Editor at Vogue

By STEPHEN MILLER Staff Reporter of the Sun

Born Despina Plakias in Brookline, Mass., June 21, 1911; died July 22 in
New York City, after a lengthy illness; there are no immediate survivors.

Despina Messinesi, whose breezy and sophisticated writing graced the
pages of Vogue for more than a halfcentury, died July 22. Beginning as a
fashion correspondent and eventually working her way up to travel editor,
she was apparently the only Vogue writer to have worked for all of the
magazine's editors, including Edna Woolman Chase, the founding editor.
The daughter of Greek immigrants who owned a tony restaurant on State
Street in Boston, she spoke French and Greek at home and grew accustomed to
summering in Europe. The family fell on hard times after her father drowned,
when Messinesi was 11. She tutored French for $2 an hour,while her mother
took in boarders.
One of these happened to be a teacher at Abbot (now Andover), and a
scholarship was worked out for Messinesi for what she later called "the only
education I've ever had."
Plans for college were dashed when her mother was in a serious car
accident and Messinesi was needed to act as her nurse.At age 20 she was
married to Greek shipping magnate Milto Messinesi, whom she met while
visiting her grandmother in Greece. She moved to Athens to be with him, in
Rubbing elbows with the highest levels of Athenian society, she collected
designer dresses. In 1941, she traveled to England, where she tried but
failed to gain possession of her husband's ships, which had been embargoed
there. With foreign troops occupying Greece, she returned to America,
impecunious and alone.
Settling in New York,Messinesi found work at Vogue - she was friendly
with the editor's daughter. For her try-out, she wrote a story about bidding
goodbye to some friends, Greek nurses, who had sailed on a ship of relief
workers and missionaries bound from Hoboken,N.J., to Recife, Brazil. When
the ship, the Egyptian-registered Zam Zam, was sunk by the German raider
Atlantis - which wrongly suspected it of being a troop ship in disguise -
Messinesi found herself in the unusual position of having her try-out become
extremely newsworthy.
Hired at $25 a week, she actually took off her first day of work in order
to run a publicity stunt for Greek war relief, leading a herd of
flower-bedecked donkeys through New York's streets and to the Ritz. Coming
into the Vogue offices the next morning, she was surprised to find that
everyone seemed to know her already. Then she learned why: A half-page photo
of her hugging a donkey had appeared in that morning's paper.
She quickly fit in at Vogue, where she was always known as "Depy," from
the initials of her maiden name, Despina Plakias. In addition to handling
editorial tasks, she occasionally modeled for the magazine.
When the war ended, Vogue sent her to Paris, where for five years she was
a fashion correspondent. It was an exciting time for the fashion world, as
Christian Dior and Elsa Schiaperelli were transforming couture. She lived at
the Hotel Crillion on the Place de la Concord and mingled with high society.
Paris for her was a whirlwind of glamour, like something out of an Audrey
Hepburn movie.
In 1951, she returned to New York and was assigned to cover children's
fashion and the bra and girdle industry of Seventh Avenue. For a while, she
penned a column called "Shop Hound," about where to find knickknacks. Some
might have seen it as a comedown from the lights of Paris, but she had a
reputation for being game for any assignment. A determined voyager even in
the city, she once said, "I walk like a taxi. I zigzag. I never stop for a
When Diana Vreeland became editor of Vogue, in the 1960s, Messinesi was
promoted to travel editor, a job she would hold for more than 20 years. She
roamed the globe, from Afghanistan to Goa to Tahiti,reporting on local color
as well as what sophisticated Vogue readers would want to eat and wear and
where to stay. With jet travel just becoming a practical reality for
Americans, it was a writer's dream assignment.
An example of her writing from the August 1964 issue of Vogue, part of a
report from the Greek city of Ioannina, where her mother's family lived:
"Beyond the drifts of almond and apricot blossoms, pinpoints of cypress, the
medieval citadel brooded above Ioannina's lake, the color of tarnished
silver. Within the foot-thick ramparts, above the peopled shacks, the high
ground used now as military barracks had the desolation of a Chirico
painting - arcaded windows gaped. Yellow weeds which seemed to thrive on
decay covered everything. As I crunched them underfoot, I noticed that they
smelled of honey - like things in Ioannina,they were strong, powerful, and
Messinesi retired in 1993, after 52 years at Vogue, and split her time in
her remaining decade between a country home in Dutchess County and her New
York apartment.

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