The age of Grace Mirabella was incorrect in a Style profile yesterday. She is 58. (Published 7/26/88)

NEW YORK -- On the 13th floor of the Conde' Nast building, outside the office of Grace Mirabella, life at Vogue seems to glide by as expected. A hungry young illustrator pleads with anyone passing through to have a look at his portfolio. Two young women discuss the definition of "chin-length" hair and whether theirs is too short for a ponytail. The slightly exasperated dowager receptionist answers calls to vacationing staff that are being forwarded to her phone line. A woman photographer dressed in black waits to take a picture of Mirabella, who is finishing up the October issue, her last.

"I'm trying to be attractive about this," says Mirabella, who pouts and shrugs a little and whispers something about "politesse."

She's trying to be attractive when she talks about the way she was fired after 36 years at Vogue -- after 17 years as editor-in-chief. Although she was assured all year by the management at Conde' Nast Publications that she shouldn't worry about the rumors in print that she was being replaced, Mirabella ultimately learned the truth from the television. Or at least her husband did.

"He got home ahead of me," she remembers of June 28, "and somebody called and said, 'Listen, have you heard Liz Smith?' "

The gossipy "Live at Five" broadcast announced that Anna Wintour, the former editor of British Vogue who arrived in New York less than a year ago to revamp House and Garden, would be taking over Mirabella's post, the most illustrious in the realm of fashion, Aug. 1.

Thinking at first it was simply another rumor -- Seventh Avenue and the city papers had been utterly fascinated with the upheavals taking place at Conde' Nast -- Mirabella, 50, called chairman S.I. Newhouse at home that night and was shocked to be told the story was true.

In Newhouse's office the next morning she went over the details of her "resignation." And she will return there today, to pick up her settlement papers after spending her last hours at the magazine.

While waiting out the month of July, Wintour, 38, has made her presence felt. Last week in her HG office, just eight floors below Mirabella's, she sat wearing sunglasses -- as she often does indoors -- and interviewed Vogue staff individually at half-hour intervals. And it was Wintour, not Mirabella, who took the front row seat as Vogue editor at the couture shows in Paris yesterday.

"I think you can't fault a company for wanting a change. That's natural," says Mirabella, 50, in her tirelessly polite way. "But how it was done -- for a stylish company -- is kind of tacky."

Inside the Sand Dune

To understand Grace Mirabella it's important to comprehend the color beige -- her favorite. The shade of stone and sidewalks, cement and canvas, it's a steady tempo behind a frivolous melody. It's common sense amid disorder. It's not fancy or flamboyant. And there's nothing delirious about it. While gray or white can be trendy, beige remains above reproach. It's beyond fashion. Beige doesn't try to be anything but beige.

"Everybody is looking around for whatever follows the Hula-Hoop," says Mirabella. "That's not my style. I have a great interest in fashion, the way you'd expect I would. I don't have an interest in fashion no matter what it is."

Sitting in her Vogue office, she is submerged in beigeness. The walls. The carpet. The desk. The half-closed blinds. It's like walking inside a sand dune. Slides and manila folders are scattered on a side table. It's 2:30 in the afternoon and she's already removed her earrings. On the horn with the art department, she's a tad unhappy with a story for October. "There's no glory in it," she says into the phone, adding intermittent "Mmmms" in that way smart English women have of meaning "Yes, I agree. Go on ..." While her voice isn't extravagant or full of old money, it seems to have been around some of that. Her manner and looks suggest a melding of Jeane Kirkpatrick and Dinah Shore. There's a keenness and intellectual detachment to her, and the sunny beige chin-length hair and soft edge of a woman's woman.

"There is nothing in Grace's emotional setup that would incline her toward anything chi-chi," says Alexander Liberman, Conde' Nast's legendary editorial director -- the man who can kibosh a Vogue cover. Liberman has worked with Mirabella and been a close friend for more than 20 years. "Her whole concept of life has deeper roots," he says.

While Newhouse planned Wintour's takeover, it's been suggested that Liberman -- also a Wintour admirer -- knew about it and never told Mirabella.

"These rumors and discussions had been going on a long, long time," says Liberman, who sounds like English actor John Houseman at his most sympathetic. "There were discussions about it before Anna left {New York magazine} for British Vogue. It was certainly nothing new."

But did he ever mention it to Mirabella?

"No, never. How can you discuss something like that?"

Mirabella is also too kind to explore the matter. "I'm not being evasive," she says, talking about what Liberman knew and when. "I just don't know. And I have no desire to find out."

Peacocks in the Hall

This pragmatic lady, with her subdued and sensible ways, must have felt a little bland at Vogue when she began. Raised in suburban Maplewood, N.J., she was the only child of Anthony Mirabella, a wine importer, and his wife Florence, who was born in Italy. Always good in school, she was the editor of the paper at Skidmore College, where she graduated with an economics degree.

Nothing about her upbringing, she says, prepared her for Vogue.

"It was a very different place," Mirabella says of the Vogue where she got a job checking store credits for captions when she was 22. "Oh very. It was very grand. And with wonderful-looking editors who strolled like peacocks through the halls. There were wonderful characters. Deeeevine. I mean, you saw them coming. You were very aware of their presence. I can't tell you, to this day, whether you ever could have had a real conversation with any of them. I really don't know."

By 1962, when Diana Vreeland became editor, Mirabella had worked her way up to "my greatest moment in fashion" as the sportswear editor, and later as Vreeland's assistant.

Vreeland, known for issuing her first orders of the day from her morning bath, never came into work until after noon. Once there, she burned Rigaud candles and incense in her scarlet-red office, used an inner tube as a chair cushion and seemed to float behind a black lacquer desk, surrounded by leopard skin rugs and upholstery. She didn't have an ounce of beige in her.

According to Vogue lore, being Vreeland's assistant was not always easy. She used them as run-through models -- making them try on gloves, sweaters, whatever -- and rarely asked their opinion. For the photographers, there were endless reshoots.

"I was a terror then -- just a terror," Vreeland says in her colorful, rambling memoirs, "DV." Apparently she isn't exaggerating, as she's sometimes known to do.

"It was very difficult to work for her," Mirabella concedes. "But you can get along with someone who is difficult if you admire them. And I admired Diana Vreeland -- for all of her style and know-how, which she was about. Also, she had the most extraordinary sense of humor. And that could turn impossible moments around."

As fashion editor of Harper's Bazaar for 25 years before coming to Vogue, Vreeland set the stereotype of the fashion magazine editor as an eccentric sprung from the elite. And it was Kay Thompson's pale version of Vreeland in the 1957 movie "Funny Face" that moved the stereotype into the ridiculous. Hit with a revelation at her desk one morning, Thompson lifts her gloved hands and breaks into song:

Banish the black,

Burn the blue,

Bury the beige,

Think Pink!

Small wonder Mirabella never dreamed of becoming editor. She wasn't flamboyant or bohemian. She was social only when forced. "I never thought of myself as being the person -- if you are typecasting -- in the style of the movies. I mean, not at all."

Inheriting Vreeland's Vogue The Vogue that Mirabella would eventually inherit was entirely Vreeland's. It was avant-garde, exotic, psychedelic and very social -- European aristocrats and upper-class Americans posed with nonchalance on the pages. Celebrities -- Goldie Hawn, Liz Taylor, Cher -- got to be cover girls. And Vreeland's fascinating models -- Marisa Berenson, Veruschka, Penelope Tree -- were often pulled from society and money.

Vreeland, who has never hidden her love of artifice, went all out in the '60s. It was rich-hippie extravagance. Veruschka dressed in a bikini of gold chains. Roman sandals tied up to the knee and backdrops that always seemed to be Moorish. Tree, with her phantom face, in a bushy yak fur coat and white eyeshadow.

But the magazine, still a bimonthly, was so cutting-edge that it was failing. Some of the more outrageous clothes couldn't be found in stores, much less worn on the street. And Vogue's reputation among fashion designers had become antagonistic -- Vreeland hadn't courted the Seventh Avenue advertisers with obligatory editorial layouts.

Witnesses to Vreeland's firing in 1971 have conveniently dim memories of how it was handled. But by all accounts it was sudden and brutally insensitive. "They were not very good at letting people go," Vreeland says in "DV," describing her own firing and that of longtime Vogue editor Margaret Case, who was found one morning on the pavement below her apartment. "She threw herself out a window," says Vreeland, "because she was eighty, she was out of work, she had no money -- and she'd been dismissed in the most terrible way."

Mirabella was on a shoot in California when told she would be the next editor. While "it was a delight to be in," she says, she had never expressed interest in the job and doesn't know who picked her. "It's that kind of place," Mirabella says of the cryptic Conde' Nast touch. "They are in the communications business but they don't know how to communicate." She also guesses she found out about it before Vreeland did.

There are still unanswered questions as to why Conde' Nast fired Vreeland, the most talented and famous fashion editor in history. But the theories aren't in short supply. One thing was certain: Vreeland didn't care about business, she cared about style.

"In the '60s, women turned their backs on women's magazines," says Mirabella. "Women thought, 'That doesn't have anything to do with me, forget it' ... And the newsstand sales just plummeted -- not dropping, plummeted."

Andy Warhol had a theory, too. "She was fired from Vogue in 1971," he once said of his friend Vreeland, "because Vogue wanted to go middle class."

Mirabella's Magazine

It's hard to know where the '70s leave off and Mirabella begins -- they seem so interchangeable.

Together she and Liberman gave Vogue a new attitude, which she calls "easygoing" -- without a doubt, still one of her favorite adjectives. She wanted wanted to drop the image of Vogue as a "ladies' magazine," to interest a new kind of reader, an intelligent and serious woman who worked for a living -- a woman very much like Mirabella. Within her first year as editor, the Vreelandness of Vogue diminished and it began to take on the sense of Grace Mirabella.

"The voice of the magazine," says Liberman, "was really Grace's voice."

Covers that once boldly announced "The Beautiful People ... and Where to Find Them" now proclaimed articles about "The Modern Woman." The word "modern" became Mirabella's mantra. In 1973 the magazine went from bimonthly to monthly. And in 1977 it shrank to standard magazine size, roughly 8 by 11 inches.

The lounging aristocrats and jet set tribes started to vanish from Vogue's pages. Working women -- journalists, writers, actresses, artists, playwrights -- took their place. The effort was "to make it less grand. Less pompous. Pompous is really the word," she says.

And in a short period of time the amazon exotics were gone. Anjelica Huston modeled a bit and Cher stayed, but by '72, ultra-WASP Karen Graham (later the Estee Lauder woman), with the tiniest, boniest nose, was on the cover. And Lauren Hutton, without the wigs and fake eyelashes she wore under Vreeland, became a star.

The Vogue models of the '70s -- Lisa Taylor, Patti Hansen, Roseanne Vela and Hutton -- had an unadorned wholesomeness. It was a sort of inarguable prettiness that had a broader appeal. Describing the look, Mirabella says: "She gives off this little bit more easygoing, healthier, approachable look. It's a certain kind of good looks, it's not overpolished. You don't polish up these women."

Artifice overall was downplayed, at first because Mirabella had never felt comfortable with it, and later because "the natural look" took hold. Hair became less contrived and the models wore less makeup. "Artificiality. I think there's a place for it in fashion -- that's part of its charm and fantasy," she says. "But I don't think that's the whole package."

With all else neutralized, the clothes were bound to be selected with a different sensibility. While Vreeland had delved into the gyspy looks of Giorgio Di Sant'Angelo, Mirabella fell for the spareness and simplicity of Halston and Geoffrey Beene.

"Her concepts of clothing and the needs of modern women are very much like my own," says Beene. "She has a very pragmatic approach."

Mirabella, who wears a black and white Beene suit for the interview, denies she ever played favorites in the magazine. "I don't think I did. I think that at certain moments, people rise and you are hard put to ignore them," she says. "Also when a certain designer stands for that point that you are trying to make, trying to make, trying to make -- then you tend to lean on them, work with them, the way you do with somebody you think is speaking your language."

In 1974 Mirabella married William Cahan, a well-known cancer surgeon at Memorial Sloan Kettering. When asked why she had never married before, she says, "I wasn't interested. I think I was really very focused. I loved my work -- the whole ease of it. And I hadn't met Bill Cahan."

Cahan, Mirabella admits, influenced her work tremendously. She became more interested in covering health and fitness. "I don't think you can keep throwing hemlines at women without giving them something about their health, something about their sense of well-being," she says. And when she talks about the things at Vogue she wishes she could have done, it's always in this area. "In some ways, my sense of less artifice is really incompatible with the magazine."

Her sensible Vogue has blossomed at the magazine racks. During Mirabella's reign circulation tripled from 400,000 to 1.3 million. "Grace is a businesswoman, really," says close friend Dawn Mello, president of Bergdorf Goodman. "She's not ethereal. She always has the reader in mind."

While Vreeland's motto had always been "Give Them What They Never Knew They Wanted," Mirabella's seemed to say "Give Them What They Never Knew They Needed."

Bracing for Wintour As much as the magazine was transfigured as it passed from Vreeland's hands to Mirabella's, it will surely change again once Anna Wintour moves in.

And not everyone is staying around for the mag-quake. Creative director Jade Hobson Charnin has announced she will be leaving soon. Associate editor Kathleen Madden is going to Self. And one of the fashion editors, Paul Sinclaire, has resigned to do some work for HG in Europe. Several other longtime Vogue staff are rumored to be leaving.

The speculation about Wintour's Vogue has been great. Sources at Conde' Nast are saying that Richard Avedon won't be doing the covers, that Arthur Elgort will be shooting action covers outdoors. And stories have been printed that Wintour wants Liberman's post once he retires.

There is a feeling on Seventh Avenue that an ancien re'gime is dying. But the hiring and firing of a Vogue editor never happens quietly.

Life After Vogue Back in the uncluttered beige dune, Grace Mirabella is on the phone again. Although she had asked the two secretaries outside her door to hold her calls, there's a sense that it was an impossible request.

She holds up a finger to her audience as if to say, "No, stay. Just a bit more, sorry." She seems totally engaged in what she's doing. It's hard to imagine her leaving, or the office redecorated in something like mahogany and chintz.

She puts down the phone. "I think fashion is in doldrums at the moment," she says, picking up the conversation just where it was. "And I think hemlines up and down is in lieu of any ideas ... We are in a plateau, maybe. And I think that a big chunk of women have not been catered to well enough, with a certain style and with an understanding of lives."

She's getting straight-faced again. Her Jeane Kirkpatrick side is taking over, as though she has an unconquerable, unfashionable impulse to go deeper into things. "I find I have trouble with fashion as a subject," she says finally. "I get bothered. And I take it all very seriously. I don't take it in whimsical ways. Which is probably wrong."

She wants to explain herself. "I've always had a dream -- and I don't know how to do this, by the way -- that there should be some moment in fashion where the conversation can be as interesting as a conversation about baseball, and not peppered with isn't that deeevine ... "

Although she says it's the staff at Vogue that she'll miss most, she doesn't want a goodbye party. Although two weeks ago she was given a yellow Labrador puppy by her friends -- maybe as a distraction -- she hasn't named it yet. (Is the dog really beige? "Yes, very.") And although two Vogue editors before her -- Edna Woolman Chase and Vreeland -- wrote successful memoirs, she says, "Frankly, I don't know why anybody would be interested in reading mine."

What she'd really like is another job.

"I'm talking to people, people are talking to me," she says. "Maybe by the end of August I'll have an idea." By the end of August she'll have played a lot of tennis with her husband at their country house in Westchester County. She might start horseback riding. She might have picked out fabric for new curtains. She'll have spent a week or two at the Golden Door spa in California.

And by the end of August she might get her wish -- the perfect, sensible, new job. "I'm not talking about something boring," she says. "I am never talking about boring. I am always talking about style, but I think on a different level. That's what I think I might still like to do."