Friday, November 5, 2010

The problem with real life ...

... is that it gets in the way of blogging. We all have these weeks, lifetimes even, when looking back one wonders where the time went - and, just in case you were wondering, it really does go by faster the older one gets. I won't bore you with an account of a misspent fortnight, just suffice it to say that after many a tired moment and guilty feeling I'm back at my desk with a bit more energy than I've had for a while.

I first came across William McCarty's name two years ago in a forty-year-old Architectural Digest, and noting that he did not appear too often, at least in my collection of old magazines - a clear case for not writing based on assumptions - I wondered why he never made the big time. Little did I know, for when I began to research him as part of my personal history of late twentieth-century decorating, I discovered what to many of you might be an established fact: McCarty had been very well-known as a decorator in London, had worked for David Hicks, thereafter established his own firm and worked on both sides of the Atlantic. However, McCarty-Cooper, as he became, is of interest beyond any rooms he may have created.

There is a lot of available information about William McCarty, written after his death, and I felt rather put out that this, for me, new discovery - a member of the lost generation as I thought - was in fact very well-known. I was so put out, I deleted the essay about him I'd begun and got on with other subjects. But as the saying is, what goes around ... etc.

Earlier this year, in the office I came across a pile of Connoisseur magazines from 1991 and there written by David Patrick Columbia in the December issue, was an account of McCarty's life - all a run-up to the sale of his estate with its estimated $30,000,000 worth of art, the remnant, if remnant is the right word, of an inheritance left to him by his lover and adoptive father, Douglas Cooper - the man McCarty first met at the Philadelphia home of Henry McIlhenny. Also, and this is what tipped the balance of my renewed interest, there is a photograph of William McCarty at Van Day Truex's house in Provence - circles within circles, thus. In Columbia's account of William MacCarty's life is a curious quotation from Jay Steffey that in its way relates to what I have been writing about these past few weeks - circles of influence and friends of friends.

"He met people the way an attractive intelligent young gay man did in those days. There were cliques of older men. They found him; he didn't find them. Being homosexual and intelligent, Billy wasn't the type to spend his life running around bars and being a hooker."

As I say, a curious, if not dubious, implication about an older generation of gay men, cliques no less, roaming the cultural byways of Europe and America seeking in a Pygmalion way the young and the ready for advancement. Whatever the process, the twain - the older man and the young flibbertigibbit - Cooper and McCarty met, and history was made.

Here you see photographs of Douglas Cooper's Monaco apartment decorated by William McCarty - described in the text of the article as "an old friend and therefore aware of Cooper idiosyncrasies" - an apartment which, despite the poor quality of the twenty-year-old images, is pretty impressive, if in an hermetic way. These are rooms in a highrise building overlooking the Mediterranean, created out of newly-constructed raw space, that have the character of a reliquary, precious, preening and protective of priceless contents - and perhaps it is precisely those contents, the paintings, the sculpture, gouaches, medallions and drawings by artists such as Henri Laurens, Picasso, Giacometti, Gris, Miró, Léger, David d'Angers, Braque and Klee, rather than the architecture and decoration, that make these rooms interesting. Not that I wish to diminish William McCarty's achievement - for it must be said that the space does not seem vast and my image of a reliquary, small-scale, enameled, inlaid, chased, gilded and lined in costly stuffs, is not far off the mark.

Beyond what I have written here about McCarty, I think it a better use of your time if you read this and this. It would be redundant to repeat either. However, what is of interest are the connections, circles within circles and who know whom. Much of the history of twentieth-century decorating is, in my opinion, an account, albeit deeply buried, of talented gay men who had connections, cultural and social, both covert and concealed.

William McCarty-Cooper died of AIDS in 1991, aged fifty-three, having disposed of his estate beyond a few small bequests equally amongst family and friends.

Photographs of William McCarty's work by Derry Moore to accompany text by Lesley Branch for Architectural Digest, February 1981.

Photograph of William McCarty in 1973 at Van Day Truex's house in Provence by Gloria Braggiotti Etting, published to accompany an essay Sons and Lovers written by David Patrick Columbia for Connoisseur, December 1991.


  1. Everything flabbergasting except we all know difficult people who find loyal friends and companions none the less.

    Hard to imagine the phone ringing in the 5th picture.

    This was a good day: "Christie's London sold 125 lots in 1988 for 230% more than their high estimates..."

  2. Seems to continue with a hypothesis you've been developing; if I'm not mistaken, I continue to favour the simpler explanations. Yes, there's no doubt of an 'underground' quality to the social structure of gay life (professional and otherwise) in the US, or of its natural imitation of preferment systems existing elsewhere (including that for ostensible flibbertigibbets, aka the resort by either or both parties to wealth and/or position as incentive). But its phenomenally egalitarian permeability is its signature, and this is highly dependent upon plausible, neutral accident, including imponderable charisma.

  3. Quite a story, isn't it? Now you need to get your hands on the AD with Cooper's chateau---the one with the Picasso mosaic murals outside...

    And very glad you're back.

  4. Oh, and lest I'm mistaken, McCarty's design for Cooper's Monaco rooms seems to be a lower ceiling take on the library designed for a different Cooper, Diana, at the British Embassy in Paris?

  5. I adore this posting, very well researched, and the art!! Phenominal!

    Art by Karena

  6. It seems I cannot even get my act together to than you for your comments and I apologise for my tardiness.

    Dilettante, A friend has the issue with Cooper's chateau and will bring it to Atlanta soon. I'm going to research the British Embassy library,so thank you for the tip.

    Karena, thank you.

    Laurent, thank you. I think the egalitarian nature of this structure is up for debate. In my case, it was.

    Terry, thank you. You summed up my character and situation perfectly!

  7. The architectural millwork for the Monaco apartment may have been influenced by the pottery display room in the Hotel de Chanaleilles, as improved by Emilio Terry for the Niarchoses.

  8. As I remember, and I was a young intern, Billy McCarty won the Burlington House Designer Award in the late 60s. Burlington House was the home furnishings division of Burlington Industries, the textile company, and the president of the home division wanted desperately to get out of the mass market, so he established an award for young and social designers. It was meant to be of benefit to all.

  9. John J Tacket, thank you. I found the Terry library this morning so I thank you for leading me to it. I had marked the page a while ago for a post about Terry which I have yet to write.

    atdcom, thank you for the information. Was it a benefit to all, I wonder?

  10. The other side of Billy's creativity were the extraordinary contemporary designs he did for me when I was the Managing Director of Vidal Sassoon in London.Most outstanding and avant guarde were the BarberShop at 44 Sloane St.which so impressed Bill Fine the then President of Bonwit Teller N.Y.C that he insisted we install a replica in their New York store. Then there was the Fibre Glass reception/ shop front on Bond St. which was featured in Interior Design of March 2007. I all Billy did 10 projects for me including two homes. He was a man of great talent and humility

  11. Mr Austen, thank you for your comment. From what I read of Mr McCarty I thought, had I met him, I would have liked him.

    You have given me things to search for - when I get back from vacation, that is. I began to look online when I received your comment, and found photographs of the early days of the Vidal Sassoon salons. I have some photographs of McCarty interiors I have not yet used.

  12. Yes you would have liked him! Billy did not become involved with Sassoon until I joined the company in 1965. He created an extraordinary Barber shop at 44 Sloane St, The clint sat in Eames executive chairs, the back lite concrete castled walls floated over a coved marble floor. The dressing stations and mirrors were concealed behind leather faced oblong doors there main feature being a round handle such as one would see on board ship. Which when opened revealed a barbers work station.
    In the center was his take on a club fender. All in all it was a design of great merit, I hesitate to use the word genius.

  13. I worked for Billy McCarty from 1968 - 72. That was an interesting job!
    We would always be clinging on by our finger tips; if things were going well Billy would put a spanner in the works as he worked best under pressure. I well remember going to Heathrow with him in a taxi when all the decisions we had been waiting weeks for would finally be made for us to accomplish while he was away. He was extraordinary, kind, loving, but exasperating and frequently exasperated!

  14. Clare, We must have either met or spoke on the phone If I am correct it was in 1968 when Billy created the Vidal Sassoon Bond Street reception. His assistant was I believe David Resnik who has gone on to become quiet well known in London