May 21, 2021
Already in your idiot box via Netflix is a miniseries about a man who also used one name, but burned out rather early due to an outsize ego and too much coke. His name was Halston, and his fame was based on the fact he designed a pillbox hat that Jackie Kennedy Onassis wore at her hubby’s inauguration. Yes, fame is tricky, especially in America, where self-creation was invented, and where superciliousness and sleekness pass for gravity and depth. I knew Halston, he was a friend of my then sister-in-law, but we had zero in common. In fact he thought I wasn’t important enough to greet in a nightclub, and I didn’t exactly ever mistake him for a Hemingway hero. Never mind.
Some wannabe who made a documentary on Studio 54 compared Halston to Cole Porter because they were both from Indiana. That’s a bit like comparing an organ grinder to Mozart because they were both Austrian. Halston affected an upper-class accent and a persona of distance and hauteur, copied by Anna Wintour, both the designer and the Vogue editor mistakenly assuming that a nose up in the air means one’s aristocratic. The Scot Ewan McGregor is cast as the designer in the series, an unfortunate choice as the Scot looks like a Glasgow tough, whereas Halston was effete, elongated, effeminate, and haughty. The hard-partying designer died of AIDS in 1990, age 57, but his downfall began much earlier when he got down and dirty with the sexual hustler Victor Hugo (the French government should have sued when such a lowlife adopted the great name), spending his evenings in Studio 54’s balcony, where free and anonymous sex took place nightly.
But what I want to tell you has nothing to do with the sleaze that was Halston, Warhol, Bianca Jagger, and Studio 54. It has to do with what transpired between Halston, the Queen Mother’s cousin, and Princess Margaret, parts of the story having appeared on July 12, 1980, in The Spectator. John Bowes-Lyon, Bosie to us for obvious reasons and perennially broke, had been more or less ordered by Halston to organize a party for the designer and invite la crème de la crème of the London scene to meet him. Princess Margaret was the pièce de résistance. The blast took place at the Savoy. Among the first to arrive was Rupert Galliers-Pratt, eager to taste the free canapés and Savoy drinks. Rupert, walking five feet ahead of his wife, advanced fearlessly into the grand ballroom when he ran into a tall imperious figure with an outstretched right arm. Next to that figure stood Bosie. “I am Halston,” said the elongated man with a raised eyebrow. “Thank you, Halston,” boomed Rupert, wrapping his wife’s coat around the designer’s extended arm. When Bosie later remonstrated with him about the coat incident, Rupert said that only people in service had one name, and that he was genuinely sorry.
Things did not improve once the glitterati sat down. The main players are all dead so I can finally tell the true story of what eventually became known as the Last Supper. Halston was seated next to Princess Margaret, and across the table sat his very close—mine also—friend Steve Rubell, owner of Studio 54. After making some polite conversation, Stevie signaled to Halston to pass the coke. “Never, not in a million years,” hissed Halston, eager to impress la Margaret and knowing full well what Steve was like under the influence. Steve kept insisting and Halston resisting, until Stevie decided to take the bull by the horns. He dropped his napkin, pretended to go fishing for it under the table, and on all fours approached Halston underneath, grabbing his leg and biting it as hard as he could. Halston howled and jerked, spilling his wine all over the princess. “Now look what you’ve done,” cried Margaret, “and it’s my best dress.” “You will have an original creation of mine tomorrow, your Majesty,” stammered Halston. “I will hold you to that,” exclaimed the recently upgraded Margaret.
And this is where the fun begins. Halston had a new creation of his flown over immediately, hired a stretch limo, and took a groupie along with him, a groupie who is now an aging activist, whatever that means, and the duo arrived at Kensington Palace bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. That is when the designer was informed that the princess was expecting only one person. He quickly stuffed some large bank notes into the groupie’s hands and told the driver to take her shopping for a couple of hours and then come back for him. Once inside Margaret’s apartment in Kensington Palace, Halston was met by a flunky, handed over the dress to him, was thanked on behalf of the princess, and was shown the door. The whole exchange took less than two minutes. This, of course, was a time long before the world’s second most annoying device had been invented. Without a telephone poor Halston had to find his way among hoi polloi rubbernecking for Princess Diana and other annoying creatures. It was one lost week, and I don’t think he ever went back to jolly old London again.
My wife, locked away in London, saw the beginning of the series and didn’t like it. I’m not surprised. Halston was actually to be pitied, a talented designer whose success went to his head in more ways than one.