It’s been a busy year for Halston, the designer, and his friends. Mick and Bianca Jagger were reported to be on the rocks. Bianca was on the cover of People. Inside she was pictured talking with Halston and dancing at Studio 54, the new disco. Halston praised Bianca for dressing “against the current.” Halston gave a birthday party for Bianca at his townhouse on the East Side of Manhattan. Later the party moved to Studio 54.
People did a story on Studio 54 and ran a dozen pictures of its owner, Steve Rubell, talking with celebrities. Rubell said he doesn’t let”bagel-nosh polyester types” into his disco. One of the pictures accompanying the story was of Rubell, Halston, and Margaux Hemingway.
The New York Times Magazine did a story on Halston’s townhouse, which has very little furniture. Halston told People about his special relationship with Jackie O. Jackie is actually very price-conscious, he said, despite what people say.
Mick and Bianca were reported to be seeking a divorce. Shortly thereafter, The New York Post ran this headline: HALSTON SET AS MATCHMAKER FOR A MICK-LESS BIANCA. “Those who care,” said the accompanying column, “think Halston has only one mission in life at the moment. He is determined to find Bianca a really rich husband. After all, Halston has tailor-made Bianca’s clothes for ages now, so why not her life?”
Halston unveiled his designs for new uniforms for the New York City Police and for the Girl Scouts of America.
Women’s Wear Daily’s weekly digest, W, announced that the Jet Set was out, and that the Super Set was in. Members of the Super Set, called SSTs, “move faster, further, and more frequently.” W profiled two female SSTs. One of them, Lacey Neuhaus, said she can “identify” with Halston’s clothes. Studio 54 led the list of places the SSTs go to dance. However, W’s list of SSTs—including Prince Charles, Carter Brown, Jay Rockefeller, Woody Allen, Jackie, John Brademas, Lee Radziwill, and Moshe Dayan—did not include Halston. It did include the designers Kenzo, Yves St. Laurent, and Calvin Klein.
Halston designed a 30-piece wardrobe for Jacqueline Bisset to wear in The Greek Tycoon, a movie about a thinly disguised Jackie and Ari. Later, he asked that his name be removed from the credits. He also designed a complete wardrobe for Liza Minnelli to wear in her Broadway musical, The Act.
Vitas Gerulaitis, a tennis star, gave a party at Studio 54 to benefit the Foundation for Underprivileged Children. Margaret Trudeau, Norman Mailer, and Lacey Neuhaus were there. Truman Capote and Andy Warhol gave an Oscar-night party at Studio 54. Bianca was there, and Margaret Trudeau. Mick came later. Liza wasn’t there, but she was seen—and photographed—frequently at Studio 54.
Newsweek came out with its annual spring cover story on fashion. In 1972 the story had been about Halston. This year it was about Calvin Klein. Klein, the story said, spends his summers at Fire Island and his nights at Studio 54, and he goes twice a week to a dermatologist who smooths out the wrinkles in his face with silicone injections.
Halston had a widely reported feud with Elsa Peretti, the jewelry designer. Liz Smith of The New York Daily News reported that Halston had given Elsa a sable coat that, during one of their fights, she had thrown in the fire. Ali MacGraw, in New York to promote her new movie, told reporters she thought Halston was “great” but that Calvin Klein was “the best.”
Liza gave a birthday party for her half-sister, Lorna Luft. Margaret Trudeau, Steve Rubell, Pat Kennedy Lawford, and of course Halston were there. Halston gave a party at Studio 54 where a covey of doves was released for effect. David Bowie, Bianca, and Halston had to sneak out the back door of Studio 54 one night and drive away in Steve Rubell’s limousine in order to avoid photographers. People did a story on Pat Cleveland and Sterling St. Jacques, two models who work for Halston. Pat is writing an autobiography (at age 22) called Suffer for Beauty. Halston said Pat and Sterling are bound to “zenith at something.”
Norman Mailer and Elaine Kaufman, owner of Elaine’s, who had been feuding, made up at a publication party for Liz Smith’s new book. Gloria Vanderbilt, Ethel Merman, Mike Wallace, and Nora Ephron were also there. Halston designed the tablecloths for the opening-day party at Wolf Trap Park outside Washington.
The gossip columnists began to knock Studio 54. Esquire reported that Steve Rubell had some unsavory financial connections and that he had on his staff a publicist who was paid on a commission-per-celebrity basis.
Stephen Birmingham, the writer, announced that he had undertaken a “psycho-history” ofJackie on which the publishers were hotly bidding. Halston was quoted in a book called The Success Trip as saying, “I happen to be very prolific at what I do.”
A new roller-skating disco called Roller Ballroom was announced to be under construction. Halston and Bianca and Andy Warhol and Truman Capote were announced to be working on a disco record together.
Although last summer the place to be was Andy Warhol’s compound of cottages in Montauk, this summer Halston, Bianca, Liza, and Steve Rubell have rented a house on Fire Island.
W announced that the key concept of the period 1970-73 had been Public Lives; that the key concept of 1973-77 was Private Lives; and that the key concept now, in 1978, is Personal Life.
For its first anniversary, Us magazine put out a special issue: “our exclusive guide to who’s in, who’s out, who’s hot, and who’s not—in TV, movies, music, theater, sports, art, fashion, and politics.” Cher, Jimmy Carter, Farrah Fawcett-Majors, Erich Segal, and Charles Bronson were listed as “out people,” while Ruth Carter Stapleton, Diane Keaton, Fritz Mondale, Anwar Sadat, and Dolly Parton were among the “in people.” However, Us warned, “being In is very dangerous because the next step is… being OUT!”
In short, for Halston and his friends in the New York celebrity world, it has been a year a little faster-paced than the year that preceded it and probably a little slower than the one that will follow. The lifespan of what’s new is a little shorter this year than it was last. Consequently, the nervousness of the people who are, right now, what’s new, is a little greater. There’s a little more of the sense that if you miss one party a completely different definition of what’s new will come into being, and it won’t include you. Possibly, a part of the definition of what’s new next will be that you’re not part of it.
One reason the pace gets a little faster every year is that every year the number of chroniclers of what’s new increases. The past year, for instance, has seen the advent of Us, several new TV “talk” and “magazine” shows, and a new gossip columnist in The New York Post, Diane Judge—more outlets that live on telling their audiences what’s new and therefore have to be in constant search of newness (and its silent partner, obsolescence). And as the number of outlets grows, the number and range of people they cover grows too, so that now the world of what’s new can include scientists and historians and architects and political activists as well as the actors and designers and musicians and politicians who have traditionally populated it. So this year, there are a lot more nervous people than there were last year.
In this insecure world, Halston has managed to last far longer than most. He has been a name dress designer for almost a decade and has been part of each succeeding new twist during that time. Born Roy Frowick in Iowa in 1932, raised in Indiana, the son of an accountant, he has been designing all his adult life. He began in hats (his first great coup was the pillbox Jackie wore to the 1961 inauguration), branched out into dresses, and left the employ of Bergdorf Goodman’s in New York in 1969, after nine years there, to strike out on his own. In 1973 he sold his business, his name, and his services to Norton Simon Inc., the consumer-goods conglomerate, for an estimated $12-million worth of stock. His empire is now large enough to occupy seven lines of listings in the Manhattan phone book: Halston Enterprises Inc., Halston Ltd., Halston Fragrances, Halston Originals, Halston 3, Halston V, and Halston VI. He designs dresses in several price ranges, sheets, towels, perfumes, accessories.
However, it’s possible to know a great deal about Halston without having to learn any of that. Though he is seldom described saying or doing anything very interesting, though he is not provably charismatic or compelling, hardly a week goes by when he isn’t mentioned in the popular press. Many people who don’t know a thing about the substance of Halston’s work know who his intimate friends are, what the inside of his house looks like, and where he spends his free time.
Good for Business
Although it’s a little hard to fathom why Halston is written about so much, it’s perfectly understandable why he would rather be a public figure than a nobly reclusive J.D. Salinger of the fashion world. It’s good for business. Halston’s output can be boiled down into two rough categories: merchandise for the very rich and merchandise for the middle class. The former is custom-made (made-to-order, as it’s called in the trade), the latter mass-produced (called ready-to-wear).
Halston’s clients for made-to-order clothes are people like Jackie, Liza, Lee Radziwill, Katharine Graham, Lauren Bacall, Racquel Welch, Candice Bergen, Ali MacGraw, Barbara Streisand, and Babe Paley, along with a host of others who are equally well-off if less well-known. Women like these have always been the backbone of the high-fashion industry. But these days, it’s unlikely that Halston makes much profit from them. Most of his money comes from ready-to-wear.
Fifty years ago, there was much less women’s clothing made in the socio-economic gap between Macy’s and custom-made than there is today. The affluence of the post-World War II years has caused a great boom in ready-to-wear designer clothing, clothing that is relatively expensive and has a famous name attached but isn’t out of the price range of the merely well-off. Especially in the last decade, the ready-to-wear concept has spread even further, to designer sheets and handkerchiefs and tennis shorts and wallets and car interiors.
The Lizas and Jackies and Biancas are really free advertising for all of Halston’s ready-to-wear merchandise. Halston’s designs do have a certain informal elegance; they seem at once timeless and of the moment; they’re well suited to the needs of active women. Those who know rate his work somewhere in the good-to-genius range. Nonetheless, says one veteran of the fashion world, “If the celebrities went elsewhere, Halston would be nothing. Why are you going to buy a Halston sheet? Because it’s a great sheet? No. Because Halston’s name means something special. And he can’t afford to let it stop meaningsomething. He can’t let a Halston sheet or a Halston dress become just another sheet or just another dress.”
Halston’s rapport with celebrities, and their’s with him, and their affinity for whatever’s new, is no doubt genuine; but if he preferred to live in Pittsburgh and lacked the knack for getting his clothes onto famous women’s backs, he would probably be nothing. As it is, Halston is not only skillful at knowing celebrities and getting publicity, but unusually durable at it too. The graveyards of fashion in New York are full of people who were riding high, who were what’s new, and who were then suddenly left behind by some new twist and never heard from again. Halston has so far been able to maneuver his way around that.
One aid he has had is the rules of the designing game. The fashion business depends for its livelihood on the idea that there have to be new styles every year; if people just wore the same clothes for 20 years it would be financial disaster for Seventh Avenue. So although the pendulum may swing back and forth—tradition versus modernity, long skirts versus short, loose-fitting clothes versus tight ones—it never comes back to rest precisely where it has been before. Every year, somehow, this year’s fashions look exactly right and the fashions of five years ago impossibly dowdy.
If Halston can sense accurately every year what this year’s fashions will be, then he as a person and celebrity can endure. As long as he keeps producing new fashions, the old Halston can stay around. If, in a fit of self-righteousness, he were to try to keep the same fashions year after year, then Halston himself would quickly pass out of style.
The change-or-die ethic of fashion is closely mirrored in the celebrity world, with which fashion is so closely allied. The press has always had a code similar to the fashion industry’s: just as nobody wants to buy yesterday’s fashions, nobody wants to buy yesterday’s news. But increasingly editors have realized that today’s news doesn’t have to be just events—it can be people and trends and ideas too, as long as they are today’s people and trends and ideas. The notion of this year’s fashions has spread far and wide both in subject matter and in medium of dissemination. There are more and more celebrities, whose existence is more and more perilous. The extremely wide range of people who appear in, say, People and Us have all been identified as what’s new and have profited from being so identified. In other words, they have become Halstonized.
But there’s an important difference. Halston can be a durable celebrity because his designs and clientele are ever-changing. What about people who can’t in good faith come out with a line of this year’s fashions—doctors and writers and politicians? They’re stuck with the choice of either sacrificing their integrity in order to remain what’s new, or being condemned to the fate of a not-too-distant obsolescence. Thus Jerry Brown, a politician who specializes in riding each new twist, can vigorously condemn Proposition 13 up to election day and then warmly embrace it when it passes; thus, conversely, can George McGovern, who doesn’t change his views, be perceived by liberals as a great man six years ago and a has-been today.
Those Who Thrive on Newness
The center of the world of neophilia is New York. New York is the biggest city in the country and the center of the national media, other than movies and records. It is also generously endowed with those who thrive on newness and celebrityhood—the ambitious strivers who people the celebrity press, and the unrooted, easily bored citizens who read about them.
Traditionally, there has been less of that in smaller and slower-paced places than New York, where an ironclad set of conventions and standards reigned and the winds of change rarely blew. With social, economic, and geographical mobility low, what status you could gain in life was achieved through slowly building up a reputation over the years. If people were afraid, it was of being unconventional.
But in recent years, with mobility on the rise and mass marketing ever more widespread, there’s been a touch of New York everywhere. It’s hard to go shopping for groceries anywhere in America today without having the opportunity to buy The National Enquirer and The National Star, People and Us. So more and more the operative fear is not that you’ll flout convention, but that in a world whose standards and values and styles constantly change, you’ll be left behind. In more and more of the country, you’re likely to rise through being or finding the latest new twist; to become very quickly a celebrity, wildly overrated; and then to live in fear that you’ll be found out and that the next twist will be to hate you. Those who live by the twist die by the twist.
Close observation reveals endless examples of this. The most familiar is the entertainment star who was suddenly last year’s hero and just as suddenly is this year’s goat, like Sylvester Stallone. A common case in the world of letters comes whenever a strong first novelist is wildly overpraised, and knows that a lot of ambitious young literary critics are out there sharpening their knives as they await the publication of his next book.
There’s Lillian Hellman, who 25 years ago told a congressional committee that she couldn’t cut her beliefs to fit this year’s fashions. As it happened, by the early 70s those beliefs were this year’s fashions and she was lionized for them—but today her politics are becoming last year’s fashions again and aren’t talked about. There’s Philip Johnson, the pathbreaking modern architect, who even as his younger colleague, I.M. Pei, is joining the Academy of the Overrated for his modern addition to the National Gallery in Washington, unveils a new building design that looks like a grandfather clock. Even in the sober world of policy-making, the twist applies. “The new thing is sticking it to the Soviets,” says one person familiar with the worlds of politics and fashion. “It’s like the long skirt of the 50s coming back.” As soon as any trend goes into full swing, there’s potential for a new trend in knocking it. Fran Lebowitz, the New York humorist of the moment, told The Washington Post that she used to like Perrier water until it became popular, but now “I resent it.”
Blood in the Water
If you live in a setting that changes that fast, you’re likely to become extremely defensive and to react to any criticism with ruthless counterattacks, knowing that if you let it go other sharks might pick up the scent of blood in the water and move in for the kill. Occasionally we see this at The Washington Monthly, when we take off—in what we imagine to be sober, moderate, and responsible fashion—after some part of the New York world and receive in return a literary firebombing.
In 1974 we published an article by Suzannah Lessard that suggested that the circle of writers, editors, and publishers involved in putting out The New York Review of Books might be a little chummy, even if their publication was first-rate. Jason Epstein, a founder of The New York Review and a high official at Random House, wrote back in this reasoned fashion: “Do you understand how deeply your article insults [The New York Review’s] writers? … And how can you write about the Literary Situation when you make no effort to understand the writers concerned? … I cannot imagine a way not to take your imputations of bad faith personally.”
Chapter two in the drama came a year later, when James Fallows wrote an article taking Mary McCarthy to task for her writings on Watergate and Vietnam. This time there were no letters to the editor, but The New York Review itself struck back in an adoring review of McCarthy’s Watergate and Vietnam books by Harold Rosenberg. “In The Washington Monthly,” said Rosenberg, “which appears to be some kind of organ of journalism, Mr. James Fallows, one of the editors, attacks McCarthy’s newsgathering ability and, with added vehemence her apparent lack of respect for finding out the facts. The mood of Fallows’ article . . . is reflected in what is presumably a sketch of McCarthy that accompanies it—it is an abysmal work, both as an attempt at a likeness and a drawing.”
Now it’s possible that these fevered responses were just the product of pure thin-skinnedness, but more likely they were the product of thin-skinnedness with a reason behind it: the powerful fear that the twist was going to go against the subjects of our articles and that next year, after an avalanche of criticism, they would be as low as they were high then. Certainly they had seen it happen to others.
We were particularly inclined to this interpretation because we weren’t immune from the same fear ourselves. In 1970 The Washington Monthly published an article about the Army’s spying on civilians that won us awards and recognition, and ever since then we’ve been praised in the press for our tough, fearless investigative reporting. A model of muckraking journalism, we were called. This presented a problem: our main concern has been pointing out why the government and the society don’t work as well as they should, and investigation of particular programs often serves that mission, while investigative reporting of the discovering-illegality variety has been a fairly minor chord in our editorial symphony. So while we knew we could most effectively win publicity and acclaim—and therefore financial stability—through the investigative pitch, we were afraid that that would leave an opening to some press critic to point out that we hadn’t in fact caught many crooks, at which point we’d become out.
As the world of celebrity and what’s new reaches out to affect more and more people like us, who shouldn’t be in the business of producing this year’s fashions, life for those people becomes trying. It’s tempting to enter the neophiliac fray, knowing it can bring immense rewards in terms of money and recognition, let alone glamour—would the cause of solar energy be where it is today without Sun Day and Robert Redford? But once that step is taken, there’s a clear choice: either keep changing every year to stay new or become forgotten and used up. Besides being unpleasant for the people involved, that fate has a disturbing implication in terms of the work they represent: that its value will be solely in its newness, not its worth.
‘Everybody May Forget’
In June Halston put on his fall made-to-order collection. It was in all the papers. Jackie, Lee, Liza, and Bianca were there. Halston’s look was a return to elegance. Halston left New York for Fire Island. Liza won a Tony award.
A new disco called Xenon opened. It had a huge model spaceship that descended from its ceiling. Vitas Gerulaitis, Lorna Luft, Liv Ullman, and Tony Curtis were there, as well as a couple who had spray-painted themselves silver. “My fondest wish is that Steve Rubell comes here and they don’t let him in,” said one guest.
People quoted Steve Rubell as saying he wouldn’t let himself in to Studio 54. “Half a year ago nobody knew me,” Rubell told People. “Half a year from now everybody may forget.”
Halston has never been on the cover of People. Ralph Nader was on the cover of People last year. “Why isn’t this man smiling?” the cover headline said. “He’s got a friend in the White House.” However, this year Us, sadly, listed Ralph Nader among “the out people.” “Doesn’t Ralph Nader know that worrying isn’t chic anymore?” Us asked. “Worrying is so, so 60s.”