Remembering Eleanor Lambert
March 13, 2012 | by —Jeffrey Slonim | Homepage
Eleanor Lambert with John A. Tiffany
Entering The Sherry-Netherland hotel, to the right, behind a broad door decorated with interlocking double Ds, I descended into Doubles, a plush, subterranean club, to celebrate fashion historian John A. Tiffany's new book on his former boss and mentor, legendary publicist Eleanor Lambert.
Traveling down the steep staircase with thick, colorful zigzag carpet and a striped ceiling to the tiny coat check is like falling into a tiny, tony time-machine vortex. Past a fluffy white-haired gent manning a long wooden desk, and thin bar area, the bilevel lunchroom opened up with majestic Indian murals. Chairs had multi-hued, striped upholstery and our long rectangular table was decorated with coral napkins.
The lunch buffet on the behemoth lower level included a cornucopia of diver scallops, chilled salmon, and shrimp cocktail, as well as a mountainous table of classic desserts, including chocolate mousse and crème brûlée.
Second-generation club owner Wendy Carduner, with altitudinous jet-black tresses and a bright smile, who grew up next door to Walter Winchell on the 33rd and 34th floors of The Sherry-Netherland, introduced herself warmly.
On his way to a two-top, Dennis Basso stopped by the table to glad-hand.
We were a crowd of ten, including author Doria de La Chapelle and designer Jeffrey Banks, the pair of whom recently co-penned Preppy: Cultivating Ivy Style, former CFDA president Stan Herman, and man of the hour Tiffany.
Tiffany began working for Lambert, the very first fashion and art publicist, in 1995 and has now put together a coffee-table book, Eleanor Lambert: Still Here, about his former boss. The book includes Lambert's press releases on staggeringly famous clients, such as Jackson Pollock and Cecil Beaton.
As we tucked into artichoke stuffed with chicken salad, Banks regaled us with tales of Calvin Klein, his once-upon-a-time boss, being at loggerheads with Lambert, who had decreed that the Cody Awards (a predecessor to the CFDA Awards, which Lambert founded) should only have classical music. Klein bucked Lambert’s orders and added a throbbing African drumbeat soundtrack to the fashion show. Lambert went ballistic. Klein’s response? “But they’re classical African drums!”
At the following year’s Cody Awards, Klein had models take the runway in low-cut terry-cloth robes and then open them, unveiling their bare breasts. Mrs. Lambert had apoplexy.
Banks' other bare-breasted story was about being summoned to his friend Perry Ellis’ beach house to make ribs for the now late fashion editor Carrie Donovan. Banks was surprised to step out onto the back porch and catch an aging Mrs. Donovan digging in topless, with his famous barbecue sauce running down her bare bosom. Yikes!
Not to be outdone, at the other end of the table, Herman claimed that designer Mollie Parnis outed fashion designers who pretended to be Republicans with their rich Upper East Side clients—as liberal Democrats.
According to Tiffany, Lambert was famous for adding or subtracting a few names on the International Best-Dressed List after the committee had voted, and then pretending she had no idea what had happened.
“Mrs. Lambert put together Grace Kelly’s wedding,” Tiffany informed me. “And she founded the March of Dimes fashion shows at The Waldorf=Astoria. They were televised fundraisers for the March of Dimes with celebrities and socialites modeling. Sets were designed by Salvador Dali [one of Lambert’s clients], Grandma Moses, and Alexander Calder.”
Tiffany also provided insight into the history of the Met Costume Institute Gala. “The Costume Institute was Mrs. Lambert's original idea,” he said. “And in 1948, after the war, they called the first gala the Midnight Gala. During the war people couldn’t stay out at night, so they had dinner and dancing at midnight.” To this day the Met Gala runs way late.
Depending on your self-control, a buffet lunch at Doubles can be as grand or petite as you like. On a fashionable diet, Tiffany stuck to three cookies for dessert while I piled my plate with a veritable mini-dessert-tasting menu.
Raucous stories melted into late afternoon.