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The Unsinkable Albert Hadley
A new biography unfolds the brilliant career of the 84-year-old dean of American interior designers and longtime partner of the late Sister Parish.
By Kim Waller

Albert Hadley.

Babe and William Paley's New York City apartment drawing room, designed by Parish-Hadley. Below, Lewis's book on the interior designer.
This October, Albert Hadley is having another opening — not a handsome room in a decorator showhouse as so often has been the case, but his own stunning story between the covers of a book. For those who know the modest Mr. Hadley, the mere fact that it is his story, much of it in his own words, is remarkable in itself. Hadley is not known for talking about himself. And he is far too tactful to indulge in idle chatter about clients ranging from the John Hay Whitneys to Happy Rockefeller to Vice President Albert Gore and his wife, Tipper. Yet Albert Hadley, The Story of America's Preeminent Interior Designer (Rizzoli, October 2005, $65) is filled with wonderful anecdotes about his work with such people, who often became his friends. Although as teacher, mentor and, for years, the name after the hyphen in Parish-Hadley, he liberally shared his professional wisdom, Hadley is inherently a very private person. “You can write the book after I'm dead,” he initially told biographer and interior designer Adam Lewis.

   Luckily for the history of American design, he changed his mind. “Getting around his reserve was difficult, but he allowed me to do it,” says Lewis, who befriended Hadley while researching a previous book on Van Day Truex, Hadley's revered mentor and friend. (Van Day Truex: The Man Who Defined Twentieth-Century Taste and Style, Penguin Putnam). “He had to trust me right down to the core of his being.”

    The current book unfolds Hadley's story through his vivid recollections—including details of houses he lived in before the age of six! Along with 200 color photos of beautiful rooms he has designed, there is a catalog of hundreds of articles and references to Hadley's work, “for the sake of future scholars,” says Lewis. “I believe he will go down as our most important postwar interior designer.”

    Many would agree. Orderly, engaging and timeless, a Hadley room never screams of his signature. Notes Annette de la Renta in an introduction to the book, “He instinctively knows what's important and eschews the pompous. Where lesser talents seem always to want to add, Albert subtracts.” Perhaps that is one key to his uncanny ability to create freshly through many changing decades. Yet his point of view, he insists, has remained the same: “To be representative of the time and place, and to make the work as personal for the client as possible.”
 
   Hadley can study a room and see how the arrangement, style and scale of furnishings within the space should be, a concept he'll jot first in a rough sketch. “Like these,” he says, showing a visitor to his East 64th Street office in Manhattan his recent “scribbles,” as he calls them. “I'm much more interested in the space,” he adds, “than in the color of the curtains!” Nearby walls are crammed to the ceiling with his elegant finished drawings, representing a half-century of transforming notable homes for some of the country's wealthiest families — and, now, for some of their children. Just as awesome, perhaps, is the wealth of design history he holds in his head and has passed on to former assistants Mariette Himes Gomez, David Kleinberg, David Anthony Easton, Thomas Jayne and Bunny Williams, to name some of the top talents he generously fostered.

    This sunny morning, Hadley looks fit and relaxed in a crisp blue oxford shirt. Seated at a big worktable in the middle of an office filled with personal mementoes — a little ceramic dog commemorates a long-ago Chinatown dinner with friend and fellow legendary decorator Billy Baldwin — he admits that telling his life story to Lewis was, after all, “a pleasure,” especially talking about his exciting early days in New York.

    The fact that Hadley soared at the two most socially eminent decorating firms of their time — first McMillen, Inc., and later with Sister Parish — was no accident. Even as a youth in Nashville, he had his eye on the pacesetters of his day. And when he got himself to New York for a few months in 1946, he boldly sought them out for advice. “Go to the Parsons School of Design,” they said. To that rigorous experience, both as a student under Van Day Truex and, later, as his teaching colleague and friend, Hadley attributes both his encyclopedic knowledge and enthusiasm for such early 20th-century designers as Jean-Michel Frank. Later, with Eleanor Brown at McMillen, Inc. (“very much the neoclassicist”), he was well equipped to take on such major work as completely restoring Rosedown Plantation, an antebellum mansion in Louisiana, with McMillen senior designer Ethel Smith. Thinking of Rosedown today, however, he sighs. “It has all been changed. I recently spotted a fabulous set of 19th-century decorative lacquered furniture that had been used in the breakfast room attributed to the Brighton Pavilion, in a Palm Beach antiques store.” The decoration of houses is an ephemeral art.

    Then, in 1962, came Parish-Hadley, Inc. Unlike Hadley, Sister Parish had grown up in the same pedigreed social circles in which she worked. Unlike Sister, Hadley was a businessman who brought order to a chaotic office and an architectural viewpoint to the firm. She could be old-guard imperious; he is known for his perfect Southern manners. An anecdote about doing up Brooke Astor's home in Northeast Harbor, ME, early in their collaboration reveals their different ways of working. Both were there to meet the truck laden with their purchases, Hadley — as he continues to do today — with his precise plan for every placement in hand. As the furniture came in, Sister started distributing things by sheer instinct, abruptly consigning a lamp or chair to the next room. Out went the plan and, of course, it all worked with the comfort and charm that was her hallmark. “Like two flints, they struck sparks off each other,” said biographer Lewis recently. “That, for 32 years, was the fire of Parish-Hadley.”

    Sister Parish died in 1994. And though Hadley admits “I miss Sis every day,” this dean's December remains as focused as his springtime and summer. He is at his office from 9 to 5, working closely with three design assistants and two loyal helpers, mother and daughter, who've been with him for years. And tomorrow? “I'm flying to Florida to see three clients — in Palm Beach and Hobe Sound.”
Kim Waller, a former features editor of Victoria and Town & Country, is a New York-based freelance writer and editor.

Photo credit:
Image 1: Debraanne Cingari, Image 2: William P. Steele.

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