After a Fright in Paris, a Decorator Returns to New York Minimalism

Reports that interior decorator Ann Downey is living in reduced circumstances in a one-room New York apartment after a brutal robbery at her apartment in Paris last year have been highly exaggerated. Especially when you see the room: Less never looked like more.

“The idea is, this is like the galley on a boat,” the perfectly groomed Mrs. Downey explained during a recent tour of her one-room aerie in a posh Upper East Side hotel. With a click of a red-painted fingernail on a recessed button, the elaborate General Electric refrigerator opened. A full bar unfolded behind the icebox door. “And this is the top-of-the-line Maytag washer and dryer,” Mrs. Downey added. “Not that I’ve ever washed anything in my life, or put it in the dryer, but it has to look good,” she said, laughing all the way back to her perch on an upholstered sofa in her red drawing room and bedroom. “I wanted something younger than I was used to,” she explained. “My version of minimalism.”

Having worked alone for 25 years, decorating for such varied clients as Frank and Barbara Sinatra, the columnist Aileen (Suzy) Mehle, restaurant owner Elaine Kaufman and Patricia Kennedy Lawford, Ann Downey joined McMillen Inc., the decorating firm founded in 1924 by Eleanor Brown, this summer.

“I do everything backwards,” she said. “Usually, you start out in a large decorating firm and then go out on your own. But when Betty Sherrill [McMillen's president] first asked me to join the company 25 years ago, I said No. This summer, when she asked me again, I remembered what she wondered all those years ago. ‘Don’t you get lonely working alone?’ she’d asked me. So, yes, I decided I wanted to join McMillen now.”

Besides her considerable connections here and abroad, Mrs. Downey brings to the conservative, largely ladylike firm her punchy esthetic, with an emphasis on daring color and comfort, not just fine furniture and art.

A few years ago, Mrs. Downey sold her grand apartment at 580 Park Avenue and her house in Southampton, L.I., so she could divide her time between her house in Palm Beach and her apartment in Paris near where her daughter, Mona, the Comtesse de Sayve, and her grandson, Nicolas, live. The Park Avenue apartment originally belonged to her third husband, the famous Irish tenor Morton Downey, who died in 1985. Mr. Downey was the father of four children, including television personality Morton Downey Jr.

A native of Akron, Ohio, Ann Downey first visited Paris when she was 12 years old, “and decided it was better than Oz,” she said. In decorating her apartment there, she “wanted the feeling of country house on the Left Bank, but with enough snap to make it suitable for black tie.” Architectural Digest photographed the place for its March 1992 issue, and Elsa Klensch did a segment about it for CNN. Then came the robbery in January 1998.

After a long lunch at the Ritz one afternoon, Mrs. Downey walked home to her duplex penthouse in the fashionable seventh arrondissement . Three men followed her inside her apartment. She was hit on the head and restrained. As she lay on the ground, Mrs. Downey remembered what had happened to her friend and client Nelson Gross, the New Jersey businessman who was kidnapped and murdered last year. “I always wondered why Nelson didn’t pretend to have a heart attack,” she said. “I always thought if, God forbid, anything like that ever happened to me, I would pretend to be dead weight. Which I tried to do, except when I saw one of the men had a blackjack. ‘Oh, my God, here it comes,’ I thought. I don’t know by what grace one of the men said, ‘No, no, don’t,’ and they didn’t beat me. They usually do.” The burglars sprayed her eyes with Mace and took off. Mrs. Downey was discovered by a neighbor.

“After that happened,” Mrs. Downey declared, “I was in a New York state of mind. I couldn’t wait to get back here.”

The door to her jewel-box flat opened, and Mrs. Downey’s driver of many years, Joseph Grant, unleashed into the tangerine-red room two loose-hipped King Charles spaniels named Roudi Alam Downey and Elsie de Wolfe. “The pups, the pups,” exclaimed Mrs. Downey, as if she were retrieving affection from two long-lost suitors.

Mr. Grant, a handsome man often mistaken for the actor Ossie Davis, doesn’t really drive Mrs. Downey much anymore. “He comes with me and the dogs when I shop the fabric houses or go on appointments.” Who drives? “We take taxis,” Mrs. Downey said.

She recently finished an apartment in Olympic Tower, 625 Fifth Avenue, for clients, and is midway through doing an apartment for textile designers John and Andrea Stark. “I love decorating,” Mrs. Downey enthused. “It’s like giving a gift to someone. You feel better.”

The decorator whose work inspired her most was the late Dorothy (Sister) Parish. Mrs. Downey remembered traveling in Europe in the early 1970’s with Mr. Downey and the late minerals tycoon Charles Engelhard and his wife, Jane, and stopping in London to see the Engelhards’ apartment, which Mrs. Parish had just decorated. “I never saw anything like it in my life,” Mrs. Downey recalled. “From then on, whatever Mrs. Parish said, whatever she decorated, I loved.”

But it was praise from the late decorator Billy Baldwin that helped Mrs. Downey build her career. After visiting the Downeys’ house in Palm Beach with the late Kitty Miller, Baldwin told friends and decorating-magazine editors, “To use color is the most difficult thing in the world, and Ann does it wonderfully,” Mrs. Downey said, quoting Baldwin by heart.

Fashion, however, doesn’t interest Ann Downey much. “I always tell my clients I don’t decorate like I dress.” She wore a black cashmere sweater and gray flannel skirt. “I don’t think best-dressed women become the best decorators,” she added. “Best-dressed women are usually a bit laid-back in their style, conservative. A room needs more punch. I love looking at fabrics. Then it’s too much after to look seriously at clothes.”

She paused. “I think good hair is very important. Because if a woman’s hair looks good, she can wear anything, blue jeans and a T-shirt if she wants.” A few years before Mr. Downey died, Mrs. Downey bought a hair salon in Palm Beach, Fla., called Le Salon.

“Morton asked me one day if I had all the money in the world, what would I buy. He said he’d want a private plane. Not me. I’d want my own hairdresser.” Run by a friend, Steven Deering, who also has a beauty parlor in Southampton, Le Salon is like most answered prayers, Ann Downey said: “It is so popular I usually can’t get an appointment.”

Billy’s List: Quiz time!

1. Gianni Agnelli was the godfather when Elle Macpherson’s son Alexander was christened recently in Italy, but who made Elle’s dress?

a. Bill Blass.

b. Giorgio Armani.

c. Valentino.

2. In the coming CBS miniseries about Doris Duke, Lauren Bacall plays the heiress. Who plays Bernard Lafferty, her butler and heir?

a. Richard Chamberlain.

b. Barry Bostwick.

c. Martin Sheen.

3. Lots of designers have taken credit, but who actually made the pants Madonna wears in her video for “Ray of Light”?

a. Marc Jacobs.

b. Tuleh.

c. Stella McCartney.

Answers: (1) c; (2) a; (3) c.