Bye Bye to Bill Blass-Designer Cultivated America

The last time I called up Bill Blass, his unmistakably gravelly voice had been reduced to a whisper by throat cancer. Still, it retained all its authoritative nonchalance. “Hello, kid,” he said, “are you still employed?” Friends of Blass, whether they were house cleaners, journalists, clotheshorses or ambassadors, could all have expected a similar greeting. If not “kid,” they might be called “old boy” or “babe,” and the ensuing remark would succeed in making them feel at once sharply observed and gently teased, as though they had just been scratched affectionately behind the ear, in the way that Blass liked to communicate with his beloved yellow Labrador retriever, Barnaby. Blass’ death at the age of 79 prompted several friends to describe their sense of loss as a “black hole,” but it’s a not a term that he would have endorsed. I once remarked upon the unexpected death of a mutual acquaintance, and after tapping the ash off his cigarette, he said, before changing the subject, “Yes. Too bad, isn’t it?”

From time to time, Blass, who was born in Fort Wayne, Ind., in 1922, was likened to Jay Gatsby, another character who escaped the American hinterlands and acquired great wealth and celebrity in the East. Given the frequency with which his name appeared in boldface alongside those of America’s best-dressed column campers, and his passion for filling his much-photographed apartment on Sutton Place and his 18th-century stone house in New Preston, Conn., with princely furniture and pedigreed antiquities, it may have seemed that Bill Blass was gleefully living out the fantasy of Fitzgerald’s “elegant young roughneck.” But to those who knew him, the comparison didn’t hold up.

It wasn’t just that Blass-whose mother was a part-time seamstress, and whose father owned a hardware store and committed suicide when Bill was 5-never did anything to fabricate his past. Or that all the books on his shelves were real. Unlike Gatsby’s West Egg mansion, Blass’ homes were furnished with the rigorous taste of a man who acquired things not for show, but for the satisfaction of his own curious eye. His old friend, the Picasso biographer John Richardson, who advised him on his collection of drawings, said, “Bill didn’t want anything religious or rococo. Nymphs and putti-out! He liked basic, vivid images-a human figure, a battle scene. Whenever we went to a museum or an art dealer, he knew exactly what he wanted to look at, and then we’d be out of there in 10 minutes.”

The idea of throwing open his home to hordes of voyeuristic revelers would have been abhorrent to him. There were never more than six people for lunch or dinner in the cozy, wood-beamed dining room in Connecticut that had once been a tavern patronized by George Washington. (“He never slept here,” Blass hastened to add.) The meals consisted not of caviar, sculpted mousses and baked Alaska, but a perfectly charred hamburger (slathered with Stilton cheese) or his robust, much-celebrated meat loaf, followed by a crisp green salad and a fruit cobbler with ice cream (all washed down with excellent claret). The visitors’ length of stay would be carefully regulated-the handsomely understated rooms were devoid of chairs conducive to extended after-meal chatter-so that the master of the house could retreat to his bedroom with the good book he was always in the middle of, usually a work of biography or history.

Although Blass may have been photographed in black tie more often than any man in America, he was essentially a stay-at-home. At the occasional big soirĂ©e he felt obliged to attend, he never worked the room, but stood off to one side, coolly surveying the babble and always ready with a quick, side-of-the-mouth assessment of the whole faintly ridiculous parade: “She had been a has-been,” I once heard him remark about the entrance of a woman who was conspicuously on the comeback trail.

Blass liked to say that he learned how to design for women from observing how they lived, and he cited as influences such society doyennes as Kitty Miller and Elsie Woodward, who welcomed him into their stylish houses when he arrived on Seventh Avenue in the late 40’s as an unconscionably good-looking young man with rakish charm. But his inimitably American sense of style-which led him to put a T-shirt with a taffeta skirt, or a camel’s hair polo coat over a short evening dress-came out of more accessible terrain. He loved to talk about how, as a boy, he’d spend entire days in a movie house luxuriating in the distant domains of Kay Francis, Carole Lombard and Constance Bennett. He once told me that the best years of his life were spent in the Army during the Second World War as an enlisted man, in a camouflage unit whose job was to position simulated weaponry to draw enemy fire. “It was the camaraderie I loved with men of all different types,” he said, “from artists to coal miners.”

More than any other designer of his generation, he took his cues from his clients-not just from women in New York, but from women all over America. He was the P.T. Barnum of the trunk show, hauling his wares from Pittsburgh to Portland, bringing to his well-heeled patrons his own highly refined notions about what they looked best in, while absorbing-and adapting-their own notions of what they felt comfortable in. He cultivated America. Blass designed by sketching on whatever was at hand-notebook, napkin, even saucer-and, like his observations, his figures are elegantly direct to the point of bluntness, teasingly alive for all their frugality of line. “He was a great editor of everything-rooms, people, clothes,” says Brooke Hayward Duchin. Blue jeans, he wrote in The New Yorker a few years ago, are “the most significant contribution America has made to fashion.”

On the road, he collected some awfully good tales, which I hope found their way into the memoir he finally got around to writing. (It will be published in the fall by HarperCollins under the title Bare Blass .) I heard no more telling comment about why Bill Clinton succumbed so readily to the charms of Monica Lewinsky than his account of taking a trunk show to Little Rock, Ark., and being repeatedly propositioned by a young hussy who kept turning up in his hotel suite, despite his requests to the management that she be thrown out. “Apparently in Little Rock,” Blass said with the dry amusement of a rock-ribbed Republican, “they go with the room.”

Stories of his generosity were legion among his friends, and not just because eight years ago he gave $10 million to the New York Public Library, which put up a plaque bearing his name in the card-catalog room. (The gift was testimony, in part, to his close friendship with the late head of the library, Father Timothy Healy, who friends surmise became something of a father figure to him.) Peter Duchin recalls admiring an unusual painting in the Connecticut house-a large, half-painted scene of the Corso in Rome-and jokingly asking whether it might be left to him in his will. A few weeks later, Blass turned up at a birthday party for the bandleader with the painting under his arm.

A lifelong bachelor, Blass maintained what John Richardson called a “cordon sanitaire” around his private life. It was a line that his friends, if they wanted to remain his friends, knew instinctively not to cross. And yet he was the most down-to-earth of companions. Marguerite Littman, one of his best pals in London-where he went four or five times a year to stay at the Connaught, have lunch at Harry’s Bar, and prowl for antiques on Pimlico Road-remembers taking him to meet Princess Diana at Kensington Palace and being struck by how easily Blass, with his Midwestern straightforwardness and mid-Atlantic drawl, converted the princess into an old friend. “They were both enchanted with each other,” Ms. Littman said. “Of course, he immediately saw the point of her-how funny she was-just as he always saw the point of everything.”

Carolyne Roehm recalled the time, many years ago, when her boss, Oscar de la Renta, asked his good friend Blass to look after her one evening while they were all in Lake Como, Italy. “I was a 24-year-old assistant making $175 a week, and I was in awe of him,” she said. “The very first grown-up dress I ever owned was a Blass. But he took me out to dinner and said, ‘O.K., kid, so you want a martini?’ He treated me as though he’d known me all my life, which of course is how he treated everyone, no matter who they were. I went to visit him a week ago and, as I was saying goodbye, I whispered in his ear, ‘I love you very much.’ He looked at me and growled, ‘Oh, don’t get all teary-eyed on me.'”