A Condom For Your Couch? Carleton Varney On Mrs. Clean

Re spring cleaning: Aren’t you heartily sick of all that black soot cascading in through your cracked windows and soiling

Re spring cleaning: Aren’t you heartily sick of all that black soot cascading in through your cracked windows and soiling your pristine abode? No, this isn’t fallout from 9/11–I’m talking about that perennial Manhattan grime that turns to mud when you try to Windex it off those newly painted window sills.

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You could consider doing what Joan Crawford did when she lived in Manhattan: simply cover your window sills in removable fitted sheets of easy-to-clean white plastic laminate. At least that’s the tip that Carleton Varney, Crawford’s interior decorator, shared with me recently in the East 56th Street office of Dorothy Draper & Company, where he is president.

Mr. Varney is the world’s leading authority on the war on gunk, as carried out by Mommie Dearest. He ought to be: He oversaw the decoration of three subsequent Crawford apartments, and his 1999 book, The Decorator , is a roman à clef about their relationship. I grilled him about the eternally fascinating, wire-hanger-hating harridan and got oodles of spring-cleaning tips–and a whole lot more.

Mr. Varney met Joan Crawford in 1965, when she was just about to vacate her massive Fifth Avenue apartment at 2 East 70th Street, overlooking the Frick Collection, and move to a smaller pad at the Imperial House on 69th Street and Lexington Avenue. After the death of her husband, Pepsi Cola chairman Alfred Steele, Crawford could no longer afford the staggering–for 1965–$3,000 maintenance (i.e., the first wife got the life insurance). Precocious Mr. Varney was only 22 when he got the life-changing commission to decorate the new apartment. Pepsi-promotin’ J.C. was in her late 50’s and still shooting the occasional movie: She had just completed Trog –one of the most retarded movies ever made–when they began their collaboration.

“I was the cosmetician, and she was the director,” said the dapper Mr. Varney as we chatted from either side of a coffee table which had belonged to Crawford. “She blocked out the floor with tape in each empty room and walked around as if she was playing scenes.”

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. The move to humbler digs wore on Mommie Dearest’s nerves and upped her vodka intake: She drank from “a large plastic barrel-shaped glass with a fly-casting symbol on it,” according to Mr. Varney’s 1980 memoir, There’s No Place Like Home: Confessions of an Interior Designer . But Mr. Varney enjoyed the challenge. In fact, he even confessed to feeling an amorous frisson toward the aging movie icon. “It was an unusual feeling, a combination of the emotions a man has when he looks at a desirable woman and those he has for his mother.” Eeuw !

I ask Mr. Varney if there was ever any hanky-panky. “No!” he said. “But I used to take out Christina. In fact, I know Joan would have loved to have had me as a son-in-law.” Double eeuw ! (F.Y.I.: Mr. Varney is divorced with three kids, one of whom–Nicholas Varney–is opening a jewelry boutique at Bergdorf Goodman on Feb. 25.)

Though the still-attractive Joan had graduated from cracking Christina over the head with Bon Ami containers, her obsessive compulsions, according to Mr. Varney, raged throughout their relationship. Guests were asked to remove their shoes chez elle , and Joan herself wore floor-protecting rubber flip-flops. She always carried a box of Kleenex with her in case her pooches pooped on the floor. Furniture and lampshades were all protected against the sooty metropolis. “There were more objects wrapped in plastic in Joan’s apartment than in an A&P meat counter,” recalled Mr. Varney.

In his memoir, Mr. Varney dismisses analytical theories about Joan’s Lady Macbeth-ish tendencies, claiming that she simply “enjoyed being neat, clean and tidy” and that “her mania never prevented her from living well. If you disregard the bother of having to ‘break the seals’ on rising from a plastic-covered couch in warm weather.”

Mr. Varney’s loyalty continues to this day. “I never saw the movie,” said Mr. Varney, referring to the 1981 classic Mommie Dearest . (Call me warped, but I never thought that the movie was such a terrible indictment of J.C. What’s so great about putting expensive frocks on wire hangers?)

“I always remember her being very kind to Christina,” said Mr. Varney. “But I admit, Joan wasn’t easy.”

Neither, I have the distinct impression, is Mr. Varney. At 60, he has the same curmudgeonly commitment to his oeuvre and his persona that he once observed in Crawford. “Always remember, Carleton, I invented me,” he recalls her once telling him. After half an hour with Mr. Varney, one could easily imagine him trotting out the same line. A tall (he used to be a model) Wildean character in a flowing foulard, he has a biting wit and a Crawfordesque capacity for hard work. Whether launching a resort-clothing collection in Miami Beach, working on a Broadway show (called Dorothy of Oz , it will hit the boards in 2003 “if all goes well”), running his eponymous clothing and houseware boutiques in Florida and Ireland, or whomping up the décor at Palm Beach parties, Carleton Varney is the epitome of the wouldn’t-know-how-to-retire-if-they-could New Yorker. He has decorated the Carter White House, the Breakers hotel lobby in Palm Beach, rooms at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia and Au Bar in New York. He has written countless books on decorating, and has penned a syndicated column since 1969 called “Your Family Decorator.” Mr. Varney changed the name from “Ask Dorothy Draper” when he took it over after La Draper passed away. He had already–in an ultra-Crawfordian takeover–negotiated the company away from her when she was going ga-ga.

Despite their hideously acrimonious parting of ways, Mr. Varney remains a fiercely committed admirer and proponent of the Dorothy Draper style: i.e., gaudy, blowzy chintzes, screeching lime-green plaid carpets, white-gloss paint work and patent-leather upholstery. His 1988 book, The Draper Touch , is a fascinating read. Caution: It may cause you to have an anti-minimalist freakout. If you start to crave oversized chintzes, original Dorothy Draper designs are still available through Ellen Ford Ltd. (232 East 59th Street, 759-4420).

Or better yet, go the whole hog and commission Carleton Varney, the man The Washington Post once called “a Laura Ashley on acid,” to vanquish the 90’s design austerity from your life. He can be reached at Dorothy Draper & Company (758-2810).

And custom-cut laminates for your window ledges can be ordered from P.D.I. Inc. (620-3840).

P.S.: Another of Mr. Varney’s clients was Ethel Merman, the foghorn-voiced legend who was also eccentric, though not about cleanliness. According to Mr. Varney, Ms. Merman kept a Christmas tree in her entryway 365 days a year. On her deathbed, Ethel told her decorator, somewhat enigmatically, “Get on the boat before it leaves the pier.”

Needlepoint that!

A Condom For Your Couch? Carleton Varney On Mrs. Clean