Until recently, I was a ding-dong about interior decorating, thinking it was frivolous, superficial: a silly pursuit for rich socialites, O.C.D. neat freaks obsessed with appearances and superior magazine-design twerps. I was proud to have no idea what chintz, sconces, William Kent tables, Queen Anne chairs, trellises and porticos were. I happily wallowed in hellholes, pigsties, rat traps. All I needed was enough room for a mattress on the floor and a litter box.
Oddly enough, the decorator Mark Hampton loomed large during my privileged youth. Before Mom moved to Belgium in 1991, there was a going-away dinner party at Doubles. Mr. Hampton toasted her generosity and expertise in the art of entertaining. Among other things, he said there were always “fresh towels” in the guest houses. The guy had star power: obvious substance, breeding, manners, erudition, sartorial perfection, wit and charm. But fresh towels? What was that all about? I mean, you take a shower, you dry off with whatever’s around, paper towels if need be, end of story, right?
‘You’ve never done anything except prop up your bed with books like some geezer with gross digestive issues.’ —My fiancée
Mr. Hampton decorated Mom’s spreads in Locust Valley, East Hampton, D.C. and Brussels, and the two townhouses, on East 71st Street and the Louis XVI Revival monstrosity on East 96th. The latter, the “Cartier Mansion,” was designed in 1915 by Ogden Codman Jr. (who wrote The Decoration of Houses with Edith Wharton). It had 30,000 square feet, 30 rooms, 11 bathrooms, and a five-story pipe organ. “You’re not Jayne Wrightsman!” Mark told Mom when she first expressed interest in it. “You don’t have 18th-century furniture! Who do you think you are! You can’t have that house!”
“Oh yes we can. Watch me.”
Soon, things began arriving from Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Dalva Brothers. I remember wondering if all this conspicuous consumption was morally justifiable, so close to Harlem and all.
Mr. Hampton was around all the time, having powwows with Mom about Louis XV-style chairs, bouillette lamps, boiserie panels, Sultanabad carpets, velvet-and-damask-covered love seats, a mahogany octagonal table for the octagonal dining room, the pair of silver gilt candelabras on the white marble mantel above one of the seven fireplaces.
In late 1995, I tagged along to Elio’s restaurant, where his stunning wife, Duane, and their lovely, vivacious daughters, Kate and Alexa, met us. That was the last time I saw Mark, who died less than three years later. After receiving a free copy of Duane’s recently published Mark Hampton: An American Decorator, I decided to get to know him better.
According to those who knew him well, Mark was a scholar, a talented cook, a dancer, a draftsman, a lyricist, a gardener, a napper, a piano and drum player, a generous mentor, a multitasker (way before the term was coined), an expert at conversation and working a room, a Renaissance man with “an unparalleled knowledge of the decorative arts” (Paige Rense), “a truly superior person” (Glenn Bernbaum), “the last of the twentieth-century gentleman” (William Norwich) and “the most amusing, cleverest, nicest, most cultured, kindest, funniest guy in New York” (Liz Smith). “He often said, ‘Pretentiousness is fatal to decoration,’ and I know he felt arrogance to be the greatest of character flaws,” Duane writes in her first book, The Art of Friendship. In An American Decorator she elaborates that he “refrained from making grandiose declarations involving ‘vision’, ‘oeuvre’ or–worst of the lot–‘design statement.’ And what he might have said about the current ‘design journey’ would certainly be unprintable.”
An American Decorator‘s text and tone are great, the pictures interesting to look at (two of Mom’s former residences are featured). Its author spent seven years putting it together. “It was nice to write about him, not sad,” Duane told me. She was a stone-cold fox in her brown sweater and beige pencil skirt. “I wanted to do it to assure that he would be in the history of decorating.”
We were sitting in her Park Avenue apartment, which hasn’t changed much in the past three decades. In her bedroom are 52 scrapbooks chronicling her life with Mark. On the bedside table, in a small silver frame, is their motto: “I don’t believe that less is more. I believe more is more, that less is less, fat fat, thin thin, and enough is enough!”
I asked for help with some decorating terms. After Duane explained Palladian, en suite, Natchez and “William Kent table,” I worked up the courage to ask what the hell chintz is. “That’s one of my favorite things!” she said. “It’s a material that’s printed, often flowery, not always, and has a glaze that makes it semi-shiny, also protects it, and keeps it going for years. That’s chintz.” Apparently I was sitting on some.
MARK HAMPTON WAS born in a small town in Indiana called Plainfield. He and his sister, Rachel, were raised as Quakers, taught the hard lessons of the Depression, weren’t allowed to be bored or idle. Young Mark preferred hanging out with the old-timers in the community to the roughnecks his age. His father was a farmer and the town undertaker. Mark did stretcher duty and saw a lot of interiors that way. His mother loved houses, furniture, antiques, so he became aesthetically aware early on. At age 7, he learned to sketch, paint and watercolor, and wanted to be an artist. In fourth grade, he knew what Greek Revival looked like and the difference between Victorian and Georgian houses. When he saw David Lean’s Great Expectations, he couldn’t understand how Miss Havisham could be miserable in those wonderful Tudor rooms. At 11, he found and refinished some antique shutters for his bedroom. Even though he was hopeless at sports, he was popular: president of his high school class, salutatorian, and star of Girl Crazy. At DePauw University, he majored in history and was president of Sigma Chi. Junior year he attended the London School of Economics. Before going abroad, he read Nancy Mitford’s Noblesse Oblige, learned to say curtains, not drapes, and the difference between “U” and “Non-U.” After a friend suggested he work part-time, he dashed off some sketches, dropped them off at David Hicks’ office, and became the soon-to-be-legendary decorator’s assistant.
Meanwhile, Duane Flegel was born in Portland, Oregon, moved to Hawaii and Thailand (her grandfather was C.I.A.; her father died very young) and ended up in Bucks County, Pa. At Central Bucks High, she was the valedictorian and a cheerleader. Traveling around Italy after her freshman year at Mount Holyoke, she met Mark by chance in Florence. He was 21, tall, movie-star handsome, perfect teeth, interesting, helpful, did the dishes, sang better than his frat brothers. Back home, Duane received lots of illustrated letters and phone calls. She visited him at college, turned him on to rock ‘n’ roll and the Twist, and they fell in love. In 1964, the couple married and Duane moved to New York. Both attended grad school at N.Y.U.: art history for him, English literature for her. Their first friend in the city was legendary decorator Sister Parish, a funny, naughty battle ax who knew everyone. She hired Mark on the spot for his drawing ability and “marvelous looks.” One of his first tasks was to return wastebaskets to vendors because Jackie Kennedy thought $35 was too expensive for a White House wastebasket. With Sister’s help, Duane got a job at Condé Nast, and later became a design editor at Mademoiselle and features editor at House & Garden. “Suddenly they were just there, and it seemed like they’d been there forever,” said author (and former Observer columnist) Michael Thomas, a friend. “They were both extremely personable and attractive and everything else. She was a terrifically pretty girl and Mark had a terrific style and grace about him. He just had it. He was one of the best hanging-out-with type people I ever knew. That quality of sociability is hard to find, most people don’t have it.”
What was it like when he walked into a room? “You looked up and your switch went from 50 to 100, like a three-way bulb.”