R. Couri Hay was Charles James's close friend in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the designer was living in the Chelsea Hotel, then a frenzied scene of artistic expression. He explains James's mastery of the silhouette and also discusses the designer's infamous falling-out with Halston.
Mr. Hay is a publicist and society columnist.
This interview is one of seven comprising Recalling Charles James, an oral history of the legendary couturier in which James's former clients, assistants, muses, and friends share their stories with fashion journalist and editor Alina Cho. Produced in conjunction with the exhibition Charles James: Beyond Fashion, on view from May 8 through August 10, 2014.
Alina Cho: Couri Hay has spent his adult life chronicling the lives of the rich and famous. He got an early education from Charles James.
R. Couri Hay: What I really remember, of course, is growing up with the Charles James name. My grandmother, my mother's mother, and my mother loved Charles James hats and coats. My brother, Walter, wore Charles James baby clothes, actually. So I've kind of grown up knowing this quite a bit. And so when I first came to New York, I had a letters of introduction. And one of the things that my grandmother wanted me to do was to meet Charles James.
Alina Cho: It was 1968. Couri Hay was just eighteen years old.
R. Couri Hay: He fascinated me from the word go. There was a romance about Charles. Not to mention the theatricality and the drama of the whole situation. And, you know, the Chelsea Hotel—you know, everyone talks about, oh, how seedy it was and rundown it was. But you have to remember that it was also home to Tennessee Williams, Mark Twain, Willem de Kooning, and Lou Reed, so there was a magic and mystery and a charisma, and it was New York for me.
Alina Cho: And Hay's New York revolved around Charles James.
R. Couri Hay: Charles really became a teacher to me, as well as a surrogate father to me, as well. And he kind of propelled my interest in writing and into journalism. It was all about opera, literature, music. Charles was always reading Henry James and Proust and so he was a man of letters and of intellect, and that was his circle.
Alina Cho: Hay and James were part of an intimate network of artists in the early 1970s.
R. Couri Hay: I would come in with Candy Darling to see Charles. Oh, I would bring Zandra Rhodes, my fiancée at the time, down to try on clothes. Or Lou Reed would come in and start to sing to Candy in front of Charles, Walk on the Wild Side, which he was writing at that time. When I introduced him at Studio 54, to both Andy Warhol, who of course, I was working for at Interview, and also to Tennessee Williams, these were very interesting moments.
Charles took me to see Salvador Dalí. Used to be—sort of had a salon at the St. Regis, at the King Cole Bar and then we'd all have dinner at Trader Vic's. And they were great friends. And he absolutely thought of Charles as an artist, and Charles admired Dalí. Other artists, you know, painted or drew garments by Charles James, including Tchelitchew, and Matisse even drew Charles James. So this was his circle. This is—when he looked in the mirror, he saw Charles James the artist. He never saw Charles James a designer. He hated that word.
Alina Cho: Part of James's artistry was his mastery of the silhouette.
R. Couri Hay: Charles always said he gives a woman the figure she wants but doesn't have. Charles had the clothes kind of floating over a woman's body, and then he built the figure out from that. And Charles thought it was very important to highlight her good points and cover all her flaws. And I know that Austine Hearst always said that he covered every flaw.
Charles was an engineer and an architect. So when you speak specifically, like say, the Clover Leaf dress, which is one of the heaviest ones, all the weight came to the hips. Charles was very proud of this. He said it was like pivoted. So the bottom of the skirt—the bodice was tight and to the waist. All the weight came to the hips. Charles was all about the point. Point of sexuality, point of tension, point of interest, and point of weight. And so Charles was very proud of the fact that when they ran a video of the Clover Leaf skirt walking up and down the runway, it looked as good going forwards as it did backwards. But it became weightless on the woman. So even though they were heavy if you put it on the scale, the way they were engineered to fit a woman's body, he engineered it in such a way that they were weightless.
Alina Cho: James's gowns were crafted to perfection. So it may come as a surprise to hear what he considered the greatest fashion statement.
R. Couri Hay: When I asked him, you know, what was America's greatest contribution to fashion, he said, blue jeans. Blue jeans and the work shirt. He liked blue jeans because he always talks about points of sexuality. He felt blue jeans, you know, had a sexual connotation, because of people who worked in them. And so that's what he thought. And I remember when he won the Neiman Marcus Award, to the horror of Mr. Marcus, he wore a pair of blue jeans with his white silk dinner jacket and a cummerbund, and horrified Mr. Marcus, to the point where Mr. Marcus was forced, Charles said, to declare blue jeans fashionable, just because simply, Charles James wore them.
Alina Cho: But James was terrible at managing money, and soon he was out of business.
R. Couri Hay: Money was always kind of like the problem. And he hated the fact that he had to make money in order to produce these beautiful garments. He was a starving, struggling artist. He was the epitome of that romantic mystique. And of course, he was a flashback to a time that none of us knew. You have to think of Charles as, wouldn't he have been perfect with the Medicis? And that was Charles's big regret, that he had no Medici.
When he won two Coty Awards, he returned them both, because he felt they were too commercial. So Charles was very consistent, you know, in—in everything he said and did, and I don't—it wasn't like Charles James changed when he got older and had this view; he always disdained Seventh Avenue.
During this period, he created one of his last garments. It was astonishing. It was a Butterfly top, totally transparent. And it—again, that famous point at the décolletage. And then out to butterfly sleeves. And then he put it in a cellophane box, a clear plastic box, and sent it up to Henri Bendel to—was it Geraldine Stutz or whoever was there. And I remember, you know, there was no reception to it, and Charles was very hurt by that. And it was stunning.
Alina Cho: Around the same time, his former apprentice, Halston, was rapidly rising to fame, and Hay was caught in the middle.
R. Couri Hay: And during this period, I was also seeing Halston. And Halston had brought Charles in to help save his collection, or inspire his collection, or inspire a new collection. Charles called it "save the collection." He said it all had been returned in shambles, falling off the hangers. Halston told a different version. He was rescuing Charles. So there was supposed to be a label that said, "Shaped by Charles James." And that never materialized.
And Halston said, "I'm locking Charles out of the workroom. And you know, I'm going to cut off his stipend." And I was like—I knew that this was Charles's, I don't know if I'd want to call it his last chance, but it certainly was his—it was a—important to Charles, because it was putting him back on the runway. Halston was famous at the time. Charles was the mentor to Halston. So I knew this was going to be incredibly painful for Charles. And he talked about how Charles, you know, was taking too long, that he couldn't deliver the collection, it was too expensive, that he was too crazy, is what he said.
Alina Cho: Over time, the relationship between Halston and James only got worse.
R. Couri Hay: I kind of got an inside look at what was going on. I'd buy hats in London, from Herbert Johnson. I'd come back the day of the—one of Halston's shows. And he would take the hat and put his label right over it. So he—you know, I kinda saw this. So meanwhile, I was, of course, telling Charles everything. And it fed right into what Charles not only felt about Halston, but about Seventh Avenue. In fact, I have a drawing of a cockroach, a very large red cockroach; on the back, written by Charles, it says, "portrait of Halston."
Alina Cho: Shortly thereafter, James became intent on securing his legacy.
R. Couri Hay: So I was sent, like a little messenger boy—and I was happy to do it—to retrieve these clothes from the clients. And I remember going to Oatsie Charles in Washington and I went to her apartment, this beautiful apartment, and she took out this beautiful box and opened it, with all this tissue paper, and out came this beautiful yellow satin coat with an ice blue lining. And she really didn't want to part with it, but she did because Charles asked for it to go to the Brooklyn Museum. And so I brought that back, and I remember that when Charles asked, I told him that my grandmother had hats and coats. And Charles wanted them. And I went to my grandmother and asked her and she said, "No, tell him no, I'm still wearing them. I love them too much." And—but many of the clients did give them, specifically Millicent Rogers, who gave virtually everything he ever made.
Alina Cho: These were beautiful clothes that James treated like children.
R. Couri Hay: He might have treated them better than his children. You know, I met Charles Jr. and Louise a couple of times, but not very much. Maybe twice. And Charles was not, you know, the ideal father. And I'm not sure Charles ever really knew them, the way he knew his dresses. And he named his dresses. And he labored over these dresses, because he was a true artist, and he sacrificed everything for his art. And he was angry that he couldn't make money at it, I think. And he was angry that it wasn't recognized in such a way that it would be supported. But he sacrificed everything—his family, his friends, his clients—everything for art.