For his New York apartment, one of Parish-Hadley’s guiding lights distills the essence of a lifetime of looking.
It is the way of most decorators to indulge in their own houses those extremes of their taste that are too extravagant to foist on clients. I have been in many such residences and have found them draped with extraordinary quantities of chintz or crammed with ornaments and bibelots or lit like grand opera or reduced to an almost polar starkness. But what Albert Hadley has carried to an extreme in his own apartment are restraint, simplicity, clarity of line, and purity of composition – an extreme version of his style, to be sure, but an extreme of moderation. No client would tolerate quite such exaggerated modesty, such carefully calculated resistance to drama, such an absence of spectacle.
Hadley speaks fondly of his garden at his country house in Southport, Connecticut. “Not too many flowers,” he remarks. “A green garden can be the most lovely.” His Manhattan apartment is in its way just such a green garden, in which the beauty of what might otherwise go unnoticed rises shimmering to the surface. I arrived on a chilly day; he had just lit the fire, and we sat in his small living room. The whole apartment is in tones of gray, white, and black with flashes of red. The light was slanting through the charcoal Venetian blinds at the far end of the room and glinting in soft polished reflections from the silver tea paper on the walls. The fire was casting long shadows across the cloud-colored rug with its crimson tracery. In the hallway the walls glowed the lacquer hue of Diana Vreeland’s vermilion.
The effect was not of that intense and overbearing self-consciousness typical of monochrome or duochrome rooms. Wherever Hadley sat, he looked like part of a perfectly composed photograph. He was animated, not neutralized, by the simplicity around him. It has been said of great dancers that there is no awkward angle, no ungainly movement; so, too, in Hadley’s apartment the perspectives work from every point. You could roll on the carpet or float just below the ceiling, and everything would still order itself into unassuming symmetries.
The technique is buried. There are attractive things pleasantly arranged, but the secret of their relationships to one another is obscure. As we walked from room to room, Hadley explained the work he had done: “Here I moved the living room wall in six inches so that the structural beam, which had been half in the living room and half in my study, was entirely in my study. Here I blocked in a window that seemed unnecessary. Here I moved the door over five and a half inches to line up with this door. Here I built a closet so that I could get an even run of surfaces going through the hallway. Here I put the sink where the door was, and the shower where the bathtub used to be.” Wandering through the apartment, you can’t quite believe it was worth the effort to adjust every room by fractions of inches. Yet you are also unable to account for the clarity and calm of your passage from one space to another. “There’s nothing special here,” Hadley says. “It’s all stock material and it took just three months.”
Though Hadley has some stunning antiques, he also has less precious custom-made pieces. “I’m not interested so much in the museum quality of an object as I am in its integrity and aesthetic dynamics,” he says. “To me it’s much more interesting to have things that have a kind of quirky personality than to have furniture made by particular makers or distinguished by unusual provenances.” But like his partner, Sister Parish, he is enough of a romantic to love objects with associations: “Being asked to create interiors from scratch for people who have no possessions and bring nothing along, you feel that there has been no life before.” Almost all of his own belonging are laden with personal meaning. The writing table in the living room was a gift from Billy Baldwin. “Billy had found another one he liked better, so he called me and said in the most offhand way, ‘You don’t have to have it if you don’t really want it, but I just thought you might like it.’ It was the first real piece of furniture that I had in my apartment in New York.” An Alexander Liberman gouache hangs on the wall, a simple painted V from the Vreeland estate sale held two years ago at Sotheby’s. “I was sick at the time of the sale,” Hadley recalls. “Someone in the office said, ‘If you were going to the sale, what thing of Diana Vreeland’s would you rather have than anything else?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t really want anything, but the thing I’ve always liked a lot is this V.’ The people in my office all got together and bid on it, and they gave it to me as a present.”
One feels, talking to Albert Hadley, that he must have been most frequently the listener among the great personalities he has known; he does not bludgeon you with the power of his own personality as Billy Baldwin or Mrs. Vreeland would have done. As a decorator, too, he is at his best when he is responding to difficulties and pleasures, overcoming what must be overcome and celebrating what should be celebrated. He is more an editor than a creator – but to be a master editor is to achieve something of great moment; it is, in the end, to create.
Hadley’s study is dominated by an enormous pinboard covered with scraps of the glamour in which he has lived. At the center is a portrait of Elsie de Wolfe. “After I bought it,” he says, “I had Lady Mendl look at it, and she said, ‘I didn’t sit for that; it was done for a newspaper, and the damned fool, flipping through clippings, got Anne Morgan’s head on my body. But I’ll tell you that it’s a portrait of me and that will make it much more interesting and much more valuable.’” There is a photograph of the famous Yves Saint Laurent patchwork satin wedding dress, with its endless trailing veil, worn by a mannequin without a face; a postcard of an Elizabethan miniature by Nicholas Hilliard known as Young Man among Roses; a Horst photograph of Nancy Lancaster’s drawing room at Haseley Court. There are snapshots of Hadley’s garden in Southport and of his godson, and there is a large and spectacular photograph of Mrs. Vreeland, clipped from an ancient copy of the Times. All these items are held in place with hundreds of red pushpins.
“New York is still glamorous,” Hadley muses. “When I arrived here, people lived at a slower pace gut were faster, and perhaps smarter, in their attitudes. On the other hand, I don’t feel that my life is fragmented, perhaps because I really don’t do very much. And if you can hold out against being jaded – yes, New York is still glamorous.”
Hadley seems in no danger of being jaded. “Have you seen the new windows at Tiffany?” he asks, then waxes lyrical. “Have you seen the new show at the Cooper-Hewitt? I shall go back again later in the week.” He is full of startling ideas. “I don’t really like living here,” he says in quite an offhand way. “I’d rather live in a loft, but there are none in this neighborhood, and if I lived downtown, it would take me forever to drive to Southport. Still, I love big spaces and grand scale. You can have bigger ideas in bigger spaces. It’s so glamorous and so European to live in one large room, as Niki de Gunzburg always did.”
“I dream of a loft that would not be anything like this at all,” he continues. “But I suppose if I had a loft, it would take on the continuity of nuttiness that one projects.” The last sentence doesn’t ring quite true. There is something careful about Albert Hadley. He has eccentricities but he is not nutty, and his loft would not be nutty. What his loft would take on is not the continuity of nuttiness but the continuity of space, of architectonic design, of elegance, and, perhaps most of all, of absolute and utterly unaffected self-assurance.