WASHINGTON — André Leon Talley was not the easiest of friends.
He could be demanding. And cutting. And moody.
But he was the most glorious of friends. He was soigné, to use one of his favorite words, and he had éclat, to use another. He was a true icon, prowling the world in search of glamour and beauty, disdaining “dreckitude.”
“‘Dreckitude’ is the lowest point in the lowest ebb,” he once explained, adding, “‘Dreck’ is a total, total, total hot mess.”
André glided around the globe like a French king, swathing himself in glittering caftans and sable coats custom-made by his designer friends. When he wasn’t swanning, he was swaddled under Hermès blankets watching MSNBC in his overstuffed house in White Plains, N.Y. He was a hoarder who had all the most beautiful crystal and linens — not to mention Truman Capote’s old sofa — but he never entertained. He sometimes wondered why he could ensorcell so many with his wit and style but not have a lover.
“I had dinners alone and I didn’t do lines of coke,” he told me about the Studio 54 era, when he worked for Andy Warhol. “I was not sexually promiscuous at all. I was fierce and smart and I did not exude that sexual energy. I wanted people to like me because I was smart, not for my Black sex vibe!”
André could be so hilarious that Tom Ford collected his friend’s emails and notes in a little book because they were “truly works of art.”
“When he was excited, he was excited,” said Ford, who told me that he sometimes got a four-page letter on hotel stationery slipped under his door after a fashion show. “When he loved something, he loved it. When he hated something, he hated it. He was never boring.”
I got to know André after he sent me a letter, in his big, loopy handwriting, about a column I wrote when my mom, who came from a family of Irish maids, died in 2005. He told me about his late grandmother in Durham, N.C., Bennie Davis, a maid for the men’s dormitory at Duke University, who raised him from the time he was a baby.
His grandmother sparked some Proustian connections that would cause him problems later in life. He did not want to be the size of a “manatee,” he told me, but “the smell of a biscuit in butter and molasses” was his “opioid,” evoking his grandmother’s love.
“So sad I got fat and had to resort to Scarlett curtains and portieres, disguised as caftans and djellabas!” he said. “But I soldier on. Hard work, though.”
His grandmother taught him that poverty is not an impediment to panache; she boiled his sheets white and ironed his boxer shorts and towels. Later, after Diana Vreeland plucked the tall, skinny Black kid with the master’s in French literature from Brown University to be her unpaid assistant at the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute, André understood completely when Vreeland ironed her dollar bills and tissues. Crispness was all.
Indeed, it was one of the wrinkles in our relationship. I’m not an ironer. In fact, back in the ’70s, I threw out the family ironing board my mom had given me, in some sort of misguided feminist protest.
When André would see me getting ready to go out in a wrinkled cocktail dress, he would fold his arms over his chest and order me to go change, or risk looking like “a roadshow Rita Hayworth.” Although that sounded good to me.
Once, when we were going to the Metropolitan Opera, André looked at the bit of my sea foam vintage gown that was peeking out from under my coat.
“Tulle,” he murmured ominously. “Blanche DuBois.”
Another time, he took me to a White House brunch celebrating Barack Obama’s second inauguration. “This is your date?” President Obama asked André, raising an eyebrow. But André didn’t care. He was focused on my footwear. “Rag & Bone bootees are not for going to the White House,” he instructed me when we were out of the receiving line. “They are for going to Starbucks.”
As André said about his advice, “I AM NEVER WRONG!” He advised all women to moisturize their skin as well as Melania Trump, although, increasingly appalled with the racism he saw in the Trump White House, he instructed me: “We are never to talk about her again. She is nouveau riche trash.”
He loved Jackie Kennedy’s style but turned on her when he learned that she had snubbed Ann Lowe, the Black designer of her wedding dress, calling Lowe simply “a colored dressmaker.”
“I don’t like Jackie O,” he said. “She is now Jackie No.”
When André was spending the night with me for that inaugural, he got the flu and ended up staying for five days. I cleared out of my bedroom and gave him my queen-size bed. He glowered at the closet that was too stuffed to close and barked at me to remove a hat from the wall, a broad-brim, pink-ribbon number that I’d worn to Easter Mass when I was little.
“Your look is not sweet,” he bellowed. “It is equestrian S&M!”
He missed his own tiger-stenciled sheets and he called me Bad Nurse. He kept me running with his requests for chicken noodle soup, Georgetown Cupcakes, chocolate milk and turkey chili.
“Yes, I am difficult,” he said, “but I am loyal to a fault.” As his friend Diane von Furstenberg told me, when Vreeland’s eyesight failed her late in life, André went to that famous red apartment and read to her.
His loyalty was not always returned by those he had assumed were his best friends in the throwaway world of fashion. “People turn on you in an eyelash blink,” he said to me, sadly.
He described his sojourn leaving his size-18 Uggs beside my bed as “sheer joy and mayhem,” and he was right. We lounged in bed and watched old French movies and analyzed the allure of French movie stars from the ’60s. (His favorite was Jeanne Moreau in “Eva,” where she flayed her lover with a riding crop.)
One Christmas, to celebrate our love of movies, he gave me a special gift he’d gotten at auction: Joan Crawford’s sable coat, with “JC” embroidered inside.
I didn’t put it on a wire hanger.