In 1988, I was in my office at Spy magazine, in the Puck Building, on the northern edge of SoHo. I was about to turn 39, and—like today—I worked in a sea of younger editors, assistants, and interns who were all about half my age. To them, I was a dusty antiquity. I wasn’t as slim as I had been at 30—I wasn’t as slim as I had been at 38. There were flecks of gray here and there in my hair. And I was tired. Starting a new magazine—or a new anything, for that matter—is exhausting, and the hours and the exhilaration were beginning to take their toll. I felt like Nick Nolte in that arrest photo.
I was talking across a dividing wall to my partner Kurt Andersen when the phone rang. It was Susan Morrison, our deputy editor. She was on holiday in Europe, and in those days long-distance calls were not made lightly, or cheaply. Susan was a bit heated. She was speaking quickly, and the line was scratchy. I couldn’t quite make out what she was talking about. The words “Herald Tribune” and “best-dressed” came over the line. And then the connection cleared. “You’re on the International Best-Dressed List!” she shouted. “How do you know that?,” I asked. “Because,” she replied, “I just read it in the Herald Tribune!”
I have to say that, when I hung up the phone, I was suddenly in a better mood. I felt rejuvenated. I didn’t tell anyone at the office. I thought I’d wait until Susan returned. But there was a lightness in my step, a sweep in my jacket, that hadn’t been there before. It was the only list I think I’d ever been on. Or at least the only good list. And I care about clothes. I didn’t have a lot of them back then, but I bought the best things I could afford and wore them until they were frayed. And then wore them some more. My philosophy was that great tailoring can disguise, or at least mitigate, the imperfections of the physique and metabolism we are given.
It was the only list I think I’d ever been on. Or at least the only good list.
Furthermore, we took pains to dress up at Spy. The magazine was something of a revolutionary new voice, and I always felt that we would have more authority if we looked like we weren’t shouting from the ramparts. I was embarrassed at how happy the inclusion on this List had made me. At the same time, I wasn’t sure what the List was. I knew that there was a Mr. Blackwell who produced a camp annual roster of the 10 worst-dressed women. So I knew it couldn’t be that—or at least I hoped not.
As I was to discover, the International Best-Dressed List was then almost a half-century old. And it was something to be named to it. The List had been cooked up by Eleanor Lambert before the U.S. entered World War II as a way of drumming up interest in American fashion at a time when the European houses struggled.
Eleanor was as canny a public-relations shaman as you were apt to find in those days. Like so many people who make their mark in New York, she was not from the city. She had grown up in Indiana and, after a stop in Chicago, wound up in the New York art scene of the 20s. In time she began representing artists (including Isamu Noguchi) and even museums (including the Whitney, then just opening). Eleanor gravitated to fashion, and as one looks back, it can fairly be argued that she did more for the American clothing industry than any other single individual has done. She created the Costume Institute Gala, New York Fashion Week, the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the Coty Awards, and the International Best-Dressed List.
It can fairly be argued that Lambert did more for the American clothing industry than any other single individual has done.
Eleanor came into my life about a decade after I had gone on the Best-Dressed List. I was by then at Vanity Fair, and she invited me, along with three colleagues from the magazine, to join the committee that selected, after reviewing the poll results, who would be on the List. Those three colleagues were Reinaldo Herrera (a contributing editor and, not incidentally, the husband of designer Carolina Herrera), Aimée Bell (who had been my assistant at Spy and who was now my deputy at Vanity Fair), and Amy Fine Collins. A rail-thin fashion icon and a V.F. special correspondent, Amy also happens to be the author of an estimable volume on the history of the International Best-Dressed List that is being published by Rizzoli in October, and an excerpt of which is in this edition of air mail.
We would gather with the other committee members at Eleanor’s apartment, at 87th Street and Fifth Avenue, with its tree-height view looking out over the Central Park Reservoir. Tea sandwiches were served. As were names, reputations, and decisions. I’d mention the other committee members, but we had all taken an oath of secrecy. This was a policy to protect us not only from the wrath of those not included on the List but also from Eleanor herself, who wanted the meetings to be held in complete confidence. She always had the look of someone who, when angered, could burn toast from across the room.
Eleanor became close to my three colleagues, and a year before her death, in 2003, she gave the List to the four of us. I am largely a decorative figure in this glamorous enterprise. The legacy of Eleanor’s vision—and the integrity of the List—rests fully on the shoulders of my three compadres. The International Best-Dressed List tells you a lot about where we’ve been over the past 80 years, and we hope that it will continue to provide a historical record.
Looking back to the 1988 List, I feel that I was in company far above my station. President George Bush (the dad, not the son) was included that year. So were three dashing men of my later acquaintance: John F. Kennedy (the son, not the dad), Bryan Ferry, and Steve Martin. My guess is that, even if they might have publicly pooh-poohed their inclusion on Eleanor’s List, privately they were tickled. I know I was.