It’s not often you have the good fortune to meet a six-foot, six-inch fashion scholar and man-about-town, with the regal bearing of a 19th-century prince—and who could pull off wearing a cape. André Leon Talley, who died this week at White Plains Hospital north of New York, was all that and so much more. He was also a wit, a style icon, a deft critic, and a man of extreme passions and loyalties. André was always cooking something up, and indeed he was planning projects right up to the very last minute.

I got the news of his death late Tuesday evening from Jonathan Becker, the photographer. He and André met at Interview magazine but first really worked together on a portrait sitting they did for W of former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, who was by then organizing exhibitions for the Met’s Costume Institute, where André had interned for her a few years earlier. André worshipped Mrs. Vreeland, as she was called by those around her—and she saw the unique brilliance in her young protégé. André and Jonathan struck up a friendship on that shoot—and maintained it for the next 45 years. Indeed, he was godfather to Jonathan’s daughter—as am I godfather to his son.

André was always cooking something up, and indeed he was planning projects right up to the very last minute.

I knew André from Condé Nast, and from just being here and there. Sometime in the mid-90s, he had a spat with Anna Wintour and asked if he could take a leave from Vogue and pitch his tent at Vanity Fair for a spell. I was just beginning to get the hang of the magazine, and I thought I could use all the creative help I could get. I said yes immediately. André swooped in with a theatrical flair all his own. Once he had an idea, he brooked little in the way of dissent. There were many days when I felt I was working for him rather than the other way around. Aimée Bell, my longtime colleague at Vanity Fair who worked with him on a number of projects, says he was “a human opera.”

André paid absolutely no attention to the fact that Vanity Fair wasn’t a fashion magazine. And his ideas, like he himself, bordered on the epic—both in terms of vision and cost. In 1996, André and Karl Lagerfeld produced a baroque, 10-page extravaganza called “Scarlett ’n the Hood.” It was a reimagining of Gone with the Wind, with many of the genders and races switched around. Scarlett was played by Naomi Campbell. Manolo Blahnik played her father, Gerald. The designer Gianfranco Ferré played the Hattie McDaniel part. John Galliano was a house servant. The clothes were all couture. And Laura Jacobs (now the Arts Intel Report editor for Air Mail) wrote the copy. The bills were crushing. But the spectacle was not only a huge hit with our readers; it also gave me a glimmer of credibility in the fashion world.

Twin towers of Paris: André Leon Talley in a Tom Ford cape, photographed by Jonathan Becker.

The fact is, André had forgotten more about fashion than most of his contemporaries ever knew. And as a result, designers flocked to him, for advice, encouragement, or just validation. I knew he and Tom Ford were close, so I wrote to Tom the day the news of André’s death was in the papers.

“I last heard from him on New Year’s Eve,” Tom wrote back. “I have a book of all of the emails and notes that he sent to me over the years. Some were on hotel stationery that he would slip under my door. His notes were truly works of art. His handwriting as bold as he was. His giant persona sometimes overshadowed the fact that he was a brilliant journalist and an incredible writer.”

Talley with one of his early mentors, Diana Vreeland, in 1974.

If you’re reading this, chances are you already know the outlines of André’s life. He was the grandson of a sharecropper. He grew up in North Carolina in the 60s, and somehow made his way to Brown University, where he earned a master’s in French literature. There were stints at Interview and The New York Times. His long run at Vogue was on and off—and he was a factor there even during the off stretches. There were two memoirs, including, most recently, The Chiffon Trenches—which became a New York Times best-seller. André styled First Ladies of both political parties. He was on television. He was in documentaries. I remember just how quietly pleased he was when he was given a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French minister of culture. The book reviews he did for Air Mail were models of insight and precision.

Strike a pose: Talley in New York City in 1983, photographed by Roxanne Lowit.

There are few people I’ve met who were as authentically adored as André was. He wasn’t a saint, God knows. And he had his issues, with food as well as money. But I don’t recall a single nasty word said about him. Even when he lost elements of his station after he left Vogue—or perhaps because he had left it—his place in the culture only grew. He was more popular with young people in the last few years than he had been at any time in his life. And he loved that.

André had survived to the point where being a great, fabulous original was cherished, both by people who knew him and those who didn’t. As Jonathan Becker said, “It was impossible not to love him.” The politics of his memorial will be a spectator sport in the coming weeks. I’m not sure André wanted one, but if there must be a celebration, it’s an educated guess that he would have wanted it held at the Abyssinian Baptist Church under the auspices of the Reverend Calvin O. Butts, up in Harlem—where he worshipped as a regularly practicing Christian.

Tom Ford, Graydon Carter,, and Talley at a fashion event. Ford has kept a box of the notes and letters that A.L.T. gave him.

The thing is, André was a wonder to all stripes. I remember sitting with former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee at the end of a dinner that Robert De Niro and I used to host each year to kick off the Tribeca Film Festival. The plates had been cleared, and André hovered into view. With his height, and wearing the largest fur cape you’ve ever seen, he almost blocked out the ceiling lights. I introduced the two of them. They chatted for a bit, and then André turned and began to talk to someone else. On his back in gold lettering were the words The Great Black Hope. Ben turned to me and said, “Who the hell was that?” I told him. Ben was quiet for a moment, and then he just said, “Magnificent!”

Graydon Carter is a Co-Editor of AIR MAIL