Perfectly timed to be a rich dessert after the main course exhibit on Charles James's work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, this personal collection of drawings, photographs, and ephemera completes a satisfying meal. Charles James was a rebel and genius in the fashion world. His revolutionary structure and the erotic lines of his dresses were lauded as brilliant and inspirational by no less than Cristobal Balenciaga and Christian Dior.
We had a chance to speak with the collection's owner, R. Couri Hay, a longtime chronicler of the doings of people with much more money than you, and he gave us insider info, name-dropping dazzle, and very juicy details about the sex lives of the fashion world in the 1970s.
Talking with Hay is a little like stepping into an AbFab episode. In our short telephone call we managed to get all these names in: Diana Vreeland, Andy Warhol, Halston, Timothy Leary, Babe Paley, Yves Saint Laurent, Cecil Beaton, Evelyn Waugh, Sir Frederick Rose, Coco Chanel, Antonio Lopez, Egon and Diane von Furstenburg, Salvador Dali, Robert Mapplethorpe, Larry McMurtry, Jean Paul Gaultier, Angelo Donghia, Alexander McQueen, and Michelangelo.
Hay met Charles James when he was 17. He arrived in Manhattan with a handwritten letter of introduction from his grandmother with the intention of meeting James through his cousin's connection to Diana Vreeland. Vreeland and James were on the outs at that point, so she scooted him along to Halston. He and Halston waited till he turned 18, then Halston and Hay began a prolonged affair.
"I don't know if I can say this, but Halston said I was the only white boy he ever loved, because he tended to go for Latino and black [men]," Hay says.
So how did he meet James? By happenstance he was at Max's Kansas City, the infamous nightclub of the late '60s, '70s, and '80s, on the night of a party for James's 60th birthday. They quickly became friends, and Hay says more than that, but they were not lovers: "James was a father figure to me." And R.C.H. soon found his life revolving in an orbit around James's world. He brought folks to meet James at the Chelsea Hotel — including Lou Reed, Candy Darling, and his fiancée at the time, Zandra Rhodes.
Was Charles James openly gay in the sense we know in the 21st century? Couri tells us, "James said, 'I don't believe in homosexuality, either you are sexual or you are not.'"
The only time Hay was ever aware of James being sexually active happened one night when his friend "Egon von Furstenburg [at the time married to Diane von Furstenburg in a mariage blanc] decided we should all go to a club downtown. The club turned out to be a sex club." After a few cocktails Hay noticed that James had disappeared. "Thirty minutes later Charles emerged from the darkness on the other side of the room. I asked him, 'Charles, where have you been?' And he said to me, 'I nourished someone.'" It was the only time Hay recalls any sexual act, implied or otherwise, in regard to James.
We asked Hay if there were drawings that he held back for any reason, and apparently his basement (which one imagines as like the final scene of Citizen Kane) is still issuing forth. For example, are any of the drawings of R. Couri Hay?
"I did pose for Charles, naked, but he always stayed on his side of the room. I leapt at the opportunity. I also posed for Warhol and Salvador Dalí. I was always disappointed because James never drew my face. It was always my ass or my genitalia." So the answer would be yes, there are drawings of Hay in the exhibit.
The show at the Metropolitan — which ranked fourth in all-time attendance numbers — used some of Hay's collection of drawings, and that is what inspired him to mount his own exhibit. But he chose to follow the closing of the Met's show so as to not take the focus off it. Some of the drawings included at his show at the National Arts Club are fairly explicit — in fact, we cannot show them here. The ones you see here are some of the tamer nudes.
Though we gossiped and chatted about the social whirl of the '70s, Couri Hay wants the focus of the show to be on James, not his connection with him: "It's about the work."
Hay emphasizes the intensity of James's creative drive:"Charles sacrificed everything for art. His family, his lovers, his children. Everything. He was the ultimate artiste."
He is in the planning stages for a book about James. And it sounds like a book about Hay could also be fairly enticing.
To see this personal view of the work of Charles James:
The National Arts Club/Grand Gallery
"Charles James: Beneath the Dress"
September 29 - October 5
15 Gramercy Park South, New York, N.Y. 10003