A perfect spring day in New York
Blooming in Manhattan. 1:45 PM. Photo: JH.

Tuesday was a perfect spring day in New York with temperatures reaching toward 70 midday. I went over to the Mandarin Oriental in the Time-Warner Building on Columbus Circle because Parsons The New School For Design was holding its 2nd annual Parson Centurion Award for Design Excellence Luncheon.

They were honoring McMillen Inc. the venerated interior design firm and its chairman and acclaimed designer Betty Sherrill who was Parsons, Class of 1951. In the minds of many, Mrs. Sherrill is McMillen, or McMillen is Betty Sherrill, although you’d never hear it from her. And she wouldn’t think it either.

The program for yesterday's lunch which includes a rendering from a McMillen-decorated room

The reason people think such things is because Betty Sherrill really is a legend in certain circles of New York and its social and business power structure. She’d be loathe to hear that one too, because she’s the kind of woman who thinks of things in terms of responsibility. Her business, her family her community; her responsibility. She is the kind of woman whom people look to to get things done, just expect will get things done and make decisions. She has authority. And when she uses it, she does it with authority.

As you can see from her picture, she’s a very good looking woman with an initial diffidence in her self-presentation. She is gracious but never over-bearing so you can, at first, even think she’s a little on the shy side. She’s not.

She attended Parsons in 1949. She told the story today. She never finished. She asked Eleanor Brown, whose firm it was, if she could have a job. Mrs. Brown said, “no,” and she told her why: “You go out every night, you’re always on the phone, and you’d probably never get to the office on time.”

All which, according to Betty, “was true.” So she didn’t get the job. But Betty has resolve. That’s an important aspect of her character; she kept going back. Finally there came a day when Mrs. Brown was planning a large charity dinner and she needed someone to help with the invitations. Betty volunteered. “I got my foot in the door,” she recalled yesterday. That was in 1951. Once inside, well ... she’s been head of the firm for a long long time now.

Betty is a born and bred Southern girl, Louisiana. She came to New York as a young woman and you can still hear traces of that Southern in her voice. When I first heard the term Steel Magnolia, I thought of Betty.

I met her when I was first writing for Quest, before I started the Diary column. We had mutual friends, people she liked and respected. I think I came into her sphere of interest for that reason. I’m pretty sure that if the people we knew in common were people she didn’t like and respect, well….

A number of years ago when I was first covering the social scene in New York, Betty hosted a large dinner for Princess Alexandra of Kent and her husband, Angus Oglivy at Doubles, the private club in the Sherry Netherland. When it came time to be seated, a very prominent social woman here in New York who was singularly un-fond of me, and didn’t mind telling people, discovered that I was also seated at her table (of ten). She was not pleased.

Quietly but openly, she was steaming, and she went to speak to our hostess about it. She felt, I was later told, that she should have been seated at Her Royal Highness’ table. She said as much to our hostess. After hearing the complaint, Betty very resolutely but not harshly told her guest to “act like a lady” and take the seat that was given to her. Which she did.

There are a lot of people in that woman’s world who would have caved instantly, quickly changed place cards and been relieved to have pleased their socially prominent (and highly self-regarded) guest. That is often the way the game is played in the Big Town. Betty Sherrill, however, plays by rules, and right and proper are her kind of rules. Some might argue that she even makes the rules at times, so great is the image of her authority. If she does, you can be sure she’s also made everyone aware of them.

Ann Pyne, Betty Sherrill, and Elizabeth Pyne

McMillen, the firm was founded eighty-three years ago in 1923 by Eleanor McMillen Brown, an exponent of Elsie de Wolfe (later Lady Mendl). It was the first professional, full-service interior design firm in America. Mrs. Brown was an early proponent of interior design education and a supporter of Parsons. To this day, a visit to the offices of McMillen is a visit to a very professional, beautifully appointed, very large suite of rooms and office space, that has all the reverential of a law firm, or an architectural firm, or an investment bank. With the obvious exceptions, of course. Stability and longevity is part of the style of the firm. At Betty Sherrill’s table yesterday was a woman named Ethel Smith. Ethel Smith is 101. She started with McMillen in 1929, and she just retired a few years ago.

Eventually all of Mrs. Brown’s doubts about Betty Sherrill’s suitability were vanquished. Around the same time she went to work at McMillen, Betty was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to have radical surgery. More than a half century later she is one of the oldest survivors of breast cancer, and also has remained at the helm of the firm for a few decades.

Today McMillen is one of the most successful interior design firms in the country. They have never had a lawsuit, Betty revealed in her acceptance speech and they have always had an excellent bookkeeping department.

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There were more than 500 attending today’s luncheon – another big tribute to Betty Sherrill. There were clients of McMillen there whose mothers and even grandmothers had been clients of McMillen. Many of the guests have known Betty all their lives including daughter and son-in-law Ann and John Pyne and their daugher Elizabeth, as well as her husband Virgil Sherrill. Among the guests: Penny Drue Baird, James Bornyack, Geoffrey Bradfield, Mario Buatta, Michael Vollbracht, Cynthia Frank, Charlotte Ford, Gail Hilson, Carolyne Roehm, Norma Dana, Enriquillo and Audrey del Rosario, Jamie Drake, Susan Burke, Patricia Patterson, Paul Goldberg, Dean of Parsons, Bob Kerrey, president of the New School, Karen LeFrak, Victoria Hagan, Josie Robertson, Thorunn Wathne, Kitty Hawks, Tina Flaherty, Emilia Saint-Amand, Louis Bofferding, Wendy Carduner, Nancy Missett, Susan Rudin, Susan Weber Soros, Shelby White, and Mica Ertegun.

During the main course, Ann Pyne who is now working in the firm got up to give a testimonial to her mother. Ann Pyne is a writer, among other talents. A number of years ago she wrote a book about women in her mother’s world and it was widely believed she fashioned one of the most formidable characters after her mother. And very harshly in some people’s eyes. The mother, in real life, told everyone about her daughter’s book. Her very talented daughter’s book, was how she would put it. The mother and daughter were very close but also of two minds. Or two like minds, depending on how you look at it.

Several years ago Ann, who has been according to her mother (Ann would never talk about it) a very important collector of certain periods of antique furniture, joined McMillen to work with her mother. She and I have had discussions about her writing about it. “Decorating With My Mother” was her idea. Yesterday when she got up to speak, she came equipped with the full text of “Decorating With My Mother.” It was too brilliant, too witty, too clever and too affectionate to recap without her own words. If we’re lucky, it will be re-printed on these pages in the near future for everyone to read.

Like her mother, the daughter has her own brand of integrity and honesty. Different but the same. As she recounted growing up with this woman Betty Sherrill, Ann alluded or directly recalled important milestones in her relationship with her mother, in her mother’s own life and in the life of the firm. The audience of hundreds roared with laughter, applauded with satisfaction and gave her an ovation for so clearly identifying all those qualities and characteristics that make Betty Sherrill unique to so many of us who know her, or any of us who have dealt with her in charity or in business.

I really like Betty Sherrill, as the reader may have suspected; and I've always really liked her. She’s one of those people, one of those women who is always interesting and a pleasure to think about. And she's a tough broad in certain ways, as some men might have said back in the days when men said such things; and she's got those very old fashioned (in some people’s minds) points of view about the way things should be. But buried under those blondish curls and beyond all that is an amazing woman who's got guts and stuff and even more than she knows. Ann's speech was beautiful and brilliant and a reflection of her mother in a powerful way. I never think of my feelings about Betty Sherrill being anything but mine. But in the ballroom of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel yesterday early afternoon, with the gorgeous Spring day shining on the gorgeous New York outside -- beyond and below the ballroom windows -- I realized when Betty got up to receive her award from Paul Goldberger, and everyone gave her a standing ovation, that there were a lot of people who knew and loved Betty Sherrill as much as I do. And all for the same reasons too.

Susan Burke and Darcy Leeds
Pat Patterson and Charlotte Ford
Nancy Missett
Polly Espy
Thorunn Wathne
Deborah Kirschner
Louis Bofferding

Kitty Hawks

Amanda Haynes-Dale
Armene Milliken and DPC
Mario sporting his new dentures
Ethel Smith

Michael Vollbracht

Paul Goldberger and Betty Sherrill
DPC, Ann Pyne, and Wendy Moonan
Kay Meehan and Geraldine Shepherd
Karen LeFrak and Josie Robertson
Tess with Norma Dana
Gail Hilson and friend
Shelby White and Mica Ertegun
Ann Pyne and Cynthia Frank
L. to r.: Looking east along Central Park South and looking northeast from the Mandarin ballroom.


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April 12, 2006, Volume VI, Number 62
Photographs by DPC/NYSD.com


© 2006 David Patrick Columbia & Jeffrey Hirsch/NewYorkSocialDiary.com