Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Remembering a popular giant

Taking an afternoon nap. Photo: JH.
Tuesday, April 28, 2015. Sometimes sunny, sometimes cloudy yesterday in New York, with temps in the high 50s and feeling chillier.

In the morning I went down to the Church of the Ascension on 11th Street and Fifth Avenue for the memorial service for John Fairchild, the late great publisher and editor of Women’s Wear Daily (WWD) who died just a week before his 88th birthday last February.
Arriving at the beautiful entrance to the Church of the Ascension on Fifth Avenue and 11th Street for the Memorial Service for John B. Fairchild, at 10:30 yesterday morning. The woman in the black and white coat is Judy Price who was founder and publisher for the first 25 years of Avenue magazine. She told me yesterday that when she started the magazine, Malcolm Forbes and John Fairchild -- the two most dynamic magazine publishers of the time (mid-70s) -- both gave her great encouragement.
Mr. Fairchild was a force in the fashion industry as well as print media beginning in the 1960s through the 1980s with an influence that changed both the industry and print publications. He was a man of controversy (amusing) who revolutionized not only his family’s publication but also the industry it covered, and the print media in which it emerged as a popular giant.

The church was where Mr. Fairchild worshipped as a young man and also close by the original Fairchild Publication offices. It was the first church built on lower Fifth Avenue in 1840 when the avenue was just being developed for the wealthier citizens and considered “uptown.” It eventually became the house of worship for some of the city’s elite including Astors, Rhinelanders, Belmonts and de Peysters. Its current rector is The Reverend Elizabeth G. Maxwell, and it has its own Director of Music Dr. Dennis Keene, who conducted the church’s impressive chorale during the service.

The sanctuary was filled with friends, family and business associations of Mr. Fairchild, including Pierre Berge who came from Paris and delivered one of the eulogies, as well as Ralph Lauren, Carolina and Reinaldo Herrera, Mrs. Oscar de la Renta, Dennis Basso, Mary McFadden, Gale Hayman, Jackie Rogers, Anna Wintour, and Leonard Lauder – who also delivered a wonderful eulogy about his long friendship with Mr. Fairchild which began when both the Estee Lauder company and WWD  were just emerging as forces in their business.

The Fairchild sons – John L., James and Stephen each read for the service and daughter Jill  gave the final eulogy, a loving and affectionate tribute to their father.
The hundreds of friends and mourners emerging from the church after the service yesterday at 12:30 p.m.
There was also a eulogy by James Fallon, the WWD editor who worked closely with Mr. Fairchild and really cut his teeth in fashion media working with the publisher in the latter part of his career. Mr. Fallon’s eulogy was not only a tribute but a well-described Journalist’s portrait of the man and his relationship to his work and his world.

The following is Jim Fallon’s memories of his distinguished – and esteemed – boss and mentor, a man of genius:
Countess Louise J. Esterhazy, John Fairchild's bad-boy alter ego.
Mr. Fairchild in 1965 (Fairchild Archives).
Mister Fairchild.

I worked for him for years in Washington and London, but it took a countess for us to really get to know each other: the indomitable Countess Louise J. Esterhazy. 

I was sitting in my office in London when Patrick McCarthy called and asked me to meet Mr. Fairchild and write down the Louise column that he would dictate. So the next day I turned up promptly at 3 p.m. at the Connaught – which was Mr. Fairchild's favorite hotel in London but, even the, in his view, "was going downhill." Then again, most things were.

We chatted about what was going on – he always wanted to know what was going on, from gossip to business to plays to, well, anything.

Finally he said, "Shall we start?

He took out some scraps of paper covered in scribbles – left-handed, his handwriting was always atrocious – and began to dictate rapidly. I desperately tried to keep up with his stream of consciousness. After an hour, he asked if we had enough. I had enough to fill five pages of the magazine. ''I think so," I said. "When do you need this?"

"Oh, no rush," he replied.

I told him I would probably messenger a copy over to him the next morning to review.

"That's fine," he said.

I took a taxi back to my office. Literally as I was walking through the door, my assistant said Mr. Fairchild was on the phone.

"How is it?" he asked.

"Mr. Fairchild I just got back. Do you want me to send it today?"

"No, no. No rush," he said.

Half an hour later, he rang again. "How is it coming?"

I told him I still was writing it.

"Oh, okay. Send it over when you can."

He rang half an hour after that, then half an hour later. And it was then I realized the most important thing about Mr. Fairchild: he was always in a rush – to get the scoop, to write about something before anyone else, to shake things up.
For those who worked with him, his impatience was part of his charm (sometimes).

"You have to bring home the bacon," he'd say. Or in his daily phone calls, "What's cooking?" (Somehow his references always related to food, another of his passions.)

So, for the years afterward, it was my immense delight to be Boswell to his Samuel Johnson as each month we would do the Louise column.

He would call in from wherever he was – Nantucket, Gstaad, Paris, Baden Baden – and dictate it over the phone or, when we were in the same city, it would be over lunch: in London, at Bibendum and, later in New York, he would introduce me to the pleasure of La Grenouille.

Bill Blass, Sirio Maccioni, and and John Fairchild.
John B. Fairchild, left, and designer Yves Saint Laurent in 1965. (Photo: Tony Palmieri/ Fairchild Archive)
And throughout those lunches, and transcribing the Louise, came the SECOND lesson: no matter who he was talking with, what he was doing, where he was walking, Mr. Fairchild was always a reporter. He could pick up a whispered secret at another table across the room as if he had bat's ears. And even if his designer friends such as Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta quickly learned never to tell him something about their businesses supposedly in confidence, for it would invariably end up in the pages of WWD the next day. "They shouldn't have told me," he'd shrug.

There have been countless articles about his feuds with designers, his whims, his peevishness and his alleged pettiness. Yes, he could be petulant, demanding, and at times imperious, but all of that stemmed from his competitiveness, his high standards – none higher than those he set for himself – and his drive.

He hated, hated to be scooped and equally loathed anyone or any company that failed to treat WWD and W with respect. That's why he fought so hard, from the days in Paris when he was called "L'Enfant Terrible" – and where he said he carved out WWD's reputation "with persistence and nastiness" – to the day he retired and beyond.

Those who worked closely with him, and got to know him, quickly realized that and were perhaps surprised to find out that this immensely powerful man who helped make designers household names and who created the modern fashion world we live in – was actually quite shy, and totally lacking in ego.

That is why he despised ego and pretension in others – and loved more than anything to puncture it, either in his famed In and Out lists, in WWD's reviews, or in the Louise columns. The latter were so on target that many readers thought the countess really existed – even members of the actual Esterhazy family who were visiting from Austria and called the W offices to see if they could come over and meeting their relative.

His story ideas came from anywhere. Mr. Fairchild had a never-ending childlike curiosity about everything and a boyish innocence to him that was endearing. A boy with a wasp's sting, however. Which is why he was often described with one of his favorite words – a child's word in a way: "naughty." Mr. Fairchild LOVED being naughty.
Bob Peterson/Getty Images
Someone would mention something to him that he hadn't heard and immediately it became a story. Marc Bohan once told Mr. Fairchild about a string quartet playing in a hotel in Dresden. I was promptly dispatched – with 24 hours notice – to find the quartet and write about it and the beauties of the city.

There was one problem: Mr. Fairchild didn't know which hotel the quartet played in, or anyone in Dresden to ask. So like Don Quixote, I flew off on a quest to find this quartet. I interviewed scores of people and asked each of them about the quartet. They didn't have a clue.

John Fairchild in 1976. (Courtesy of Fairchild Archive)
Finally, finally someone mentioned there was a string quartet that played at teatime in the Westin hotel across the River Elbe. So we turned up at teatime and there sat four men listlessly -- and badly -- playing what could have been Muzak.

The next day I called Mr. Fairchild to tell him that while Dresden was stunning, the quartet left much to be desired. "Ok, never mind," he said.

You see, in his view, failure was not a negative. The worst thing was not to try and then miss a story. If stories didn't work out, or were far from what he thought they were, he would just shrug with a slightly guilty expression and a raise of his bushy eyebrows and move on.

He regularly would write about his own experiences – which often were disasters. Once he called from the Le Gazelle d'Or resort in the deserts of Morocco. Now, Mr. Fairchild always had a thing about riding and horses – and for some reason, horses had a thing about him: they were always running away when he was on them. A former colleague went on a trip with Mr. Fairchild to Australia and he insisted on going riding. My colleague sat on the back of his horse only to watch Mr. Fairchild's suddenly bolt like it was running the Kentucky Derby and disappear into the distance, Mr. Fairchild hanging on for dear life.

Well, in Morocco, he decided one day to go riding. There was one problem: he had no riding clothes. That didn't matter – he went for a long ride, and promptly developed huge blisters on his thighs. He called me to recount the experience.

"But what DID you wear?" I asked.

"Well, Hermes loafers and cavalry twill trousers," he replied in his typical innocence.

"Mr. Fairchild, no wonder you developed blisters Cavalry twill trousers? Really?"

"Well, they're made of cavalry twill," he said.

"But that doesn't mean they were worn by the cavalry," I informed him.

"Oh," he said, "I thought they were."
John Fairchild with the Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. (Photo: Bob Peterson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images).
Then there were the new "friends" he made a few years ago in the park near where he lived on the Upper East Side. These high school students had just graduated and were there celebrating. They engaged him in conversation, and were even kind enough to offer him a puff on one of the cigarettes they were passing around. He politely declined.

"Mr. Fairchild," I again informed him, 'You know it was a joint, right?"

"Oh, I just thought it smelled funny," he said.

The image of an 85-year-old man getting high with a bunch of new high school graduates was priceless.

His companion – and often lure – in many of these adventures was the beloved Shi Tzu Tulip. She even introduced him to David Beckham, when the soccer star's daughters was smitten with her in the lobby of the Bistrol hotel in Paris.

Mr. Fairchild was intrigued by Beckham's patterned sweater – until he realized that the patterns were actually tattoos covering Beckham's arms ...

The highest praise he could give you was to call you "genius" – although that equally could be followed only an hour later by him calling you an "idiot." But if one mentioned that HE was the genius, he would almost shout "NO," blush and then harrumph.

He clearly WAS a genius though, and I questioned him repeatedly about everything in hopes that at least some of it might rub off. For example, how did he know a collection was a great one?

"I get a tingle in my big toe," he replied. I couldn't tell if he was joking.

Whey did he begin writing about designers and their personalities rather than simply the clothes? "Clothes are just body coverings," he would say. "It's the people who matter. What makes them tick?"

Alas, what I finally learned was this: There is no explanation or magic formula for genius. All I now know is I was incredibly blessed to have a once-feared and tough boss become, in the end, a true and beloved friend and so much much more.

Memorial services like these are ones of celebrations of the man we knew, but also of introspection about life and loss and what it all means. We are left with a void, and countless questions. How did the man become the legend, and when did the legend – and all the often-repeated stories – subsume the man and obscure so much of all that he was? How can a single speech sum up a life, especially that of a man like Mr. Fairchild?

Despite all his follies and his foibles – and there were plenty – the one thing that remained was that everyone he touched – for good or for ill – has a memory of him.

Is that what a life well lived is about – those left behind remember him always? Or is it more? What is clear is that anyone who truly knew him adored him and all those who passed through WWD and W and all the publications when he was there were, in their own way, his very own Fairchildren.
In the end, perhaps the best way to capture him is to quote his own words. More than a decade ago, Mr. Fairchild began a new book – a sequel if you will, to his famed "Chic Savages." And the beginning perfectly captures his outlook. I quote:

"I have always dreamed of starting a publication called simply FUN. How do others enjoy themselves? I supposed FUN has something to do with lifestyle (although I hate that word). The only way I can explain my idea of fun is to talk about myself. Then it gets boring when about oneself so I can only have fun talking about other people. They are really the only ones that give joy to our lives and without these friends and the others around us, we would be a sad lot indeed.

So here goes. Let's try and have some fun together as we travel here and there through a lucky and colorful life. But I am not going to dissect myself like I have others simply because that would be boring. I might have a big ego, but I don't like using the word "I" so let's avoid any type of autobiography. Instead we can jump all over the place without a beginning and I hope without an end for a little while. As one wise man once said, the beginning and the end of someone's life are not as interesting as the middle part of a life. And to be truthful, the beginning and the end are really of no importance anyway."

But he was wrong: EVERYTHING about Mr. Fairchild was always fascinating and, as I said once before, a moment in his company was worth a lifetime with others.

He was asked for the centenary issue of WWD how he would best sum up his tenure at the paper. His answer was a straightforward one: "We had fun."

And it is that simple word, made up of two consonants and a vowel, that capture why he is missed so much: "Fun. We had fun."

Yes, Mr. Fairchild, we did. We certainly certainly did.
John Fairchild in his chalet in Gstaad, 2011. (Photo: Simon Upton)