Wednesday, October 17, 2018

An Ode to Mario

A tender scene in Central Park. 2:20 PM. Photo: JH.
Wednesday, October 17, 2018.  The temp was in the mid-40s when we woke up yesterday morning. Brrr ... It was an overcast day with temps reaching up to the low 50s.

Mario Buatta died Monday night here in New York. He was eighty-two. I just learned of his passing moments before I sat down to write this Diary. It bears sadness, like hearing about a favorite relative or neighbor. I wouldn’t describe our relationship as “close” although Mario had a quality of intimacy to his personality, and he wasn’t hard to know if you paid attention for he was verbal and very expressive.

He also had many sides to that personality although the one most exposed was his comedic sense. He was funny. Silly funny, laugh-out-loud funny and even repulsive funny (I’m laughing after those last two words because that’s what the memory provokes even with out recollection of an incident.) I used to tell him – and I’m sure I’m not the only one – that he should have been a comedian because Stand-Up was his favorite pose in life. His humor was corny yet sophisticated, and as far as he could reach with his take on things humor-wise, he was never out of line. In other words, he was a pro, through and through.
Mario — the consummate comedian.
For example: Several years ago Mario was honored by the Royal Oak Foundation at a black tie dinner. After he was introduced and went up to the podium carrying a large scroll of paper with two gold handles. When he put the scroll on the podium top, he then gave it a little shove, knocking it to the floor but holding on to its end. As it hit the floor it rolled about twelve feet. The idea being – this was his acceptance speech. And so it began with Mario speaking with a heavy fake Italian accent proclaiming his heritage as an interior decorator. With the thick accent he reported that he came from a long line of artists. His “Uncle Luigi” he added, actually worked on the Sistine Chapel with Michaelangelo (now remember this is with the heavy Eye-talian accent), “although Uncle Luigi was afraid of heights, so he was given the job of painting the baseboard only.”
Mario with his acceptance speech in the form of a twelve-foot scroll.
Hilarious laughter filled the room at that point and continued for the next eight minutes of his “acceptance speech.” I later learned that the scroll bit was one of his longtime sight gags.

He was enormously successful with his style which often favored chintz (he was frequently referred to in the press as the “Prince of Chintz”). As sociable as he was aside from his work, he mainly worked alone. The explanation came from two sides: those he hired as assistants found him impossible to work with, and he found them impossible to work with.  In retrospect it is amazing how much he accomplished solo, as he was one of the most popular and productive and important decorators of his times.

Mario with his Royal Oak Foundation Timeless Design Award.
He was also solitary in his private life, and as far as I know, aside from a few brief relationships, he lived alone most of his life. He had an apartment in a beautiful old brick mansion on East 80th Street between Park and Lex. I was never inside but it was widely known that he was a “hoarder” accumulating a warehouse full of fabrics, supplies, and whatever else caught his eye or captured his imagination however briefly. Hoarders tend to NOT throw things away. That can mean anything and everything. That lifestyle (and it is a lifestyle memorialized by the 19th century New Yorkers – the Collier brothers) caused problems with one of Mario’s neighbors who was not discreet with his insults and made a public/private issue of it which  caused Mario much hurt as well as anger. It was a significant event in his history because it demonstrated a real -- even desperate -- need which is self-protection. That intense sensitivity also activated in his work which is brilliant, lively, charming and a lift to the spirits.

I mention this aspect of his life because it explains the man. There was a deep loneliness that grew out of his childhood and adolescence, as everything does with all of us. Today the NYSD is celebrating Mario’s life – which he would agree looks like a fabulous one. He had a good time with his success. He loved his access to so many people he liked and found interesting in one way or another. He was like having a great, friendly and funny neighbor. But he wasn’t silly; he was quite serious. He liked a good gossip too. He was not a gossip but a good story always brought a rapt ear for details. He was ambitious and had a good taste of ironies.
Mario with his party hosts Wilbur Ross and Hilary Geary Ross to celebrate Mario's tome from Rizzoli, titled "Mario Buatta: Fifty Years of American Interior Decoration."
For your reading pleasure, if you are a fan of the man (and frankly it’s hard not to be), we’re re-running a lunch that Sian Ballen and Lesley Hauge of NYSD HOUSE had with Mario at Swifty’s several years ago when Rizzoli published the great book of his entire career. Along with their original HOUSE interview with him, photographed by JH. The lunch was ostensibly to publicize the new book. However, lunch with Mario is/was the fun of being in his company when he had a good audience. The comic returns to his stage. He was just a pleasure to know and to be with. The profession which he wore casually but impeccably was glorified by it.
Mario surrounded by friends.

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