Remembering John Galliher

Friday, December 28, 2012. Cold, but not brutally; dry and the weather man forecasting snow over the weekend.

Ten years ago, a week ago, Johnny Galliher died here in New York “peacefully in his sleep,” according to his death notice in the New York Times. He was eighty-eight, and so now this is the 98th anniversary of his birth.

I ran into a mutual friend, Billy Norwich, a couple days ago and he reminded me of this date, and told me that he’d just re-read the “memoriam” I wrote about John a few days after he died. I’d forgotten about the piece and so I went back to look to see what I had written (and how it had held up) ten years ago.

He was a most unusual person; the likes of which I’d never met before. Although no stranger to the world known as “Society” in the 20th century, he was the kind of character you’d read about in a novel but never the type you’d ever hope or think to meet.

In his world he was an “extra” man, a man of leisure, what some today would refer to – thoroughly inadequately – as a “walker.”

I met him in the 1980s at a dinner in Los Angeles at the house of Billy McCarty-Cooper (see archive). Our mutual friend, Luis Estevez, had told me beforehand that I was going to meet “the chic-est man” I’d ever known. The description intrigued me because I had no idea how you’d define someone as such. What did that mean? What would that be like? What did they talk about? How did they look? You think of women as chic, but not so much in the case of men.

After that heralding description, I was expecting some kind of spectacle of such – chic. In person, he was a sophisticated, worldly looking man, of a certain later age (early 70s), well-groomed and well-dressed although not remarkably, and otherwise courteous, friendly and congenial. Elegant might have been a more apt word to the eye.

We became friends after that dinner, and when I moved back to New York, he’d occasionally invite me to a small lunch or dinner he’d have at his apartment on East 69th Street (and later on 63rd) when he’d gather six or eight friends for a simple meal (cooked himself) and a lot of talk, often amusing.

I soon learned that he’d led a very cosmopolitan life since the 1940s in London, Paris, New York and early on in Los Angeles. He’d met and known the rich and the famous of the world of that era, now many historical names, and he seemed to have made his way not in any profession, but in the business of being a “good man to have around.”

Thinking back on him now, I see that I’d had the privilege of knowing a man who was born into, grew up in, and lived among those privileged classes – what I think of as the “ghee”  of the leisure class, and carved out an interesting life for himself.

It was a world of formality: rules, etiquette and pleasure. Anything goes but watch yourself. To its real connoisseurs, it was a talent. John Galliher possessed that talent. He wasn’t known to have a profession. He’d had, over time, a couple of close associations (boyfriends in today’s parlance) and was well provided for at the time, and perhaps later.  But he was always his own man, at the center of his world.

However, there was also something of a mystery about him (often explained in terms of the boyfriends) because while he lived well, he wasn’t an “income earner,” and if there were inheritance, it wasn’t notable. He lived somewhat frugally when I knew him, but comfortably. He was often invited because he was good company. Later in his life he spent a few weeks in winter in Gstaad, guest of his friends Bill and Pat Buckley, or in Lyford Cay or Palm Beach, or California with other friends who had houses there.

After he died, he surprised, even shocked many by leaving bequests totalling almost $2 million. He left each of 35 friends – from all walks of life – $25,000 tax-free. Many of those friends were people who could use, indeed, needed that gift. This came as a great shock to many of these friends. The remainder of his estate was divided between City Harvest, God's Love We Deliver and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. What does that tell you?

His small fortune was also a surprise for obvious reasons. The mystery man remained so, even in memory. I concluded that the secret was: he had been a spy, that he’d worked in intelligence in those days after the War and perhaps longer. I'd come to that conclusion because it was surprising what a wide variety of acquaintances he had. They ranged from movie stars and tycoons, to European politicians, dukes, duchesses, to authors, to artists, as well as not a few ordinary working stiffs. He was comfortable with all, and all with him. Because he was, above all, a gentleman.

John Galliher aboard Jacques Sarlie's yacht off Greece, 1965. Courtesy of James H. Douglas.
January 7, 2003 — John Galliher died in his sleep on the Saturday before Christmas at his apartment on East 63rd Street here in New York. He was eighty-eight and had been ailing with pancreatic cancer, a condition he learned about a little less than five months before. He told very few about his condition. He accepted it, put his house in order, even to the point of writing his death notice which appeared a few days later in the New York Times stating that he had "died peacefully."

He was known to his multitude of friends down through the decades, as Johnny, Johnny Galliher (pronounced Gal-yer), or occasionally Johnny G. He was a most unusual man -- a unique combination of characteristics and qualities – easily said but rarely so in life -- difficult to define. His old friend of more than fifty years, Tony Hail, the San Francisco interior designer, had put it most succinctly for the many friends who survived him. “He was fun to know.”

He was exceptionally gentlemanly person, the kind of man who if he didn’t have something nice to say (or amusing, which might be more like it with him), he said nothing. Ever. Yet he navigated skillfully, and with pleasure, for more than sixty years through a world where bitchery and malice can be commonplace and lethal. Instead, for him there was often a smile on his face, or if not, then the obvious promise of one.

He was born in Washington, D.C. on May 24, 1914, the second son of five children. Of all the children, only his older brother Joseph survived him. The Gallihers were a prominent family of Anglo extraction. He was handsome, from childhood to manhood. He was not tall -- about five-nine -- but slender, almost slight but sinewy, and with a thick head of curly black hair that turned a white grey in his later year, and bright blue eyes.

By the time he was a teen-ager, the coltishly handsome young man was a favorite of one of Washington’s leading hostesses, Evalyn Walsh McLean, the fabled owner of the Hope Diamond, and her daughter, also named Evalyn. He and young Evalyn often went out together, and if the evening were formal, her mother would often insist that she wear the Hope Diamond. As soon as they were away from the house, young Evalyn would take it off and give to John to put in his pocket. The whole transaction, he recalled seventy years later, made him very nervous. He was firstly worried about possibly losing the legendary rock that was worth a small fortune and secondly, (or maybe even firstly) he was afraid that it’s reputation for bringing tragedy and loss would affect him too.

After graduation from high school, he took his degree at Lehigh University. He served in Europe during the Second World War as a naval officer with the rank of lieutenant. After the War, he moved to Los Angeles, where he shared a house in Beverly Hills with Diana Barrymore, daughter of John Barrymore and Michael Strange (a nom de plume for Oelrichs).
Evalyn Walsh McLean wearing the Hope. Diana Barrymore.
By his early twenties, mainly through his early relationships with the McLeans (young Evalyn committed suicide with an overdose in 1946 and the elder Evalyn lost most of her fortune by then), and with Diana Barrymore, John’s path in life was beginning to take direction.

It was on a sidewalk in Beverly Hills, where one day he ran into Lady Mendl, Elsie de Wolfe, whom he’d already known. Learning that he was “new” in town, she asked if there were anyone he’d like to meet. He told her he couldn’t think of anybody, that he’d already met so many. Then he thought of Garbo, already a legend.

“That might be difficult,” John later recalled Lady Mendl saying.

A few days later, he got a call from Lady Mendl ’ s secretary: Lady Mendl was inviting John for cocktails (as they called it in those days) the following Tuesday at 5:30. He expressed his regrets to the secretary, but he already had a previous engagement on that day. “Break it,” she said emphatically and sotte voce.

So he did. The following Tuesday at the appointed time, he went over to Lady Mendl’s Mediterranean villa on Lexington Road behind the Beverly Hills Hotel. When he arrived he found waiting: Lady Mendl, Cary Grant, Marlene Dietrich, and Greta Garbo.
Elsie de Wolfe. Greta Garbo.
His relationship with Garbo, is emblematic of John’s social career. All kinds of people were attracted to his company. He saw her many times after that first meeting, although rarely, if ever, the result of his seeking her out. Garbo, he knew, as did everyone who came in contact with her, was highly unavailable to anyone who had any expectations of her presence, or company.

There was the time when both John and Garbo were guests on producer Sam Spiegel’s yacht in the Mediterranean in the 1950s. It so happened both he and she were early risers, and the first thing both did was to take a swim before breakfast. They’d bump into one another leaving their respective cabins for the swim. Only a nod was exchanged, however, and other than that, never a word. Garbo also liked to swim in the nude, something that John blithely ignored for her sake, swimming just far enough ahead of her. When finished both would return to their cabins without uttering a word.

Later at breakfast, however, with everyone present, they’d exchange their first words. “Good Morning Miss G.” “Good Morning Mr. G.”

Gilbert and Kitty Miller.
Johnny on the Lido, 1953. Courtesy of Luis Estevez.
Garbo’s terse and monumental diffidence always made John laugh in recollection. Later in the 1950s he’d always see her at Kitty and Gilbert Miller’s on New Year’s Eve. The Millers’ party was the most popular and glamorous New Year’s event in those days. The Millers -- she was the daughter of investment banker Jules Bache, and he was the famous Broadway producer and theatre manager -- brought out movie stars, society, the artists, the writers and theatre folk. Formal and dressy. Forty or fifty would be invited to dinner, complete with Viennese musicians in uniform playing. After dinner, the chairs and tables would be moved away, a hundred more guests would arrive, the band would play and the night would begin.

Garbo would come. One year, just before midnight, John encountered her just as she was leaving. “But where are you going to go?” he asked, “It’s not even midnight.”

“I think I’m going to go to Times Square,” she whispered languidly in her legendary Swedish accent, “to pick up a sailor.”

John, in the recounting, always burst out in a quick laugh. Garbo’s wit, to make something very simple seem absurd, always amused him. He had a great affinity for just that point of view, often saw it around him, and often had a laugh over it.

In 1948, he went to work in Paris for the Marshall Plan and worked out of (if not for) the Department of Protocol in the American Embassy. He was living a charmed life; it was thus to remain for the rest of his life. He walked with a brisk, unassuming gait, an almost-jaunt, and an almost musical swing to his arms. There was often a smile on his face, and also always the characteristic kindly wrinkles in his brow.

He was already displaying a mature, yet rare talent, the talent for enjoying life. An elegant young man in his mid-thirties, he knew and/or met everybody, from Cocteau and Gertrude Stein to the Windsors, and everybody in between. There were Rothschilds and Mona von Bismarck (Mrs. Harrison Williams), there was Cole Porter and Elsa Maxwell and Noel Coward and Errol Flynn and Rock Hudson. He dined at Marie Laure Noailles’. All the world was coming to Paris.

Fulco Verdura.
Rita Hayworth and Aly Khan.
Marie Laure Noailles.
John was entertained and was entertained by Barbara Hutton and her cousin Jimmy Donahue, with Fulco Verdura, with Elsa Schiaparelli, Arturo and Patricia Lopez-Wilshaw, Aly Khan, Rita Hayworth, Daisy Fellowes, Porfirio Rubirosa.

He was very popular with everyone. He had a kind of luminous notoriety for having a great allure, for being highly desirable in many ways. Not only was he charming, handsome and fun to be with, but he also had a great reputation as a lover. Of both sexes. More than a few reveled in the telling of Diana Barrymore’s famous description of him being “well-bred and well” everything else.

He lived in Paris for fifteen years in, according to Tony Hail, a “very attractively” decorated apartment on the rue de Burgoyne, which he acquired through the assistance of Donald Bloomingdale of the New York department store family. He entertained often at parties populated by the rich, the celebrated, the powerful and occasionally the notorious.

Paris in those days was, he recalled to me several years ago, “the best place in the world to be, the most exciting, creative era. Everyone wanted to go there. There were many different sectors of Paris life that one could see.” We can safely assume he saw them all.

In the following years, his life took on the pattern of early jetsetters, traveling frequently between Paris, London and New York, with trips to the resorts, to yachts on the Mediterranean, to Mexico, to Jamaica. At one point, he kept the apartment in Paris, a house in London and an apartment in New York. He worked for a time with Hubert de Givenchy at the beginning of his design career. Givenchy did not speak English and John spoke French beautifully. With his linguistic and social talents he served as a “liaison” for the rising designer.

By his forties, he was a man of the world, a man about town, to be found at the best places, on the best yachts, present at all the famous parties that seemed even more fabulous after the regeneration of Europe from the ashes of war. He recalled that the celebrated de Bestigui party in Venice in the 1950s is legendary only because of “the spectacular entrance of the costumes that made the party.”

It was a lifetime of being a very popular, highly sought after, highly enigmatic individual. He was a mystery to most who knew him, all his life and even with those who’d know him for decades. He wasn’t so much secretive as he was inclined to be discreet in a way that is almost unknown in today’s world. There are many who make the claim but few who actually accommodate the title. John was one of the very few.

John in costume. The Sheik in dark glasses, at the "Adam and Eve Fiesta" given by Betty and Luis Estevez in Acapulco, 1959. From left to right: Francois Arnal, Countess Marina Cicogna, Romy Aguirre Naon, JG, and Luis Estevez. Courtesy of Luis Estevez.
"The Sheik" with Fran Stark, Acapulco, 1959. Courtesy of Luis Estevez.
That discretion was reflected in his dress, his décor and his social behavior. He was always a “gent” in his attitude and bearing toward others, always unfailingly courteous and kindly toward everybody. This rare quality is even rarer in the circles John traveled in most of the time. And because he lived such a long life, he had seen many rise from often humble beginnings right up to the royal tastes they acquired along with the fortunes they accumulated or married into. He’d also seen many fall from grace and, with his incisive sensitivity, he often sympathized.

He did not divulge or break confidences, and he had many to keep. One might learn how he felt about someone or something only by observing his reaction carefully, if he were to laugh, or lower his chin and turn his face away with a wave of the hand – a very characteristic action.

He was also not one to reveal or express judgment about the private behavior of others. All of that was very “tiresome” and “disagreeable” to him. On the other hand, there was a moment in his Paris days right after the War, when, for reasons of “security” he shared with his superiors his knowledge of an affair the wife of a very important American general was having with a high ranking married Frenchman.

After fifteen years of living in Paris, he bought a house in London in Chester Square in the 1960s. It is said that in the following years, he bought and re-did several houses, making a tidy sum from the business. It was also known that he was not a wealthy man, or from a wealthy family, and that he had no apparent employment. This only added to his mystery.

While the haute monde and the demimondaine were always in proximity in John Galliher’s world, there were also the worlds of the arts, of the theatre and show business (he loved music and was a very close friend of Lena Horne and Bobby Short, to name only two among many).

Pat Buckley.
About twenty years ago, having given up his Paris apartment, he also sold his properties in London and consolidated his life to a small but pleasantly appointed apartment on East 69th Street off Madison Avenue. Until his premature death of AIDS in 1991, he often visited his friend Billy McCarty-Cooper in California. He continued to travel frequently to visit friends in Europe or the Mediterranean. In his later years he made annual trips to see his friend Sybilla Clark in Lyford Cay, or Pat and William Buckley in Gstaad, Beatrix Patino on the Algarve.

Up until a few years ago he’d travel to London two or three times a year to see his friends and to see his tailor, and less occasionally on to Paris to see old friends. Although no one thought of him as a rich man, he was well known to be rich in friends, some of whom bestowed their riches on him. When Billy McCarty-Cooper knew he was dying he settled an annuity of $50,000 a year on John for the rest of his life, in thanks for John’s generous friendship at the beginning of McCarty’s adult life.

It was a very orderly life, well-managed and always tempered by a natural self-control. If he had drunk much earlier in life, (which I find hard to imagine), by his sixties, he was very temperate. He loved telling the story of being invited to dinner at the house of Edie Goetz (pronounced Gets) in Holmby Hills. Mrs. Goetz, the eldest daughter of Louis B. Mayer, was a true princess of Hollywood and known (and rightfully so) for her very elegant and grand dinner parties well-populated with glamorous movie stars, surrounded by a splendid art collection.

Seated on Mrs. Goetz’ right, as he told the story, he tasted his red wine and mused to his hostess: “Very good, what is it?” To which his hostess matter-of-factly replied, “Baccarat."
Edie Goetz in the library of her Holmby Hills mansion with its Billy Haines designed library.
In New York, as the years accumulated, he always remained the ideal extra man. He kept up with the times, always aware of the changing tastes, cognizant of the changing crowds and attitudes. He did not suffer fools gladly and did not accommodate rudeness. Instead he avoided both whenever possible, and when not, he removed himself as quickly as possible.

Like a lot of people who grow older successfully, he was always interested in the company and the fashions of younger people; so much so that he was never at loss for the company of new people who wanted to be with him, for he continued to fascinate in the same way he had all his life.

His life always seemed as organized as it was unique. He made everything look effortless including the natural burden of growing old. It must have at times taken great effort on the part of a man who lived, like his friend and mentor Cole Porter, what appeared to be the life of a hedonist.

John Galliher and Nan Kempner in 2002. Photo: ©Patrick McMullan.
He loved to play cards, and it was at the card table that a different side of Johnny Galliher came out. For this man who’d made an art of living a life unfettered by temperament hated to lose. Though the games were most often played for money, a penny a point, a dollar a point, and it was never a question of stakes. He simply hated losing and could get very angry, openly at his partner if he thought they’d played an especially bad hand. His temper at losing was so out of character that friends easily sloughed it off with a laugh, albeit sometimes feigned. For they always remained cowed by it.

In these last few years, he was often seen around New York, very often invited, very often attending theatre, movies, opera, ballet. Three times a week he walked the thirty or so blocks from his apartment on East 63rd Street (acquired in the mid 1990s) to the pool in the Asphalt Green on York and 92nd Street, have an hour’s swim, and walk back home. To the world, it seemed that although age had come to John Galliher, the levity of youth remained his. So it came as a surprise to those who knew him, to learn that just before the Christmas holiday, he had been gravely ill and had died.

He lived fairly comfortably, with style, although modestly, the last years of his life. Many will be surprised to learn that he left an estate of more than $1.5 million.

He went to sleep that Saturday night in his apartment and he never woke up. He’d avoided hospitalization throughout his brief illness and although he accepted very few invitations in the last few weeks, three days before his death, he did make a lunch at La Grenouille of a young close friend he’d acquired in the last few years.

He loved life and it loved him back — with grace, many good friends and many good times.