Well, this is our period piece. Betty Sherrill should be some kind of national treasure, so representative is she of a particular era and a particular charm. She’s an expert at a kind of skilled, light conversation, peculiar to her generation and class. It is talk that is entertaining without being too slight but avoids, at all costs, earnest intensity. The ways of men, money and politics … she touched upon them all and she knows exactly what she’s doing and saying. Beneath that Southern débutante charm, is a canny career woman who cleverly carved out her own considerable design business, never once letting on how intent she was on defying the role expected of a sweet and privileged young thing. Our interview seems to reveal the huge differences between the vocal, upfront women of today and the way it was done then – decide for yourself which is preferable.
This apartment is so full of light – is that why you chose it?
When the children were with us we were in a big old apartment on Park Avenue with no light and I hated it. We lived there about 16 years.
Do your grandchildren still come to stay?
No, not really. Stephen is in Yale and Elizabeth is working at Sotheby’s, and Johnny’s working for [Mayor] Bloomberg. He loves it.
He likes Bloomberg?
Doesn’t everybody? I don’t particularly want him to run for president. I don’t think he will … who do you want to run? I just don’t want her. [Hillary Clinton] I don’t like her. She’s tough. Do you like her?
I’d like to see a woman in the White House.
I don’t want a woman president. For one thing, I don’t want to go to war over anything, but I know I couldn’t send my children to war. I couldn’t. I don’t think any woman could and maybe we have to go sometimes. It might be a time when we have to do it. I’m a complete isolationist and so was my father.
What do you think of the current situation?
Oh, I don’t know enough to comment … but it’s sad. I wish we were out of there, I can tell you that. But now we can’t get out … are you from England?
[Lesley] I am, but I grew up in Africa, in Zimbabwe.
Oh, I’ve been there. Virgil and I went in 1970, which is quite a long time ago, with Bing Crosby. We took our children and we went to everywhere. And it was such fun because Bing sang around the fire and made a record for us when we came back. I should play it for you but I don’t know where it is right now. He shot a leopard. They all got the big five but that was in 1970. Virgil wouldn’t hurt a flea now. We have some beautiful heads in there that I would really like to take down … but they are pretty … it was alright then but it isn’t now …[to Sian] … I always love her accent … it’s beautiful, isn’t it? I wish we had nice accents! I’m from New Orleans and I don’t know if I have a very big New Orleans accent.
You can definitely hear it. Do you miss New Orleans?
I go there a lot. My sister died and her family house was damaged, not by the water, because it was a big old house, but two big oak trees fell on the kitchen and one of the bedrooms. It has taken a year [to repair] but it’s so sad and it’s so slow … the worst part was those people in those houses where they never should have built them anyway …how is David [Patrick Columbia]?
He’s doing well actually. He just got back from the Biennale in Paris.
I always go there. I can’t go now because of Virgil. He usually goes with me.
Did he have a stroke?
He had three strokes. She embarks on long off- the- record story about one of their doctors who refuses to marry his girlfriend, concluding with: My sister used to say ‘All men from the time they’re this big are no damn good!’
But you have been married for a very long time, so do you agree with that?
I think men are different from us. And, you know I don’t mind sins of the flesh. It’s sins of the heart that bother me and I think all men are so tempted by these beautiful ladies that are around. Don’t you? When you get older and they get used to seeing you and you don’t look as cute as you used to … [laughs]
Well, they all definitely get tempted, a lot of them do.
Well I’ve never known any that didn’t. I know my Virgil really liked girls [laughs] … and he’s so good looking.
Was that hard for you?
You know, I never thought about it much. People used to say ‘You know that girl is after Virgil’ and I used to say ‘Oh, good for her!’ I never thought about it because for one thing I was very busy. I had my job for all my life. And I’ve had my own … sort of … identity. And also I got sick when I was 29 with all those cancer operations, so I wanted something for him to do while I was away in the hospital! He was a wonderful husband and father.
You’ve had so many years in the interior design business, what would you say has changed from when you started to the way things are now?
For one thing it is very competitive, much more than for me. I came to McMillen and Mrs Brown was it. Now, there’s wonderful talent out there and much more competition, which is good. I love to see talent, it excites me … she [Mrs Brown] didn’t really want me because I had just had Ann [her daughter] and I knew Mrs Brown, she’d done my family’s house and stuff like that and she said ‘No Betty.’ She said: ‘You won’t be on time. You’ll talk on the telephone all the time and you’ll go out every night.’ And I said ‘I know, but I want to anyway.’ And that all turned out to be true but I loved it and she was wonderful to me.
You worked with the young Albert Hadley.
Well Albert was there in the sixties. He’s an adorable man, I like him but the best thing that happened to Albert was Sister Parish. He and Mrs Brown did not get on. But she was the one who got him the job [with Sister Parish] and that was a marriage made in heaven.
What do you think of today’s more modern, linear design?
What, the look? That’s Ann’s look. Ann is so wonderful.
How did you start to work with your daughter?
Well, you know it’s the strangest thing. She’s very brilliant. She’s a writer. And she kept getting degrees after degrees … she’s a teacher too. She said that she thought decorators were worse than real estate people! [laughs] One day when she had graduated from Bard, she decided, and I didn’t know why, that she wanted to do her senior thesis on Mrs Brown, because she started investigating McMillen and found out it was much more interesting than she thought. She called up and said ‘Mother, could I come to work and see how I like it?’ And I said ‘No!’
Why did you say that?
Well I don’t hire people that ‘want to see how they like it.’ She said ‘Oh please! I’ll do it for nothing.’ And we don’t hire people for nothing either. That’s another I don’t like … those people that come in the summer for nothing.
Do you mean interns?
Number one, they don’t think they have to work and number two, you can’t ask them to do much. So we paid Ann the minimum wage and then all of a sudden she got all these great jobs. She approaches [her work] from an historical point of view and she knows everything about a piece of furniture. And she doesn’t ever buy things from the magazines…or you know what I mean. Never. She has to go out see it, feel it, turn it upside down to know who did it …I don’t buy from magazines except T-shirts but I do love to look at those things, don’t you?
Do you mean catalogs? What’s your favorite catalog?
I guess Lands End. I think it’s kind of fun.
Do you ever go online, on the Internet?
No, I hate to tell you I don’t do that. I don’t even have a cell phone. I HATE them. And I don’t have A-mail [sic] either and I don’t like to get invitations on the fax. Ann throws them in the trash because she wants to hear the voice, and so do I. I was flying with Virgil to Rio de Janeiro and this guy behind me, in the days when you could talk on the cell phone forever and he talked. And then he went to sleep and he snored. He was right behind me. So I took a glass of water and threw it back on him. And he leaped out and thought he’d gone to the bathroom.
I wouldn’t have thought you would do something like that!
Well, I get so annoyed. It was 14 hours and I had to listen to this guy talking … and then snore!
You know your own mind. What would you say has shaped your own design sensibility?
Well, I wanted to be an architect but girls didn’t do it then. And I went to Parsons. Living in New Orleans was how I learned how to see a fake piece of French furniture!
How involved are you now in the day-to-day work of McMillen?
Me? Well, I guess I’m still the chief stockholder.
Do you still go in every day?
Oh yeah! Well, I haven’t been this summer. I took three weeks in August off but I talked to the office every morning … and signed all the checks!
Are you good with money?
You know, I’m not bad! They say I am. I failed arithmetic at school but I have a good business head. And that is very important. As I say in my little talk, we’ve never been sued and we’ve never sued anybody. And we’ve always collected.
How do you remember your childhood?
I went to a school that my grandfather had built, Lafayette. And we sang the Marseillaise every morning, and I skipped to school. Nobody skips anymore do they? And I skipped home. And my father built our first little house on Fontainbleu Drive, everything was French in New Orleans. I loved New Orleans.
Do you still have dinner parties here?
Oh yes! We had a big party last night. We had smoked salmon as an hors d’oeuvre and then we had fresh crab meat salad, the way Isabel [the cook] makes it, it’s wonderful, and then we had a veal stew because being from New Orleans, I love stews! I love recipes but I can’t cook. It takes too long.
What’s your favorite drink?
Champagne! Isn’t it everybody’s?