Part I: Billy McCarty-Cooper; An Epicurean Life

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Douglas Cooper and Billy McCarty-Cooper at Chateau de Castille, Cooper's house in the South of France. Photograph by Robert Doisneau.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023. A sunny first full day of Spring yesterday in New York, with temps hovering around the low 50s.

Over the weekend I had a conversation with an old friend about Los Angeles when I lived there in the ’70s and ’80s. To this Eastern boy, born and bred, it was like another world. The climate assures it, but the entertainment industry, originally, the movie industry (that changed the world and everything else) attracted masses of talented and ambitious people of every stripe. It was thoroughly American while being ordinary or exotic in dreamland. Although I can say that because I had the good luck to meet many fascinating people and personalities.

Behind these corner windows there once sat a baby grand piano which was often played by me and by others when I lived in this house on Doheny Drive in the 1980s.

Today we are re-running a three part series of Billy McCarty-Cooper, a neighbor in the hills off Doheny Drive whom I met through a New York friend Johnny Galliher. Over time — a number of months — I came to know Billy. It was a fascinating life, full of personalities both American and European, and Billy’s life story was like going into a novel. 

Billy died in his early 50s in 1991. I learned this from a phone call in the middle of the night from his butler who told me that he had “passed away twenty minutes ago.” He explained that before his death, which he knew was imminent, he made a list of those he wanted informed immediately. I was frankly surprised that I was on that list because I did not know him well but only as a guest occasionally at some of his dinner parties. 

After re-reading the following series (in three parts: today, tomorrow, Thursday), however, it occurred to me that Billy, knowing already that I was a writer, had allowed me to see and get to know him in order for me to write this. Do people actually think like that? I would guess: often. Although it takes a certain artistic temperament to create a story that works in print. Billy’s fills the bill.

William A. McCarty-Cooper. Photograph by Victor Skrebneski.

May 31, 2001: The news came by phone. Ten years ago tonight. Living in Los Angeles. The phone rang shortly after eleven. An Englishman’s voice greeted me sonorously. “I’ve rung up to tell you that William McCarty-Cooper passed away twenty minutes ago.”

It was his butler Paul speaking. All formality and a matter of fact. A former member of the Royal Household staff, he and his compatriots had migrated to Los Angeles for greener domestic pastures. I had expected to hear the news imminently although I was surprised to have received it so quickly. I had this picture of the spent body, long and bony, faded and aged by the ravages of his disease, finally stilled.

I expressed my sympathy to his butler, feeling sincere but odd about that also. Billy had died and had left instructions to make certain people aware immediately. Like Miss Otis Regrets (she’s unable to lunch today). It had that archness to it. But right; in character; thorough. I realized later that he had been instructed to contact certain people immediately. I had not been one of his master’s closest friends. But I was part of the picture; the bigger picture. I was the writer, a position the late master had been well aware of.

He was a tall man, long and thin, with a long neck and sloped shoulders that gave the impression of a small head. Dark brown hair and eyes, and very young looking for his age and height, he was handsome in a kind of pretty way, with the delicacy to his features that fit the mold of an English schoolboy. And indeed, though he was American, hailing from Miami, he spoke with an almost precious accent that although not British, nevertheless reminded one of everything English. On first meeting, back in the mid-1980s in California, I felt as if I’d met a character out of a story by Somerset Maugham. There was an intriguing yet quiet drama in his bearing. This was enhanced by what was, even compared to Hollywood/Beverly Hills standards, an obviously lavish and rich lifestyle in that community.

The entry way of villa McCarty-Cooper, Oriole Lane, West Hollywood, California, with portrait of owner.

He was also a very friendly fellow with most people with whom he came in contact, despite his cool physical exterior. Right underneath what appeared to be pretense, there was no pretense. And yet, if you got to know him, beyond that layer, was more of what appeared to be pretense. And beyond that, something very real. He had an artist’s eye and temperament, as well as sensibility, and he liked all kinds of people. Once, when being warned about a newly acquired friend who was described as “notorious,” he responded with authority, “well, I’m not going to worry. I know where I came from and I don’t know where I’m going.” As it happened, he was deathly ill at the time, and he knew it.

He’d bought his house, a far-flung Moroccan-inspired one-story villa on the edge of a hill overlooking the whole of western Los Angeles, from the San Gabriels and downtown all the way out to Catalina and the Pacific. He’d bought it in 1986, after a lifetime of living mainly in Europe — London and the South of France, two years after he’d inherited a fortune. It was a dream, an unusual design, created by a man named Peter Paanaker who built the same house several times in the surrounding hills, varying the size each time. Billy’s house was the largest. The living room which was also the center of the house, was forty-by-forty with a twenty-seven foot ceiling. There was one wall of glass which could disappear and be opened entirely onto the terrace and a long lap pool bordered by a line of olive trees, with the magnificent city view beyond.

In this great central room, like its owner, tall and rangy and elegant, there were hung great Cubist canvases of Braque and Picasso, overseeing great French and African furniture, as well as an important and still-embryonic collection of African art. It was a house of a connoisseurship, however arrived at, and an epicurean life. There was the open-air spaciousness and light of the California lifestyle merged with the reminders of the great salons of London and Paris, and the sophisticated certainty of the New York eclectic.

The living room of the residence on Oriole Lane with museum quality furnishings and art maintained for preservation standards. Braque’s famous Atelier VIII is on the left wall, while Picasso’s Compotier et guitar is on the right, among other rare artifacts.

He’d been attracted to the exotic beauty of Los Angeles, its climate, as well as the roster of local people with big international connections in society and the world of collecting. Although Madonna lived three doors away, and Dolly Parton two, movie stars were almost non-existent, and irrelevant to his scheme of things. He was also attracted to the city because of the legendary crowds of very good-looking young men, “boys” in the parlance of some, who lived in the greater Los Angeles environs and most specifically West Hollywood. Young men who were looking for their place in the sun (by a pool).

He’d discovered when he was 50 that he was HIV positive. He was also newly very rich. He came to the end of the rainbow only to find The End. He had had a brilliant and unregrettable life of tutoring and tasting by some of the best talents in the world of decorative and fine arts. He’d long before created a scintillating life for himself. His profession took him all over the world, but most specifically into the corridors of power and money. And sex. When he finally set up residence in Los Angeles to enjoy what little time was left, these truths were his counselors.

Four days after Billy’s passing, on the sunny afternoon of June 3rd, a well-dressed group of more than 200, assembled at St. Victor’s, the neighborhood Catholic church on Holloway Drive in West Hollywood, for the service. Among the mourners who came from Europe, New York, and San Francisco, were Picasso biographer John Richardson, cosmetics heir Leonard Lauder, longtime friend, New Yorker John Galliher, and McCarty-Cooper’s neighbors Georgianna and Ricardo Montalban and Lise and Mel Ferrer.

The spectacularly irascible Douglas Cooper taking the sun at Chateau de Castille, in front of the Picasso murals.

He had known everybody, as they say, and from the time he had inherited more than $40 million from art historian and Cubist art collector, Douglas Cooper, the man who’d adopted him nineteen years earlier in 1972, he had entertained all of them.

After the memorial at St. Victor’s, with its program written by the deceased, as well as the flowers (bowers of Casablanca lilies), there was a reception back at his house. Waiters in black tie served blinis and caviar and vintage champagne.

Sometime before his death, anticipating it, he let some of the bequests be known, including two life long annuities, each of $50,000 annually, to John Galliher and Gloria Etting, the two individuals whom he considered his sponsors, to whom he credited his social connections that launched him in the world. It was Gloria Etting, a Philadelphia socialite and photographer who had first introduced him to Henry McIlhenny, the Philadelphia art collector. McIlhenny in turn, introduced him to the spectacularly irascible Douglas Cooper.

Several years later, it was John Galliher who’d urged him to pay close attention to Cooper at the end of his life, at a time when the relationship between “father” and “son” had deteriorated noticeably.

Other bequests which included his family — mother, father, sisters, brother, and several charities totaled in the millions — although everything was controlled by a lawyer who had been, not so coincidentally, the same lawyer who had a strong hand in the McCarty-Cooper adoption in 1972. Fulfilling the multi-million dollar bequests required what, since Douglas Cooper’s death, had become the complete dismantling of the greatest private collection of Cubist art — which once included 38 Picassos, 27 Legers, and 14 Braques — ever assembled by one person.

“He lived to give to others,” according to Billy’s longtime friend Countess Dominique de Borchgrave d’Altena of London, who was also left a small sum, voicing the unqualified praise so frequently uttered about him. There were other views also. “There was a calculated side to Billy too, a very what-was-going to-be-best-for-Billy side,” said another friend. “He loved people and was very good to them, but he had a strength that was not obvious. There was a layer of iron around those tap shoes.”

Graham Sutherland’s Portrait of Douglas Cooper, which Billy never liked.

In other words, he also had a shrewdness about people and relationships that ultimately benefited him with great fortune. Was this canniness or dumb luck? By his mid-thirties despite his demanding relationship with Cooper, he was one of the most sought-after decorators of the 1960s. Yet he continued his intimate relationship with a man whose rage eventually drove everyone from his life.

There was a portrait of Cooper (and which he hated) by Graham Sutherland which Billy hung in the entrance foyer of the house on Oriole Lane. Billy always irreverently referred to it as “El Benefactor.” Once Billy had got what could have been considered the best of all possible worlds for himself — Cooper’s wealth without the notoriously headstrong Cooper — the similarities between father and son, which theretofore had seemed non-existent, suddenly came sharply into focus.

By making Billy his heir, Cooper had ensured that his own birth family, whom he loathed, would not share in his estate and collection. However, he also ensured that his remarkable collection, the core of his life’s work would be disposed in its entirety, sold off to underwrite a big life for a hungry and ambitious young man with little time left to enjoy any of it. It was always self-interest.

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