Tuesday, July 27, 2021. Very warm, yesterday in New York. 84 degrees and much higher RealFeel. More in the forecast. The previous two weeks with those spates of rain that washed the streets and cooled the air.
The season we’ve been living in with all its uncertainties has given me a chance to look at the whole picture I’ve been writing about for the past 30 years. And the people who portray the story. Today we’re running a portrait of John Galliher, a most interesting fellow from beginning thru middle to the end.
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 think or even know to meet. And yet, in his way he was a simple man.
I met him at a dinner party Billy McCarty-Cooper’s house in Los Angeles. A friend of mine had told me beforehand that I was going to meet the chic-est man I’d ever meet. “And why?” I asked. “You’ll see,” he replied.
This was about thirty years ago — he was a man in his mid-60s, a full head of white hair (that someone told me he brushed fifty times each morning). He was “old” to these much younger eyes; small framed, with a soft-spoken quiet presence, and very bright eyes.
I had never heard of him before that night. The word chic is over-used and I’m not sure what it means. Although John, or Johnny as everyone liked to call him, defined it in his completeness. Always a gent, well-turned out, never calling attention to himself, a good ear, a good laugh, a bit of mystery, and a good life well lived apparently doing nothing but being “chic,” etc. Therein the mystery. He was sensible.
In the following years we became friends, 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 usually six 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.”
He was known to his multitude of friends down through the decades, as Johnny, Johnny Galliher (pronounced Gal-yer), or Johnny G. He possessed a unique combination of characteristics and qualities — easily said but rarely found in life — and therefore difficult to define. An old friend of more than fifty years, Tony Hail, the San Francisco interior designer, put it most succinctly. “He was fun to know.”
It didn’t appear that he ever had a real profession or even a job. Nor was it believed that he was independently wealthy — although perhaps a small trust provided income. But he was a charmer in his own way. He was naturally gentlemanly, curious, and the kind who if he didn’t have something nice to say, he said nothing. With that very agreeable (a favorite word of his) disposition, he navigated skillfully for more than sixty years through a world where gossip, bitchery and malice can be commonplace and even lethal.
He was born in Washington, D. C. on May 24, 1914, the second son of five children. The Gallihers were a prosperous family of Anglo extraction, although not of the great wealth and worldliness that the second son would come to know and to swim with.
The boy grew up to be handsome, about five-nine — an average height for his generation; lean, but sinewy, with a thick head of curly black hair and bright blue eyes. As a very young man, in the early 1930s, his path in life appears to have opened to him when he became a favorite of a leading Washington hostess, mining heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean, and her daughter, also named Evalyn who was seven years his junior.
Mrs. McLean, whose husband was also rich — heir to the Washington Post and the Cincinnati Enquirer newspapers — was the last owner of the fabled 45 carat Hope Diamond which was purchased her from Pierre Cartier by her husband Ned, in 1911 for $180,000 (or approximately $18 million in today’s currency). The legendary diamond came with ownership records dating back four centuries, is believed to have come from India and cut from the French Blue which was presented to Louis XIV.
Ed. note: On January 28, 1911, in a deal made in the offices of The Washington Post, Ned McLean purchased the Hope Diamond for $180,000 from Pierre Cartier of Cartier Jewelers in New York. A clause in the sale agreement for the diamond, which was widely believed to have brought death and disaster to its owners, stated that “Should any fatality occur to the family of Edward B. McLean within six months, the said Hope Diamond is agreed to be exchanged for jewelry of equal value.” By March, the diamond had not been paid for in accordance with the terms in the sale agreement. Cartier hired a lawyer to sue McLean for payment. McLean responded by saying that the diamond was on loan for inspection.
Also known as Le Bijou du Roi (“the King’s Jewel”) the Hope is now on permanent exhibition in Washington’s National Museum of Natural History and is said to be insured for $250 million. Its significance as the most famous diamond in the world comes from the longstanding belief that it came with a curse.
Young John Galliher and young Evalyn McLean Jr. often went out together. And if the evening were formal, mother Evalyn would insist that daughter wear the Hope Diamond. As soon as they were away from the house, however, young Evalyn, barely out of her teens would take it off and give to it John to put in his pocket. She didn’t want anything to do with it.
The whole transaction made him very nervous, he recalled fifty years later. He was firstly worried about possibly losing the legendary rock worth a small fortune, and secondly, (or maybe even firstly) he was afraid that its reputation for bringing tragedy and bad luck might rub off on him too.
(Ed. note Cursed or no, the McLean family history was in many instances, ill-fated: Mrs. McLean never looked upon her misfortunes as part of a curse but — her first son died in a car accident; her husband ran off with another woman and later died in a psychiatric sanitarium; the Washington Post went bankrupt and was sold to Eugene Meyer, father of Katharine Graham; one of her grandsons died in the Viet Nam War, and the young Evalyn, committed suicide by drug overdose in 1946 at age 25, leaving a small child.)
Growing up. After high school and then college at Lehigh University, John joined the navy. He served in Europe during the Second World War as an 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 who was seven years younger than he. Diana, whom he met through young Evalyn McLean, was the glamorous daughter of the great star of stage and screen, John Barrymore and a New York socialite Michael Strange (a nom de plume for Blanche Oelrichs).
Now in his late twenties, out in the great big world, John’s path in life had begun to show direction. It seemed to have arisen out of natural interest and curiosity, as if swept up by Dame Fortune. His understated ambition and self-discipline is what would propel him into the high life of Hollywood, New York and Paris and London, as a member, an associate, a friend; and presumably at times, as a lover. It was a very creative life, like a novel lived out rather than written.
While living in Beverly Hills with Diana Barrymore – who coincidentally like her friend young Evalyn McLean had a fast and short life (but even left a bestselling memoir: “Too Much, Too Soon”) — one day on a sidewalk in the business section of Beverly Hills, John ran into Lady Mendl, Elsie de Wolfe, whom he’d already met in Paris. Learning that he was “new” in town, she asked if there were anyone he’d like to meet. He couldn’t think of anybody; he’d already met so many. Then he thought of Garbo, who had recently retired from the screen and was 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 him for cocktails the following Tuesday at 5:30.
It happened that he already had a previous engagement on that day, as he told the secretary, expressing his regrets. “Break it,” she emphatically advised sotte voce.
He did. On the following Tuesday at the appointed time, he went over to Lady Mendl’s Mediterranean villa After All, on Lexington Road behind the Beverly Hills Hotel. On arrival, he found waiting: Lady Mendl, Cary Grant, Marlene Dietrich … and Greta Garbo.
His relationship with Garbo, is emblematic of John’s social career – and it was a career, a very successful one. All kinds of people were attracted. His charm was his intelligent evenness, a simplicity that was characteristic of everything about him. It was an artful life defined not by what he did – he never really had an apparent full time occupation or profession – but by the way he lived. He liked people, never obviously pushed himself on them, and accepted them on their terms. He did not suffer fools. If there were aspects to the person that were cruel or vulgar, he removed himself, quietly and quickly, and resolutely.
He was not one to describe anyone as “a friend,” although as it was with many who knew him and considered it a friendship, John saw Garbo many times after that first meeting in Beverly Hills, although rarely the result of him 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.”
It was the beginning of a long “friendship” always on her terms and calendar. Many years later on a snowy, winter’s afternoon in New York, he got a call from her. She was in the neighborhood, and wondered if she could stop by. He told her she was welcome but, aware of her famous reclusiveness, warned that he was expecting another guest momentarily — Billy Baldwin, the interior decorator. Garbo, who had never met Baldwin, decided to visit anyway. When she arrived, snow covered in a “big bear of a fur coat and hood, she was wearing large dark (professional) aviator goggles.
“Well Miss G, those glasses could keep out any storm,” John commented.
“I wanted to cover up so no one would see me,” she archly explained her dulcet accent.
“There was no way she wasn’t noticed in those goggles and the bear fur,” John later recalled, quietly laughing in recollection. It was that aspect of her ego that always amused him. It was also that kind of amusement of other’s foibles that made it easy for him to like people and for them to like him.
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. He went to work for the Marshall Plan in Paris in the late 1940s, and kept an apartment on the rue de Burgoyne that was said to be a gift of retail heir Donald Bloomingdale, believed to be another of John’s conquests. He worked briefly with his friend 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, seen at the best places, surrounded by the rich and famous, on the best yachts, at all the famous parties that seemed even more fabulous after the regeneration of Europe from the ashes of war. No matter the glamour attached to the images of that life, he was not given to any delusions. He recalled that the celebrated Carlos de Beistigui party in Venice in the 1950s was legendary only because of “the spectacular entrance of the costumes that made the party.” After that it was …
It would be a lifetime of being a very popular, highly sought after, highly enigmatic individual who was very well liked. He was a kind of pleasant mystery to most who knew him and even with those who’d know him for decades. It wasn’t that he was secretive as he was discreet. 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. Not that he didn’t find the stories and intrigues interesting. 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.
His discretion reflected that simplicity of character — in his dress, his décor and his social behavior. Always a “gent” in his behavior toward others, always courteous and kindly. And because he lived such a long life, he had seen many rise from often humble inceptions right up to their royal tastes acquired along with the fortunes they accumulated or married into. He’d also witnessed others’ fall from grace and, with his incisive sensitivity, he often sympathized.
One might learn how he felt about someone or something only by observing his reaction carefully, whether he would have a laugh, or lower his chin and turn his face away with a wave of the hand – a very characteristic action.
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. Like a lot of people who grow older successfully, he was always connected to the company and the fashions of younger people; so much so that he was never at loss for the company of new people. They wanted to be with him, for he continued to fascinate in the same way he had all his life.
His social sphere was replete with names. Both Noel Coward and Cole Porter were close friends and influenced his style. He was often entertained by Barbara Hutton and her cousin Jimmy Donahue, with Fulco Verdura, with Elsa Schiaparelli with whom it was said he had a long affair; with Arturo and Patricia Lopez-Wilshaw as well as Alexis de Rede, Aly Khan, Rita Hayworth, Daisy Fellowes, Porfirio Rubirosa; the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. And he was very popular with everyone, with a kind of luminous notoriety for having a great allure, for being highly desirable in many ways. Not only 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 repeating Diana Barrymore’s famous description of him as being “well-bred and well… everything else.”
While the haute monde and the demimondaine were always in close 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).
He loved to play cards, and it was at the card table that exposed a different side of Johnny Galliher. He played to win. For this man who’d made an art of living a life unfettered by temperament hated to lose. 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 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 the mid-1980s, 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. He often visited his friend Billy McCarty-Cooper in California Until his premature death from AIDS in 1991. 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, and Pat and William Buckley in Gstaad, Beatrix Patino on the Algarve. Up until a few years ago he’d travel to London to see his friends and to see his tailor, and less occasionally on to Paris to see old friends.
It was a world of formality: rules, etiquette and pleasure. Anything goes but watch yourself. To its real connoisseurs, the life 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.
His friend, novelist and journalist Billy Norwich, writing about him in the New York Times in 2001 concluded that he was “the favorite host for all seasons in New York. “Everyone wants to go back to Johnny … for lunch or dinner or Saturday afternoon card parties (Gin, not bridge).”
His style of entertaining at meals, Norwich reported, followed a trend started by Louis XIV for a round table of six. Where the Sun King would dismiss his servants so that everyone could talk freely and uninterrupted. John had no servants but instead invented a convenient replacement: a laundry basket lined with a plastic covered cloth. After a course, the table was cleared by loading everything into the basket which was carried into the kitchen when the guests left.
His menu, Norwich continued was standard Galliher: “Cold tomato soufflé, or lobster salad to start. Then chicken Mica, named for a Romanian friend: large pieces of chicken stewed in a double broth of chicken consommé, wild rice, small mixed vegetables, and a bit of cream seasoned with rosemary and tarragon. It is cooked ahead of time and kept warm until served. On the table: a jar of Ritz crackers and bottles of wine; guests can pour as they like. Dessert is a homemade concoction of bitter dark chocolate with lots of Tia Maria and Kahlua. Galliher calls this Moca Melting Moments.”
There was always something of a mystery about him financially because while he lived well, if “modestly,” he wasn’t an “income earner,” and if there were inheritance, it wasn’t notable. He lived alone, and comfortably yet somewhat frugally when I knew him in the last twenty years of his life. He was often invited because he was good company.
Although no one thought of him as a rich man, he was rich in friends, some who bestowed their riches on him. When Billy McCarty-Cooper died in 1991, he left John (and another friend, Gloria Etting) each an annuity of $50,000 a year for John for the rest of his life, in thanks for John’s generous friendship at the beginning of McCarty’s adult life.
In the last years of his life, in his 80s, he was often seen around New York, often invited, attending theatre, movies, opera, ballet. Three times a week he walked — 3.5 miles each way — always at a brisk pace, from his apartment on East 63rd Street to the pool in the Asphalt Green on York and 92nd Street, for 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. It was a very orderly life, active and organized right down to his weekly walks. So it came as a surprise to those who knew him, to learn just a few days before the Christmas holiday, in 2003, that he had been gravely ill and had died.
His will surprised many by leaving bequests totaling 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 it, indeed, needed that gift, even though they’d never told him. This came as a real shock to many of these friends, the affection and generosity — not only financially but of spirit — awed.. There was another bequest to a long list of lady friends who received a posthumous orchid with a brief note; plus a second orchid on St. Valentine’s Day. And a list of gentlemen received a case of wine. The remainder of his estate was divided between City Harvest, God’s Love We Deliver and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. What does this tell you?
His small fortune was also a surprise for obvious reasons. The mystery remains, even in memory. I concluded with a serious guess that the secret was: he did have a profession — he had been a spy, or more specifically, worked in intelligence in those days after the War and perhaps much longer. I’d come to that conclusion because of the wide variety of acquaintances he kept up with, ranging from movie stars and tycoons, to high ranking 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.