High life

I can finally spill the beans about Halston and Princess Margaret

22 May 2021

9:00 AM

22 May 2021

9:00 AM

New York

Already on your idiot box via Netflix is a mini-series about a man who also used one name, but burned out rather early due to an outsized ego and too much coke. His name was Halston, and his fame was based on the fact that he designed a pillbox hat that Jackie Kennedy Onassis wore at her hubby’s inauguration. Yes, fame is tricky, especially in America, where self-creation was invented and where superciliousness and sleekness pass for gravity and depth. I knew Halston, he was a friend of my then sister-in-law, but we had zero in common. In fact, he thought I wasn’t important enough to greet in a nightclub, and I didn’t exactly ever mistake him for a Hemingway hero. Never mind.

Some wannabe who made a documentary on Studio 54 compared Halston to Cole Porter because they both had links with Indiana. That’s a bit like comparing an organ grinder to Mozart because they were both Austrian. Halston affected an upper-class accent and a persona of distance and hauteur, as does Anna Wintour. Both the designer and the editor-in-chief of American Vogue mistakenly assume that a nose up in the air means one is aristocratic.

The Scot Ewan McGregor is cast as the designer in the series, an unfortunate choice as he looks like a Glasgow tough, whereas Halston was effete, elongated and effeminate. The hard-partying designer died of Aids in 1990, aged 57, but his downfall began much earlier when he got down and dirty with the sexual hustler Victor Hugo — the French government should have sued when such a lowlife adopted the great name — spending his evenings on Studio 54’s balcony where free and anonymous sex took place nightly.

But what I want to tell you has nothing to do with the sleaze that was Halston, Warhol, Bianca Jagger and Studio 54. It has to do with what transpired between Halston, the Queen Mother’s cousin and Princess Margaret, parts of the story having appeared on 12 July 1980, in this here High life column. John Bowes-Lyon, Bosie to us for obvious reasons and perennially broke, had been more or less ordered by Halston to organise a party for the designer and invite the crème de la crème of the London scene to meet him. Princess Margaret was the pièce de résistance. The blast took place at the Savoy. Among the first to arrive was Rupert Galliers Pratt, eager to taste the free canapés and Savoy drinks. Rupert, walking five feet ahead of his wife, advanced fearlessly into the grand ballroom where he ran into a tall imperious figure with an outstretched right arm. Next to that figure stood Bosie. ‘I am Halston,’ said the elongated man with a raised eyebrow. ‘Thank you, Halston,’ boomed Rupert, wrapping his wife’s coat around the designer’s extended arm. When Bosie later remonstrated with him about the coat incident, Rupert said that only people in service had one name, and that he was genuinely sorry.

Things did not improve once the glitterati sat down. The main players are all dead, so I can finally tell the true story of what eventually became known as the Last Supper. Halston was seated next to Princess Margaret and across the table sat his — and my — very close friend Steve Rubell, owner of Studio 54. After making some polite conversation, Stevie signalled to Halston to pass the coke. ‘Never, not in a million years,’ hissed Halston, eager to impress la Margaret and knowing full well what Steve was like under the influence. Steve kept insisting and Halston resisting, until Stevie decided to take the bull by the horns. He dropped his napkin, pretended to go fishing for it under the table, and approached Halston on all fours. He then grabbed his leg and bit it as hard as he could. Halston howled and jerked, spilling his wine all over the princess. ‘Now look what’s you’ve done,’ cried Margaret. ‘And it’s my best dress.’ ‘You will have an original creation of mine tomorrow, Your Majesty,’ stammered Halston. ‘I will hold you to that,’ exclaimed the recently upgraded Margaret.

And this is where the fun begins. Halston had one of his new creations flown over immediately, hired a stretch limo and took a groupie along with him, a groupie who is now an aging activist, whatever that means. The duo arrived at Kensington Palace bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, whereupon the designer was informed the Princess was expecting only one person. He quickly stuffed some large bank notes into the groupie’s hands and told the driver to take her shopping for a couple of hours, then come back for him. Once inside Margaret’s apartment in KP, Halston was met by a flunky, handed over the dress to him, was thanked on behalf of the Princess, and shown the door. The whole exchange had taken less than two minutes. This, of course, was a time long before the world’s second most annoying device had been invented. Without a telephone, poor Halston had to find his way out through hoi polloi rubber-necking for Princess Diana, and other annoying creatures. It was a lost week, and I don’t think he went back to jolly old London ever again.

My wife, locked away in London, saw the beginning of the series and didn’t like it. I’m not surprised. Halston was actually to be pitied — a talented designer whose success went to his head in more ways than one.

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