NEW YORK — Donald Brooks, a designer who proved his mettle in fashion, film and theater, was remembered by friends and relatives Wednesday for his acerbic wit, far-reaching creativity and generous spirit.
All in all, it was the kind of occasion that would have won Brooks' approval. The crowd at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home was greeted with peppy Broadway tunes and recalled the ups and downs of an American original.
Brooks, who helped create the "American Look" in fashion in the Fifties and Sixties, died at age 77 last month.
Hal and Judy Prince, Dominick Dunne, Liz Smith, Nancy Friday, Michael Vollbracht, John McMartin, Charlotte Moore, Jeane Eddy, Joe Hardy, Ray Crespin and Robin Lawford were among those who sat shoulder to shoulder. While reading from one of Brooks' favorite plays, "The Front Page," Milton Greene's wife, Amy, referred to "mourning the passing of the moonstruck gentry." The designer had become part of the Greene's lives, she said.
A few speakers, including Brooks' brother-in-law, Edward Blick, recalled how the designer "liked to do things in a big way," whether overhauling an Upper East Side town house, doting on a niece with an enormous dollhouse that overtook her bedroom or working in fashion and film.
When Brooks volunteered to create the wedding canopy for his sister, Kay, she and Blick assumed he would pick up the tab, as well — until a bill arrived in their mailbox after the honeymoon, Blick laughed. But he was quick to note that Brooks repaid the favor many times over.
In a letter read on behalf of American Theatre Wing chairman Sondra Gilman, an ATW colleague said Brooks worked on 21 shows over a 20-year span, costuming stars such as Carol Burnett, Shelley Winters, Liza Minnelli, Lillian Gish, Betty Comden, Richard Kiley, Art Carney and Jerry Orbach and working with directors José Ferrer, George Abbott, Jose Quintero and Mike Nichols.
Gilman credited him with being among the first designers to cross over to the performing arts.
Kathleen Maggione, who curated the 2003 Brooks retrospective at Parsons School of Design, recalled that, during the Eighties, he designed a wedding dress for Nancy Friday, who married in Manhattan's Rainbow Room with Peter Duchin playing the piano and Peter Allen singing — an assignment Brooks couldn't resist. Lace was scarce, so he and Friday scoured the city for a week in the summer heat for "suitable yardage," capping off each night with a drink at the Russian Tea Room. In the end, the nightly reprieve provided the solution — their Rumanian waitress agreed to put her sewing skills to use, Maggione said.Brooks' friend of 40 years, Bernie Owett, a former art director at J. Walter Thompson, described meeting the designer at a Richard Avedon shoot. They both loved Manhattan, Broadway musicals and old movies — "the more glamorous, the better." Owett also remembered Brooks for his favorite colors, black and yellow, and "his own brand of dry wry humor," he said.
It was Gerald Blum, former executive vice president of Lord & Taylor, who seemed to capture all Brooks' habits and charms. He remembered how the designer would whip off sketches for a fur collection in the back of a cab minutes before they were to be presented. Despite the last-minute crush, Brooks drew from his own inspiration for his inventive prints, unusual color stories and signature designs. "As an American designer, he never relied on Paris, Milan or that kind of thing, as many designers do," Blum said.
He also spoke of Brooks' quirks, describing a man who despised flying, loved Twinkies, Hershey bars and actress Gene Tierney — so much so that he watched "Laura" 70 times, maybe 80.
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