By  on October 21, 2008

“Mr. Blackwell,” whose annual Worst Dressed List skewered the fashion blunders of movie stars and other celebrities, died Sunday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 86.

The cause of death was an intestinal infection, said his publicist, Harlan Boll.

Blackwell, born Richard Selzer in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, was scathing in his critiques, which was the point of the lists he trumpeted at news conferences in his home in Los Angeles. He suggested Drew Barrymore change her name to “Drew bares more,” and described Bette Midler as “potluck in a laundromat.”

But his own up-by-the-bootstraps life was far from fit for a gilded frame. He was just out of third grade when he ran away from home to escape an abusive stepfather, Boll said.

According to his autobiography, “From Rags to Bitches,” published in 1995, Blackwell stole, hustled as a prostitute and took odd jobs that eventually led to work in the theater.

Blackwell’s first creations, so to speak, were toilet bowl covers. When those didn’t sell, he simply pulled in the drawstrings, added rhinestones for embellishment and sold them to hair salons for women to cover their curlers.

He upgraded that design sensibility and made hats for New York socialites to supplement his theater pay. Blackwell moved to Los Angeles after appearing in the Broadway drama “Dead End” in 1935. He played bit parts in movies, and signed with RKO Pictures, where Howard Hughes changed his name to Blackwell.

He returned to Broadway in 1944 in “Catherine Was Great” with Mae West, but then left acting to work as an talent agent. His duties included designing their stage costumes.

In the late Fifties, the House of Blackwell was launched and he started dressing stars like Jane Russell, Dorothy Lamour and Jayne Mansfield.

But the tipping point in his career came in 1960, when American Weekly, a syndicated Sunday supplement, asked Blackwell to create a “10 Best and Worst Dressed List.” It was the worst-dressed list that got publicity, so much so that publicists, agents and managers routinely sent unsolicited snapshots of their clients not looking their best, Boll said.

“The year that Mr. Blackwell described [TV star] Fran Drescher as ‘an explosion at a paint factory,’ she told Princess Diana [who made the best dressed list that year, but had been on the worst dressed a year before], ‘Honey, you’re on the wrong list,’” Boll said.

Some celebrities sent thank you notes to Blackwell for their worst-dressed rankings and Whoopi Goldberg and Phyllis Diller even got him gifts.

Blackwell was “partially through” this year’s list, but unless he left notes that Boll is unaware of, the list will rest at 2007 with Victoria Beckham holding the dubious worst-dressed honor.

Blackwell is survived by his partner, Robert Spencer. After private services this week, Blackwell will be buried at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. “Cecil B. DeMille, Hitchcock, Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino are there,” Boll said. “He will be in good company.”


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