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Society decorator Betty Sherrill died Monday in New York at 91. Sherrill began working for interior design firm McMillen in 1952 as a homesick young bride and ended up as president of the firm and its majority shareholder. She continued to be the firm’s chairman until her death, and both her daughter and a granddaughter work for the company, her daughter, Ann Pyne, as president.
“She was a very, very good businesswoman,” her granddaughter Elizabeth Pyne observed. W wrote in a 1995 profile of her, “McMillen clients are still the sort of people who want publicity as much as they’d like a case of typhoid.”
Sherrill was married to Virgil Sherrill, a stockbroker who worked for Shields on Wall Street. As WWD contributing editor John B. Fairchild put it, “She was a queen of the WASPs. She and Sister Parish were rivals. She was a very opinionated lady.”
Sherrill, a slender, stylish blonde woman with Le Cirque hair, was originally Betty Lewis Stevens from New Orleans. “My father and grandfather were both architects,” she told W. “I went to a school called Lafayette that my grandfather built. We sang the ‘Marseillais’ every morning. So I grew up loving French furniture.”
She met her husband, who was also from New Orleans, at a Queen’s Supper after a Mardi Gras ball. “I wasn’t supposed to be there because I was too young,” she said. He began dating her sister Sybil. “But she was always late, so I would talk to him.” The Sherrills lived at One Sutton Place South in Manhattan and had a shingled cottage in Southampton designed by Carrère and Hastings and another house on Jupiter Island in Florida.
Her clients included the likes of Janet Busch, Laurie and Irene Aitken, Susan Dillon, Alice Walton and, surprisingly, Diana Ross. Brooke Astor was a client when Vincent Astor was alive, but “jumped ship.” In the W story, she said she decided to work for McMillen because her mother-in-law was a client of the firm’s founder, Eleanor Brown. She told stories about trying many stratagems to get hired at McMillen, then getting fired by each of the designers there. She also told a funny tale about staying home from work to stay with her children once; they each needed a different kind of milk and she mixed them up, and they both got sick. Her Scottish nanny said she’d never leave them with her again, and she didn’t. Whenever the nanny went home to Scotland, she had a relative substitute for her.
Raising children may not have been right for her, but “I wasn’t a pioneer, I was just lucky,” she said. She was also frequently the only woman competing in the sailboat races on Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain. Her granddaughter, who is currently a designer at McMillen, said Wednesday, “My grandmother would light up any room,” and was pleased that someone who e-mailed her about Betty pointed out how supportive she had been of the correspondent’s efforts to become a decorator. Recently she had seen her granddaughter’s room at the Kips Bay Show House and complimented her on it.
“She was very open-hearted,” Pyne added, noting that Sherrill had set up a program that enlisted inner-city kids to plant daffodils in Central Park, then come back in the spring for a picnic on the sites of their plantings. Sherrill’s favorite details included bay windows (which she even wanted to put into her daughter’s barn — this was vetoed) and animal patterns, which she liked in clothes, curtains, rugs and everything else. Her daughter Ann pointed out that she liked “soft colors” and a style that was “not too formal.” Part of her contribution to her clients was to reassure them about the decorating decisions. “Even people who are knowledgeable need to know that something is right, that it’s not a mistake,” Pyne added.
Sherrill summarized her decorating philosophy thus: “There’s nothing new under the sun. The main thing is still, as Elsie de Wolfe said, suitability, suitability, suitability. You can’t put fancy curtains in a simple house.” Another piece of philosophy that she picked up from Brown was, “If you do it right the first time, you don’t have to do it over. ” She also noted, “We’ve never been sued, and we’ve never sued anybody. And we’ve always collected.”
A service for Sherrill will be held at St. James Church on Madison Avenue in New York on May 22. Her husband, Virgil, died in 2010, and she is survived by her two children, Pyne and Stephen Sherrill, her grandchildren Elizabeth Pyne, John Pyne, Stephen Sherrill Jr., William Sherrill and Katherine Sherrill and her niece, Sybil Calhoun.