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NEW YORK — Eleanor Lambert’s influence continues to reverberate in fashion almost eight years after the legendary publicist died, at age 100.
Her legacy is now the subject of “Eleanor Lambert: Still Here,” by John Tiffany that will be published by Pointed Leaf Press this September. The book touches on every aspect of Lambert’s career, from introducing designers to public relations and helping make stars out of them, to launching the Best Dressed List and the Council of Fashion Designers of America, to the 1973 Battle of Versailles fashion show, which put American fashion on par with its French counterpart.
This story first appeared in the July 5, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
As much as Tiffany explores Lambert’s achievements, the book also paints a picture of the evolution of American fashion in the 20th century — with eye candy in the form of pictures, including Halston, Bill Blass, Giorgio di Sant’Angelo and Donald Brooks.
Tiffany knew his subject quite well. He served a nine-month stint as Lambert’s assistant in 1995, though his fascination with her predated their first meeting. When he was a junior in high school in Santa Ynez Valley, Calif., in 1983, Tiffany put together a speech on the Versailles fashion show after a teacher encouraged him to do something fashion-related. He made for the library in downtown Santa Barbara (“The only one in the whole county that had WWD,” Tiffany recalls), where his research led him to a New York Times article on the Versailles showdown.
“I called the New York Times, and the person I spoke to said that Ms. Lambert, who organized the event, is still around, and gave me the number to her office,” Tiffany says. “I called, and Ms. Lambert actually picked up the phone. I got a little quote from her about Versailles and she wished me well. I got an A.”
Postcollege, Tiffany took a job at the World Bank, in Washington, D.C., and during that time he met public relations executive James LaForce, who was working for Lambert then. When LaForce told him about Lambert’s search for a new assistant a few years later, he jumped at the chance.
“My interview with Ms. Lambert was very short — maybe 15 minutes,” Tiffany says. “I was new to New York and I didn’t anticipate getting there on time. Ms. Lambert could be very testy, and everyone was always on their toes around her. They told me you need to be there 20 minutes before she arrived, because she was meeting Bill Blass. I was running late and I literally leaped into the elevator and there she was. I got off the elevator with her and walked along the long corridor. I said, ‘Don’t worry, I am not following you, I am just here to interview with you,’ and she laughed.”
“I thought she was this larger-than-life character with this turban and oversize jewelry, even for New York,” Tiffany recalls. “She was very sweet in the interview. I don’t think she was ever that sweet again after that. It was a Friday, and she said, ‘Can you start on Monday?’ Ms. Lambert was impatient.”
Tiffany describes an office short on dull moments. Lady Bird Johnson called, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek popped in and Lambert once yelled over the phone at the Queen Mother “for bothering her.” Then there were the company files.
“I uncovered all of these things that I couldn’t believe,” Tiffany says. “There were letters from Princess Grace thanking Ms. Lambert for choosing her wedding trousseau, and a letter from Jackie Kennedy saying, ‘Women’s Wear is coming after me for buying French designers,’ and Ms. Lambert is writing on the letter, ‘Well, are you? Don’t lie. They will catch you, but I will help you out and give you talking points.’ ”
Rather than taking a chronological approach, Tiffany decided to assign each of the book’s 12 chapters a theme. The first chapter, “Small Town Girl, Small Town Boy,” juxtaposes her Indiana upbringing with his California one and how they came together. It is followed by “And Eleanor Created,” about the various institutions she spearheaded, including the Best Dressed List and The Party of the Year. Tiffany then profiled some designers she worked with, from “Boys from Indiana” Bill Blass, Halston and Norman Norell to “Jumping the Pond” designers who came Stateside from Europe, such as Pauline Trigère and Jacques Tiffeau. The book also has plenty of tidbits about the practice of public relations and features the complete Best Dressed List during Lambert’s reign, from 1940 through 2002.
Speaking to people who knew or worked with Lambert, including Kitty D’Alessio, John Fairchild, Jeffrey Banks, Tom Fallon, Ruth Findlay and Bob Colacello, underscored his view of her.
“They all said that she wasn’t interested in promoting herself, and she wasn’t interested in the past,” he says. “She was only interested in what was happening today and what she could be doing tomorrow.”
The final chapter is devoted to Lambert’s Fifth Avenue apartment in a prewar building filled with formal French furniture and art. “It was not the most perfect, or modern or chic apartment, but I loved it because it was so her,” Tiffany recalls. “The elevator opened to the apartment, and there was a Picasso, a Salvador Dalí and Noguchi sculpture and the park in front of her. It looked like a scene from a movie, but it was just so casual to her.”
Ultimately, Tiffany says he wanted to tell her story because she never would have done it herself.
“That’s not who she was,” the author says. “She was a publicist, and she was always interested in promoting other people.”