Joseph Cicio is the first to admit that the line between his personal and professional lives has always been blurry. Passionate about department stores and his work as creative leader of several nameplates, the now-retired Cicio rubbed well-dressed elbows with New York society. “Friends Bearing Gifts,” Cicio’s new book, chronicles his relationships with bold-faced names such as Joan Rivers, Lady Nancy Keith, Lauren Bacall and Bill Blass, among others, and the treasures they bestowed on him.
“I realized almost toward the end of the book that every relationship I wrote about is about my career,” Cicio said. “I’m a very big believer in relationships. They’re important today more than ever. It’s such a divisive world we live in.”
Cicio, who came from humble beginnings, still seems surprised by his success and the rarified circles in which he traveled. “I’m just an Italian kid from a dysfunctional family in Brooklyn,” he said. “I’ve been very lucky.”
An aesthete with impeccable taste, Cicio hated plastic flowers and other visual affronts to his sensibility. He enjoyed decorating his homes, which included Hidden Valley Castle in Cornwall, Conn., and a place in Litchfield County that’s been his life-long project.
Cicio had the altruistic idea of becoming a missionary and working in Africa helping lepers when he graduated from high school, where classes were taught by Franciscan monks. “I really meant it,” he said. “I researched the Benedictine order and it resonated with me. It’s very contemplative. The monastery I joined in West Vermont was very small, only 12 to 14 monks. I was there for three years, then decided to leave. It was a difficult process to decide to move on.
“I came out into the secular world and didn’t know what to do,” Cicio said. “I was clueless.” A former high school counselor, who remembered Cicio’s creativity, suggested he attend the New York School of Interior Design to learn the art of window display. “I was the best in the class,” he said. “The school had a relationship with L0rd & Taylor, and I got a job there as a temp.”
Cicio’s favorite task was being sent to Hyman Hendler & Sons to buy double-faced satin ribbon for the store. “Sadie was the head salesperson and she liked me,” Cicio said. “She said I reminded her of her grandson. She’d always gave me extra ribbon and would say, ‘Give this to your girlfriend.'” Since he didn’t have a girlfriend, Cicio saved all the ribbon. He recently unearthed it and has been using it to make Christmas ornaments for his friends.
He was taken with Lord & Taylor’s collegial environment and offbeat cast of creative characters. “This has got to be what show business is like,” he recalled thinking. “The buyers were gods. Salvador Dalí came and drew some scenes on a wall, and Valentino showed up and tied sashes around the waists of mannequins wearing evening dresses. Lord & Taylor was the most theatrical and fun. I learned there was a big difference between display and visual merchandising. It wasn’t just about making it pretty, you had to make it a business.”
When Macy’s came calling in 1976, Cicio said, “I was petrified and almost didn’t take the job.” Then he met G.G. Michelson, the late Macy’s senior vice president of personnel, and everything fell into place. “The Calvin Klein gray suit she was wearing, the Knoll table and chairs in her office and the tin of chocolate chip cookies, everything was perfect.…We talked for over two hours. I decided I had to take a chance.”
Cicio flourished at Macy’s, working under Edward Finkelstein, the chairman and chief executive officer at the time. “He had an unusual instinct and appreciation for the importance of the creative edge,” Ciscio said. “He always called me kid. He said, ‘Kid, you’re going to do very well.’ Ed wanted shopping to be entertaining. I would get excited about how much fun retail could be. Today, unfortunately, they don’t understand the value of creativity and the need for making stores more attractive for consumers.”
As Cicio was beautifying Macy’s, demand for his decorating style was growing in Connecticut. “People kept wanting me to do interior design,” he said. “I’m very good at that. I can walk into a house and in three minutes, tell you what to do.” Rivers, who bought a weekend house near Cicio’s own digs, insisted he take charge of the interior design. “Joan wouldn’t take no for an answer,” he said. “I told her, ‘If you’re going to make me crazy, it will all be over.’ There was only one hysterical [outburst]. She was nuts, but she was a very caring human being.”
After 10 years of living in Wilton, Conn., Cicio decided to move north to Litchfield County. An estate called Firefly captured his fancy — everything was in the best of taste, but the price was too high. The owner, Lady Nancy Keith, he was told, was a great beauty who’d been married to Howard Hawks, Leland Hayward and Lord Kenneth Keith. Cicio was able to negotiate the price of the house down by 20 percent. “By the time we were done, Slim and I had started to develop a very meaningful friendship,” he said. “She had the most incredible style and taste.”
Some of Cicio’s most cherished possessions were given to him by Keith, including a Meissen porcelain monkey, brass bird made in Turkey, King Louis XVI’s animal court painter’s dog canvas and ivory articulated crab. Before she died, Keith called Cicio to tell him she was leaving him the crab and to look for a note in a little compartment on the side. “Tears started coming to my eyes,” he said.
Keith’s close friend was Lauren Bacall — she convinced her then-husband filmmaker Hawks to cast Bacall in a movie after spotting her on a magazine cover. Hawks cast Bacall opposite Humphrey Bogart in “To Have and Have Not,” and their romance started. Cicio met Betty, as Bacall was called, in 1985 when Keith was in the hospital. “Betty was living at the Dakota on West 72nd Street. We would bring an early-morning breakfast of homemade donuts to her apartment,” Cicio said, adding that Gene Hovis, a chef, joined him on these food runs. “She’d answer the door wearing a robe and no makeup and we’d gossip in the kitchen.”
Ken and Josie Natori connected with Cicio in the late Seventies, when Macy’s was renovating the second floor lingerie department of the Herald Square flagship. The event that stands out in Cicio’s mind when he thinks of the couple is Josie’s concert at Carnegie Hall for 1,500 guests, where she played Rachmaninoff. When his adopted son showed an interest in the piano, Josie insisted Cicio buy him a Steinway and arranged for her teacher to take over his son Christopher’s lessons.
Cicio treasures a small sterling silver enameled box with a three-feather coat of arms that was given to him by HRH the Prince of Wales when he finished a consulting job. Prince Charles wanted to revive his flagging Duchy Original organic food line, created to help fund the Prince’s Trust. The trust’s director at the time was a friend of Rivers’, and Cicio was recommended. Cicio breathlessly describes taking tea at Highgrove, Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall’s country home, and dining with the couple at Buckingham Palace on another occasion.
“Buckingham Palace! I wanted to scream,” Cicio said. “What a road. That’s what the book is all about.”