NEW YORK — “I hate nostalgia. Fashion is about now.”
So Oscar de la Renta said to WWD last year — and he was always in the now.
This story first appeared in the October 22, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
As the industry absorbed the news of the death of de la Renta at his home in Kent, Conn., on Monday night at age 82 after a long battle with cancer, tributes to him poured in from around the world. The things designers, socialites, politicians and almost everyone else pointed to were the same: his charm. His taste. His kindness. And, above all else, his ability to make women look beautiful — stretching from his early days at Elizabeth Arden in the Sixties through the last three decades of the 20th century and well into the second decade of the 21st.
“He was a great fighter to the end because he loved life and people so much,” said John B. Fairchild, former chairman and editorial director of Fairchild Publications and currently editor at large at WWD, who first met de la Renta when he was “picking up pins at Lanvin in Paris. His charm was everyplace. He was full of kindness, which led to very successful fashions.”
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“There is much being said that his passing marks the end of an era,” said Anna Wintour. “Not true. He was the most democratic man I knew and he would have lived happily and defined any era. He was happy dining with the rich and famous, for sure, but equally happy playing dominoes with his devoted staff. His designs reflected his extraordinary personality: optimistic, fun, sunny, romantic.”
As funeral arrangements were still being made at press time, de la Renta’s reputation remained outsized, certainly compared to the scale of his business, which was less than $200 million in sales. He was the grand master of American fashion, one of the last of the generation that literally put American fashion — and the names that were on the label — on the global map.
He was also fashion’s favorite ladies’ man. Strikingly good-looking, fascinated by feminine style, with a strong color sense and impeccable social skills — a wonderful sense of humor among them — he became a court dressmaker to a large portion of the international set and a designer for first ladies from the time of Betty Ford. He was a particular favorite of three of the last: Nancy Reagan, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Laura Bush — and Michelle Obama recently donned one of his dresses at a White House event for fashion students.
“He was very handsome, with a perfect Latin-lover look,” noted Karl Lagerfeld. “In this business, very few have the charisma and the class of Oscar.”
Donatella Versace called him “American fashion royalty,” while Ralph Lauren said, “I always loved him. He was a very sweet guy….We sort of grew up together….As an American designer, he’s one of the greatest. He brought a great deal of class to American fashion and the way he handled himself.”
“He was a unique man in the history of fashion, both for workmanship and talent, as well as his creativity and class,” said Donna Karan. She called him “a mentor and role model,” and said, “I looked up to Oscar….There’s not a woman’s life that he didn’t touch.”
“I’m really upset,” said Francisco Costa of Calvin Klein. “I started my career with him and worked there six years…He embraced the sensibility of the old with the great style of how we live today. He lived full-on. Everything was important to him. The scent, the color, the way he set a table, the way he entertained, the way he greeted people.”
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“He had an amazing sense of aesthetics and it [appeared] in his clothes, his houses, his gardens,” said Diane von Furstenberg, echoing Costa’s sentiments. “He was one of the greatest American designers, with Latin roots and European training. He loved to sing, and his voice will continue to sing in our hearts forever.”
In fact, Valentino Garavani recalled, “When I last saw him in late August in Greece, he saved me when the host asked me to sing. He took the microphone from my hands and sang with his perfect voice a couple of Spanish songs. Six weeks ago only.”
While de la Renta could design clothes that were editorial darlings, his genius was in making women, regardless of their own intrinsic pulchritude, look and feel beautiful. Romantic, glamorous styles were his signature: tastefully extravagant, Paris influenced (perhaps, at times, too much so), with an undercurrent of Latin pizazz. He was best known for his designs for the Ladies Who Lunch, the likes of Babe Paley, C.Z. Guest and Marella Agnelli, along with a glittering constellation of other aristocrats and socialites, performers, broadcasters and top executives, who often became not just customers, but friends. Yet in recent years, a younger set — which included actresses Sarah Jessica Parker, Jennifer Garner and Lea Michele — fell under his spell. How au courant he could be was further proven by the worldwide publicity his fashion house received for dressing Amal Alamuddin for her wedding to George Clooney in Venice — a media frenzy if there ever was one.
De la Renta was born July 22, 1932, in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. (As he once put it, “I am the only Third World designer.”) At 18, he went to Madrid to study painting at the Academy of San Fernando. There he began sketching for top Spanish fashion houses; before long, he was working with the legendary couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga. De la Renta’s next stop was Paris, where he became a couture assistant to Antonio Castillo, then designer of Lanvin. As de la Renta recalled in 1979, “When I worked in Paris, Castillo and Balenciaga always had evening dresses inspired by Spanish peasants, flamenco; dresses taken from paintings by Goya, Zurbaran, Zuloaga; the bullring colors; the Princess of Eboli [a 16th-century Spanish beauty with an eye patch]. Balenciaga’s dresses never looked ethnic, like costumes.”
These descriptions also evoke the styles that made de la Renta’s name.
In 1963, he came to New York to design the made-to-measure collection for Elizabeth Arden. Nicolas de Gunzburg, a White Russian aristocrat who was an editor at Vogue, was one of his mentors. (De Gunzburg’s other designer proteges: Bill Blass and Calvin Klein.) Diana Vreeland advised de la Renta to take the position at Arden, noting that there, his own name would be promoted, since Arden herself wasn’t a designer. Vreeland, of course, was right.
Key to the designer’s success was a gift for feminine friendship and an elegant lifestyle, both of which he cultivated early on. “The number of icons Oscar saw onto the field — and then off — is staggering,” recalled Patrick McCarthy, former chairman and editorial director of Fairchild Publications. “He was cultivated, imposing and generous. And fun. A lunch, or dinner, with Oscar was something to be relished, not dreaded, as is so often the case in the fashion business.
“Oscar never seemed to lose his way, as so many designers do. He started out, and ended, exactly where he wanted to be.”
Etta Froio, retired executive editor of WWD and W, praised his “delightfully wicked sense of humor.”
De la Renta met Guest in Spain, where they socialized with Francisco Franco. Another friend, Dominican playboy Porfirio Rubirosa, introduced him to the Kennedy clan. Even as a young man new in town as the designer at Arden, de la Renta was living on two floors of a New York townhouse filled with French and Italian period furniture and Spanish paintings. But, as his longtime business partner Jerry Shaw noted, it was the designer’s way with society women that made his career. “Oscar really caters to the ladies,” he said. “He knows how to design beautiful clothes and make women look very attractive.”
Almost overnight, it seems, de la Renta became the ultimate extra man, spending weekends with Guest and island-hopping with Paley. The houses and gardens that de la Renta went on to create with his first wife, Françoise de Langlade, and his second, Annette de la Renta, were lushly chronicled in breathless articles in shelter and society magazines and newspapers over a period of 40-plus years. For his part, the designer reveled in the domestic pleasures he enjoyed in his sanctuaries in New York, the Dominican Republic and Kent, Conn., where he loved to cook and garden. In Kent, a dwelling modeled on an English country house was on nearly 500 acres, next to 600 acres of wildlife reserve. Fond of horticulture, which he said he found “relaxing,” de la Renta created remarkable landscapes at his estates and, in 2001, a garden at Lord Jacob Rothschild’s Waddesdon Manor, in England, that is open to the public. As the designer observed in 2008, “What is nice about a house in the country is that it’s the work of a lifetime. You see the evolution of your own life in a way. You never finish.”
When de la Renta arrived at Arden, Ben Shaw was a top entrepreneur and power broker in the New York fashion world. Shaw, who was known as Mr. Seventh Avenue, helped launch the careers of or backed a remarkable array of American designers, including Halston, Norman Norell, Giorgio Sant’Angelo, Stephen Burrows, Donald Brooks and Dominic Rompollo. In the Fifties, he was at the helm of Jane Derby, a designer dress house.
Jerry Shaw began working for his father there in 1956. “My father was a pioneer in the designer field,” the younger Shaw said in 1994. “He had, among other attributes, a great ability for spotting and promoting talent. He felt that, at some point, young designers really had to be brought to the front. Their names could be put on labels, but you had to get it past the stores.
“We got to the point where business went to a certain level and we couldn’t get it past that, and that’s when Oscar got into the picture. The name became Oscar de la Renta for Jane Derby. A year later, Jane Derby died, and the company was restructured as Oscar de la Renta.” In 1969, the firm was sold to publicly owned Richton International, then sold back to Shaw and de la Renta. After Ben Shaw retired about a year later, Jerry Shaw and de la Renta became equal partners. In the late Eighties, the deal was restructured, giving de la Renta a controlling interest.
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One of the breakthrough moments for de la Renta, and indeed for American fashion, came in 1973. It was supposed to be a friendly, festive evening between two groups, one of American and the other of French designers, but “An Evening at Versailles,” a fashion extravaganza held to raise funds to refurbish the royal chateau, turned into a bit of a competition. Five French designers — Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro, Andre Oliver (then at Cardin) and Marc Bohan (then at Christian Dior) — had picked the five U.S. designers: de la Renta, Halston, Anne Klein, Blass and Burrows. The Americans stole the show with their jazzy, upbeat presentation, staged by Kay Thompson. WWD called it an “American triumph,” and it did much to raise these designers’ profiles on an international stage.
Doing business could be a pleasure, too. “We had a lot of fun over the years,” Shaw recalled. “I remember a show we did in Japan sometime in the late Seventies or early Eighties. It was a big, extravagant stage show and they spelled out Oscar de la Renta on these moving glass panels. I was amazed how they did it, so I went backstage and there was this old Japanese man spinning them on rods. It worked perfectly. Today, it would all be computerized and it wouldn’t work.”
According to Shaw, it was Gordon Franklin, president of Saks Fifth Avenue, and Adam Gimbel, who was chairman, who started putting names on the labels, including those of de la Renta, Blass, Donald Brooks and Anne Klein. At the time, only the names of the manufacturers, such as Ben Zuckerman, or department-store private-label monikers, like Saks’ Sophie — named for Sophie Gimbel, Adam’s wife — appeared on the label. Shaw also called the Oscar de la Renta Boutique line, opened in 1967, the first secondary ready-to-wear line for a Seventh Avenue designer.
After Shaw retired, Jeffry Aronsson, an attorney who had served as general counsel for the company, became the firm’s president and ceo. During his tenure, Aronsson revamped the firm’s licensing, helping build the business in emerging markets in Asia and Latin America and overseeing the introduction of bridal, intimates and furniture lines.
To complement the signature line, the firm launched Oscar de la Renta Accessories for fall 2001. Cosmetics cases, scarves, eyewear, jewelry, furs, lingerie and sleepwear were also available. For men, de la Renta-licensed products included hosiery, sports coats, suits and trousers. In South and Central America and Mexico, there was a sportswear line for men and boys and Oscar Jeans for men and women. In fall 2004, de la Renta launched O Oscar, a moderate women’s sportswear line, which was later discontinued. Most recently, bags, shoes and sunglasses have been added to the mix of his main collection. In 2002, Oscar de la Renta Home inaugurated a furniture collection and home fragrance collection. Wallpaper, fabrics, tabletop pieces, bedding and rugs have followed.
De la Renta’s first fragrance, Oscar, was launched in 1977 — which set a high watermark. It was one of the leading early American designer scents, along with those of Norell and Blass. With its white floral formula that featured a tuberose top note, it became a classic and ranked number one in sales through the then-thriving network of American specialty stores. The scent won an industry FiFi award in 1978. Michael Stern, who then was president of Parfums Stern, de la Renta’s fragrance licensee, recalls how the designer was “very much a part of the success” of the fragrance. “Oscar worked his tail off,” Stern noted, remembering watching de la Renta command the retail floor when he was doing store appearances to promote the fragrance. In those days, winning over the beauty advisers was key, and de la Renta had a talent for making connections at every level. “He liked to associate with the sales people as well as the customers. He was one of a kind. He had the ability to mix with the upper crust, but he never lost his touch with the working person,” Stern said.
The Oscar fragrance business was created in partnership with Milton Stern, Michael’s legendary father, who masterminded its conception. The company later was sold to Avon Products Inc., then subsequently passed along to El-Sanofi SA, YSL Beauté, then finally L’Oréal. By 2009, when de la Renta won a court fight with L’Oréal and reclaimed his license, the number of fragrances in the Oscar franchise had grown to 15 and cumulative sales peaked at an estimated $110 million, according to industry sources. But none of the subsequent scents rivaled the original Oscar fragrance.
Fearing that mass-market distribution of the fragrances was eroding the image of de la Renta’s fashion businesses, the designer and his chief executive officer, Alex Bolen, moved boldly to clean up the business. They took the business in-house (selling a 20 percent stake in the fashion firm to GF Capital Management to help do so) and then launched new products, beginning with Esprit d’Oscar eau de parfum, a modern interpretation of the original Oscar. It was followed by a new women’s brand, Live in Love; then an Essential Luxuries collection of limited-edition scents, and finally a wedding-oriented Something Blue. Every step of the way, de la Renta was intimately involved.
After more than three years of working to restore the fragrance brand’s luster, the design house signed a licensing pact a year ago with Inter Parfums USA LLC, a subsidiary of Inter Parfums Inc.
In a speech at the WWD/DNR CEO Summit in June 2001, de la Renta recalled his days in the City of Light as a young man. “I remember all the big stores, the American stores and American manufacturers, used to come to Paris and they would come to the collection,” he said. “They were able to see the collections and buy some of the clothes. I remember Norman Norell coming to Balenciaga and buying clothes and then making them for the American market with the signature of Norman Norell.”
The turning point for him: getting his own signature collection. He also noted the retail breakthrough at Saks. “I remember back in 1966 when I was summoned together with Bill Blass, Donald Brooks, Geoffrey Beene and Pauline Trigère to Adam Gimbel’s office at Saks Fifth Avenue,” de la Renta said. “Mr. Gimbel wanted to announce very, very important news to us: The news was the store was no longer going to remove our label and would carry [that of] the designers.”
De la Renta’s affinity for women — and for the feminine — seemed to come naturally, since the designer was the sixth of seven children and the only boy. His matriarchal clan included a formidable mother, who, as he noted, “Was a central figure in my life, much more so than my father,” and an even more formidable grandmother. She was a stylish woman whom he described as always wearing stark, floor-length white cotton dresses, each with a flounce at the hem, along with her trademark cameo and diamond earrings. When she was young, his grandmother had married a considerably older widower with eight children — de la Renta’s grandfather — and then went on to have eight of her own. When she was 35, her husband died.
As de la Renta said in 1967, “I wanted to study painting, but my father did not recognize that as a profession. You see, there had been many doctors, lawyers and diplomats in my family.
“My mother was sympathetic to my wishes, though, and she helped me go to Spain when I was 17. I stayed there for 10 years, and while I was there, my mother died. My father [who was in insurance] was still not too pleased about my intended career, but then I got into designing clothes by accident.
“One day, a friend came by on her way to the dressmaker. She said she didn’t know what to do about a certain dress, and I sketched out a few ideas for her. Later, she was wearing the dress and Ambassador Lodge’s wife saw it. Mrs. Lodge introduced me to Balenciaga. He agreed to train me, and that’s how it all began. I later went to Paris for a time, and then came here [New York].” Soon he had become famous; his father, as he put it, “doesn’t mind now [about my career].”
In the Sixties, de la Renta designed such looks as a windowpane plaid cape over a matching suit and a tunic over short shorts, both strewn with flowers; jumper jumpsuits, and long, full skirts for evening. A shirtdress with a matching cardigan was one of his Seventies formulas for evening. Rich gypsy looks were among his signatures, appearing throughout the years, along with flamenco dresses, peasant scarves, spangles and ruffles, ruffles and more ruffles. The flounces might turn up in layers on a tiered skirt, at the hem of a dress, at the top of a one-shoulder gown or in piles of satin-faced organza, gauze or gazar. In the late Seventies, patterned, yoked and tiered evening skirts — sometimes in wool challis, worn with jackets of fabrics in contrasting patterns — were the order of the day, along with the likes of an allover lace Lillie Langtry dress, its slinky shape following the body.
Tailored suits were long one of de la Renta’s trademarks, and in the Eighties they might turn up in opulent brocades trimmed in fur. In the Nineties, his evening dresses and separates became more streamlined, but more colorful and jewelled. De la Renta dressed Reagan in the Eighties and outfitted Clinton in a gold lace gown for the second Clinton inaugural in 1997, for appearances as Sen. Clinton and for her daughter Chelsea’s wedding in 2010. De la Renta also created Bush’s silver evening dress for her husband’s second inauguration in 2005. “Oscar and I talked about what to do for the inauguration. The white suit was perfect. It just looked like the snow that was covering the mall that day. It was so perfect,” Bush recalled in a video made as part of an exhibition of de la Renta’s clothes at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas.
Many attempts have been made over the years to decipher de la Renta’s appeal to women. A W magazine article, for instance, from December 1984, titled “Heavenly Harem: Oscar de l’Amour,” somewhat heatedly anatomizes it: “‘Hello, my sweet,’” a voice croons through the telephone. ‘When do we dine, my beloved? My car will be at your house at 7:30.’ Oscar de la Renta smiles with comfortable intimacy, slipping down into his chaise, and looks off dreamily, imagining the eager feminine face on the other end of the phone. He has just made a dinner date, and yet another woman in the world is ecstatic.
“When he is with her, he will fix on her, and her alone….He will tease her, perhaps a bit too relentlessly, then coax and cajole her to good humor again. They will discuss menus, flowers; he will pause to nip a wilted bloom from a plant. Although he is one of the canniest, most efficient maîtres de maison, he will convince her tenderly that he needs her advice and supervision, leaving her delirious, for this, after all, is one of the things women want most from a man.” Women such as Grace Dudley, Marie-Helene de Rothschild, Mica Ertegun, Casey Ribicoff, Evangeline Bruce, Helen Rochas, Nancy Kissinger and Nati Abascal found him “handsome, sexy, but most of all a good, caring friend.”
For all his charm and beautiful manners — not to mention his dancing and singing skills plus his abilities at everything from miniature golf, as Cornelia Guest recalled, to cards, at which Lady Annabel Astor said he was “a demon” — de la Renta was no pushover. He engaged in some notable fights in his time. He tangled with Calvin Klein in 1979, when both men went to Japan at the same time and got into a squabble about models. “If one of my girls came out in a dress that was a broom and one of his girls came out dressed in gold, my girl would make mincemeat out of his girl,” de la Renta said.
In 1991, de la Renta unintentionally alienated Lagerfeld when he attended a Chanel show that had a racy bondage theme, and at lunch afterwards, as someone informed Lagerfeld, said that such a motif would never fly in New York. It took years for the two designers to make up.
Then there was the disagreement with his longtime client and friend Reagan, who, de la Renta said, became angry when he began designing for Clinton. “I mean, she was really very, very nice to me, but I was really very, very nice to her,” he noted. “I vote for the people I like; I don’t vote for parties. I voted for President Reagan, but I voted for President Clinton. I think that, regardless of your political inclination, if the First Lady of your country asks you to do something, you don’t say no.”
De la Renta went on to become great friends with the Clintons, with whom he shared a passion for cards, which they would play at Punta Cana when the Clintons stayed with him. “I like them a lot,” he said. “First of all, he is so bright, and second, he is just so unbelievably warm. He just sort of engulfs you.”
In January 2011, the outspoken de la Renta criticized First Lady Michelle Obama for wearing Sarah Burton’s red and black dress for Alexander McQueen to a White House state dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao. He felt that she should have worn something by an American designer. “This is an important issue,” de la Renta said. “Do you think Kate Middleton is going to be married in Marc Jacobs? Mrs. Obama does look great. She should take that and do something. She could do a great good for our industry. We need to create jobs here, create jobs on Seventh Avenue, too.”
(Obama eventually would make amends, wearing a de la Renta dress to a party at the White House earlier this month for more than 300 fashion insiders.)
In September 2012, de la Renta skirmished with Cathy Horyn, then fashion critic for The New York Times, taking exception to her referring to him in an article as a “hot dog.” He wrote an open letter to her that was published as an advertisement in WWD, which contained the memorable line, “If you have the right to call me a hot dog, why do I not have the right to call you a stale 3-day old hamburger?” But before long, the two made up.
In January 2013, de la Renta would further stir controversy when he appointed fallen Dior couturier John Galliano to a temporary residence in his design studio. The collaboration — evident in de la Renta’s fall 2013 collection — stirred an outcry, given Galliano’s anti-Semitic statements. But, as de la Renta put it, “Everyone in life deserves a second chance, especially someone as talented as John. I think that life is about forgiving and helping people.” For his part, Galliano said, “I am grateful to Oscar beyond words for inviting me to spend time with him in the familiar surroundings of a design studio.”
He and his firm’s ceo, his son-in-law Bolen, would hold discussions with Galliano about the British designer joining the House of de la Renta on a permanent basis. But those talks broke down earlier this year over Galliano’s demands. Instead, de la Renta recently appointed Peter Copping as creative director, luring him from his successful stint at Nina Ricci. “After a career of 20 years in Paris, this is an important next step for me,” Copping said. “Oscar de la Renta has defined elegance for generations of American women.”
In 1967, de la Renta had become the third husband of Françoise de Langlade, an editor in chief of French Vogue. Born in Bordeaux and raised between Paris and Martinique, she worked for Elsa Schiaparelli and Harper’s Bazaar before joining French Vogue. After she married the designer, de Langlade became a consultant to Elizabeth Arden and opened a decorating business; among her clients were fashion executive Marina Schiano and actors Helmut Berger and Florinda Bolkan. De Langlade’s previous husbands included French businessman Jean Bruère, by whom she had one son, Jean Marc Bruère, and diplomat Nicholas Bagenow. She died of cancer in 1983.
In 1989, de la Renta married Anne France Engelhard, known as Annette, the former wife of New York banker Samuel Pryor Reed and the stepdaughter of American minerals tycoon Charles W. Engelhard Jr. The story of how the philanthropist became his second wife is a classic Oscar tale. As WWD’s executive editor Bridget Foley wrote in a W article in November 2001, the two had been together for awhile, but Reed was reluctant to tie the knot. De la Renta, however, thought that, since they were living together, they ought to get hitched. He “engaged in covert plans for a Christmas wedding, stealing away to the records bureau in the Dominican Republic with Annette’s passport and papers. He invited her mother and sisters, but given the holidays and Annette’s December 24 birthday, no one grew suspicious.” The Erteguns and the Kissingers were among the guests. “The night before we were married we had dinner, and after dinner I stood up and made a toast: ‘I want you all to know that tomorrow morning, Annette and I will be married.’ Annette gasped. Her mother went to her room for salts.
“Annette told Henry Kissinger that she didn’t want to get married. According to de la Renta, the savvy diplomat then advised her to say no, but to make sure she meant it. He said to her, ‘Now, let me tell you, Oscar is Latino and very proud. He is going to ask you to make a public statement, and, if you don’t marry him, he will leave you,’” de la Renta says. “So I knew she was going to marry me.”
In addition to his wife, de la Renta is survived by his three stepchildren Beatrice Reed, Charlie Reed and Eliza Bolen; his son Moises de la Renta; three sisters, all of whom reside in the Dominican Republic, and nine grandchildren.
De la Renta received the Council of Fashion Designers of America Women’s Wear Designer of the Year Award in 2000.
In February 1990, he was honored with the CFDA Lifetime Achievement Award. From 1973 to 1976, and from 1986 to 1988, Oscar de la Renta was president of the CFDA. He won the Coty American Fashion Critics’ Award twice and made it into the Coty Hall of Fame in 1973.
In June 2013, he was given the CFDA Founders Award, which was presented to him by Hillary Clinton. In his gracious acceptance speech, de la Renta said that he still had lots of design ideas and, while honored, didn’t want an honorary award — he wanted to win the Women’s Wear Designer of the Year Award.
From 1993 to 2002, de la Renta designed the couture collection for the house of Pierre Balmain, becoming the first American of that era to design for a French couture house. He was awarded the Legion d’Honneur as a Commandeur. The Dominican Republic also honored him with the order al Mérito de Juan Pablo Duarte and the order of Cristóbal Colón. In 1996, de la Renta received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Hispanic Heritage Society, and in 2000 he was the grand marshal of New York City’s Hispanic Day Parade. That same year, de la Renta received the Gold Medal of Bellas Artes from the King of Spain. De la Renta helped to build a school and day-care center in the Dominican Republic for 1,200 children, from which he adopted his son Moises de la Renta. Another of his projects there was the luxurious Punta Cana resort.
He was long a patron of the arts. He served as a board member of The Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall and Channel Thirteen/WNET. He also served on the boards of New Yorkers for Children, the Americas Society, and was chairman of the Queen Sofía Spanish Institute.