Well aware that the person you become can’t escape the person you once were, this year’s Pratt Legends honorees gladly dished about their imperfect pasts.
This story first appeared in the October 22, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger, artist Ellsworth Kelly and philanthropist Emily Fisher Landau each delved into their memory banks after taking top honors for their respective areas of expertise. On the 45th floor of 7 World Trade Center in Manhattan, Rosanne Cash, whose music often champions defeating adversity, capped off the night by performing with her husband, John Leventhal.
The 400-person crowd helped to raise $560,000, including a $28,000 on-the-spot pledge by Pratt trustee James D. Kuhn in honor of his wife, Marjorie, and a more impromptu one from Larry Leeds, who sprang to the podium to kick in $10,000 in honor of his pal Hilfiger.
After accepting his award from the event’s co-chair, Agnes Gund, Kelly prefaced his thanks by borrowing a quote from the 2010 Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson. “Thank God an old man won it,” Kelly said. “And he was only 68.”
The artist regaled the crowd, recalling how his high school drama teacher, who happened to be John Travolta’s mother, tried to help him lose his stammer by making him an actor. But when Kelly presented his chosen career path to his parents, the response was, “Oh no, we don’t want an actor in our life, but you can go to art school. But you’ve got to learn commercial art. You’ve got to be able to go out and get a job.”
Kelly’s mother, Florence, marched him into the New York World-Telegram to ask its art critic Emily Genauer, “Where should he go to art school?” Kelly said. “And she said Pratt.”
Kelly’s studies on the Brooklyn campus were cut short in 1943, when he was inducted into the Army. “I didn’t know then how Pratt would form my life and how Pratt really did form my life,” he said. “I want to thank Pratt for putting me on the road to who I’ve become.”
Hilfiger also shared a few stories from his salad days, though they seemed tough to imagine, following his presenter’s buildup. Phillips-Van Heusen Corp.’s Emanuel Chirico mentioned how their $3.1 billion deal was the apparel industry’s largest acquisition. Chirico and his wife, Joanne, Mohan Murjani and Leeds were among the key people from the designer’s past that joined him at his table. Hilfiger, who is celebrating his 25th year in business this year, named them all, including ad man George Lois and his wife Rosie, who met at Pratt in 1949.
Hilfiger described how early on he begged Leeds to be his financial backer. “He told me, ‘Tommy, I have Perry Ellis. Who is Tommy Hilfiger?’” the designer laughed.
He had better luck brokering a deal with PVH. Hilfiger said while seated beside Joanne Chirico at an awards dinner for Macy’s Terry Lundgren, he asked, “Do you think you could talk to Manny to see if he could buy our company or something?”
Leonard Lauder was unable to attend to hand off the philanthropist and patron of the arts award to Landau, whose art foundation is based in Long Island City. But his introduction was delivered by United Limited Art Editions’ Bill Goldston, who described her as “one of the major forces in the art world.”
Despite being born with dyslexia and a learning disability, the 90-year-old Landau said she has been given two gifts: “One was the eye. You could take me into any room and I could tell you the best piece of art and the most expensive, which was also the one the collector wasn’t selling. The other gift was what I call a tremendous amount of street smarts. You could take me to any city, drop me off, and I could tell you where the best place was to build. And I still believe in Long Island City.”