André Leon Talley is being honored with the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
The former creative director at Vogue and author was notified by mail by France’s minister of culture Roselyne Bachelot-Narquin. In an interview Monday, Talley said he was “totally surprised” by the honor and had no idea he was in the running. “Listen. It was the best day of my life. I say that with sincerity to be a commanding officer of the de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France, and to be recognized by the Republic of France is a great honor.”
Established in 1957 to recognize artists and writers, as well as others who have contributed significantly to the arts in France, the Order of Arts and Letters has been awarded to Robert Redford, Meryl Streep and Paul Auster, among others. Joining the ranks of recipients like James Baldwin, Tina Turner, Lee Radziwill and Rudolf Nureyev energized Talley.
Asked about his contribution to France, Talley said, “I am a person who has appreciated the relevancy of France — the culture, the history, and every aspect of refinement, style, architecture, gardens, fashion, haute cuisine, Versailles, churches, the history — even its bad history, i.e., the revolution and the guillotine. I think I am a custodian of France.”
Talley credited his Hillside High School French teacher Cynthia P. Smith for making France come alive to him and instilling in him what has become a lifelong love of the country. Noting how his admiration for the country started before his career in fashion started in New York, Talley said, “I’m just so proud of all the teachers, who taught me. I just love France.”
He earned an undergraduate degree in French literature at Carolina Central University and later on scholarship at Brown University, he earned a master of arts degree in French literature. Talley lived in France from 1978 to 1980 while working for Women’s Wear Daily, with his first big piece on Yves Saint Laurent establishing him in Paris. That was the first of “so many great experiences” and travels in France, he said. There were also trying exchanges, as chronicled in his memoir “The Chiffon Trenches,” which was released last year.
Talley lived in France again from 1989 to 1995. His first visit to the country occurred years before in 1971. Before starting at Brown, he spent a summer in Avignon as an exchange student. Living in a French residence with a French family was “very challenging,” Talley said. “I was very young but I did it. There were very few Black people in the program, but it was very wonderful and rewarding.”
Not yet certain when the ceremony or reception will be for his honor, Talley said, “It’s a celebration already. It’s a great honor and a great achievement. You couldn’t ask for anything higher. There are different levels, but just to be named a chevalier is amazing, especially for an African American Black man from the South. This is a great achievement for my race. I came from very modest, humble beginnings,” he said.
Given the nationwide calling for racial equity, Talley acknowledged the poignancy of the distinction at this point in the country’s history. He said, ”I am very proud to be an African American man, who grew up in the segregated Jim Crow South to receive this prestigious honor from the Republic of France. Of all the education and experiences that I have had in the world, I think this represents a great deal to my race and my people. I hope that it will make people, who look like me, really proud.”
While no one would describe this past year as routine, Talley’s has been rocky. He is battling eviction from his 11-room White Plains, N.Y., house. A former friend, George Malkemus and his husband Anthony Yurgaitis claimed to have purchased the $1 million home and said Talley fell behind on rental payments of “hundreds of thousands of dollars.” Conversely, Talley said he had had a gentleman’s agreement with Malkemus and claimed to have made episodic payments totaling $995,558 that covered the cost of a new boiler, roof and annual landscaping.
Last fall, Malkemus (who is Sarah Jessica Parker’s business partner for her footwear business) and Yurgaitis filed to evict Talley. Last month Talley retaliated, filing a counterclaim in the Supreme Court in the State of New York’s Westchester County, requesting the home be put in a trust until its title be transferred.
Despite that ongoing legal fight, Talley said the recent honor has given him “extreme optimism for the future and for the outcome of the challenge of the [housing] crisis. I have realized that always there is going to be extraordinary bright light at the end of the tunnel.”
As for the legal dispute, a court date has not yet been set.
Noting how there have been 147 mass shootings this year, Talley said he has been following the trial over George Floyd’s killing, while in custody of the Minneapolis Police. As for the current turmoil in the country, he said, “One sits on eggshells. One doesn’t know where one is going. This is why this was a great thing that came to me at a moment of downward spiral. It was like Christmas morning [after] all the hard work that I’d done,” he said. “I hope for the best for the country. But the country is so fractured.…I don’t have words for it. I cannot articulate it.”