‘The Chiffon Trenches,’ by André Leon Talley: An Excerpt

I was born in a now-torn-down hospital on the edge of tony, affluent Georgetown in Washington, D.C. Two months after my arrival, my parents, Alma and William Carroll Talley, took me to my grandmother’s house in Durham, North Carolina, the center of the tobacco industry. My parents were young, and as was typical in Southern black households, it was decided I would live with my grandmother, Bennie Frances Davis, as my parents sought careers in the nation’s capital. I called my grandmother Mama.

Mama and I lived with my great-grandmother China. Both widows, they coupled pension checks and my grandmother’s salary from being a domestic maid at the men’s campus of Duke University, as well as supplemental income from my parents, to make a house that operated on organization, faith, God, and maintenance. As a young child I was given duties: dusting, collecting coal for the stoves, and gathering kindling from the woodshed, as well as washing dishes after meals.

There was churchgoing, and there was churchgoing: Sunday school; vacation Bible school; homecoming celebrations; baptisms in the rain-filled concrete pool constructed just beyond the churchyard cemetery.

[ Return to the review of “The Chiffon Trenches.” ]

I went to Lyon Park elementary school, which was just down the street from our home. I had close family bonds and my favorite cousins were my best friends. Most of the time, I managed to avoid the cruel bullies at school and in the neighborhood. I do, however, remember vividly staying home from school on a rare snow day and proudly building a three-tiered snowman in our front yard, complete with coal eyes, a carrot nose, and coal lips. I went into the kitchen at lunchtime, where my great-grandmother China was heating up a can of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup for me. By the time I put on my coat and returned outside, the neighborhood kids had destroyed my freshly constructed snowman. I turned around, went back inside, and sulked. What could I do? My grandmother’s mother couldn’t come out and take up my defense, and I had no desire to chase down and confront the vandals.

Young people can be very mean. When I would get upset, my uncle Lewis used to say to me, “Just keep on getting up. Get up every day and just keep going.” It was some of the best advice I’ve ever been given.

At an early age, I found my fantasy world in books and records, classical music, Nina Simone, Laura Nyro, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross. In my aunt Myra’s country house, I found a book on the disaster of the Titanic, the luxury ocean liner that was never supposed to sink. The wealthy and the middle-class went to their deaths in the cold seas. Every time I went to visit Aunt Myra, I picked up this book; it resonated as something in my mind’s eye that was outside the norm of my everyday existence.

My favorite retreat was the city library in downtown Durham, North Carolina. By the age of twelve, I had read every magazine and book I had come across. My world became the glossy pages of Vogue, where I could read about Truman Capote’s legendary ball, given at the Plaza, in honor of Katharine Graham. And Gloria Vanderbilt, in her patchwork antique quilts with Elizabethan ruffs, created by Adolfo. I loved seeing her photographed in her simple Mainbocher suits or the exotic Fortuny pleated gowns she kept folded in special coils, like snakes, to keep the silk vibrant. I dreamed of meeting Naomi Sims and Pat Cleveland, and living a life like the ones I saw in the pages of Vogue, where bad things never happened. Blue spring skies lent my grandmother’s rosebushes a glorious color in our front yard. Summers were spent picking wild blackberries, watching cardinals zoom around our house, and having wonderful, delicious dinners, cooked all day and eaten at five-thirty. Food was our luxury—simple, good, home-cooked food. Every day, there were fresh-cooked homemade meals. Sometimes we ate leftovers, but I remember Sundays, when hot, fresh beaten buttermilk biscuits; rows of crisp bacon; scrambled eggs; and preserves made our breakfast. Cake, pie, and a myriad of home-cooked desserts were my favorites.

Autumn brought with it crisp, crinkly golden leaves from the maple tree, a massive one in our front yard, its leaves awful to rake. In the winter, if it snowed, I had to gather extra buckets of glossy chunks of coal in the scuttle and store them on the back porch.

Great-Grandmother China died in January 1961, and I felt alone for the first time. For a budding young man, this was overwhelming, the death scene of my great-grandmother, a lady who was the matriarch of a God-fearing and God-loving family.

The family gathered at Aunt Pete’s, and she made enough food to feed everyone, including her seven daughters, one surviving son, and assorted extended family members. Throughout the night, into the morning, the adults were in the family room, sharing stories of growing up and of their beloved mama.

Somehow, there was an economy of words between my grandmother and me as we shared this humble, modest household, filled with nurturing love and the greatest values: treating others with kindness, and caring for your neighbors and family.

Life went on. My parents divorced when I was nine. Nobody told me about their separation, but I eventually figured it out. Both of them continued to visit frequently, my father always bringing me some luxurious gift: a bright red brand-new bicycle, the World Book encyclopedia, a black and white television, or my first record player. I had an allowance and would go to downtown Durham on Fridays with Mama and purchase the latest 45 rpm records. I treasured each of the items he gave me.

My mother had left my father because she thought she could do better and had planned to marry another man who was slightly more affluent than my father. One morning, not long after the divorce, she got an invitation to that man’s wedding, to another, younger, woman. That broke my mother’s spirit, forever. She became ill after that. Her hair turned white, prematurely, and she had a sort of meltdown that resulted in her trying to set her apartment on fire. And on top of it all, she refused even the smallest amount of alimony she was entitled to by law. She simply handed him the way out of their marriage and soldiered on financially but became cruel and bitter emotionally. She would come visit us in Durham, and she would go to church and be part of everything, but there was never much of a conversation to be had between the two of us. I would talk to her, but she barely said anything back. While I knew she loved me, I don’t think she liked me.

Like most Americans, my grandmother and I watched the presidential inauguration of John F. Kennedy, as it was a defining moment in a new era for our country. It symbolized hope and it also symbolized glamour. Jackie Kennedy was the youngest First Lady and she was an influencer—perhaps the first influencer of the modern world. I was in awe of her, the way she walked at the inauguration, in her cloth coat. I was obsessed with her pillbox hat, and her little snippet of fur at the collar, and her fur-edged boots, as well as the muff she carried to keep her hands warm during the freezing-cold January day.

My captivation continued when on Valentine’s Day, in 1962, A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy aired in black and white on all the networks. I was so caught up with the sheer magnitude of this glance inside the First Home of our nation. Jackie Bouvier Kennedy, and her style, truly resonated with me. I knew I had witnessed a moment, one that was sure to be the beginning of many.

There she stood, hair perfectly coiffed and curled, in her Chez Ninon line-for-line copy of an original Dior from Paris. She spoke of the White House with knowledge and eloquence. It was then I learned the word “Porthault”; the Parisian linen firm had donated a long white tablecloth for the State Dining Room, hand-embroidered in gold thread. I learned that she wanted simple glasses for water and wine. She revealed she had found them in Virginia. She spoke of the Stanford White moldings, painted white, from 1902. And she recalled that Teddy Roosevelt had commissioned a fireplace surrounded in marble, with images of American buffaloes.

From her quiet, elegant manner of speaking, her control of her message, her focus on the history of this great edifice, I learned my passion and love for antiques and the finer things. So in life, I followed Jackie Kennedy. She was my heroine in all things that mattered: clothes, decorating, and the way she presented herself as First Lady. My aunts copied her style, according to their budget, with pillbox hats and elegant chain-strap handbags. Gloves, of course. All respectful Negro church ladies were inspired by Jackie Kennedy (“Negro” was the proper term then; “African American” is proper today).

My grandmother had a drawer full of gloves, her most luxurious accessory, for every season of the year. Another drawer held cherished handkerchiefs, which she slipped into her Sunday handbag. Mama wore medium-heeled shoes, which fascinated me to watch on our walk to church, especially her navy blue leather ones, with the grosgrain bow, by Naturalizer, bought at great expense, and with a matching handbag.

[ Return to the review of “The Chiffon Trenches.” ]

The orchestrated funeral of President John F. Kennedy was the most incredible pageantry of dignity. There was Mrs. Kennedy, in her black Givenchy suit, with the tassel fringe as buttons, her face covered by a veil attached to her pillbox. It was a message to the world that she was a mother and a wife, and created a symbol of strength and style. Jackie Kennedy seemed more like a film star than the wife of the president. She had more impact on me than any actress.

I created my fantasy world through Jackie Kennedy. A hefty diet of fashion glossies and fashion supplements taught me everything I needed to know.

I knew about Jansen, the Paris-based decorator, and Monsieur Boudin, who helped C. Z. Guest, this über-Wasp icon of style and affluence, decorate her rooms.

I knew about Bunny Mellon, who lived in Upperville, Virginia, the best friend of Jackie Kennedy.

I knew about Lee, Princess Radziwill, sister to Jackie Kennedy, living a gilded life in London, with a house in the country decorated with the help of Mongiardino of Italy. I remember so fondly making mental pictures of Lee Radziwill, dancing in her silver Mila Schön couture dress at the Truman Capote Black and White Ball.

With the massive influence of fashion magazines, I became a devoted Francophile. My favorite show on television was Julia Child’s, on Sundays. I loved her irreverence, and I loved her manner of speaking French. I took four levels of French, from junior to senior high school, and I majored in French studies at North Carolina Central University, a Negro state university in Durham. There, I excelled, and received a full scholarship to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where I would receive my master’s degree and begin pursuing doctoral studies. My plan was to become a French teacher, at a private school somewhere. I didn’t much mind where; I just knew I wanted to be out in the world.

On the very day I was going off for graduate school at Brown, with a full advanced-degree scholarship, my mother turned to me and whispered, “I don’t know why you are going off to this college for another few years of studies. You have your BA. Why don’t you go and join the army so you can have benefits?”

I thought to myself, What is she talking about? Brown’s an Ivy League school. She didn’t understand what a high honor I had achieved.

My grandmother overheard this whispered conversation and bullied her way right through the cracks. She said to her daughter, “Just leave it alone, he will be fine. Let him go!” Mama understood and always encouraged and supported me all the way. She had faith and knew it was going to be fine; she just kept packing my cardboard boxes with quilts made by her mother’s sister, Aunt Luna, that I cherished for my dormitory room, as well as sheets and towels. It was modest, but that soon changed once I got to Brown and had a monthly stipend, with which I splurged on Yves Saint Laurent sheets, lengthy brand-stamped lush yellow towels, and Rive Gauche clothes, on sale.

At Brown I studied the culture of France, the brilliant, intellectual bohemian lifestyle of the nineteenth century, Charles Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine. I felt free, no longer restrained by the rigid, judgmental community I had grown up in. Now that I was out in the world, I didn’t give a damn what anyone thought about me. I wore a vintage surplus navy admiral’s coat, in perfect condition. All the brass buttons were intact. It was a maxi, almost to my feet, and I’d wear it with scratchy sailor pants—four inches above the ankles—and lace-up oxfords with small flamenco-dancer heels. During the first winter break, I brought the coat home to North Carolina. I was so proud of that coat. My grandmother could not have cared less, but my mother refused to attend church with me while I was wearing it. As we got out of my cousin Doris Armstrong’s car—she always drove across town to pick us up and take us to our country church—my mother held me back.

She glared at me and said, “I can’t be seen walking with you up the aisle in this Phantom of the Opera look.”

“Go ahead,” I said. I waited outside a few minutes while she went in, smarting from her comment. My mother could be quite nasty to me, but I still respected her. That did not mean I had to like her.

I was a fashion addict, dramatic in attire and appearance, even then. I would wear kabuki makeup like Diana Vreeland, legendary Vogue editor in chief, or Naomi Sims, the first black model I ever saw in Vogue. On any typical day, I would layer Estée Lauder’s latest shade of deep grape on my temples, top it with Vaseline, and head off to class.

My wardrobe caught the attention of affluent students at the Rhode Island School of Design, also located in Providence. I began to live two separate lives: the one on campus for my studies at Brown, and the one at RISD, where I made friends with Jane Kleinman and Reed Evins. Jane’s father was then head of Kayser-Roth hosiery, and Reed’s uncle was David Evins, the shoe magnate. They lived off campus, in a big floor-through apartment filled with sunlight and incredible antiques. Reed came to RISD with a huge van of furniture. There were Chippendale dining room chairs, a beautiful mahogany leaf dining table, Baccarat glassware, sterling flatware, damask tablecloths, and beautiful china with gold-leaf borders.

One weekend, Jane went home to New York City and came back to school with a Revillon skunk coat purchased on sale at Saks Fifth Avenue. She was so proud of that coat. It was the exact same coat Babe Paley owned, South American skunk—Chilean skunk, in fact. Diana Vreeland’s favorite!

Reed and Jane ruled: They seemed to have it all—the best clothes, the best furniture—and they were New Yorkers. On my birthday in October 1974, they brought me to New York to attend the Coty Awards fashion show, at FIT. I don’t remember anything about the show, except meeting Joe Eula, who was an important illustrator for Halston, then the hottest designer in America. Joe Eula invited me to a party at his house after the show, where I met Elsa Peretti, as well as Carrie Donovan, with whom I had corresponded years earlier.

Carrie was a madcap and very talented fashion editor, a cross between Kay Thompson in Funny Face (the best fashion comedy film ever) and Maggie Smith in a movie that won her an Oscar, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I absolutely adored Carrie’s boutique pages at the back of Vogue.

I walked up to Carrie Donovan and introduced myself. “You wrote me a letter,” I said, and reminded her that I had written to Vogue, inquiring as to who had discovered the model Pat Cleveland. Carrie had written me back and said it was she who had discovered Pat Cleveland on the Lexington Avenue subway, traveling to work one morning. The note was brief but beautiful, typewritten and signed in electric-green ink.

Carrie was warm and gracious, and told me to stay in touch. “And if you want to work in fashion, you have to come to New York,” she said.

As soon as I arrived back in Providence, I made plans to abandon my studies at Brown and move to New York. I already had my master’s but was working on my doctoral thesis, with plans to become a French teacher. While I’d been recommended for teaching positions at private schools up and down the East Coast, I was unable to procure a job. I was eager to see what awaited me in New York and in the world of fashion.

Reed had finished his studies at RISD and already moved back to Manhattan. He offered to let me stay with him until I got myself situated. In one large soft Louis Vuitton zipper satchel, I packed my most precious items: my navy coat, two pairs of velvet Rive Gauche trousers, two silk Rive Gauche shirts, and my first bespoke black silk faille smoking shoes, custom-made by Reed Evins himself. They were blunt-toed slip-ons, lined in flaming red.

Jane Kleinman’s father wrote me a letter of introduction to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Diana Vreeland was hiring volunteers to assist with her curation of an epic exhibit: Romantic and Glamorous Hollywood Design.

The letter worked and I was hired, with no salary. I didn’t care; I was going to meet Diana Vreeland, the grandest and most important fashion empress! The famed editor in chief of Vogue for almost ten years! Considered to be one of the great fashion editors of all time! Running the Costume Institute was Vreeland’s dream job and my own dream apprenticeship. It was highly selective; there were only about twelve of us.

My first day as a volunteer, I was handed a shoebox filled with metal discs and a pair of needle-nose pliers.

“Fix this,” I was told. “What is it?”

“It’s the chain mail dress worn by Miss Lana Turner in The Prodigal. Mrs. Vreeland will be here shortly to inspect your work.”

Left to my own devices, I laid out all the pieces and quickly figured out the complex puzzle pattern. Eventually I was able to craft the shoebox of metal back into a dress.

“Who did this?” Mrs. Vreeland asked. “The new volunteer.”

“Follow me,” she said, and I did. We went into her office, where she sat down and wrote my name in large letters. “HELPER,” she wrote underneath it, and handed the paper to me. “You will stay by my side night and day, until the show is finished! Let’s go, kiddo. Get crackin’!

Mrs. Vreeland spoke in narratives, in staccato sentences. You had to figure out what she wanted. The next dress she assigned to me was from Cleopatra, worn by Claudette Colbert. “You must remember, André, white peacocks, the sun, and this is a girl of fourteen, who is a queen. Now get crackin’! Right-o!

It was a gold lamé dress. I spray-painted the mannequin the same color gold.

Right-o, right-o, I say, André!” Mrs. Vreeland responded.

Over the next six weeks I became one of Mrs. Vreeland’s favorite volunteers in what was really like a fine fashion finishing school. Through Diana Vreeland I learned to speak the language of style, fantasy, and literature.

I listened to and I learned from Mrs. Vreeland. I hung on her every word, every utterance. I towered above her physically, but I was utterly respectful and properly reverent, and she in turn treated me with great respect.

She must have loved the idea of my presence, the combination of my looks, tall and honey colored; my impeccable manners and grooming; and my blossoming unorthodox style. Plus my master’s degree!

After the exhibit’s opening night in December, I needed a job. I tried working as a receptionist at the ASPCA but it was too tragic. Mrs. Vreeland called me into her office late one afternoon, just before taking off for the Christmas holiday season.

“Don’t go home to Durham, André!” Vreeland pronounced. “If you go home to the South, you will get a teaching job of course, but you will never come back to New York. It will happen for you, just sit tight and don’t run home.”

“But I have no money, I need a job!”

“Stick it out! You belong in New York. Do not go home for Christmas!” With that I was dismissed, and she was off to the beautiful home of Oscar and Françoise de la Renta in Santo Domingo.

Christmas Eve 1974 turned out to be one of the darkest nights of my life. I had no money, and I was sleeping on the floor of the studio of my friend Robert Turner, a fellow volunteer. He was out of town for the holiday. I slept on a horse blanket, found at a local thrift shop, and a borrowed pillow from his platform bed. There was nothing left in the refrigerator and not one cent strewn around for a greasy hamburger.

I opened the cupboards and found a can of Hershey’s chocolate syrup, which I devoured with a fine silver teaspoon and followed with glasses of water to chase the thick, dense syrup down.

The phone rang at ten p.m. It was my grandmother. “Ray”—she never called me André—“your father is here next

to me. I am sending him to drive through the night and bring you home. You need to be ready, because he will be there tomorrow, on Christmas Day. You come home. You belong home. You have never been away from home at Christmas.”

I insisted I wasn’t about to come home. Mrs. Vreeland had said it would happen for me in the New Year! Mama hadn’t put up an argument when I left for Brown; why was she so adamant now?

So I asked her, “Why? Why do you want me to come home so urgently?”

Silence. Pause. Then she shouted into the telephone: “Come home, because I know you are sleeping with a white woman up there!”

That was the furthest thing from reality. I laughed out loud and assured her this was not the case. She uttered something and hung up the phone. I knew she was upset, but I had faith in Mrs. Vreeland.

During that long and lonely Christmas week, I visited Saint Thomas, an Episcopal church, often. There I would meditate and pray for my parents and my grandmother, and thank God for the gifts and opportunities I had been given. I was grateful to be in New York, even if my future was uncertain. I was confident that my faith and my knowledge would see me through, even if my stomach continued to rumble.

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