Even lounging in a turtleneck, Earl Blackwell is the very figure and cynosure of fashion, and never more so than when he is presiding in his Manhattan penthouse. Epicenter of the Venetian-style apartment—and site of most of his parties—is a 40-foot-long, 30-foot-high ballroom with parquet floors, chairs from one of the Vanderbilt homes and murals of the Venice Black-well loves. There are two sitting rooms, a bedroom, guest room, dining room, breakfast alcove, a library and a split-level terrace dotted with catawba and Japanese maple trees.
In showing off the premises, Blackwell lingers most lovingly over the framed photographs, signed with warm personal regards from Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontaine, Noël Coward, Maria Callas, Audrey Hepburn, Merle Oberon, Henry Fonda, Joan Crawford, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Marylou and Cornelius Whitney, ad celestial infinitum. The showpiece of his collection is a rare green-ink signature of Greta Garbo in his guest book. On the sofa is a needlepoint pillow bearing the legend “Empathy.”
That evening, Earl Blackwell is impeccable as always as he greets the guests on opening night of Manhattan’s new private club, Doubles. It is situated in the basement of the Sherry-Netherland Hotel, the same location as another exclusive—but ill-starred—private club, Raffles. It seems that Raffles became a bit raffish. “It just disintegrated,” says Blackwell. “I’m sure people were slipping someone money to get in under the ropes. Of course, that sort of thing spoils a club.”
As vice-president of Doubles, director of Celebrity Service and editor of the Celebrity Register, Earl Blackwell is responsible for seeing to it that Doubles does not flop. The finest liquor stands like an honor guard behind the hand-rubbed bar. The dice are ready for casting in the backgammon room. Waiters and orchestra are busily preparing for dining and dancing in the supper club, decorated in what designer Valerian Rybar describes as “screaming coral.”
Still, it beats the screams of the city outside. The Beautiful People (a term spawned by Diana Vreeland of Vogue to legalize the marriage of old society, new money and the literary and showbiz set) desperately need oases where they can chat, play and simply, like Scott Fitzgerald’s Daisy and Tom Buchanan, “be rich together.” Explains Patricia Harmsworth, whose husband publishes the Daily Mail in London, “Everybody needs a club like this. People need to be comfortable with people they know and like. It’s a feeling of belonging. Besides, where are you going to feel elegant, where else are you going to feel cherished?”
No one understands all this better than Earl Blackwell, now in his mid-60s. He greets “his people”—as he calls them in a soft Georgia accent accompanied by a gentle squeeze of hands. “So wonderful to see you again,” he says. “So delighted you could come,” as if the mere presence of this fabulous person has turned his evening into a romp with the gods. Blackwell knows that any occasion needs a head-liner, and that headliners expect—and deserve—special attention. “I want you to meet my very dear friend, Marisa Berenson,” he says to a guest, who is face to face with a gaunt, distant beauty in silken white.
“Marisa and I go back to her 12th birthday,” Blackwell confides. “I used to stay at Schiap’s home in Paris [famed fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, Marisa’s grandmother], and on that birthday I gave Marisa a radio.”
The gilded couples sweep across the stainless steel dance floor, exchanging Southampton-Antibes smartchat and casting admiring glances at the mirrored ceiling. The celebrities of Fitzgerald’s time danced under starlight; today’s luminaries prefer reflections of grander natural creations—themselves. On the stairs, beaming as always, is Earl Blackwell.
He has devoted a lifetime to gracious entertainment, and it has brought him more tangible rewards than the many, many very dear friendships of which he boasts (Blackwell never claims friendships that don’t exist; he admits, for example, that he scarcely knows Elizabeth Taylor). Celebrity Service, which he founded in 1939, grosses over $500,000 a year. For a fee (a magazine pays $500 annually), a subscriber is entitled to 10 calls daily to track down the greats, near greats and former greats of the entertainment world. Sometimes the service gets no closer than a press agent, but occasionally it will come up with a helpful unlisted number. The service is run from a 16-phone office adjoining Blackwell’s penthouse.
Blackwell concerns himself primarily with his Special Events department because, he says, “the people I know trust me to organize an event to perfection if possible.” Price per fashionable bash: $50,000. And he is co-editor with Cleveland Amory(the man who helped revitalize society by trying to kill it) of Celebrity Register, a wisenheimer Who’s Who (e.g., Marlon Brando is the “all-time tempest in a T-shirt”).
These multiple enterprises have made Blackwell comfortable and earned him the obvious sobriquet “the Perle Mesta of show business.” It is a comparison Blackwell enjoys. “Perle was a very dear, dear friend,” he says. What he does not like, the mistake that will instantly wipe the incandescent smile from his face, is being confused with Mr. Blackwell (first name Richard) who annually proclaims the Ten Worst Dressed Women. “This man Blackwell comes out of the woodwork once a year and does his vulgar list,” Earl says, “and then I get blamed for it. I’ve spent a lifetime creating goodwill. Why, the first time I met Bar-bra Streisand, she looked me hard in the eye and said, ‘So you’re the guy.’ I backed away and said, ‘No, no, no, no, NO!’ ”
Otherwise, the celebrity business is very much a wine-and-roses occupation, a smooth, yellow-brick road to Blackwell’s present emerald citadel. He was born the only son (he has one sister) in a socially prominent Atlanta family, brought up in a large house off Peachtree Street next to the old governor’s mansion. As an unabashedly star-struck child, he caddied for golfer Bobby Jones and worked as an usher during Atlanta’s Metropolitan Opera Week, where he wangled at age 13 an invitation to a cast party given by Lily Pons. He attended Oglethorpe College and was voted student body president, most popular boy in his class and just about every other social honor the school had to offer.
Blackwell graduated in 1929 and went to California. “I was fascinated with Hollywood as the glamor capital,” he says, adding, perhaps unnecessarily, “I’ve always been attracted to successful people.” He signed a beginning actor’s contract with Louis B. Mayer. “I didn’t succeed in Hollywood—thank God!—but I succeeded in making friends that have lasted a lifetime,” Blackwell recounts. “Then I came to New York and wrote a play called Aries Rising, which failed on Broadway. So I thought, ‘I’m 23, I’ve failed as an actor and a playwright. What’s left?’
“A Hearst columnist from Atlanta came to town for some stories and wanted to know where Joan Crawford and Robert Montgomery were. Well, I just happened to know and put her in touch with them. She said, ‘Earl, you’re a regular walking information bureau.’ And so…” and his voice trails off into a brilliant smile.
With entrée into both show business and New York society, Blackwell found building Celebrity Service was a piece of catered cake. He even became a celebrity in his own right during the New York World’s Fair of 1940, when he persuaded a number of his friends to appear and promote the fair. Other social events he has created include the Madison Square Garden party for President John Kennedy in 1962 (Marilyn Monroe sang Happy Birthday); the 25th-anniversary celebration in Israel for Golda Meir; the opening of Sonja Henie’s art museum in Oslo (“She was a pal from way back”); and perhaps the most famous of all, a masked ball held at the Palazzo Rezzonico in Venice in 1967 for 700, including Princess Grace of Monaco, Rose Kennedy, Aristotle Onassis and Mr. and Mrs. Richard Burton. It was hailed by the London Times as “the party of the century.”
Le Cirque, on Manhattan’s East 65th Street, has for the moment replaced the old Colony as the place where Earl Blackwell’s people gather for lunch. He is its publicist. Sipping white wine, Blackwell offers his succinct view of what makes a celebrity: “A celebrity is someone whose name needs no further identification. A celebrity can be born, like Princess Margaret. Then she made a celebrity of the man she married. The same with Grace. The prince was always a gracious and handsome man, but he was not a celebrity until he married. Also, you can be famous, be a personality, but still not be a celebrity. It takes something special, something enduring.”
Blackwell orders luncheon, as gracious to waiters as he is to his own people. He continues between courses: “When I have a dinner party, I put two tables of eight and one of 10 in my dining room, then I fill the room with fresh flowers. Afterward I’ll have maybe 75 more people in for drinks and dancing. The important thing is to take care of every tiny detail beforehand, then relax and enjoy yourself once the party starts.”
Blackwell concedes that although he goes out nearly every night of the week, he has gone as long as 18 months without giving a party. “Of course, I may turn around and give three in one week.” It’s a trying life, he sighs, but he always gets eight hours of sleep a night. “Any party that continues after midnight is merely a repetition,” he says.
To keep on an even keel, Blackwell regularly escapes to his house in Harbour Cay in the Grand Bahamas, a locale recommended by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. “I’m a different man down there,” he says. “There is no TV, and especially no telephone. When I’m in New York it seems as if I spend 10 hours a day on the phone.”
On less pleasant matters—such as the magazine installments of Truman Capote’s forthcoming novel (PEOPLE, May 10) about Blackwell’s elegant crowd—Earl is quite sharp. “I’m not sure that Truman isn’t losing his marbles. We all know he’s a good writer, he doesn’t need to do that sort of thing. Why, he’s reveled in the attention he’s received from the Beautiful People.
“You see,” Earl adds, “my people trust me implicitly, because gossip goes in one ear and absolutely out the other. I tell you, the many confidences I’ve had would make headlines tomorrow if I even whispered them.”
Does he see changes in society? “Yes, people don’t ask me to launch them in society anymore,” he says. “That’s passé. Nowadays, besides my own little parties, I just do one big event each year. This year, for example, it will be the inauguration in November of the Manila Hotel. It has been completely restored—that’s where the war was really fought, you know. Anyway, Mrs. Douglas MacArthur will be there.”
He suddenly turns and says, “See? She’s right over there.” He waves at a tiny, elegant figurine seated in the corner. And, of course, his old, dear friend, Mrs. Douglas MacArthur, waves back.