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True Tales From the Decorators

Illustration by Bobbi Eggers

(page 1 of 3)

When his friend Jamie bought her first house in California, interior designer Max King used to go antiques shopping with her up and down the coast of Santa Barbara. “The dealers would be calling from one town to the next to say, ‘There’s this mad couple from Beverly Hills buying everything. Be nice to them,’ ” Max recalls. When one shopkeeper asked if they were husband and wife or brother and sister, Max answered, “Oh, no. Much more important. We’re decorator and client.”

After all, who, outside of the family and close friends, knows us better than our decorator? Not our Realtor, who only stops by when we’re buying or selling our house. Not our cleaning woman, who may get into our secret cobwebbed corners on a weekly basis but not into our souls. No. Our interior designers know us best — our lifestyles, tastes, needs and wallets. We invite them into our personal space so that they can help us make our homes our castles; and while accomplishing this, Greenwich designers have had some colorful experiences, each an integral part of a creative profession that’s all about dealing with people.

Hollywood Highlights

Take Max King. Before moving to Greenwich and joining forces with Darrin Duhling of the New York Botanical Garden, he lived in Los Angeles. And if thirty-five years in Hollywood doesn’t bear fruitful stories, what does?

First there was the case of Diana Ross’s bedroom. Max was working for a twenty-six-year-old wunderkind named Jay Steffy, “who was doing everybody’s house,” including Candace Bergen’s and Brooke Hayward’s.

“It was a very expensive bedroom, an extravaganza, with yards and yards of Rose Cumming chintz,” Max recalls. But Jay had a falling out with Miss Ross, so he sold everything elsewhere. “The joke is that now there’s this nice little lady two blocks down the street who is sleeping in Diana Ross’s bed and doesn’t know it.”

When Max was asked to do a room for “An Elegant Celebration of Christmas” at the Design Center in San Francisco, the designers were paired with celebrity hosts whose lifestyles they were meant to evoke. He drew Loretta Young and drove over to her house in nearby Benedict Canyon. The double doors, just like on the Loretta Young Show, were slightly ajar; and as he walked in, she hit the bottom of the long, sweeping staircase. “I was waiting for somebody to yell ‘Cut,’ ” he recalls. Her mother was a very well-respected decorator named Gretchen Beltzer, who worked well into her nineties. Loretta swept on into the living room, Max following behind, and invited him to have a seat, saying: “My mother and these goddamned low-backed chairs she designed twenty years ago have ruined my back!”

She told him that Horst had just been there photographing her, and when she had asked him what she should wear, he had said anything but blue jeans.

“Can you imagine me even owning blue jeans?” she exclaimed.

“She didn’t know me from anybody,” says Max, “but she offered to lend me the gorgeous Chinese ivory and anything else in the house for this setting.” He ended up decorating a Christmas tree with gold letters reading Darling 500 times and, of course, low seating.

“When I met Loretta Young, she was well into her seventies and very, very crepey, but her eyes sparkled,” Max notes. “Once you looked into those amazing eyes, you never saw the wrinkles. She just glowed. Anyway, she really was a darling.”

Then there was Carol Lawrence (West Side Story; I Do, I Do), whom he met when he and a business partner were buying properties to remodel and flip. It was the day before Thanksgiving, Carol’s house was for sale, and as they knocked on her door, Max looked through the sidelight and saw a figure approaching. It was a woman of a certain age, no makeup, wearing an apron, hair hidden under a babushka, a potholder in her hand. A heartbeat before the door opened, Max realized it was the lady herself and quickly whispered: “It’s her!” before his friend could blurt out: “Is Madame at home?” Carol Lawrence not only welcomed them and gave them a house tour, she invited them to come back for Thanksgiving dinner.

At the other end of the spectrum were people Max refused to work with. One almost-client was the new trophy wife (“I think the term was coined for her,” says Max) of a “mega mega mega” Hollywood producer. She was very young, very beautiful and on the surface very charming but, says Max, it wasn’t real. When he went to the house, he began to notice that there was never the same butler, maid, cook or driver. Her entire acting career comprised six episodes in a hospital TV drama, but one day when he was there, her agent called, wanting her to read for a show. “Oh, no,” he heard her say. “I don’t read anymore.”

“Maybe Elizabeth Taylor doesn’t read anymore,” Max comments, “but this little girl from Kansas?” He knew he’d never be able to work for such a prima donna, so that was that.

P.S. At that time, various Hollywood men were dumping their wives, and the producer’s Wife No. 1 had gotten together with some of the others and started airing their domestic laundry on daytime talk shows. Thus, the genesis of The First Wives Club.

Then there was a client in Pasadena whose former husband had been busted for his financial dealings (“Would you believe, his penance was teaching golf to kids in Aspen?” quips Max), and it had taken her ten years to get the million-dollar divorce settlement. Max was helping her restore and remodel her architecturally significant modern house and put in a pool. When they heard a helicopter go overhead, she’d look up and say, “Uh-oh, there goes my ex. He’s checking up on how I’m spending my million dollars.”

Finally, having gone through her money rather quickly, this client told Max, “I think I’ve got $3,000 left, and we need to do something in the study.” “Well,” Max said, “why don’t we go to the bank and get it in ones and use it for wallpaper?” She thought that was a great idea, but they didn’t do it. “It was an off-the-cuff remark that could have gone either way,” Max admits.

Kid stories are among his favorites. One was about Campbell, the difficult fifteen-year-old daughter of a woman who had just been left a winery and two houses on the beach in Ventura. “I don’t care what you do to my room,” said the typical teenager. “Paint it black if you want!” So he did. “And it was fantastic,” Max recalls. Black walls, black carpet, chartreuse ceiling and lots of black-and-white-striped fabric. “Campbell is grown up now, gotten out of that whole thing and become a chef. She’s one of my best buddies.”

Another is Kate, daughter of Jamie Wolf whose house Max was doing in Beverly Hills. She was about ten, the age where she hated everything and anything, and when showing off for friends, hated everything even more. Max and her mother were in the children’s room trying to figure out draperies when Kate flounced out, announcing: “Oh, you make my life a living hell!”

A favorite story Max loves to tell, as does his friend Jamie, is about the pool house he did for her at her 1927 Tudor in Beverly Hills. She had wanted a soda fountain, billiards table and separate boys’ and girls’ bathrooms with showers for Kate and her young friends. In this former garage, there was only space for one bathroom, but Max could put the second in the attached toolshed.

“But what will I do with my tools?” Jamie asked him. “You don’t have any tools,” Max replied. “You’re Jewish.” To which Jamie answered brightly, “Ah, that’s right! I have a telephone!”

The same thing happened when they did the master bedroom. They would have to block off the fireplace at the foot of the bed in order to put in an armoire with television. “But what if I want a fire?” Jamie wondered. “Who’s going to build the fire?” responded Max. “You? Me, I suppose? Let’s just put the armoire there.” So they did.

Jamie Wolf, says Max, remains one of his dearest friends.