Nicky Haslam: Party monster

What is Nicky Haslam like! Has this interior decorator to the rich and influential contributed anything to culture beyond pelmets and party hats? To what does he owe his protean dress sense? Indeed, is he possibly the greatest 'post-war faggot' of them all? To dinner, then, with Andrew Barrow, in search of answers...
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The Independent Online

For the last 20 years or more, Nicky Haslam has been rubbing shoulders with me at parties, grinning conspiratorially, hurrying and scurrying around me, accepting my outstretched hand, guffawing at my mumbled asides and lifting my spirits in a surprising way.

But does he even know my name? Or the names of all the other people in the room whom he's treating to the same, all-embracing flood of bonhomie? And does it matter anyway? Surely the whole point of Haslam's frenetic display is to exude excitement and goodwill, to give rather than to take and to labour - if that's what he's doing - without any thought of reward?

As a legendary creature of the night and burner of midnight oil for nearly half a century, Nicky Haslam casts into shade the great party animals of the past. Today, his old friends such as the late Bunny Roger, Lady Diana Cooper and even Rip Van With-It Cecil Beaton, seem stuck up by comparison. When Haslam swans into the room, you are more likely to shriek with delight than feel over-awed or upstaged. Self-mocking, outrageous and, as likely as not, in some new guise, Haslam rarely cuts anyone dead and is hardly ever rude to bores.

So why isn't he aloof? He has led a life of extraordinary variety and cultural, social, even sexual, complexity. Predominantly queer, he has enough heterosexuality in him to seduce any woman he wants, friends say.

He may look like a yob, but underneath, friends say, he's patrician enough to out-snoot the snootiest doormen in town. He is a living link not only with what he calls "post-war faggotry" but also pre-First World War grandeur: his mother was a god-daughter of Queen Victoria, and most of his cousins are in Burke's. Yet he possesses what has been called, "a trend-setting ability light years ahead of the rest of us."

Some may be unaware that he is also an interior decorator with a thriving international business and is far more serious about his work than his occasional facetiousness would suggest.

"He is absolutely brilliant," says Min Hogg, founding editor of The World of Interiors. "He can change tunes at the drop of a hat. Most decorators can play only one note."

As well as designing houses and apartments for a mixed bag of famous figures from Charles Saatchi to Janet de Botton, he has also provided the décor for some of the poshest parties of our age: the Opera Ball in Hong Kong and, at Mosimann's in St James's, the last party the Prince and Princess of Wales gave together.

This is all very impressive, but throughout his life Haslam has concentrated a lot of his time and talents on adorning and re-designing himself - and then publicising the process and the whole party-going phenomenon in any number of regular columns in newspapers and magazines.

In the 1970s he was Paul Parsons in Ritz and Sam Hopper in Vogue. Today, his playful, punning, name- and place-dropping pieces appear in a variety of newspapers and magazines; he also files erudite book reviews for the The Literary Review and The Spectator, in which he often also writes the diary. Wherever possible, these informative bits of journalism are accompanied by a winking, leering, picture of Haslam himself.

To many readers, Nicky Haslam will be best known for the way he changed his personal appearance six years ago. Dressing up was nothing new for him. In his passport photograph of 50 years ago he appeared in white tie and tails. A few years later, he was into leather and said to be carrying a leather-bound book around New York bearing his name in gold-tooled lettering. Then came his time as a Robert Redford lookalike living on a ranch in the Midwest, then the fireman's rig, then the Irish spiv look with suede shoes and a trilby. And then the long, long addiction to immaculate three-piece suits and dinner jackets - he favoured a Savile Row firm which still makes uniforms for the Prince of Wales - while his hair turned grey, white, silver....

Writing about Haslam in 1979 in the Evening Standard under the headline "Who's a Party Boy, then?", Maureen Cleave noted he was now "a silvery executive grey", a look that he would complement by taking Joan Collins to Ascot, wearing top hat and grey tails. Another reporter declared that his bouffant locks made him "a perfect blend of Liberace and Danny La Rue". More discriminating observers compared Haslam with Sir Anthony Eden and saw in him a "statesman-like" even "presidential" aura. But by the winter of 1997, at the age of 58, he was having none of it.

In subsequent interviews Haslam has claimed that a dinner-party rebuke from Charles Saatchi - "Really you look awful. Get it together and go to Commes des Garçons" - triggered the transformation. He has also stated that "it's one's duty to re-invent oneself and not get stuffy", and claimed that life in St James's Street clubs now bored him rigid.

Whatever the motives, out went the white hair and the impeccable tailoring. In came terrifyingly black "squid ink" hair dye and a vast range of designer or customised clothing and combat gear.

His new role model was Oasis singer Liam Gallagher, 33 years his junior, of whom he said, "I worship him. I love his naughtiness and rudeness. I admire his arrogance." Others spotted traces in him of the actor Rufus Sewell.

Anyway, the snob-to-yob metamorphosis was a huge hit. By the spring of 1998, Haslam was declaring, "It's a hoot," and explaining, "My life has opened up since I plucked the last vestige of youth out of the sinking pit of old age." He would soon be described as "a sexy young boy'' with a "teenage slouch'' and more than one interviewer - Lynn Barber and others had raced to the scene - rightly predicted that the transformation process would continue.

During the past six years, Nicky has modified or exaggerated his persona in ways which only a fashion historian or culture buff could properly dissect. The original Liam Gallagher look has been followed by Haslam's version of gangsta rap, mod, bondage, commando, hippie, punk - and more complex creations which he describes as "Brazilian rough trade'', "ironic Byronic'', "Pirate gypsy'' and "Cossack meets Red Indian''.

He has achieved this Peter Sellers-ish range of effects with wigs, woollen hats, moustaches, goatee beards and an impressive range of high-fashion items from Prada, Versace, Diesel, Jungle and Junk, as well as Top Man, Burton and H&M.

Nor should we forget that the style and gear change of 1997-8 was quickly followed by a full face-lift, and that the whole new caboodle was celebrated at his 60th birthday party in the autumn of 1999. Is it necessary to say that Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall were there? And Ringo Starr and Nicholas Soames and Jackie Kennedy's sister Lee Radziwill, and Michael Heseltine and Lord Lichfield's daughter Eloise Anson?

But isn't it more interesting to know that Nicky cried a lot at the party and that the event caused considerable distress to those not invited? And that one of these troubled souls, who described herself as "a very old friend of Nicky Haslam'', was even moved to consult The Spectator's agony aunt Mary Killen about the matter? To which Mary replied, incorporating a witty response from Haslam himself: "If you're a very old friend then that explains why you were not invited. I only had the rich, the young and the glamorous."

We must now eschew party politics for a while and ponder the fact that Nicky Haslam is descended on his father's side from Lancashire mill-owning folk. Their most famous product, which Nicky believes was invented by mistake when the loom missed a beat, was Aertex, an evocative name on a par with Cash's name tapes. For many years the Haslams were Bolton's principal family.

It will come as no surprise that Nicholas Ponsonby Haslam - let's give him his full name - has never set foot in Bolton. He was born on 27 September 1939 in a William and Mary mansion some 30 miles from the excitements of the metropolis. A beguiling child, he was apparently able to say the words "ice cream'' so charmingly that people gave him some immediately. But his childhood was cut short by polio, and for 18 months he lay in a plaster body cast.

"There was a non-stop party in my bedroom,'' he says bravely. But the experience must have affected him deeply. He went to Eton in the Summer Half of Coronation year.

Is it necessary to describe how Nicky Haslam enlivened his schooldays by adorning his study with fake ocelot-skin curtains, ostrich plume pelmets cut out of paper and a carpet of artificial grass?

"He was very advanced in his tastes and already looking towards America,'' recalls an Eton contemporary, Eddie Plunkett, who also remembers Haslam's hair as "curly and rather golden and not necessarily from birth'' and hints that he was already a controversial figure. "My tutor thought him a dim companion for me but I always liked him enormously.''

In interviews, Haslam has boasted that he won all the art prizes at Eton and designed all the school plays. There is some exaggeration there but he certainly exhibited a picture at a Mayfair art gallery as a schoolboy and, at the age of 15, had a life-changing meeting with a High Bohemian character called Simon Fleet.

This chance encounter - is "pick-up" a better phrase? - took place at the Observer Film Exhibition in London. Fleet was then a key figure in post-war faggotry and occupied a tiny, eye-catching house still standing in Chelsea, called the Gothic Box. "He was very tall and had had a face-lift which left him with squashed eyes," Haslam recalls. "He looked like a big toy but was brilliantly aware.'' He and the young Haslam became extremely close - "But we didn't do anything illegal" - and Fleet introduced the impressionable schoolboy to such figures as Cecil Beaton, Lady Juliet Duff, Chips Cannon, Bunny Roger, Lady Diana Cooper and the famous fantasist Stephen Tennant, who was fond of tipping the porters on Salisbury station with white lilies.

After leaving Eton, Haslam briefly attended art school in Wiltshire, but left after a few weeks and continued his education at Vogue, where he made friends with David Bailey. In his autobiography High Diver (1977), the painter Michael Wishart describes the young Haslam as "a youth of exceptional beauty'' and devotes several pages to their four-year friendship. According to Wishart, Haslam possessed "the mysterious allure of an insolent child'' and a huge capacity for vanity, but he loved him desperately nonetheless. "For years I could have sacrificed a limb rather than lose his presence."

Was it a stroke of genius to leave London on the eve of the Swinging Sixties? In 1962, Haslam settled in New York, worked on Vogue and used what was left of a trust fund to buy a duplex on 61st Street. In New York he met further figures from the past. He had several encounters with the Duchess of Windsor, Cole Porter and Tallulah Bankhead. He also became a great friend of Warhol: he was seen snogging Baby Jane Holzer for 20 minutes in Kiss. In 1963, he gave a huge party for the Rolling Stones, immortalised by Tom Wolfe in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.

After several "dizzying'' years in New York, Haslam retired to Arizona with a rich, civilised, uppercrust American called Jimmy Davison. At the Black Canyon Ranch near Phoenix, Haslam bred horses, dressed the part of a cowboy and played host to scores of English friends. "It was a particular high point of his life,'' says Candida Lycett Green, who remembers the intense heat and riding down a canyon in the desert to find, laid out on the sand, a surprise picnic "of untold perfection".

In 1972, he was back in London where his interior decoration business took off. That summer, I became an occasional contributor to Harpers & Queen, and acutely aware of the society or gossip column figures vaguely beyond my reach. Lady Diana Cooper and Cecil Beaton were typical of the older breed - I did telephone interviews with both these titans - and Nicky Haslam was one of the younger names on everyone's lips. In July 1978 I heard that he had been present at a fancy dress ball in Berkshire dressed as a Nazi officer.

Later that year, I published my first book, Gossip, a composition of 50 years of newspaper tittle-tattle, and was delighted to hear from a friend of a friend of Lady Diana Cooper that Haslam had purchased several copies. The following June, there was a great deal of talk about Nicky Haslam's 40th birthday party, celebrated at his newly acquired hunting lodge somewhere in Hampshire. The theme of the evening was la chasse, and the guests included - here we go again - Cecil Beaton and Lady Diana Cooper supported by new blood in the form of Bryan Ferry, impresario Michael White, Clive James and the redoubtable Lady "Bindy'' Lambton, who arrived in diving gear complete with mask and flippers and wielding a loaded speargun. The event, written up at length in the Daily Mail and the subject of a six-page feature in Vogue put Haslam well and truly on the map.

It also focused envious attention on the absurdly picturesque country retreat which he still rents today from the National Trust and which has been the focus of an agonising number of magazine features over the years. The former home of the interior designer John Fowler, properly known as King Henry's Hunting Lodge, has been said to have "a fabled past'' and "a storybook presence". Its garden, Haslam would claim, contained 800 years of hedge and some of the oldest oak trees in England. Professor Pevsner snootily declares that the house has "nothing'' behind its "pretend Jacobean front'' but feature-writers have made much of the surviving Fowler window pelmets which mimic the curve of the façade and all the gothic cabinets and other objets d'art that Haslam has installed.

In the years that followed that famous birthday party, I have watched Haslam's progress with awe and delight. In April 1985, he was seen in the Queen's box at the Badminton horse trials. The following year he moved into a soon-to-be-sumptuous flat in South Kensington and entertained his cousin the Princess of Wales there. Occasionally our paths crossed.

And then, on 25 June 1992 - oh joy - the great, sought-after, charismatic Nicky Haslam actually gatecrashed the launch of my first novel. Haslam's presence at the party in my brother's Chelsea studio somehow gave my book, The Tap Dancer, the stamp of success it needed. Since then I have seen him in tellingly different roles as well as disguises. In 1996, I attended a Mad March Hare fancy dress party and chatted to a totally unfamiliar black boy in jeans. He turned out to be Haslam in a full face-and-body latex mask. And then only last year, I attended the funeral service for Min Hogg's mother at St Luke's Church in Chelsea and who should step up to the lectern and deliver a tear-jerking oration but the subject of this profile? For a few sacred minutes Nicky Haslam, dressed for the occasion in a pin-striped Ermenegildo Zegna suit, was no longer the party boy but an intellectual, quoting Goethe and mourning the death of someone he had known since his schooldays.

For my dinner with Haslam I dress in a charcoal grey suit made for me 19 years ago and a shirt with no cufflinks, which he has pronounced is "common". To lend colour to our encounter, Haslam has invited me to meet him earlier at a party in Mayfair launching Leonie Frieda's biography of Catherine de Medici. The former London home of the Earls of Dartmouth is crammed with literati, glitterati and several leading Conservative politicians including the heavily-guarded Baroness Thatcher.

An explosion of flashbulbs at the top of the grand staircase marks the arrival of Nicky Haslam, wearing a Puma hoodie, cheap cowboy boots sprayed with blue car paint, and jeans which, in the high fashion of the moment, are wide open at the fly, showing his £75 Galliano underpants. Haslam has had his hair cut short and dyed its stubble a bright orangey red. For the benefit of one of the less shockable women present he pulls open his underpants and shows that he has dyed his hair down there the same colour.

There's time to take in another party before dinner and Haslam and I have soon abandoned the great and the good in favour of the young and trendy. In Haslam's B-registered, chauffeur-driven blue Jaguar with white upholstery, we are heading for a party, in Harvey Nichols' penthouse, hosted by John Galliano - another high society event but a polar opposite to the one we have just attended. "You're looking well,'' says the man on the door. "Not for want of trying,'' says Haslam without missing a beat and leading the way into a vast two-room scrum, where he is kissed and hugged by dozens of people he does not know.

Later that evening, Nicky Haslam ruefully does up his flies as we enter Bentley's Seafood Restaurant near Piccadilly Circus. "God, these are good!" he says, tucking into Oysters Rockefeller in a private booth painted in green and gold craquelure.

Face to face with the world's greatest party-goer - he has a tumbler of gin and lime at his elbow - I am struck by his his healthy, open, informative, professional manner and the self-mockery that accompanies the naughtiness. In spite of his love for the very young, Haslam has spent a lot of time with the very old. He even boasts that he knows two people whose father went down on Titanic. He allows pre-war expressions to spatter his speech. He refers to things being "frightfully funny" and "too touching for words". He says he "can't abide'' Jacuzzis and mentions "darling Olga who does for me''. He speaks often of his illustrious relations, past and present. Not only the late Princess of Wales but the cousins of his father who owned Windermere, his cousin Joan Trevelyan who was the inspiration for Titty in Swallows and Amazons, and his cousin Loelia, Duchess of Westminster, who was the model for Agatha Runcible in Vile Bodies. He's also proud of his contemporary cousins like Jane Asher and Willie Shawcross, part of an expanding brood that now includes former Gorbals boy Jimmy Boyle, who married his cousin Sarah Trevelyan, and may soon include, if she marries his cousin Lord Wimborne, Grace Jones. And he speaks with a similar mixture of nostalgia and respect about former boyfriends: "All my loves have been long term - 10 or 11 years."

When I ask how queer he is, he replies, "70 to 80 per cent", but goes on savouring the question. "Oddly, I'm attracted to male looks. I'm not attracted to male sex. I wish I was queerer. I wish I could go for it more." Then he says how attractive he finds Barbara Amiel.

Nicky Haslam has been branded by one of his more foolish friends, "the star-fucker to end all star-fuckers". He utterly rejects this notion, describing himself as "completely unsnobbish". A refreshing informality has also marked his dealing with the Queen and Royal Family. Introduced to the monarch the other day at the Royal Academy, Haslam took the unusual step of introducing her to the pop star Nick Rhodes. At another event he introduced the Prince of Wales to the actress Barbara Windsor with the words, "Mr Windsor ... Miss Windsor" and left them to get on with it.

He only goes to parties, he says, to attract clients. When I ask what he makes of Will Self, anticipating that he might feel upstaged by this sociable literary giant, he exclaims: I love him, I love him! And of course I fancy him no end."

From reading Haslam's press cuttings I know that his London home is now a basement flat in Cromwell Road. As the evening wears on, I point out that this is within easy reach of my own home. "What's that got to do with it?" he says with alarm, and I quickly discard the idea of inviting myself there in the interests of research. Elegant though it appears, one imagines his flat functions chiefly as a dressing room. Domestic standards are higher at the Hunting Lodge, where he is said to be a superb host. In London he often forgets even to buy drinking water and Kraft cheese slices, though there is a jar of honey in the fridge made by Mick Jagger, "which I saw him collect from his own bees. He's a terrific husbander." And yes, the pack of Viagra spotted by a journalist on the work surface is still there. Haslam then undermines the whole point of this article by insisting that he often goes to bed at 8pm. A likely story, but whenever he retires he promises he reads for 20 minutes.

Haslam's worst habit, he told the magazine Sleazenation is "wanking". This sounds frank - but could it be part of some bigger cover-up? Even his closest friends are divided about what drives him and what, if anything, he's running away from. Amateur psychologists may make a link between the body cast he lay in as a young polio sufferer and the masks he has adopted in adult life. "He's an actor. He doesn't want you to fathom him," says Min Hogg, but Nicky vigorously refutes this view.

"I can't act. That's the whole problem," he says, while conceding that his meticulously created personae may indeed be a "smoke screen". And, yes, he cries often, loves crying, and almost starts crying when I ask him about this weakness. Or is it a strength?

Haslam is full of contradictions. He knows the tear-jerking words of many hymns but his religious beliefs are, he says, "zilch". "I'm such an air-head." When I ask if he's ever been to a shrink, he quickly says, "No", and everything about him, especially his inability to bear grudges, suggests he has no need of this sort of help. "He's extraordinarily un-neurotic," confirms Candida Lycett Green. "He doesn't go in on himself. He's not self-centred. His energy is based on contact with... people."

What does the future hold for this extraordinary man? Will he have more plastic surgery? Will he write his long-awaited memoirs? Will he become more and more ridiculous, more and more of an act? He himself predicts that he will become more and more productive. "One can get more things done when one gets older."

I predict that this eternally young, youthful, infectiously charming man will appear more and more on television. "I'm quite good at it," he says modestly. "I long to do more. I want to have my own show." And could he still surprise us all, as his grandfather did at the age of 77, by getting married?

Leaving these questions in the air, Nicky Haslam's driver drops his red-haired boss off at his downbeat flat in Cromwell Road and takes me on to my own dump a little further West. The next night, at the Cecil Beaton show at the National Portrait Gallery, there is Haslam again, wearing exactly the same clothes as the night before. This time he has brought along a blond-haired young man called Adam who enjoys high-brow events and accompanied him to the recent Duff Cooper Prize dinner. While I slave over this article, Nicky flies off to Tinsel Town to attend the Oscars. At a Hollywood dinner, he sits between Hilary Swank and Selina Somebody, who are, he assures me later, "two of the hottest babes in Hollywood".

On his return, Nicky Haslam and I fine-tune this article on the telephone. Eventually I succeed in inviting him over to my own flat off the Gloucester Road. "What a treat!" he says, as I hand him a beaker of champagne, and "don't change a thing", as he sizes up my glorified bedsitter, spotting two water-colours by his old friend, Stephen Tennant, and proclaiming that the frame of another picture is by Gluck and worth far more than the still life it contains. Soon he is polishing off half a banana left by my three-year-old son.

He tells me that Lily Safra - the name rings a bell - is giving a dinner that night for the Norman Fosters but he must go straight home to write a review for The Spectator. Presently, the Veuve Cliquot not even finished, I escort this sturdy, scruffy, much photographed, supremely diplomatic man to the door. As he slouches off, hands in pocket, down the street and out of my life, I feel an unaccountable surge of affection for him.