March 26, 2009

Billy Baldwin, Baltimore Boy

As I said earlier, there are a lot of things that swirl around in Baltimore and lots of interwoven ties. LaviniaLab, who joined me at the lecture, turns out to be a childhood friend. We hadn't seen each other since we were teens, and had a great time re-connecting.

We got a chance to meet the curator of Homewood House and some of the people who work for her and Jim Abbott, who's curator at Evergreen, both of which are owned by Johns Hopkins.
When Jim started talking about Billy Baldwin, I realized that BB had grown up several blocks from where I grew up. I would have driven by to take some pictures of the house, but it's chucking down rain, so I skipped it. As Jim went through BB's early history in Baltimore, many of the families BB worked for were very familiar names. BB said something to the effect that "if one is born in Baltimore, you remain a Baltimorean", which is very very true!

In another interesting interweaving, BB's WASPy family's cook's sister was the maid of the Jewish Cone sisters, Etta and Dr. Claribel, who were early collectors of painters such as Matisse, who was an inspiration to BB.
At the age of nine, BB was allowed to decorate his own room - not just picking the paint colour, but choosing all of the fabrics, furnishings and paints. His mother deferred to his taste when she dressed and his father was a clothes-horse, whose out of season wardrobe was stored in special cedar closets. This may account for some of BB's use of dressmaker details in his furnishings.

In 1925, BB met Alice Garrett, owner of Evergreen, at a dance. She loved dancing with BB, but once managed to break his leg dancing with him. It was at Evergreen that BB was first exposed to many of the finest things, and said that once he'd been to Evergreen, he could never return to life as he knew it. Alice was the person who taught him about slip-covers - she draped her furniture with huge lengths of white linen, just tucking it under the cushions.

It was through the Symington family, who live in Greenspring Valley, just north of Baltimore, that BB met Ruby Ross Wood, who became his mentor and whom he would work for for many years. She and her husband had a house in Maryland where he fox-hunted, and she fell in love with BB's work, including the first known instance of his famous deep brown walls.
BB was also friends with Harvey Ladew, a very wealthy gad-about. In each of BB's books, he has a picture of a room he did not decorate for Ladew, but "advised him on". As deep and dark that the brown BB is famous for is, that is the colour of purple Ladew's room was.

BB met Van Day Truex just before WWII, as Truex came back to the States from France where he'd been working. They were very close friends, introduced by Mrs. Garrett, who thought BB could use someone like Truex in his life.
It was also at Evergreen that BB met Cole Porter and his wife Linda Lee. As Cole Porter was dying, he told his wife to take the furniture they had and use it in a new apartment in NYC that he wanted BB to design. This apartment had the first instance of the famous brass bookshelves lining the walls. These are still made by Ventry, here, as is Baldwin's iconic slipper chair and the rest of his furniture collection. (For some clarification on who made the original bookshelves, read these comments on the Peak of Chic)
BB was hired by First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy to do some work on the White House, but that was a week before the tragedy in Dallas, so he never really did any work. Prior to this, Mrs. Kennedy had travelled to India with her sister, India-based motifs were beginning to show up in BB's work and the Beatles were sprending time in India. So BB was right at the forefront of some trends. Mrs. Kennedy also hired him to decorate the house she then bought in Georgetown, but sold that before much work was done because too many tourists were bothering her.Near the end of BB's life, things came in full circle. Harry Hughes, then Governor of Maryland, hired BB to decorate a room at the Governor's mansion in his traditional style. Gov. Hughes wanted the rooms in the mansion to reflect Maryland's history in the decorative arts, and the sun room with its ceiling-height palladian windows would be perfect for Baldwin's trademark shiny brown paint and white slipper chairs. Soon after, the new Governor was elected and his tacky "girlfriend", Hilda Mae Snoops, painted over the room and made it her Florida room. It was criminal.

There was loads more to the lecture, but I could only take notes so fast, so I missed some!


  1. There are a lot of things that swirl around in Baltimore and lots of interwoven ties.

    Oooh, what is Billy Baldwin's connection to John Waters? I bet there's at least one.

  2. Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you! I could have read more and more and more and...... well, you get the picture! I ADORED "my BB"!!! (MORE PLEASE???????)~ Appreciatively, Linda

  3. Great post...very interesting! This makes me realize I need to spend more time in Baltimore, jut because!

  4. Thank you for such a thorough recap for those of us who couldn't be there. I didn't know a great deal about Billy Baldwin and now I'm a huge fan! I love the deep brown walls. So sophisticated!

  5. Great post Meg! So many interesting tidbits that I was not familiar with! Can you imagine painting over a Billy Baldwin room? Sacrilege!

  6. Oh, lucky you, to have heard that lecture.
    James Archer Abbott writes superbly, so one can only surmise that his lecture would offer a fine mixture of
    scholarship and anecdote. In his books about the Kennedy White House and Maison Jansen everything was conveyed with masterful precision.
    I am one of many to whom Billy B wrote replies to fan letters~ and he even extended an invitation to lunch!
    Wonderful person, a real gent.

  7. Love the photo of Jackie... and that dress is FAB!

  8. Great post on the iconic BB. I have long been an admirer.

  9. Good lord, I love the photo of Jackie K. and Lee Radziwell. Can't you just imagine Michelle O. in that peach-orange shift? Lovely!

  10. How casually elegant he looks in the lead photo.

    Great post.

  11. I ran across your blog as I am researching the origin of a document (an agreement for a Greenhouse) I have between William H Lutton Company and Mr. Donald Symington, Green Spring Valley, MD.

    Tho, now I think I will bookmark your blog for further reading at a later date.

  12. Diana... If you'll e-mail me, I will see what I can do to help you.

  13. I've had quite the education today. Thanks....I thoroughly enjoyed reading about this BB guy.


Thank you for reading and commenting on Pigtown*Design. I read each and every comment and try to reply if I have your e-mail address.