Farewell to the King of Parties

When renowned party planner Robert Isabell died this week, it reminded Tina Brown of the Talk magazine launch party he planned and an era that passed long before him. VIEW OUR GALLERY of his ethereal events, from Studio 54 to Talk magazine.

07.12.09 6:42 AM ET

When renowned party planner Robert Isabell died this week, it reminded Tina Brown of the Talk magazine launch party he planned and an era that passed long before him. VIEW OUR GALLERY of his ethereal events.

When I read in the New York Post’s “Page Six” on Friday that  the great party designer Robert Isabell had died suddenly at 57 (of a heart attack), I felt as if a magic lantern had suddenly been extinguished. The last party he pulled off for me was the Talk magazine launch event, co-hosted with the magazine's co-owner Harvey Weinstein, on Liberty Island in 1999, an extravaganza I have come to see as the last social  celebration of the pre-9/11 celebrity decade. Guests, who included Madonna, George Plimpton, Demi Moore, Tom Brokaw, Kate Moss, Christopher Buckley, Helen Mirren, and Jerry Seinfeld, disgorged one after another from the Liberty Island ferry that Buckley immediately re-christened the “Star Barge.” Like an A-list Noah’s Ark, it motored slowly toward the tiny island where the Talk staff waited to greet the 800 guests in a warm August dusk. When the magazine folded two years later in a howl of schadenfreude, that party was considered one of the calumnies of hype I would never live down. (As the movie producer David Brown once said, “Never give an opening night party that’s better than the movie.")

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Still, I had no regrets then, nor do I now, because thanks to Robert Isabell’s creative genius, the Talk party was unforgettable. A prime enchantment was that tourists never visit the Statue of Liberty by night, so there was no electricity on the island. A velvet, sexually charged darkness engulfed the partygoers, illuminating them only by Christmas-tree lights that strung together the colored Japanese lanterns hanging from the trees. And since there was no real ability to bring in tables and chairs without absurd freight costs, Robert Isabell decreed this event would be a picnic under the moonlight. He organized for each guest to be provided with a different colored tablecloth and big Moroccan pillows to be spread out on the grass and a small picnic box loaded with delicious patés and delicacies and small bottles of wine from Glorious Foods. 

A soft shower of purple rain over the Hudson River signified the start of the fireworks display narrated by one of the guests, George Plimpton. “This one is for you, Salman,” George boomed over the intercom. “It’s banned in Iran.” The MC was Queen Latifah and the vocalist of the live band she introduced was a new artist named Macy Gray. I came upon Macy late in the evening  hiding in an out-building with her backup group as she tried to get her nerves up to come out at 11 p.m. and play before such a high-octane audience.

Perhaps it was the combination of the darkness, the distant, twinkling lights of the towers of Manhattan, and the fact that you were trapped on this island until the home-going barge returned at midnight, but it made unexpected people feel irresponsibly mad-cap. The tiny, recessive writer Joan Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne and the then-editor of The New York Times, the schoolmasterly Joseph Lelyveld, climbed to the top of the Statue of Liberty with their wine and watched the firework show from the very top. Under one of those lanterns Salman Rushdie spied for the first time a beautiful Indian model, Padma Lakshmi, and instantly fell in love (they married in 2004).

Robert Isabell and Ian Schrager

And where was Robert Isabell, creator of this late-summer night’s dream that no one who attended ever forgot? He had sped away in a tender long before this moment. He always did. Those who imagine that Isabell was a bonhomous party animal would be very much mistaken. He very rarely said anything much, though you knew when he was satisfied because his boyish face would crease in a meaningful smile and he would say, in a measured way, “It just... works.” His silences were very irritating when you were collaborating with him because he never verbally objected to an idea he didn’t like. He just passively aggressively obstructed it. He would also disappear a lot until you vowed you would never, ever deal with him again. You always did, of course, as, over time, most of the Park Avenue hostesses and fundraisers who were his bread and butter realized there was no one who could touch him when it came to creating something wonderful... Shortly before an event, he would prowl the tables like a watchful cat. “It’s not right,” he told me on one of these table prowls. “The magic isn’t here yet.” A rosy change to the lighting gel fixed that.

It was Ian Schrager, the former Studio 54 owner and hotelier, who brought Isabell into my life when I asked him (Ian) for an idea for a special celebration to wow advertisers on the fifth anniversary of Vanity Fair in February 1988.  Isabell’s sullen manner did not endear him to me at first. But Schrager, himself a great impresario of the night, told me I had to have faith, and he was right.  For VF’s fifth anniversary, I had a dim concept of retro-glamour, and that’s all Isabell needed. In the dusty basement of a disused nightclub under Schrager's Paramount Hotel (Robert’s specialty was unpromising, disused spaces or half-finished buildings still cluttered with scaffolding), Isabell created a brief, fantasy Copacabana Club from the ‘30s, with gold-sprayed palm trees, sexy nightclub booths, cigarette girls in fishnet tights serving wine, and an all-girl saxophone band bedecked in blond Louise Brooks wigs and wearing black, silk-velvet mini dresses run up for the occasion by his friend Calvin Klein. The evening’s climax was a conga line that included Dr. Henry Kissinger and Iggy Pop.

After that, I deployed Robert for fundraising efforts. One of the best he produced for me was the Vanity Fair gala to raise money for my friend Dr. Mitchell Rosenthal’s Phoenix House rehab center in California. We took over a soundstage in Culver City, Los Angeles. Isabell turned this bare, clinical space into a throbbing cave of soft drama, luscious, sensuous, spring flowers and huge, illuminated scrims projecting Annie Leibovitz’s greatest Vanity Fair celebrity cover portraits. As the guests were seated, the lights suddenly went out, the individual candle lights were illuminated from beneath each of the glass tables (a Robert specialty) and the huge screens all round the dining space suddenly lit up in an eye-dazzling beam of megawatt glamour. They changed at the next course to the daily lives of the Phoenix House kids. We raised over $1 million.

It would be easy to think that Isabell could only work with a huge budget, and he sure knew how to exceed it. He could, however, be simple, clean, and ravishingly demure in his designs with a few bucks, if that’s what the hostess wanted. His floral gift to my mother’s funeral broke my heart. I had once told him her favorite color was yellow, and he sent a large, primitive, flat-straw basket to the funeral home filled to the brim with only fresh canary-yellow roses.

Now that he’s dead, though, it’s the ‘90s I see as Isabell’s decade. New York lost its gaiety after 9/11 even though the uptown crowd who hired the services of his ever-growing company never lost their budgets like the rest of us. I shall always see the last moment of that fin de siècle era as the ferry ride back from Liberty Island in the small hours after the Talk party finally ended. There was a clear, full moon, and my husband and I stood leaning out over the rail facing the wash at the bow of the boat, along with a last group of stragglers who included Helen Mirren, the New Yorker writer Hendrick Hertzberg, and the movie stars Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson. As the boat sped back toward the lights of Manhattan, a large cold wave washed over the side and soaked us all.

The next decade turned out to be a colder wave than any of us imagined. Two years after that glorious party, the Twin Towers came down, Talk magazine folded, Padma and Salman recently got divorced. The economy collapsed. I last saw the beautiful Natasha Richardson in March lying like a medieval effigy in the open casket at her wake. And Robert himself has left the party forever. Our revels now are ended!

Tina Brown is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times best seller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown .