A BEDROOM decked out in peacock blue velvet and satin pictured in a French porno mag; an apartment for Joan Crawford where the couch had to be lifted 22-stories by a crane; a fire-engine red, white and blue apartment for Ethel Merman; a White House party for the Israel-Egypt peace treaty; castles in Ireland; hotels in Hawaii -- Carleton Varney has decorated them all.
Now in his early 50s, Varney has decided to tell all -- all, that is, about those of his clients and associates who are dead and can't sue, and those whose identities are concealable behind dark glasses and false names. His new book, his ninth, "There's No Place Like Home: Confessions of an Interior Designer," has just been published by Bobbs-Merrill.
Varney speaks tomorrow at the Women's Democratic Club on his experiences. Gretchen Poston, who consulted with Varney on the decorations for many of the Carter White House parties she planned as social secretary, and her husband, Raymond Poston, will give a private brunch today for Varney at the Jefferson Hotel, a meeting of a mututal admiration society.
"I had a good time with the Carters," Varney said by phone. I don't think they got enough credit for all the elegant things they did. And I thought Mrs. Carter's interest in ceramics and baskets was good for the country's craftspeople.
"Gretchen is unbelievable, so charming and nice and capable, we'll be working together still," said Varney, noting that Poston is back with her firm, Washington Whirl-Around. "The Jefferson is my favorite hotel in Washington now. I think Rose Narva [the manager] is terrific. I had worked with her when she was at the Sheraton Carlton."
In his latest book, Varney tells about his White House parties. Varney condemns the usual formal dining decor of white candles, tablecloths, napkins and flowers.
At one, for the Senate wives, hand-painted napkins were sent by American Express. They were found by Varney's assistant, marked urgent and sitting in the baggage office. They arrived two minutes before the guests came in. Another time , he was delayed at the White House gate for a half hour before a state dinner for Jack Lynch, the Irish prime minister. When he finally got inside, the table cloths he had made were 12 inches too long -- so he cut them off. He reports that some of the staff were scandalized by his lilac and red color scheme for the dinner for Margaret Thathcer, the British prime minister.
Even so, most of the time everything went right, and he was proud of the low votive candles on the tables, "more flattering and conducive to conversation;" the ceramic pears made by Barbara Eigan; the ginkgo leaves scattered on the tables as a background for Irish country garden floral baskets; and most of all, the dinner for the Israel-Egypt peace treaty (planned in only five days) with 140 tables covered with forsythia-patterned cloths under a yellow, white and orange tent.
Now Varney is looking to the future. "I'd love to do a White House party for the freed hostages," he said, though no one has asked him. "I think the Reagans have a lot of style. They're so into decorating they'll do wonders for the business."
He did do a party for Ray Donavan, Reagan's nominee for secretary of labor. The party was given by Donavan and Ronald Schiavone for Ronald and Nancy Reagan and it raised $175,000 for the campaign, though Varney worries that the room where the Reagans stayed at Fiddler's Elbow Country Club in Bedminster, N.J., needed redecorating.
Varney thinks the Reagan's decorator Ted Graber, is "good. He and I had a client in common, the late Joan Crawford."
In the book, he tells a poignant story about Joan Crawford. She was moving out of an apartment decorated by William Haines and Ted Graber because she said she couldn't afford the $3,000-a-month maintenance. Varney was hired to do the new one. He says he turned down the other job she offered him: as her "permanent escort."
"One day she called, sobbing. She said she had no money. At first I was astonished, but it soon dawned on me that the sale of the penthouse had not yet gone through. Joan kept apologizing. 'I can't pay for the rugs, I can't pay for the carpeting work. I'm so terribly embarrassed.' She asked me to wait for the money. I did, and every bill was paid in full."
One day she went to see her new quarters. Crawford in her fox coat got out of the limousine hired for the few blocks to Imperial House. "On the way to the elevators she collapsed and Tina [the daughter who later wrote a scathing book about her mother, "Mommie Dearest"] and I carried her back to the limousine. Joan was absolutely beside herself. She couldn't bear to give up the lifestyle she had become accustomed to as the wife of Albert Steele.
"Christina and I took Mommie Dearest back to her duplex. She was still very shaky, but after a sip or two from her plastic cup (vodka on the rocks) she started to settle down and was soon slumbering in fantasyland. I left her there, wondering what on earth to do next. My mind was reeling; it was like watching a movie played backward. I saw us repacking all the boxes at the new apartment, taking down the draperies; taking up the rugs; repainting the penthouse walls; bringing back the furniture, the message table, and the boxes; bleaching the ebony-stained modern furniture; and giving the new owner her money back with our deepest regrets for any inconvenience. No, it couldn't be done."
Anyway, Joan Crawford did make the move, and watched when her couch was lifted 22-stories by the crane. But Varney says that after that "the sippings from the plastic barrel became more and more frequent."
Joan Crawford's housekeeping was not routine, Varney reports. She kept terrycloth towels under all the vases, except her large garden of plastic plants. Apparently she loved plastic. Varney wrote that the first time he saw the Haines-Graber decorated apartment he thought he'd indulged his "most expensive decorating fantasies. The rooms were filled with long sweeping sofas and silk upholstered chairs with legs that angled out in a crazy way. All the furnishings were covered in lemon yellow, beige, or white biscuit-quilted fabrics; and everywhere I looked the furniture was covered in clear plastic. There were more objects wrapped in plastic in Joan's apartment than in an A&P meat counter."
The apartment had an entire room for shoes and another for hats. All the windowsills were covered with plastic to be easy to clean. She rarely gave dinner parties in her apartment.
Varney wrote that the relationship between Tina Crawford and her mother deteriorated while he knew them, culminating when Tina Crawford stayed in Joan Crawford's Fountain Avenue place in Los Angeles. "Joan disapproved of her daughter's life style and she disapproved of any life she was not allowed to direct . . . The break in Joan's relationship with Christina came when Joan demanded that she leave the apartment on Fountain Avenue and shift for herself. Joan told me she would not let Tina use her contacts any longer. 'I'm through trying to help that girl,' she said, 'and I'm cutting her out of my will just like Christopher [a son].'"
Varney said that, contrary to rumors, Joan Crawford died of cancer, though she told no one.
Varney has had other remarkable clients. For one man he designed a closet that included a drawer of whips and other sadistic apparatus. Later the apartment was shown in a French porno magazine.
Another prospective client that called him all the time but never put up the money, confided that he was God. Van Johnson was a favorite client who needlepointed Varney a pillow. Pauline Trigere loathed the $6,000 strie treatment on her walls (a different color paint is streaked atop the first coat). Varney said that taught him that "someone as design-conscious as Pauline should always be around while work is in progress."
Varney got his start in decorating when he joined the legendary firm of Dorothy. He says she "draperized everything" -- which means "she would first paint everything white -- walls, woodwork, wainscotting, even whole paneled rooms. (Today, restorers all over this land curse her name on the way to the hardward store for another gallon of paint remover.) Then she might paint the celing pink, put down a green carpet, bring in a red chair and a black Parsons table and cover the sofa in a chintz with big blowsy cabbage roses. The result was magic."
He said that to Dorothy Draper, "everything was a Christmas package . . .
The key was the unexpected, that note in the symphony you're not ready for, the one that startles but never clashes." He also gives her credit for shower doors and low coffee tables.
Draper was quite a character. Often she'd insist on taking food others had ordered. As she got older, Varney said, she was often confused, once denouncing a decor she had just finished under the mistaken impression it was someone else's work. Varney finally bought out her stock in the company, retaining the name, as he does today. Draper went out and set up a rival firm with almost the same name. They fought for eight years; and during her last, she was in a nursing home. She was buried, Varney says, to the tune of "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Coming of the Lord," played on the harmonica. Even though they were bitter enemies for years, Varney still thinks she was a great decorator.
As for what's coming up in decorating, Varney, like everyone else, sees quality antiques, simpler backgrounds, more sculpture, fewer rooms of eclectic "mish-mashes;" peach, apricot, light blues, reds and saffron colors.
He's just finished appliqued sheets for Leron, a high-priced linen shop-catalogue house, as well as china for International in three patterns, one of which is white, pink and green is called Rosalynn. He has a string of hotels to decorate, including a townhouse complex and Paradise Row, hotel units at the Greenbriar in nearby West Virginia. Though he says "residential work is not really my thing, I'm more interested in hotels," he's also doing a house for the Greek Orthodox archbishop in Greenwich, Conn., and one for a coal magnate, Lawson Hamilton in West Virginia.
Even so, Varney isn't one of those who thinks that every room needs $50,000 worth of decoration. "If you don't have the money, you can do it very cheaply. Paint the ceiling and the floor green, the walls white and use wicker furniture with an old chest. Give me $3,000 and I could give you a very nice room."
The cheapest job he ever did was one for Joe Namath -- he selected a bedspread for him, declared by Namath as not "soft enough." Varney said he found a softer velvet for Namath ($295) and "we ended up eating the first bill."
For the last few years, Varney has been charging just for his firm's services "like a law firm. It's $90-an-hour for a principal and three-and-a-half times their salary for other staff members such as drafting people and such. We have all the bills for furniture, painting, fabric and so on sent directly to the client. We have no minimum. If it's right for us, I'll do it."