Due to an editing error, the name of the subject of the Outlook interview last Sunday was incorrect. It is Marlo Phillips.
Q: Real pearls are in, tap-dancing is in, Peter Duchin and touch dancing is in, being rich is in, and your romantic flower arrangements are in, among the New York elite. Give us a glance at a typical working day.
A: I must say there is no typical working day here. Every day is the unraveling of surprises from 6 o'clock in the morning on. The phone rings and, as yesterday, Oscar called at 12 from Phoenix.
Q: Oscar de la Renta?
A: Yes. And said, "I'm having a tea for 75 guests tonight so please pick up our containers and fill them." We pick up the containers, five humongous-sized marble urns which took 2,000 tulips as well as lilac in masses, beautiful mauve and white lilac. We spent hours drowning in flowers, filling up the containers and rushing to his house at quarter to 8 -- his guests were arriving at 8.
Q: How did you have 2,000 tulips on hand?
A: I love tulips and tulips are in season, so I buy every color, size, shape, form there is by the gross with nothing in mind other than to play with the tulips. I do get these little phone calls, weirdly enough, and I am cleaned out of tulips and flowers within hours. I order absolute mammoth amounts of flowers all the time and continually make arrangements. People do not call me in advance, they just call: "I'm having tea for 50 in two hours, Marlo. Do the whole house." So we do it. Like gynecologists' middle-of-the- night phone calls. It's really sort of a monstrous situation -- I think we need a swing shift.
Q: Would you say the way you use flowers is affordable to very few?
Q: Do you do any arrangements under $500?
A: I do arrangements for any price for the clients that I work for but we're definitely not open to the public. There's no time, and I am devoted to working for the special few who are totally appreciative; the flowers in their home are equally as important as their art. It is considered art rather than a bouquet from the flower shop on the orner. If that's what people are looking for, they are in the wrong place. I can't devote any time to that commercialism. It might be more lucrative but it doesn't give me any kind of inspiration or challenge.
Q: Your clients are often not only well-heeled but well-known. Jackie Onassis, [New York social and philanthropic leader] Annette Reed, Candice Bergen, Oscar de la Renta, Katharine Graham, Deeda Blair (wife of former ambassador William McCormick Blair)$. What do you do for Mrs. Onassis, for instance?
A: In the past I've done mainly her annual Christmas party, filling up the whole house, very traditionally, with holly framed on every painting, above every fireplace and mantel, and pots of traditional narcissus around, violets on every table, little posies or nosegays. Mounds of apples on a buffet table, relatively traditional and conservative. Although over a period of years I've gotten her into more luxurious type of Christmases. She's a little skeptical about change, but she did move into more outlandish.
Q: What's more outlandish?
A: Instead of five branches of quince she went to 500 branches of quince on the piano and one in the foyer and one on the mantel. You become addicted. There is a way of moving people into the romance and the luxury and the appreciation of flowers as a fleeting art form rather than just something to embellish the evening, a little nothing not thought out and not done as an art. Just done for commercial reasons by commercial people.
Q: You've described your work as bizarre and insane but also chic and elegant. What is an insane flower arrangement like?
A: Insane to me is getting the amount of flowers with the correct form, the right proportion in the perfect container. Getting it all together and being able to have that privilege and that freedom with boundaries. My only limit is my imagination in this case.
Q: Money is no object?
A: I'm not really limited on budgets. It took a while but I have curtailed everyone from even talking about money. I don't talk about money; it's my last priority or thought. I'm terrible at billing. I cannot work if I'm going to be told this has to be $100 or this has to be $500. I only can work with the container and whatever I want to do. I just don't think anything turns out beautiful when you're counting in money and flowers. It's ridiculous!
Q: How many staff do you have?
A: I have a regular staff of about nine and 20 free-lance people that are available when I want them. Very artisan-type people, all of them. It's an absolute necessity and hard to find but I find that I can't deal with any person on a common thinking level. You have to have some arts and crafts in your brain you'd like to contribute here. Otherwise the work becomes lame.
Q: Where do your flowers come from?
A: All over the world. Italy, France. France is doing fabulous flowers, incredible rose hybrid experiments and incredible new colors in the way of roses, which I have been absolutely addicted to for a few months. Now I'm moving into my tulip mania which is, of course, Holland.
Q: What about American flowers?
A: American flowers are available mainly in the summer. Peonies come from America. European peonies are inferior. They're too small and wimpy. American peonies are unbelievable, like humongous fat clouds floating into a room. The most beautiful sweet peas are from America, ranging from lavender to every beautiful shade of pink. Lilies of the valley are prettier to me and much more fragrant than the ones from Holland.
Q: What is the most expensive single flower you've ever used?
A: I don't know. I never think about the price of a flower. Never. And I've never used a single flower, never alone, other than laying it on a table -- a camellia or an orchid. I was into this Proustian thing for a while this past winter that involved lots of orchids and gardenias and camellias, strewn on tabletops in addition to mammoth, beautiful, elaborate luxurious bouquets in urns.
Q: Would you spend thousands of dollars on flowers even when you don't have any specific plans to use them?
A: Every day of my life.
Q: Most of your actual creative work is done in the late afternoon, before cocktail parties, when your clients call you?
A: Yes. We do have bookings, but I don't like to be booked too far in advance and I don't want to be pinpointed down to what flowers I'm going to use because if I say peonies and May 17th the peonies all come in looking revolting I will change the entire design of an event. I can only promise beauty. I can't promise a particular flower or a particular plant.
Q: How did a lady from Cincinnati hit the big time in New York?
A: I'm a real adventurous person and a gambler and a spontaneous reactor to what comes my way. I act without thinking about anything, perhaps like walking on a tightrope with no net underneath. I never think of any consequences, I just carry on day to day, hour from hour and don't think past my nose. I just do everything, coming out of college, graduating as a sculptor major and then having children at an extraordinarily young age.
I did love to walk by flower shops and walk in and smell the air inside. I was very best friends with this grower in Long Island. He had a shop in the [original] Halston [fashion designer] building -- 68th Street -- about 12 years ago and just for fun I indulged him. We had the shop together for free and in return we filled up Halston's five floors [with flowers]. That led to the clientele that I now have because they would come off of his 5th-floor couture dress shows and we were right there.
Q: Don't you see it somewhat decadent, for say, Annette Reed to spend more than $250,000 for your fee to decorate her daughter's wedding in December?
A: I have no idea exactly what the fee is. I have no idea what it's going to total up to. That was a ballpark figure and it wasn't thinking only in terms of flowers. It was an off-the- top-of-my-head figure. I know what tents run. I know what caterers run. I know what kind of flowers I anticipated doing. Anything that she did for that event was worthy and beautiful and I think that the price has no relevance to the event. I thought that it was luxurious, but very stately, very perfectly done, very aristocratically and magically beautiful. And that was the main thing that I was obsessed with. I don't think that money was a thought. It was basically esthetics and correctness and to make her daughter happy.
Q: How much profit would you make on something like that or, say, the flowers for the opening of La Boheme a couple of years ago that were supposed to have cost about $250,000?
A: I have no idea. Believe it or not, I never figure out a profit margin. Most of the prices that are billed out of this place are based roughly on the expense of flowers, but they are based on their beauty more than anything else. Ninety percent of it is out of my head. It's not anything to do with the cost of materials, per se. I don't even think of profit.
Q: Don't you think that the rich are profligate to indulge their expensive tastes in a world where so many people are starving?
A: I don't find anything wrong with indulging in whatever they want to indulge in. The people that I work for are very, very charitable. They don't just indulge in their own loves and their own passions. They indulge in constant 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, philanthropic work of one sort or another -- ballet, libraries, museums, children's associations. They're overwhelmingly generous on every level. So, I don't feel that they are overindulging in themselves without being charitable.
Q: A recent magazine article featured a $4,500 flower arrangement by Marlo Flowers. What was the intrinsic value of those flowers? What did you pay for them?
A: I've no idea. I probably bought $5,000 worth of flowers that day. Go into our work studio. You will see buckets and buckets and buckets of flowers. The intrinsic value of the flowers of that bouquet could have been $2,500 perhaps, just roughly, off the top of my head.
Q: Are you the most expensive florist in New York?
A: I am considered the most expensive florist but I don't consider myself a florist because I am not open to the public. I'm a private designer, a private person working for a small clientele. I refuse lots and lots of work every single day because I don't have the time to devote or the interest in it. What I do runs into extraordinary complication as well as huge sums of money.
Q: What's the complication?
A: Every complication. Major events like La Boheme, getting the material and the quantity and the whole entire thing together for that event. Dinner for 1,000. One hundred tables. One hundred tableclothes. One hundred epergnes. From insurance to night watchmen, who had to be camouflaged as workmen for me because if you're not a member of the union you cannot be in the Met. There are incredible behind-the-scenes major dilemmas constantly. The goal is that the guests walk in and have a very quiet, lovely, beautiful evening. That does not come easy.
Q: So that $250,000 fee included your stage-managing the whole dinner? A: Definitely.
Q: It's often said that the rich expect discounts. Do you ever charge them less in exchange for the publicity their patronage brings you?
A: On the contrary. If I want to work for free I will work for free, that's by my choice. And I have done many many huge and small things for someone that I feel like doing it for when I feel like doing it. I will not do work for free for patronage. I don't work on that level. I have had many, many disputes with many of the "society" of New York City and told them, "This is the price and everybody pays the same price." That's the bottom line. I've refused to work for many top people in Manhattan because they expect a serious discount, because they are who they are or they know who they know or they can be threatening. There's a lot of politics. I will not be backed against the wall even at the expense of going under.
Q: Would you like to give us some names?
A: I'd love to -- but I won't.
Q: If you were rich -- and at this rate you may well be rich one day -- would you spend $250,000 on your daughter's wedding flowers?
A: If I spend $5,000 in one day on flowers without one order, I imagine I would spend $350,000.
Q: Does anyone ever send Marlo Phillips flowers?
A: Yes. One person did send flowers here once. A client. But generally speaking, no.
Q: Do you ever get tired of flowers?
A: No, I love them. I get tired of a lot of other things involved in working but I love flowers. It's a meditation kind of experience. If I can get in there and be surrounded by millions of buckets of flowers and put them together and start creating some magnificent bouquet, I love it. The joy is the passion for flowers. It's a consolation for everything else.