Eleanor Lambert is best known as the inventor of Fashion Week, creator of the International Best-Dressed List and founder of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. When she died in 2003 at age 100, she was one of the most influential women in the American fashion industry. But well before she became a fashion doyenne, Lambert represented artists, including Jackson Pollock, Jacob Epstein and Isamu Noguchi.
In his new book, “Eleanor Lambert: Still Here,” John Tiffany lays out her evolution from failed sculpture student at the Chicago Art Institute to artists’ representative to one of the founders of the Museum of Modern Art. Tiffany first met Miss Lambert, as she was called, when he worked as her assistant in the 1990s.
He spoke with The Washington Post about Lambert.
“In a way she was not a failed student of sculpture, she was the success, because she created her own sculpture — which was herself. It took a great deal of creativity: blackamoor jewelry from her clients and minks by Kenneth Jay Lane and pieces from the flea markets in Europe and suits from the Middle East and Africa. . . .
“Salvador Dali was her client, and he never paid her very well. In fact, today, Salvador Dali still owes her money. He paid her with art. I remember walking into her apartment and I said, ‘That’s a Salvador Dali!’ And she said, ‘Oh, yes, that’s me.’ The thing was called ‘Eleanor Above the Clouds.’ It was her head above the clouds.
“A lot of her clients paid her with art. . . . The legendary story is that she convinced Noguchi to sculpt her sculpture in wood and that was the first time he made a sculpture in wood, which, of course, is what he is known for doing — wood.
“She was hired as the first press director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, and one of her ideas was maybe the Whitney should sponsor an American pavilion at the Venice Biennale [in 1934]. . . .
“In those days, the Biennale was very controlled by the Venetian government. William Randolph Hearst said he would very generously underwrite the shipping of those 100 pieces of art to Venice and have them installed. So Eleanor Lambert took a boat, and when she was halfway across the Atlantic, her boss wired her saying, ‘Get to Venice as fast as you can. . . .’
“When she arrives in Venice [she is] told that a picture of Marion Davies, William Randolph Hearst’s mistress, is hanging in the entryway of the American pavilion. And there are two issues:
“One, it wasn’t one of the paintings that the Whitney had approved. Hearst had snuck it in and then had paid off officials to make sure it stayed. And [second] the portrait was by Tade Styka, who was a Polish citizen at that time. . . . Miss Lambert said, ‘Take the painting down.’ Seymour Berkson, Hearst’s right-hand man who had engineered the whole thing on behalf of Hearst, [said] ‘That’s not coming down.’
“Eleanor Lambert said that if you don’t take it down, I’m going to report that you did take it down in the New York Times.
“The painting was taken down a week early, so both sides claimed they won.
“And after the whole debacle was over, Seymour Berkson, who was married, and Eleanor Lambert [who was also married] met for dinner and fell madly in love. [The couple would later marry and remained so until Berkson’s death in 1959.] I don’t think anyone stood up to Eleanor Lambert up until that point and probably very few after that.
“One of the things Miss Lambert learned is that, even though it was not good press, it was amazing press for the Whitney. It put the Whitney on the map immediately, and it established America as this force to be reckoned with in art.”