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Carleton Varney: A Highly Decorated Life

For a guy whose career is steeped in oversize chintz, wide-striped walls and Nacho Cheese paint, Carleton Varney couldn't help but tell his life with pictures.

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Carleton Varney

Photo By Michael Arnaud

Carleton Varney's design at Ella.

Photo By George Chinsee

For a guy whose career is steeped in oversize chintz, wide-striped walls and Nacho Cheese paint, Carleton Varney couldn’t help but tell his life story with pictures.

Since walking into the indomitable Dorothy Draper’s East 57th Street offices in the early Sixties, he has left an indelible mark on castles, scores of notables’ homes, the White House, the American Embassy in Tokyo, and resorts such as The Breakers and Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel. But with “Houses in My Heart: An International Decorator’s Colorful Journey,” Varney dishes about rising up the ranks with plenty of candid photos, as well as well-appointed ones, to illustrate the tale. Published by Pointed Leaf Press, this is his 26th tome.

“This was a very hard book for me to write. I want people to see who I really am without all the fluff and glitter,” said Varney. “People have this misrepresentation of me as someone who grew up in a house surrounded by white columns and, as a boy, used to roll down the grassy hills in my shorts and go feed the ducks. That just wasn’t so.”

In reality, he was born in Lynn, Mass., famously known as “Lynn, Lynn: the city of sin. You never come out, the way you went in,” but later moved to nearby Nahant, a coastal town where his extracurricular activities consisted of acrobatic tap lessons, basketball, ballroom dancing lessons and flower-arranging contests. Both his parents died in middle age. Even though his work life started with a teaching stint, Varney always saw himself becoming an American ambassador to Spain. That didn’t pan out, but after befriending the Texan decorator Leon Hegwood, former owner of Dorothy Draper & Co., he joined the company and eventually took on the role of president. Varney is married to Suzanne and has three sons, one of whom has Down’s Syndrome. “I worked with Dorothy for seven years and I have never really worked anywhere else. It was all destiny,” he said.

Thanks to Draper, who started her career in 1925 at the age of 40, Varney said he learned from her never to worry about the jobs you don’t get. “I only worry about the ones I have. I am not a person who covets any of this. It was destiny,” he said. “I think the guy up above has a big control on our lives. I want to know that I have lived the life where I don’t have to worry where I go after I stop breathing.’

He also has learned to have some laughs with clients as far ranging as the Shah of Iran, Jimmy Carter, Ethel Merman and the evangelist Pat Robertson. Draper once took everyone in the office to see “Gone With the Wind,” because she loved the velvet et al. Varney said, “After she had seen the first part, she said to all 12, ‘I’ve seen this. Let’s go.’”

Working on a screenplay about Draper is among his many projects. He recently restored Dallas’ Stoneleigh Hotel, is renovating parts of the Royal Palace in Lithuania and is helping design the Errol Flynn furniture collection. Varney said he was speaking with one of Ernest Hemingway’s grandsons recently and he said, “The one thing my grandfather has in common with Errol Flynn is a furniture collection,” Varney said with a laugh.

For the first time in decades, Varney has decorated a nightclub on the Lower East Side, not exactly a neighborhood known for high glamour. Owned by his nephews, Josh and Jordan Boyd, and Darren Rubel, Ella, which opened earlier this month, has carved black doors with white accents reminiscent of the Hampshire House, a 37-story Central Park South hotel that Draper dressed up in 1937. A George Hurrell portrait of Joan Crawford graces the bar, while the interior has bold black-and-white-striped walls and the banquettes he used for the green room at this year’s Academy Awards. “It’s very ‘Beetle Juice’-meets-‘Alice in Wonderland’-meets-Thirties glamour and Avenue A,” Jordan Boyd said.

“Most people don’t understand that the visual, I think, is everything — the doorknobs, the hardware. I see everything. Rooms talk to me,” he said. “People tend to become more conservative as they get older. They lose the freedom of being a child in the paintbox. They need confirmation and they want to be part of the group.

Not so for Crawford, whom Varney helped for 22 years. William Haines, a Hollywood actor-turned-decorator, did his part, too. Varney said, “I always said with Joan I was a cosmetician. Her apartments had more plastic covering than meat at an A&P supermarket. Billy had put those on. Joan was an absolute neatnik and she was a friend until the day she died.”

Crawford’s apartments were always white, save for her pale pink bedroom, Varney writes. The actress liked “to sleep in the pink,” and told Varney: “A pink bedroom never stripped a man of his masculinity. It only improved it.”

The megawatt star also took great care when helping Varney with his first TV show, “Inside Design,” and even turned up on the set. “She helped me create me. I remember looking at those big eyes, she was a little bitty thing, five-feet-two, and she said, ‘Remember one thing: I created me and you can create you, too, with what you do.’ We all have that opportunity to make of ourselves what we do with ourselves.”
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