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Betsy Bloomingdale's Life Well Lived

The grande dame's private life is celebrated in two epic auctions at Christie’s.


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In Los Angeles, her hometown, the late Betsy Bloomingdale was lionized for her incomparable haute couture wardrobe, splendid cutting garden, and impeccable dinner parties, where guests ranged from Johnny Carson and Michael Caine to Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Bloomingdale was a grande dame with as much star power as any of Hollywood’s leading ladies. She reigned from a nine-bedroom house in Holmby Hills, decorated in the late 1950s by William Haines in a high-society variation on midcentury modernism, and the decor was immaculately maintained until she died in July at age 93. The home’s legendary status and bones will undoubtedly be preserved by another fashion icon, designer Tom Ford, who reportedly bought it in the fall for $39 million. “We are thrilled,” says her son Robert, who’s been assured the house will not be torn down. “I think Mom would be very happy with the new owner.”

Don’t dismiss Bloomingdale as your garden-variety socialite. When Reagan was elected president, the press dubbed Bloomingdale the First Friend because of her tight-knit relationship with Nancy. Elegant and effervescent, she was never a demure lady-in-waiting. With financial and moral support from her husband, Alfred—a scion of the department store family and founder of the Diners Club credit card—Bloomingdale had been cultivating her celebrity since the late 1950s, when Life magazine photographed one of her Little Black Tie dinners for a feature story titled “Dress-Up Time Across U.S.”

However, the White House years made her a household name, as the Reagans and their California friends brought glitz and glamour back to Washington after the dowdy, awshucks style of the Carter years. Bloomingdale enjoyed the perks of being the First Friend: She flew on Air Force One to attend the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana (the Washington Post described the mood on board as “not unlike college girls going to a debutante party”), and when the Reagans hosted a state dinner for the royal couple in 1985, Bloomingdale not only watched Princess Diana boogie with John Travolta on the pink-and-white marble floor of the White House Entrance Hall, but also danced with the Saturday Night Fever star herself.

After her death, her three children contacted Christie’s about auctioning off her furniture, paintings, tableware, and jewelry, as well as a sampling of her haute couture collection, most of which had already been donated to Los Angeles’s Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM). At its Magnificent Jewels sale in December, Christie’s sold her jewelry, including a $1.9 million diamond ring and a $1 million diamond cluster necklace, both by Harry Winston. This spring, everything else will go on the block in New York at a one-day auction titled “Betsy Bloomingdale: A Life in Style”—essentially a memorial service on steroids. “It’s a coda to a life well lived,” says Gemma Sudlow, the vice president for Private and Iconic Collections at Christie’s, who approaches single-owner estate sales with the rigor of a cultural anthropologist. As Sudlow began researching the provenance and cataloging the contents of Bloomingdale’s house—the Flora Danica china, the George III mahogany breakfront, the custom furniture by Haines, who was the go-to decorator in Los Angeles from the 1940s to the ’60s—she searched for a narrative that would reinforce the Bloomingdale mystique and elucidate a bygone era in Hollywood when running a grand household and hosting A-list parties was as respected as negotiating a three-picture deal.

“The sale is actually a window into a lost art,” Sudlow says. “Behind the scenes, Mrs. Bloomingdale worked incredibly hard. She understood style and design in almost an academic way. The most interesting thing is that there was this meticulous mind that made everything she did seem effortlessly glamorous.”

Bloomingdale hired Haines (whom her children called Uncle Billy) and A. Quincy Jones to renovate the original hacienda-style house, on 31⁄2 acres between Beverly Hills and Bel Air, by giving it a neoclassical façade and a streamlined modern interior with a few old-world flourishes like hand-painted wallpaper. Its most memorable feature was the central open-air atrium that offered a view from the baronial foyer straight through the house to the pool pavilion beyond, where Bloomingdale liked to serve cocktails. “Even their garden furniture was bespoke,” Sudlow says. “There’s a nice comparison between her haute couture that was made to her specifications and the furniture that Billy Haines tailored for her and her house.”

Bloomingdale’s role as a charter member of Reagan’s Kitchen Cabinet— the group of powerhouse couples who engineered Reagan’s campaigns for governor of California and the presidency— was more than metaphorical. “My mother was an amazing cook,” says Robert, a film producer. “Even though she had a chef, she would make everything herself first and test the dishes on us until she got them right. So week after week we would eat the same thing, like chicken Kiev or her signature Lady Baltimore cake, and then vote if it was good enough for a party.”

As they cleaned out the house, Bloomingdale’s children unearthed a trove of her dinner party notebooks (which they are not selling). “They are so incredibly detailed,” Robert says. “What food was served and if the soup was hot enough. Everybody who was invited and who came and who didn’t. What she wore, what the flowers were. And the cost of stuff, which was so fascinating—the price of eight prime fillet steaks, what she paid the parking boys, and that sort of thing.”

Bloomingdale was also a devoted mother. “My mom was always really proud of us, so from an early age she would dress us up in our pajamas and bathrobes to greet the guests,” recalls her daughter, Lisa Bloomingdale Bell, a painter. When the children were teenagers, Bloomingdale hosted New Year’s Eve parties to entice them to stay home. “Those parties were inclusive and kind of casual,” says Lisa, who remembers that the revelers included Patti and Ron Reagan Jr. (whom they knew from car pools and dance classes) as well as Jimmy Stewart and his children. “My parents loved to serve chili and knockwurst. My father would go to the cheese store for baguettes and French cheese before it was the thing to do.”

Bloomingdale made getting dressed a family affair too. “I remember sitting down in her bedroom maybe four times a year when designers like Marc Bohan at Christian Dior and Hubert de Givenchy would send these big packets with all the drawings of the new collections and swatches of fabric,” Lisa says. “She would lay them all out and ask me, ‘What is your favorite?’ She would pick them out with my father, and if he didn’t like something he would say, ‘No, that’s terrible, Bets.’” Although she often went to fashion shows in Paris, where the couture houses kept dress forms with her precise measurements, shopping at home was more practical, according to Christina Johnson, who cocurated “High Style: Betsy Bloomingdale and the Haute Couture,” the 2009 retrospective at FIDM. “She was tall and willowy, and everything looked good on her,” says the show’s other curator, Kevin Jones. When he and Johnson visited her to go through her 11 closets to prepare the exhibition, they found her as methodical as a curator. “Each outfit had a little note attached to a cord on the hanger with its season and how many times she wore it, and with which jewels,” Johnson recalls.

Bloomingdale’s hospitality was legendary. She believed that luncheons and dinner parties were the linchpins of society. “Entertaining is not a frivolous endeavor,” she wrote in her cookbook, Entertaining with Betsy Bloomingdale (which she pitched on QVC in 1994, selling more than 2,600 copies in 15 minutes). “I am not just talking about menus, guest lists, flowers, and table settings,” but what “brings us together on a human level to share our houses and open our hearts to the people we admire and care for.”

Her magnanimity extended to her husband, whom she wrote about affectionately in the cookbook, even though he’d publicly humiliated her. In 1982, shortly before he died of cancer at 66, newspapers reported that his long-time mistress, Vicki Morgan, was suing him for $11 million in palimony. After he died, Morgan’s monthly allowance was cut off and she continued to pursue the suit. The contretemps took a film noir turn when Morgan was bludgeoned to death by her roommate the next year. Bloomingdale’s embarrassment was then compounded in 1990 by author Dominick Dunne—a friend who had spent several New Year’s Eves at the Bloomingdales’—when he published An Inconvenient Woman, a best-selling roman à clef that mirrored the murder case. Dunne’s portrayal of Bloomingdale’s fictional doppelgänger, Pauline Mendelson, was sympathetic if not sycophantic. “Probably no one ever conducted herself so well in a scandal,” he wrote. “She held her head high and invited neither pity nor scorn.”

Bloomingdale’s sense of decorum extended to her death. “She closed her eyes and basically took ‘French leave,’” Robert says, referring to a counterintuitive etiquette tip she proffered in her book. “One thing that can put a damper on a party is when a guest leaves early with a lot of fanfare,” she wrote. “The best way is to take ‘French leave.’ Just slip out quietly.”

Nevertheless, with the blessing of her children, Christie’s is making a big fuss about the Bloomingdale sale in April. “We try to recreate the story,” Sudlow says, explaining that the preview exhibition in New York (from April 1 to 5) will showcase vignettes that evoke the Holmby Hills house and illustrate that “style and elegance permeated every aspect of her life.” As befitting a woman who was the First Friend and second to none in Los Angeles society, it will be a send-off replete with pomp and circumstance.


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