"All enchantment is a madness induced with art." Gabriel D'Annunzio Force che si, Force che no 1910
By Wendy Goodman WC 1801
Tony Duquette created a design kingdom unlike anything that has ever been seen before. He called himself "an Argus, the bird of 1,000 eyes, or in legend the Phoenix." He was a natural born scavenger with a Baroque sensibility, elevating recycling into an art form long before it was in vogue. He was an indefatigable force in every way. No object was ever too humble or too mundane for his attention. The pearl and the bottle cap equally enthralled him. His refrain was always "beauty, not luxury, is what I value."
'Dawnridge' was the astounding property in Beverly Hills that Tony and his wife Elizabeth began building in 1949, when they purchased a vacant lot above a ravine. In their forty-six years together before Elizabeth's death in 1995, they kept adding land and pavilions, or 'spirit houses' as Tony called them, to the jungle garden that was their passion. 'Dawnridge' was a microcosm of the layered universe Tony built to astonish the eye and fuel the imagination. Here he relished mixing centuries and cultures. A Nigerian Ekoi leather-covered headdress and a late 18th Century Anglo-Indian ivory-inlaid armchair lived happily together along with the rest of the disparate but harmonious decor. At 'Dawnridge' one felt the velocity and the urgency with which Tony created. His desire to embellish and find treasure in everything he touched was palpable there. Tony was channeling his muses and they were relentless.
At one time Tony and Elizabeth owned over ten houses, and the vast treasury of furniture and objects they accumulated in each represented how entwined friendship and collecting were in their life. The provenance of so many of the extraordinary pieces they owned came from the personalities who created Hollywood's allure and defined international glamour after the Second World War. They acquired a pair of parcel-gilt and cream-painted figural torcheres from interior designer James Pendleton. They later sold them to the actress Agnes Moorhead and then repurchased them. A pair of polychrome and parcel-gilt dolphins, which belonged to Chanel's friend Misia Sert, was a wedding present to the Duquettes from California designer Frances Elkins and was a main feature in the drawing room at 'Dawnridge'. A faux leopard-covered tabouret by Tony's patron Elsie de Wolfe originally graced the ballroom of her famous house, the Villa Trianon at Versailles, and was a favorite piece of Tony's in the sitting room at 'Dawnridge'. A Syrie Maugham designed ruby velvet sofa was a gift to the Duquettes from actress Ina Claire, for whom the sofa was created. Countless objects from friends like the Baroness D'Erlanger, who owned the Villa Malcontenta, the fashion designer Adrian, designers William Haines and Frances Elkins, Mary Pickford and the newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, were gathered for the decoration of the Duquette's eclectic interiors. Although Tony and Elizabeth suffered losses from four major fires over the years, it is a testimony to just how fervent their passion for collecting was that there is still such unique history and beauty left to absorb.
Born in Southern California in 1914, Tony grew up in Los Angeles and Three Rivers, Michigan. He attended the Chouinard School of Art in Los Angeles where he met the dazzlingly beautiful artist Elizabeth Johnstone, whom he nicknamed Beegle as "she symbolized the industry of the bee and the soaring poetry of the eagle." They were married on St. Valentine's Day in 1949 at Pickfair, the home of their friends Mary Pickford and Buddy Rogers, who were matron of honor and best man at the wedding. Tony's career was launched at a Hollywood dinner party in 1941 when Elsie de Wolfe, Lady Mendl, enchanted by the table garniture depicting the four continents which Tony had created for host James Pendleton, engaged him to make her a "meuble." Not having any idea what such a thing was, Tony, then working for Pendleton, as well as doing interiors for Adrian's shop and installations for Bullocks department store, did some homework. He produced a dark green secretary embellished with mirrors, shells, cut glass emeralds and topped with dancing sprites, giving Lady Mendl a hint of what the future might hold for this wild child of decorating. Soon she was writing editors about the "genius" she had discovered, enlisting him to transform her home 'After All' which she referred to as "the ugliest house in Beverly Hills". This was the house that she and her husband Sir Charles Mendl had taken after fleeing their beloved Villa Trianon during the occupation.
After a stint in the army, with his star on the rise, this budding Renaissance man traveled to Europe with the Mendl's in 1947, and staged a coup as the first American to be honored with a one-man exhibition at Pavilion de Marsan at the Louvre. During that period, Tony and Elizabeth transformed the garage where they lived in Neuilly into a mini jewel box. It belonged to one of Tony's patrons, the industrialist Paul Louis Weiller, who lent them the space for the year they were in France. Here they lived an elegant bohemian life, staging parties and working on Tony's 1951 Louvre show while captivating all of Paris. Weiller later lent the house complete with the Duquette's magical decor to Pamela Churchill, later better known as Pamela Harriman.
An extraordinarily diverse career followed as Tony designed interiors and decorations for Elizabeth Arden, Doris Duke, George Cukor, and J. Paul Getty, continuing to work with the fevered pitch of a child unraveling the thread of his imagination almost to the day of his death on September 9, 1999. He created jewelry for clients including the Duchess of Windsor, and worked at MGM for director Vincente Minnelli designing sets for the films 'Lovely to Look At', 'Ziegfeld Follies' and 'Kismet'. He made costumes for opera and ballet and won a Tony Award for best costumes for Broadway's 'Camelot'. Although Tony created major public works and exhibitions throughout his life, he always unleashed his most dramatic visions at home building fantastic masterpieces that defied everything we thought we knew about decorating.
In 1956 with Elizabeth as muse and collaborator, Tony opened their famous Hollywood studio on Robertson Boulevard in the cavernous space that had been built for Norma Talmadge as a silent film studio. They conceived the cathedral-like space as pure enchantment where peacocks joined the guests for tea, and Tony would sit on a throne from the Chapultepec Palace in Mexico. Whether it was at the studio, 'Dawnridge', 'Cow Hollow' (the birdcage Victorian house that Tony and Elizabeth bought in the early 60s in San Francisco), or the 156-acre Malibu ranch they purchased in 1957 called the 'Empire' and later 'Sortilegeum' (Latin for enchantment), Tony and Elizabeth created environments of celebration and fantasy. This reached a crescendo at the ranch, which tragically burned to the ground in the Malibu fires of 1993. There Tony built twenty-one separate pavilions which he named for countries and creatures that inspired him like Ireland, China, The Bosporus, Frogmore and Horntoad. He called the ranch "a cross between Tobacco Road and San Simeon" building follies of Chinese pagodas and Georgian pavilions made up of architectural fragments of old Hollywood. The bedroom window of Greta Garbo and John Gilbert's 1920s bungalow was incorporated into a guesthouse. Recycled materials like lemon juicers were used for finials, while Greek rag rugs decorated ceilings and a Federal sideboard was used as a base for a kitchen sink. Spray paint made a coral forest out of dried branches and telephone pole casings became porch balustrades.
The first sight of this astonishing village, sprung from Tony's imagination, left you wondering if you had missed a lost civilization complete with its own language and maps for navigating the secret paths of its mysterious landscape. But the only key to that map is now gone. What is left behind is precious and will never be seen again, except in memory of "the Phoenix that casts himself into the fire and is forever new."
The Sorcerer's Apprentice
By Hutton Wilkinson
I'll never forget coming down to breakfast that Sunday morning in the 1960s. My father was at the end of our vast dining room table reading the Los Angeles Sunday Times. I sat to his left and opened the magazine section. There were Tony and Beegle Duquette. He was on the stage of his legendary studio, sitting on a throne from the Chapultapec Palace, wearing the robes of a Cardinal, surrounded by mother-of-pearl panels, mirrors, and crystal chandeliers and surmounted by a fanciful parasol which he had created from iron and crystal tassels for the MGM movie 'Lovely To Look At.' Beegle Duquette was standing in the boiseried dining room, bejeweled, in a flowing gown with her paintings against a backdrop of a Gobelin tapestry. In the foreground was a leopard skin covered table with orchids and magical decorations. I handed my father the open magazine and said, "This is what I'm interested in." A very talented and very square architect who specialized in traditional residences, my father's immediate response was, "You are crazy." And that was sort of the end of that, except I clipped those magical pages and always kept them near at hand and the information at the top of my brain.
When I was fifteen years old, not yet old enough to drive, my aunt, the very eccentric Olive de Tejada-Flores, Countess of Alastaya, called my father and said, "I think it's time that Hutton learn about furniture." He drove me to her villa in old Pasadena - a house I had never been to before, and deposited me on the curb. To reach the shuttered front door I had to find my way through a boxwood maze. As if that were not enough, I knew I had arrived at a most unusual residence when the shutters opened to reveal a mysterious interior, dimly lit by candles in crystal chandeliers, which were reflected in the polished black lacquered floors and gunmetal mirrors. The house was furnished with American Federal antiques, upholstered in black and white mattress ticking and perfumed with incense. Classical music played continuously from a hidden stereo and my aunt, who I didn't know very well, greeted me in a robe by Poiret. This was 1967. We sat down and she proceeded to teach me the difference between Louis XIV, XV and XVI furniture. She showed me how to distinguish between Chippendale, Duncan Phyfe, and Sheraton styles, we then progressed through Spanish Colonial, Directoire and the First, Second and Third Empires. She showed me clippings of her favorite arbiters of taste including Carlos de Beistegui, Arturo Lopez Wilshaw, Oliver Messell, Pauline de Rothschild, the Baron de Redé and Cecil Beaton. Having opened my eyes, she then announced that she would show me the most important person of all. With this she unfurled a beautifully decoupaged portfolio entirely devoted to the works of Tony Duquette. With one glance I said to her, "I know all about this. He is the best." From that moment on we became very close friends and we used to play "Tony Duquette". One day I suggested that she drape all of the windows on the north side of her house in leopard skin. With hauteur, she turned on me and said, "Tony Duquette and I invented leopard skin."
Every place I went, every person I met, I asked, "Do you know the Tony Duquettes?" Apparently, everybody knew them, but nobody wanted to introduce me. I discovered where they lived and I climbed the walls to get in. I was thrown out three times by his battleaxe of a secretary. I discovered an unlocked garden gate on the Robertson Boulevard side of the studio building, and each night, very late, my friends and I would sneak through that gate and peer through the 18th Century French doors, bought from Paris, and stand transfixed by the beauty of the magical interior.
I was always scheduled to be an architect. After I saw 'Camelot,' with costumes by Tony Duquette, I decided I would be a costume designer. Somewhere along the line I realized that decoration was my main interest and to that end, I was sent to school to become a decorator. My teacher and I played a game together called "If You Were Tony Duquette How Would You Do This Project." It was just she and I. None of the other kids were included in our private game. After a while, the teacher left a note in my locker that said, "Tony Duquette is looking for volunteers to work on an exhibition." I quit school and my job that very day and went to work for Tony for two years as an unpaid volunteer.
After that initial apprenticeship, he paid me fifty dollars every two weeks as his assistant. Those first five years with Tony and Beegle were an amazing education. While all of my friends were in school studying, I realized I was actually working with and meeting fascinating people like Vincente Minnelli, Norton Simon, Doris Duke and others of Tony's famous friends. After five years working in their studio, I started my own interior design business, but we remained best of friends, traveling the world, shopping, and going to and giving parties. We invested together in real estate and, on occasion, worked in partnership on various design jobs that came his way. Twenty years later we formally became business partners and today the Tony Duquette Studios and its unique creations including the design and creation of one-of-a-kind pieces of precious jewelry continue under my sole direction.
These collections, which represent the aspirations and dreams of Tony and Beegle's decorative life, have been loved and cherished by all of us who have lived with them. My wife and I were fortunate to have received these magnificent treasures over the past thirty years. The sale of these well loved objects will enable me at last to assemble a permanent exhibition of the remaining one-of-a-kind designs which Tony and Beegle created over the past sixty years and complete the plan for their permanent installation, from which the Duquettes and I had gained so much pleasure envisioning together.