Outside View: Halston and Norton Simon’s David Mahoney

My cursor has been hovering over the icon for the Netflix series about Halston, the iconic fashion designer, hesitant to click on it for a week. What do you do when somebody makes a movie about seminal moments in your life, gets the facts wrong and writes you out of the script?

But after pigging out on the first three episodes of “Halston,” it’s time to put the back story to paper because (aside from the blows to my own ego) the small-screen theatrics abraded the reputations of two men I greatly respect — Roy Halston Frowick and David J. Mahoney, the chairman of a billion-dollar conglomerate (the ’70s word for big companies with a bouillabaisse of different interests) Norton Simon Inc. –– who aren’t around to defend themselves.

In the ’70s, I was the vice president in charge of public relations for that company, and the person directly responsible for it purchasing the Halston business. The way it’s told on screen ain’t the way it happened. When I finally dialed in the flick, it was painful to watch because it wrongly depicts a fey Halston being drawn in to the corporate Sodom, his brand desecrated by placement on carpets and luggage by a greedy corporation.

NSI sold Wesson oil and Hunt’s tomato sauce, Johnnie Walker scotch and Tanqueray gin, Canada Dry ginger ale, Redbook magazine and even had a movie production subsidiary. In November 1972, it purchased the Max Factor cosmetics company for $480 million.

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In the spring of 1972, I got a call from Alan Kurtzman, the vice president for marketing of Max Factor. Mahoney had sent Max Factor gift boxes for Christmas to the wives of his board of directors’ members, and some were  rejected as tacky. The NSI chairman was livid. Kurtzman asked, could I do something to make Max Factor seem stylish — maybe an article in WWD, the fashion business Talmud?

With my staff, I took a wider screen view of the challenge. The problem was that behind every great cosmetics company there was a persona — Charles Revson of Revlon, Estée Lauder. There was a real Max Factor, but he was gone.

The face of fashion in the ‘70s was Halston. The outrageous concept (without first getting him on board) was to install him as the new “face” of Max Factor, making believe he selected every lipstick shade. The concept had more heft because the cosmetics portion of the industry was static, and the only growing area was in fragrance; Halston didn’t have  a perfume brand. Max Factor would launch a Halston fragrance, and upscale Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, which had previously turned up their proboscis, would have to open their doors. NSI had so much money the deal would be irresistible.

The problem was, Halston wouldn’t return my phone calls. He later told me he’d been warned by Revson that NSI would “put your picture on ketchup bottles.”

My tennis partner in those times was Dick Shortway, the Vogue magazine publisher, who clued me in that Halston didn’t own Halston — he was bankrolled by a legendary Seventh Avenue investment angel Ben Shaw, and by Guido DeNatale, who actually produced the ready-to-wear line. The scent of millions in Norton Simon dollars  quickly seduced them. (DeNatale owned an equestrian tack shop in Westchester County in New York, and had been making farrier’s aprons out of a new fabric: ultrasuede. That led to the iconic Halston ultrasuede shirtdresses.)

But the idea still needed Mahoney’s approbation. In the NSI corporate boardroom 32 floors up at 277 Park Avenue, I laid it out. When I finished, Mahoney asked about Halston: “What kind of guy is he?”

“Tall, well-dressed, handsome, charming,” I said. Stuff like that.

“That’s not what I asked. What kind of guy is he?”

Paula Morrissey, one of my assistants, was quicker on the uptake than me. “Dave,” she chimed in, “you don’t  have to worry about his getting married.”

Mahoney left without a decision, but the suits around the conference room commiserated: “Mahoney’s never going to associate a $400 million brand with a gay guy.” (This being the “Mad Men” era, the word used was more pithy.) The next morning, though, Mahoney called from his plane. “Whatever you do, don’t lose the Halston deal.”

I flew to Los Angeles with my number two, Jackie Markham, to lay out the plan for Max Factor’s Kurtzman. He shook his head sympathetically and offered: “It’s a great plan, but it will never work.”

And why not?

“Because if Halston were available for a fragrance, Revlon would have him.” But Revlon had a contract with another designer, Norman Norell, which precluded that.

From there, things moved at warp speed. The guy who came out of the woodwork with a license for a Halston fragrance was bought out for peanuts. On Oct. 2, 1973, I called a press conference at “21” to announce the deal.

That evening, Mahoney gave a dinner party at El Morocco, a private disco, for Halston. As I was ushered to his table, I passed Charles Revson with Aileen Mehle, who as Suzy Knickerbocker was the most powerful society  columnist at a time people cared about such things, who’d skipped the press conference. I didn’t think it was a coincidence.

The Versailles fashion extravaganza that’s the subject of episode two of the Netflix film was held on Nov. 28, 1973, over a month after the press conference. So much for the Netflix scenes in which Mahoney woos Halston for months until he signs away his artistic soul in the back of a car in a Versailles parking lot.

Within a year, the Halston fragrance was the bestselling perfume in America, and yes, upmarket specialty stores had Max Factor on their shelves.

From there, cinema diverges even further from reality. “H” wasn’t effeminate or any of those ways gay men were portrayed in the ’70s. I never saw a pouting temper tantrum. It was accepted, as Morrissey put it, Halston was in no danger of nuptials, but his sex life was carefully kept in his armoire. I don’t believe the story about the designer from IFF being asked to sniff a jock strap for an olfactory sensation. Halston would never have admitted he had a lover.

Mahoney is just as unfairly depicted as the head of the evil empire that led to Halston cheapening his brand with luggage and carpet deals. (The point at which I dimmed the computer screen.) It was the other way around.

Mahoney followed every lead Halston made. A corporation’s annual report is a significant epistle to its shareholders. Mahoney asked Halston how the company conveyed the message that, while it sold goods as disparate as cooking oil and couture, the common denominator was that its consumers were mainly women. At  Halston’s direction, that book for 1974 was built around a “Mrs. Wonderful” (Zacki Murphy, then a Ford agency model) who used Norton Simon products in every phase of her life.

The deal that eventually brought down Halston, the licensing of a low-priced clothing line to J.C. Penney, was Halston’s own idea and pushed through over Mahoney’s resistance. Mahoney was right.

The facts didn’t make good theater. The acquisition was a sound corporate move that didn’t go off the rails for years; Halston’s perfume sales in the first year were $60 million. It made better theater to picture Mahoney as the Darth Vader of the evil empire and Halston as a caricature homosexual, justifying pornographic sex scenes. After all, you can’t slander a dead man and there was nobody around who knew the real story.

Except me.

David Rosendale is the former vice president of public relations at Norton Simon and held that role at the time the conglomerate acquired the Halston brand.

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