The Face That Changed It All
CHAPTER 1 Who’s That Girl?
I never really thought I was pretty. Not that I gave my looks much thought at all while growing up in Buffalo, New York.
Let’s be clear: There were more than a few attractive people residing in the Johnson family household. We can start with my mother, Gloria, then move on to my two gorgeous sisters, Joanne and Sheilah; but not me. Never me.
So how exactly I ended up being the one with a coveted invitation to spend an evening at the home of designer Roy Halston Frowick for one of his legendary gatherings on this particular day was a true mystery. Though my sisters Joanne and Sheilah were the girls every guy in our neighborhood drooled over at first sight during my childhood, I was the Johnson girl who later moved to New York to model for major magazines. No one saw that coming, least of all me.
It was August 1973, the height of Halston’s glory days on Madison Avenue, and there I was standing on West Sixty-Third Street, trying my best to figure out where exactly I was going. It was the hottest summer afternoon I could remember in New York City,
and the heat wasn’t doing my perfectly layered makeup any favors. I hurried down the street, in heels of course, trying to read the house numbers. It seemed like the sun’s powerful rays were the universe’s way of punishing me for jumping out of the cab before I had my bearings.
Even though I was still in my early twenties, my life had already become an endless blur of appointments, interviews, and meetings. My likeness had already begun to appear on a bevy of magazine covers and in advertisements, but I was just learning how to navigate the peaks and valleys of what that exposure really meant for me.
Since this wasn’t quite the adult life I had envisioned for myself while growing up, I was still adjusting to the madness of running from one photo shoot or fashion fitting to another. The sheer weight of the logistics could easily frazzle anyone’s nerves on any given day. If that weren’t enough, I was also encountering some self-inflicted personal drama in the form of an ex-husband who refused to comprehend the true meaning of “ex.”
Many days I found myself just trying to keep my head above water. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the life I was living, but I wasn’t always prepared for the nonstop demands and pressures it presented. Somehow I had gotten on a fast-moving roller-coaster ride, and I wasn’t at the controls.
Still, even with all that background noise in my head, I couldn’t afford to be out of sorts that afternoon. I had to appear flawless when I entered Halston’s party, and flawless is what I was determined to be. There could be no clothing mishaps, and no evidence that my perfectly applied makeup had encountered that sweltering New York City day.
While I was enjoying a booming career in the world of high fashion at that time, I knew I had really arrived when I received an invite to a dinner party at the home of one of the world’s most prominent designers.
Halston was by far the most celebrated and influential designer
of the seventies, and I loved him something fierce. Everyone did. Halston—one name was all he needed—emerged as the first billion-dollar fashion designer in the world of haute couture and single-handedly developed the blueprint for the likes of Oscar, Ralph, Calvin, and Diane to become household names the world over. Until Halston appeared on the scene, most of the highly respected, famed, and grand design houses were located in Europe, in either Paris or Milan. Halston would change that the day he created a pillbox hat for Jacqueline Kennedy to wear as she watched her husband take the oath of office of the President of the United States in 1961. After that major coup, Halston’s designs routinely graced the bodies of some of the world’s most stylishly stunning women. Fabulous ladies such as Lauren Hutton, Princess Grace of Monaco, Ali MacGraw, Bianca Jagger, Liza Minnelli, and Lauren Bacall were photographed regularly in his couture designs.
Then of course there was me. I’d always been fascinated by each and every aspect of the fashion industry, and Halston was the first to take my call when I yearned to learn even more. He agreed to put me in his runway show at a time when well-known print models, which I was at the time, rarely did such a thing. Runway modeling was considered a few steps beneath print during the sixties and early seventies. But that did little to discourage me from wanting to be on the runway. As far as I was concerned, a rule wasn’t a rule until somebody had the gall to break it.
Thankfully, Halston was happy to oblige me. Early one week in 1973, I strolled along in his show wearing several of his slinky halter-neck dresses and wide-legged jersey trousers. I loved every minute of it! Despite my initial terror of sashaying around a room filled with potential buyers and New York socialites, my first foray into the world of runway modeling had been as seamless as one of Halston’s pricey cashmere designs. Simply put, I nailed it! After the show on a Tuesday, Halston casually mentioned a little dinner party at his home that Friday and suggested I stop by.
Stop by? Of course I would stop by! Yes, I had a modeling assignment for Glamour magazine on the island of Saint Martin the day following the show, Wednesday, and wouldn’t be returning until Friday afternoon. But a little thing like being out of the country wasn’t going to prevent me from accepting one of the most desired invitations in town. Halston was the king of the New York social scene, and his parties were as legendary for their ambience and fine dining as they were for their cachet and megastar power.
Halston personified everything that made the crazy seventies the decade many people wish they had been part of. It was a sparkling new age that seemed to belong exclusively to the young, or at the very least the young at heart. The baby boomers of today were actually teenagers back then, which means those years were all about exploration and experimentation. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll ruled the day, every day. But it was also a decade in which people searched for their identity and for truth, including me. Halston embodied all of that complicated seventies angst in his talent, in his style, and in the manic way in which he lived his public and private life. And I wanted to be in the middle of it all.
But first I had to get to his party. The actual logistics were complicated. The dinner began at 7:00 p.m., and my plane didn’t land back in New York at JFK until 4:00 p.m. If you’ve ever tried to get from JFK airport to Manhattan at that time of day, you know what a nightmare it can be. There was a fifty-fifty chance I’d make it on time, but nothing was going to stop me from trying. I was in luck—my cabdriver seemed to think he was driving in the Indy 500, and though I kept thinking that I really would rather not succumb to the flames of a fiery car accident just to get to a party—not even Halston’s—we somehow made it to my apartment safely and in good time.
Which was good, because the party was sure to make the top of Liz Smith’s celebrity gossip column in the New York Daily News the next day. After debating half an hour what to wear to my first
big-city party, I chose a long black jersey cape over a matching long black dress. But it wasn’t a Halston, even though I had a closet half-filled with his designs. (Note to self: You really should wear the design of the designer to his dinner party.)
Those days were long before the era of personal makeup artists arriving at your house before an event. That night I had to do my own, and I think I did a pretty jam-up job, if I do say so myself. My hair was pulled back in its usual neat bun and my silhouette was chic, slim, and sleek. Once I was ready, I grabbed yet another cab and raced from my West Forty-Eighth Street apartment to the Upper West Side soiree. Fortunately, I found that my “face” had stood up well against the smoldering August heat, as I finally found the famed 101 West Sixty-Third Street address. I arrived looking exactly like the version of Beverly Johnson most expected to see out and about in the big city.
I entered the designer’s glass-façade town house and stopped dead in my tracks; I couldn’t believe I was still in New York City. Halston had transformed what had originally been an eighteenth-century carriage house into a virtual oasis, a more-than-seven-thousand-square-foot home solely created for him to peacefully exist in his own space and time, completely oblivious to the concrete jungle just outside his door.
I steadied myself as I stood in the huge foyer and tried my best to take in everything that was going on. In front of me, a staircase seemingly floated in the air, like a mini catwalk, and on it the seminude bodies of models Pat Cleveland and Sterling St. Jacques danced to Sister Sledge’s “He’s the Greatest Dancer.” As I watched them, Halston appeared and glided down the rail-less staircase. The designer’s suave movie star looks nicely complemented his tanned skin, model-like height (six feet, two inches), and freshly styled salon hair. He was wearing his signature uniform: black cashmere turtleneck sweater, formfitting suede jacket, dark trousers. His left hand held his ever-present long cigarette while his
right hand waved at the crowd of friends gathered in his living room.
Halston loved nothing more than throwing parties for his famous friends, stars like Andy Warhol, Candice Bergen, Anjelica Huston, and Margaux Hemingway. I watched my dear friend as he was surrounded by people who hung on his every word. Who could blame them? Halston had an incredibly endearing way of telling a story that made every detail come alive and dance before your very eyes. And boy did that man have stories to tell about the unbelievable life he had lived, from growing up in Iowa to his years in New York.
And when he wasn’t throwing his own parties, he could be found holding court at the infamous Studio 54, his home away from home. Halston wasn’t just the toast of the town—he was the toast of the entire fashion universe, and he wasn’t shy about tooting his own horn to let you know about it, either. Halston actually wasn’t shy about anything!
Eventually the crowd parted and I got a quick hug and a kiss from the man of the hour, and then he was gone again. I decided to take a further look around his unique and elegant home. Fireplaces roared in eighty-degree temperatures, there were bamboo gardens in the backyard—complete with mirrors to reflect light back into the house—and as if that were not enough, the house boasted a rooftop deck the size of a baseball field! It was breathtaking!
The legendary architect Paul Randolph had been responsible for the interior design, which was awash in various tones of white and gray. Those colors mixed perfectly with the furniture, upholstered as it was in the same knit flannel Halston often used in his clothing collection. Gray was a color Halston thought looked good on just about everyone and everything, so even the floors in his home were covered in a gorgeous gray velvet carpet. Adding to the sense of restraint, my dear friend Halston avoided using a lot of artwork on the walls, and there wasn’t much in the way of accent pieces, either. It was haute, and minimalist, and all quite spartan.
After I completed my tour, I noticed that Pat and Sterling, who had previously been dancing seductively on the catwalk, were now mingling with the crowd. Sterling, an absolutely beautiful black man, had a small (well, not so small) cup covering his private parts, while Pat was now gleefully free of any clothing at all and proudly showcasing everything for all to see. She was particularly interested in highlighting the fact that her pubic hair had been waxed into a perfectly defined heart shape. I was completely taken aback (one of the many times that night) when I heard her ask people their opinion of her new design.
Pat’s exhibitionist ways turned what I had hoped would be a fabulous night of fun into something rather uncomfortable for me. She was the only other black woman in attendance and now she had become the “show” for the evening. I suspect that Pat had done her homework and discovered that the easiest entrée into that world was simply becoming the night’s exotic entertainment. By “that world” I mean the white, upper-crust, very wealthy one that few blacks ever got the chance to witness, much less enter. Performing for the crowd was Pat’s hall pass through the front door, I suppose. It seemed to have unlocked many doors for her, but I guess my twenty-one-year-old mind just didn’t fully understand or appreciate Pat’s thought process that night.
In the wake of the civil rights movement, I felt obligated to those who had fought and died for my right to be treated equally. There were so many who had marched and sacrificed their lives so that I could have a place in the mainstream world of fashion and even attend that party that night. Maybe Pat felt the same but just had a very odd way of showing it.
Juggling the knowledge of this country’s volatile racial past while navigating the hippie movement of the seventies would often put me at great odds not only with others in the industry, but with myself at times, too. Whereas the sixties demanded a certain amount of social responsibility, the seventies demanded the complete opposite.
Halston’s designs and Pat’s unabashed nature defined an era known for both its luxury and excess, and they were two vices that became far too comfortable for far too many of us.
There were other vices, too. Cocaine was Halston’s drug of choice, and all of his dinners offered a large supply of it. The drug was presented in small salad bowls alongside tall glasses of champagne. As my relationship with Halston grew, I regularly observed him enjoying his daily intake of the three c’s; caviar, champagne, and cocaine. We sometimes joked with each other that water simply had too many calories! It all seemed so fun and harmless back then.
With Pat’s heart finally out of view, I made my way through the throng of guests to the dining room. In the middle of the room there was a rather odd-looking Lucite block table that easily could have been confused with a large slab of Antarctic ice upon which Elsa Peretti–designed votive candles and Tiffany flatware had been placed. There was also a marble-topped cocktail table, numerous hassocks, and some people were even eating on the stairs. Halston’s best-buddy-for-life Liza Minnelli always ate on the stairs, and that night there she was, in her favorite spot, laughing it up as she drank glass after glass of champagne.
Waiters were beginning to serve the meal created by Halston’s charming live-in assistant, Mohammed Soumaya, so I decided against joining Liza on the steps and instead cozied up to the Lucite table for a sampling of the meal du jour. And what a meal we dined on that night! Crudités for starters, followed by an entrée of blanquette de veau, and Halston’s favorite, a baked potato topped with caviar. (Later, I would learn that though the entrée menu varied from party to party, that side dish rarely, if ever, changed.)
As I began to eat, I briefly looked up and found myself staring at the most beautiful pair of violet-hued eyes I’d ever seen in my life. In fact, I’m quite sure I hadn’t seen a pair of violet-colored irises ever until that night. Sitting across from me was the grand dame of all grand dames, Ms. Elizabeth Taylor, in all her legendary glory.
I knew she and Halston were great pals and that he’d designed a number of her most beautiful gowns, but I’d never imagined for a moment that I would be in the same room with her. But there she was, looking exactly how I’d have imagined she would, and more. She was incandescently beautiful, with the most gorgeous porcelain skin and a head full of glossy dark-brown hair. I had to force myself not to stare. She said, “Hi,” but all I could manage in return was, “I love your ring.”
That night she was wearing the famed Taylor-Burton diamond, given to her by her then estranged husband Richard Burton. I had followed every detail of their torrid love affair in the popular Hollywood gossip magazines, including the story of that ring. From what I’d read, Liz clearly lived her life unconcerned with how others felt about the decisions she made. I had tremendous respect for her for just that reason. I think she also lived by the motto that life was too short not to look amazing every day, so she never left home without dripping in millions of dollars’ worth of bling. I had a tremendous amount of respect for that, too!
Yes, Liz had other gems, stones, and diamonds, but none like the diamond she wore that night. The original rough diamond had been found in 1966 in the Premier Mine in South Africa and cut into a pear shape by jeweler Harry Winston. Burton had engaged in a fierce bidding war with shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis just to get his hands on that diamond, and he eventually purchased the 69.42-carat ring from Cartier for $1.1 million in 1969, making it the most expensive diamond in the world at the time. Now that’s real love for you.
As I gazed at that storied piece of jewelry, Liz Taylor said, “You like it, you wear it.”
Without missing a beat, she pulled the ring off her finger and threw it across the table. I caught it in midair and slipped it on my finger just to see how it would feel to wear something so rich with history and love.
I won’t lie. For a moment I fantasized that I was the owner of that amazing rock, waving it around for all to see as I explained that my newest BFF, Liz Taylor, had recently gifted it to me on a whim.
My fantasy didn’t last long. As I much as I loved the ring, I had an even stronger desire to get it back to Ms. Taylor as quickly as possible. Lord knows the last thing I needed in my life was to lose, or even run the risk of losing, Elizabeth Taylor’s history-making, million-dollar ring. I could just see Liz Smith having the time of her life in her column the next morning were such a mishap to take place. But before I could hand it back, Ms. Taylor wandered off to chat with other people, though I’m quite sure she could see me out of the corner of her eye. Clearly the woman known for playing roles in films such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Cleopatra was having a good old time watching me sweat. I figured her throwing her huge diamond ring to some poor unsuspecting soul was one of her favorite party tricks, done just for laughs.
After what seemed like forever, Liz came back to our large block of ice and motioned for me to come sit next to her, giving me the chance to finally return her ring. With all the stories about her historic Hollywood career and rocky personal life, I honestly didn’t know what to expect as I made my way to sit by her side. What in the world would I talk about with this woman I’d watched all my life on the big screen? Or should I breathe a word at all?
Thank goodness she was nothing like what I expected. She told me that Halston explained to her a while ago that I was the new and beautiful “It Girl” and now she wanted to know more about me.
I may have been the It Girl of the moment, but she was the It Woman of all time as far as I was concerned! Why would she want to know more about me?
As the dinner party began to wrap up and the beautiful people in attendance began making their pilgrimage to their next stop on the party train, with Halston leading the way, I decided to head in the
opposite direction. I wasn’t in the mood for Studio 54, which was no doubt where they were all headed. I needed to go home and prepare for my next day of work.
I wasn’t much of a club girl. I needed to get some rest so I’d be ready for my next close-up! I wouldn’t get it hanging from the rafters at Studio 54. So I took my third cab of the day and headed home.