CHRISTINA LESSA: I’d heard that you come from a very politically involved family.
R. COURI HAY: When I was a teenager, I wanted to be President…When Nelson Rockefeller was running for President I was even head of “Youth for Rockefeller.” My family has a political legacy; my forebear, John Hay, along with John Nicolay, was the personal secretary of Abraham Lincoln. He went on to become Envoy to France and eventually Secretary of State. His grandson, John Hay Whitney, who was also born in Maine, was a businessman who became the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, publisher of the New York Herald Tribune and President of the Museum of Modern Art. My family’s backgrounds include bankers, politicians, real estate developers and philanthropists. My great grandfather, Harry F. G. Hay, owned our town’s bank The Westbrook Trust Company and also became the Mayor. My mother’s family founded Camp Couri for inner city kids to get a sense of country life as well as senior centers in Maine. We have also been a clan that loves and supports the arts.
My father was born in Boston while my grandfather, Dr. Walter F. W. Hay, was at Harvard Medical School. I grew up in Maine. My father was in business; my mother was an equestrian, who was once Champion of Maine. After college, she planned to go to Paris and become an illustrator, but instead she stayed home and had me. My grandmother, Alice White, my father’s mother, was a concert pianist and one of the first female opera directors in America. At 15, she was one of the youngest students to attend the New England Conservatory of Music and went on to study at Julliard. She played with the Boston Symphony and went to Europe to play for the troops during World War II. See that Steinway over there? It was my grandmother’s and I play it… badly! I was born dyslexic but back then they called it “left and right confusion” so I struggled at school. I still can’t spell anything, but I always scored perfectly on those school spelling exams because I have the gift of looking at a list and memorizing it as a whole. My grandmother was so loving she would work with me for hours on the musical fingerings on the piano with such patience. She had four sons and they all played an instrument so they had a little quartet… I was the fifth addition, a total flop! (Laughs) Over the years I’ve met a lot of musicians and spent a lot of time at Carnegie Hall, The Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center and at Broadway shows. I became a city kid by design. I realized that everyone wanted what I had and took for granted, the WASP-y life, sailing, tennis, golf, riding, the penny loafers, madras pants, the look, but I wanted Gucci loafers and a cosmopolitan life. My favorite pastime was to go to Bonwit Teller’s designer men’s shop. I learned to forge my mother’s name perfectly on the bills and my father paid them without a question…I got away with murder! Although my grandfather was Commodore of the Portland Yacht Club, I’d had it with knot class. I took my boat shoes and stuffed them in the closet… I wanted out! Eventually I snuck off to Mykonos and Paris with Halston! I was very fast at a very young age…maybe not by today’s standards. When I was 16 and staying at the Ritz in Paris with my Nana, I snuck out of bed and that’s when I first met Andy.
I ended up at American University and taking classes through the Consortium at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. with designs on becoming a politician until I realized that I was gay. Don’t forget that was the late 60’s…I really had wanted to be President, until I realized that my libido would rule that right out. So I was out there enjoying the sexual revolution; I was not interested in closeting myself. However, I kept it together enough to become a Senate aide for a while to the legendary Margaret Chase Smith. She became the Senator form Maine when she won her husband’s seat after his death. She was the first woman to be nominated from the Convention Floor to be President of the Untied States, in the 60’s! She remains the longest serving female Senator in history. Ironically, my main duty was to escort her to parties… and I was perfect for that!
CHRISTINA LESSA: Would you consider running for office now? After all, you are a diplomat of sorts…
R. COURI HAY: No, I’m unelectable. (laughs) I think that being a part of every social revolution that there ever was during my youth prevents me from running for anything… those skeletons would rule me out! I mean, my surrogate father was Timothy Leary! Hanging out with Andy Warhol and Dali …getting high with William Burrows, Keith Haring and Robert Mapplethorpe… I mean, no way! But I still love politics and I support my favorite candidates and follow it all very closely. However, if I had been born later when it would have been okay to be a gay politician, as it is now… although it’s still a little borderline in many states, now I would go for it. I love politics and I’m very concerned about what’s happening all over the world. I’m very patriotic and don’t ever want to take any of our freedoms for granted. I was named after my Uncle, A. Robert Couri. He went to Annapolis and was a WWII hero. He was my mother’s only brother. Against his family’s wishes, he left home and went off to war where he was killed storming a beach. It was an act of heroism and he was awarded the Purple Heart. I live with his medal right on my desk in his cookie jar where it reminds me every day of his bravery and how he and many others have fought so selflessly for the free society that I am able to enjoy today. I’m sure that he never thought of gay marriage and freedom of speech on the Internet as a part of that fight at that time, but it is and we shouldn’t take the rights to any of our freedoms lightly.
CHRISTINA LESSA: How did you end up at Interview…ultimately leaving college to write full time?
R. COURI HAY: My university writing teacher was Pulitzer Prize and Oscar winner, Larry McMurtry. He was willing to give me college credit to write for Interview in 1971, the early days. I thought, I can do interviews, and Andy said, “What are you going to write about?” I had some great familial connections. My father played golf at the Portland Country Club with Gary Merrill, who was married to Bette Davis. I went to school with Bette’s son Michael Merrill and my mother knew Bette so I said I’d interview Bette Davis. Andy loved glamorous iconic stars so it was a go. I went on to interview Ginger Rogers and Lena Horn and filtered in some political figures from Washington. Imagine getting college credit to write for Andy Warhol’s Interview?! I would rig my classes to be in NY Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday…I was a bad boy! I made 25 dollars a month and Andy signed all the checks. I kept them. My father, who went to Bowdoin College, let me go. He was always very supportive. Same thing when I said, “Father, this paper called the National Inquirer is offering me six figures a year to write a gossip column.” I said, “Father, I’ll stay in school and not take the job if you’ll match the offer,” and my father said, “Go to work!”, which of course was very different advice for a parent from my background back then. Although my parents weren’t quite as liberal as it sounds, they were very conservative, they knew who I was and they were very accepting. Once I got caught with another boy in a closet. We were both maybe 12. Mu uncle said, “Are you homosexual? We don’t care. We just want to know.” I was so flummoxed that I couldn’t answer because I wasn’t sure. When I look back at that now, my family was very kind to me; it was quiet permissiveness. Although I never discussed my sexuality with either of my parents, no one ever said no or humiliated me. When I was a teenager, I was flying in and out of Maine so frequently to go to gay bars in Boston and New York that my father told me, “The authorities think that you are transporting marijuana into the state! Is it true?” (laughs) Of course, it wasn’t. But that gives you an idea of how different I was considered at that time by the public. I was on a local TV show in tight pants that were the talk of the town. I was a handful. Even during the demonstrations in Washington over Vietnam, the head of what was supposed to be a peaceful candlelight vigil in front of the White House had to tell me to tone it down because I was encouraging everyone to scream, “Stop the war!” I was also part of Andy Warhol’s TV which was ahead of its time and never caught on. Andy started Interview to go to parties… I wanted to do it because when you get to sit down with a legend and you can ask them anything you want – I find it very stimulating. My favorite stories are those where I can learn something.
CHRISTINA LESSA: What was Andy Warhol really like? There are so many accounts and they are all very contradictory…
R. COURI HAY: I have always had an immediate attraction to genius. You just knew Andy had it, Charles James had it and Salvador Dali had it… I didn’t want to be a hang-er on-er. I wanted learn from them, to soak it all up. I think that Andy was a different person to different people. He was never a big drug user although he’d grab my derriere at Studio 54 if he’s taken a Quaalude. He wasn’t asexual but he was respectful of people’s boundaries. I never had a problem posing naked for Andy. He was an intellect that loved to create, loved to make his version of what art was. Andy loved beauty; he was inspired by beauty. He was not the loner that people make him out to be. He loved being with people and in that regard I offered him something. He would come to a party at my house and I’d say, “Andy, who are you with?” And he’d say, “I’m alone,” and I’d say, “No you’re not. You’re with me!” Andy did everything that he told me he would do for me. He was a professional; he made me a star. He made me believe in myself. He did that for a lot of people. Andy noticed you and was a “yes” person, open to other people’s success and ideas. It was nothing but approval; he never said anything negative to me, and by that, he made you feel like an Andy Warhol Superstar. He blessed you; he gave you the Andy Warhol/Factory cool stamp of approval. I never made a call that Andy didn’t answer. Even years later when I did the first big amfAR benefit, I called and asked him a to do the catalogue and he didn’t hesitate for a moment.
CHRISTINA LESSA: What about your relationship with Charles James? You’re so passionate about him. Where does this passion stem from? I know that you feel you have this duty to carry on the legacy…
R. COURI HAY: I do. I promised Charles I’d carry on his legacy. He wanted me to help him write his autobiography, but he died before we really began. I’ve just written a book, “Charles James: Beneath The Dress,” that includes over 100 fashion and erotic drawings from my collection of his work that was recently shown at The National Arts Club. I was thrilled when the Times gave it a rave review. You know, you do not meet that many geniuses in life who you become truly intimate with – not a sexual intimacy, but an intellectual intimacy. I first met Charles James when I was 17 and we had a 12-year friendship until his death. I felt the genius pouring out of him in everyday conversation. I knew there was something extraordinary about him. People talk about having special teachers in their college or schools… being inspired by their kindergarten teacher or an art professor. Charles James inspired me. I often look back at some of the invaluable lessons that he taught me. I did not realize then the value of creating a storyboard while writing or being incredibly organized or detailed. I learned a lot of things from Charles James. I learned a lot from Timothy Leary too. He was a family friend from our Harvard ties. When my father died, I was extremely upset and he said, “Don’t worry, I’ll be your father now” and I became very close to him and his wife Barbara.
CHRISTINA LESSA: How old were you when your father died?
R. COURI HAY: I was in my 20’s… I was young and I still depended on him. Several people intersected in my life at different times and became important to me. Charles James was one of the first. As I grew up, I kept hearing the name Charles James because my grandmother, I called her Nana, loved fashion and was a passionate shopper. My mother and grandmother loved Charles James hats and coats. When I was a little boy, I used dive under their dresses and count the layers of petticoats! I grew up with his name.
CHRISTINA LESSA: So, was it destiny?
R. COURI HAY: Yes. Even my little brother had Charles James baby clothes. There was a time when Charles James was available at Best & Company and Lord and Taylor. You could actually buy some of these Charles James’ creations. He seemed like a — a mystical figure to me. When I came to New York, I had letters of introduction to my cousin who was very close with Diana Vreeland and her husband. Vreeland and Charles had this love-hate relationship. So, the introduction I finally got from Vreeland wasn’t to Charles James it was to Halston. I was supposed to get Panama hats from Charles but Vreeland sent me to Halston and that kicked off what ultimately became a romantic relationship with him. Halston must have been 30 something. I was still in prep school but I refused to sleep with him for almost two years. I have always had this intellectual attraction to creative people and to the more social side of life. Did you know that Liz Smith once called me “the cutest gossip in history” (laughs) and that became a question in a gay trivia game? I learned how to be social early on. You can’t expect everyone to entertain you when you go out. You have to offer something. My mother always taught me that you don’t just bring a material gift to a party…you bring some joie de vivre… that’s the best gift. Otherwise stay home! I tried to give that to Andy and everyone that I meet professionally or socially. I’ve got time on my side I started really young. I started traveling around the world with my Nana when I was 8… I got a great perspective on life very early on.
CHRISTINA LESSA: You’re attracted to intellects because you’re an artist, a writer…
R. COURI HAY: I do not know if I am an artist. That’s — that’s very generous.
CHRISTINA LESSA: No, no, no. Now, hold on. Couri, you’re a writer.
R. COURI HAY: I think that’s a little generous. Don’t forget, I have mostly written gossip and society columns — I am a relentless gossip and a publicist, which is not my definition of an artist. (laughs)
CHRISTINA LESSA: But you did not always write gossip…
COURI HAY: I am still working on my novel, Secret Lives, 30 years later. I wrote it, I sold it but I did not finish it; I got lazy but I spent the advance. I wanted it to be quick and easy – I learned those bad lessons from Halston. I learned the good lessons from Charles James, who taught me about spending three years on an armhole and taught me about perfection.
Early on, I had written a story about Charles for Interview and Charles didn’t think it was good enough so he ripped it in half and told me to start over again. It was due the next day but when Charles saw my face and realized how emotionally involved I was in the piece, he sat there with me and we taped it back together piece by piece on the floor. But Halston – we would go to Paris and he would send me in to Yves St. Laurent to shop and say, “Buy the trench coat, buy this, buy that.” When I came back he said, “I just want to let you know, if I move this lapel in a little bit, change this button a tiny bit, send it to Japan and copy it, it’s a lot cheaper.” Meanwhile, Charles James is spending $20,000 and three years on perfecting one armhole. So Halston taught me the PR tricks. And let’s face it, there’s something very seductive about the fast, easy way. I have always had this devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. Throughout my life I have been pulled in opposite directions and that is the reason I left Halston, because I chose Charles’ genius over Halston’s PR tricks. But then, look what I ended up becoming. (laughs)
CHRISTINA LESSA: So, how did that happen?
R COURI HAY: Andy had a very strong influence on my life and he was a PR machine for himself. Do not forget Andy did not do all his own painting or all his own filmmaking. Andy had vision. He inspired and delegated but it wasn’t like Andy was slaving away alone in an attic.
CHRISTINA LESSA: You had spent a lot of time at The Factory?
R COURI HAY: It was a factory and I was exposed to his method. My job was to get stars to sit down and do interviews. People used to really open up for me. I do not know why but for some reason I could get anybody to talk to me. That was kind of a knack I had, and that was the gossip knack. Later I went to work for the National Inquirer, which was the highest circulated paper in America.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Now people do not realize the significance of those publications, because we didn’t have the Internet then.
R.COURI HAY: They sold 28 million copies a week! Infinite numbers. That was the only place that you could gather inside information on celebrities. Elvis in his casket was literally on the cover of the paper. I got the first call that Elvis was dead in the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel and called the paper. I actually brought royal gossip to America. I saw how the British tabloids blew up Prince Charles and Diana. I’m the one that convinced the Inquirer that we should pay attention to the royals because it was a fairy tale come true. Then I started investing in nightclubs and I realized the power of the party, the power of showing people a good time. I hired a lot different PR companies to promote supper clubs like Tatou. What I realized was that my experience as a gossip columnist gave me access to information that they didn’t have. I ended up doing a better job than any of them. So that launched me into PR.
I am also an arts patron; I love opera and ballet. My friend Rudolph Nureyev took me to meet Jacqueline Kennedy, and Jackie asked me to help bring young people to American Ballet Theatre. I created a ”Junior Council” at ABT, and in those days it was our responsibility to do the PR, to create the buzz. That is why you had close friendships between society columnists and high society figures. Through Rudolph, I also became friendly with Margot Fonteyn.
CHRISTINA LESSA: It was their job to continue to promote the arts and find support to keep New York’s culture alive, to keep the arts breathing.
R. COURI HAY: Right, right. That is still my job. My job was to sell tickets to my friends on 5th Avenue to bring young people to the ballet, and to do that, you have to create lots of excitement. There is a very powerful energy surrounding the arts. People of influence want to be apart of that and they should be.
CHRISTINA LESSA: I’d like to have you expound on that point of art and power.
R. COURI HAY: Andy said, “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” Art has always been a symbol of power and prestige. Art separated the elite from the masses. It was only the rich that could commission portraits of the elaborate altars and stained glass windows in cathedrals. The Pope and the bishops even told the aristocracy that if they gave enough money to beautify the churches, they would get into heaven. So money and power and art have always have had a wonderful marriage and that continues today. If you put a 50 million dollar Warhol or Picasso on your wall, it says you have power.
CHRISTINA LESSA: And yet the artist is the perpetually impoverished star, and we have cut back so much on art support, particularly in America. We really haven’t had a President who has been publicly supportive of the arts, not just visual art, on the same level of importance really since Kennedy.
COURI HAY: I don’t even think that was him…I think that was Jackie. When you talk about a politician that is involved in the arts, I would say Michael Bloomberg. He is one of the only politicians who is really a champion of the arts, and not just verbally. He has put his money, his prestige and his power behind the arts. I know that Agnes Gund and Chuck Close work very closely with politicians to get more art education in the public schools. Chuck Close told me, and it made perfect sense, “I would have been a big flop at school because I had trouble learning from books. But I had the opportunity to express myself through art and realized that I could do something valuable and ended up being an artist.” Chuck said that not everyone is articulate; not everyone is book-smart. It is a shame that the government does not put enough money into art education and music education. Ironically, our last great export in America is creativity, right? The truth is although the arts lack funding in the public schools, there are outlets of expression in the media, on Twitter, on Facebook and the ability use computers to create art. People today have more opportunity for self-expression and to create brands and express their feelings and send those ideas out to the world than they ever did. Now, one person with an iPhone can reach theoretically millions, maybe billions, of people.
CHRISTINA LESSA: So, are you a Republican?
R. COURI HAY: Well, I lean Republican, yes. But over the years, I’ve become more of an Independent. I was at a party with Hillary Clinton once in the Hamptons and I told her, “You are the first Democrat that I have ever supported or ever voted for.” And then in her speech she said I had turned into a Democrat, which wasn’t what I said or meant but I like Hillary because she does her homework. The Clintons know how to do business and that was good for the country and would still be good for the country. I also love the way she has embraced gay people and gay life. That was more unusual 10 years ago. So in the end, I am fiscally conservative but liberal on a lot of social issues like gay rights and women’s right to choose what they want to do with their own bodies. So I am torn because I don’t like big government and I don’t like extremism on the right or the left.
CHRISTINA LESSA: I think most thinking people now have trouble assigning themselves to either political party.
COURI HAY: Both parties need to move toward the center and compromise. I have serious problems with all the Democrats who want to tax and spend money we don’t have. Taxing and spending is a huge issue for me, not on things like social security. I believe that’s a right, but there is too much waste. And where is all the money going? Not to the arts! And sadly the Republicans have gotten too extreme. What’s great about the Clintons is that they have always known how to work with Wall Street. There is very little difference between a liberal Republican and a conservative Democrat. There is simply too much extremism in both parties right now. I believe in a strong America. I want our government to take charge and protect its people, and our economy!
CHRISTINA LESSA: You’ve met so many incredible icons, any favorite moments?
COURI HAY: When I learned John Lennon watched my TV show. Of course everyone is fan of John Lennon’s, but John became a fan of mine during the period when he locked himself into the Dakota. It was a dark period for John; he was having personal issues. He used to watch a show I did with experimental filmmaker and artist Anton Perich called R. Couri Hay Reporting, which aired on public access. We went out and covered parties and interviewed a wild assortment of people the same way we were doing it in print for Andy. Anton also made avant garde movies. In those days, the station gave you a portable camera and a microphone and all you had to do was buy the tape and boom you were a television star. So I produced the show and Anton Perich was the filmmaker. As it turned out, John used to watch the show, which came on at 11:00 pm on Sunday nights. I had no idea that John even knew my name. So, John was getting the Medal of Honor at the Kennedy Center and I was there. The press is running towards us going, “There’s John Lennon!” and John puts his hand on my shoulder and said, “Here’s R. Couri Hay!” and we became friends from that moment on.
CHRISTINA LESSA: How would you define yourself now?
COURI HAY: Good question. Because I’m a late bloomer, I’m not done yet. In fact, artistically I think I’m just beginning my career as a serious writer and as an arts entrepreneur. I’d like to think I’ve developed into a fairly serious person. After decades of wickedness and self-indulgence, I’ve started to think about what I will leave behind as a legacy. And that is why I am so excited about my Charles James projects that includes two books, exhibitions around the world and a documentary I’m making with Angela Bernhard Thomas that has captured the attention of Harvey Weinstein, whose company has bought the rights to the Charles James name. Harvey and his wife Georgina Chapman are going to re-launch the brand so the timing is right, especially after the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s blockbuster show, “Charles James: Beyond Fashion.” I have a lot of stories about one of the greatest artists of this century and his life in the 60’s and 70’s, which was a very exciting period in New York. It’s going to be a fun read and I’ll drag everyone into the story.
It’s a plan that makes me happy. Art is supposed to lift your soul, make you think outside of the box, take you somewhere else. Art should inspire and for me that’s the best entertainment… anything that makes you think is entertaining and that’s where art provokes in the best way.
The truth is, I willed my life in the big city. I willed my life on the international stage and I have created my own little niche and if there are any young people reading this, just know that you could do that too. So, if my story can inspire other people that may have that desire to be a part of the headlines or the art world, I say: Go ahead, come on, come and get it. You can do it.