Rich? One hasn’t got a bean, old bean! Nicky Haslam goes from celebrity interior designer to eating at Greggs, shopping at Primark and selling off his furniture as he turns 80
Nicky Haslam had a good summer, which is what one expects, darling. He was with friends on the Turquoise Coast in Turkey; he was on an Italian beach in Sicily; he was partying in the South of France in his white Primark jeans and dip-dyed goatee beard.
He used to dress in Savile Row suits (‘like a White’s Club bore’) until 1998, when the end of a love affair had a seismic effect on his wardrobe, and he started dressing like Liam Gallagher instead.
‘You have to stay modern and not limit yourself,’ he says. ‘Now I adore Primark. Three perfect T-shirts in a pack for £9 — and they last for years.’
Nicky Haslam has gone from celebrity interior designer to eating at Greggs, shopping at Primark and selling off his furniture as he turns 80
The aristocratic socialite and noted interior designer was also often at his country home in Hampshire, a 16th-century hunting lodge decorated with his usual exquisite taste — it’s full of pale linen and dappled light, and garden topiary can be glimpsed through latticed panes.
The property is owned by the National Trust, and after living there for 40 years, he is handing back the lease and selling off the contents at a Bonhams auction in November.
Everything is going, from his Cecil Beaton ink portrait of Coco Chanel (£6,000) to his Regency Gothic Revival garden seats (£1,800 for the pair). Won’t that be sad?
Haslam was a socialite party animal who spent time with other famous celebrities including Italian actress Sophia Loren
He was also close with Lady Annabel Goldsmith, the English socialite who was the eponym for a celebrated London nightclub of the late 20th century
‘I am not sad. Life is too long to be sad,’ he says, with the air of a man who, like Nancy Mitford, always finds the currants in the cake.
Plus, he could definitely use the money. Despite his high-society lifestyle, the grand parties, the famous friends, and his stellar career as a designer, author and sometime cabaret singer, the approach of his 80th birthday finds Nicky Haslam left with very little money.
Where has it all gone?
‘I don’t know,’ he cries. ‘I didn’t start off in life with much money and I have just lived day to day on a kind of wonder, on the beauty of experience and the pleasure of pleasure.
‘I don’t have the kind of money that you could call money, but I never wanted to be rich.’ He thinks for a moment. ‘Of course, I would love to be rich, but I simply don’t know how.’
Today, he doesn’t own a house or have an inheritance any more. Even his design company went into voluntary liquidation last year.
He breakfasts in a branch of Greggs every morning because he adores its coffee (‘the best’); he lives on sandwiches and Mr Kipling fondant fancies (‘I love cheap cakes’); and the rings on his fingers are not from some fancy designer, but from H. Samuel on the High Street.
Despite having other famous friends including model Kate Moss, the approach of his 80th birthday finds Nicky Haslam left with very little money
Being Nicky, he manages to make all this seem fashionable and amusing, even brave — which pretty much sums him up, too. He has a bit of cash in the bank, but not much.
The darling old bean has barely got a bean to his name, but he doesn’t seem to care.
‘I worry that I should worry about money more than I do,’ he says.
One suspects that for Nicky, worrying about one’s financial situation is on one of his famous lists of Things He Finds Common; a hilarious ongoing snobalogue that currently includes coloured Wellingtons, wine collecting, self-pity, cufflinks, box sets, jazz, Uber taxis, bottled water, glass fruit in a bowl, vodka tonic, swans and exclamation marks.
No wonder he slightly quails at the preparations for marking his 80th birthday later this month, steeling himself for the ghastly intrusion of other people’s taste via birthday gifts.
‘Oh, the horror,’ he says wanly, before rallying and remembering his manners. ‘Of course, one is always delighted to be the recipient of the generosity of others, isn’t one?’
One most certainly is, Nicky!
Haslam even met the Queen at a celebration of the Arts at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 2012
We meet at the stroke of midday on an autumnal day in his West London apartment, where I instantly commit two sins from the Common list: being on time and being Scottish.
My host kindly overlooks this double solecism and has made a jug of what he calls rosé cup — sliced white peaches macerated overnight with sugar, then topped up with rosé and a splash of water.
It really is the last of the summer wine.
He serves it prettily in a glass pitcher, with snacks and napkins arranged just so, then it is poured into perfect goblets.
‘It’s just a cheap bottle of plonk,’ he shrugs. Maybe, but he has turned something rather ordinary into something rather lovely, because that is what he does. It is what he has always done.
For decades, Nicky has been one of Britain’s most famous interior designers. His rich clientele, many of them celebrities, give him thousands, and in return he gives them taste — with tassels on.
He has done work for the Prince of Wales, Mick Jagger, Bryan Ferry, Rod Stewart and Claridge’s hotel, among others.
He once decorated Anne Robinson’s Cotswolds home, and it was rumoured he charged £200,000 per room to do so. ‘Did that include all the furniture and fixtures?’, I breathlessly wonder.
Lord Snowdon had an affair with the celebrity interior design before marrying Princess Margaret
‘Well, yes, it would have done, but I don’t think that figure is correct, far from. And I mean, I could decorate a room in brown paper if that is what you wanted,’ Nicky says.
In addition, he knows, or has known, everyone. He went clubbing with Marlene Dietrich and Brigitte Bardot.
He was friends with Wallis Simpson and Lucian Freud; chums with Princess Diana; pals with Joan Didion, Jack Nicholson, Andy Warhol, Bob Geldof and Helena Bonham Carter.
At a recent party attended by the Queen, he sang As Time Goes By as part of his cabaret act.
‘And she sang along to every word,’ he says. ‘Oh, I adore her! Her grit. Her sense of humour. Her style.’
He is clearly very good with important ladies of a certain age.
In his new memoir, The Impatient Pen, he recalls interviewing Jackie Onassis’s sister Lee Radziwill (then aged 79) in her Paris apartment.
‘Were you always aware of your beauty?’ he purrs. ‘From the word go,’ she replies.
Haslam was born at Great Hundridge Manor in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, to a diplomat father and a mother who was the granddaughter of an earl.
He contracted polio as a child and was confined to bed for more than two years, where he amused himself by rearranging the furniture in a dolls’ house.
Note that he went to his first proper society party when he was 17, fresh out of Eton. He was instantly entranced.
Rolling Stone Mick Jagger moved in similar social circles. But today Nicky lives alone, busying himself with his writing and singing, plus a few decorating projects
‘It was given by Lord Dudley and it was at The Dorchester. I wore my brother’s dinner jacket. I remember that the champagne bottles had all the labels soaked off so people couldn’t tell whether it was good or bad. It is rather chic not to broadcast that you are serving Dom Perignon, isn’t it?
‘And I remember that Cecil was there, Cecil Beaton. He said to me, ‘I thought I might see you here.’ Such a nice thing to say, you know. So touching.’
As he gets older it gets harder and harder to winkle him out of his home of an evening, but he still thrills at the arrival of a thumpingly good invitation.
A lifetime of partying has taught him some rules about being a perfect guest. Never gush. Always be nice to bores. And don’t stay all night. ‘No, I am not a bitter-end sort of person,’ he says.
He is angry with Harvey Weinstein, whom he believes has ruined everything, party-wise. ‘All this #MeToo stuff has killed sex. You can’t flirt. You can’t touch their shoulder if you light their cigarette. You can’t even look at pretty people in the street any more.
‘I always say that if Harvey had been Cary Grant, the women wouldn’t have minded a bit.’
Nicky says he knew that he was gay when he was ‘seven or eight’, and he has had two long relationships in his life.
One was with a banking heir with whom he lived on a ranch in Arizona and raised horses, the other with his former business partner, Paolo Moschino, the great love of his life.
‘I’ve only ever slept with a dozen men in my entire life,’ he says. ‘I once had a one-night stand in Los Angeles, but I am very faithful. I am not ruled by sex. You can find someone sexy and not sleep with them, which makes them even sexier.’
In his 2009 memoir, Redeeming Features, Nicky wrote of his affair with photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, which took place before he was married to Princess Margaret and became Lord Snowdon.
When the book came out, Snowdon denied the affair in public, but later wrote a letter to thank Nicky for including him.
‘It was a vair, vair, vair short affair. It lasted about a fortnight,’ Nicky says today. ‘Oh, Tony was so attractive and such fun. The motorbike and all that. He wrote to me and said: ‘I am so thrilled you put me in the book.’ ‘
And did he sleep with any other members of the Royal Family? ‘No!’ he cries. Then he thinks. ‘Hang on, did I? No, I did not. But I would love to sleep with Princess Anne, I think she is wildly sexy. She has got it, she really has.
‘I once danced with her at a ball in Belgium. Wow. She pressed her body against mine. That primness fixed with a wink, just riveting.’
Today Nicky lives alone, busying himself with his writing and singing, plus a few decorating projects. One is in Notting Hill, in West London. It is ‘so out of the way’, he wails.
He’s never regretted not marrying (‘ugh’) and not having a family. Even if the prospect of becoming a surrogate father had been available to him when he was younger, he would not have taken the chance.
‘The whole point of being gay is not having children. I don’t understand why so many gay men are doing this. I just think it’s become the fashionable thing to do, in a funny way. And that they’ll dread it in a bit. I’m sorry, but that’s what I think. What the hell.’
As the beautiful objects he has spent a lifetime collecting go under the hammer, and friends plan for his birthday party in November, there is the sense something beautiful is coming to a close in Nicky’s life, that time is rushing past him too quickly for comfort.
Yet, from sickly boy to groovy octogenarian, he’s always looked on the bright side, no matter what is on his mind.
And he still looks handsome in the Sinatra-style suits made for him by ‘a tailor from Zimbabwe who knows more about cutting than anyone’.
He never dwells on how much is in his pocket. ‘One can rely on one’s rich friends for treats and kindness, but one can’t rely on them for a million,’ he says.
He has had one face lift, and would quite like another — although his complexion looks marvellous, thanks to the liberal application of expensive Sisley products (‘a dear, dear friend owns the company’).
His hunting lodge was once ‘the dearest place in the world’, but now he is glad he won’t have the costly upkeep, nor spend the week worrying if the gardener cut the grass.
I fret over his rasping cough, courtesy of the Vogue Bleue Superslims he smokes. ‘But I don’t inhale,’ he cries.
He is not even dismayed by the amputated limbs and shrivelled lungs displayed on the packs as a health warning. ‘I think they are beautiful.
Rather like a Caravaggio, don’t you think?’ he says, admiring a thigh stump. ‘And look at those black lungs. Like a butterfly. Or an owl.’
To see beauty in the most unlikely places, to be aroused by a waltzing Princess Anne, to find pleasure in a cup of Greggs coffee, and never mind giving up the accumulated treasures of your entire existence? If that is not real style, what is?
As is Nicky Haslam’s tale, so is his life. It is the quality, not the longevity, that matters in the end.
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