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Billy Baldwin AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY by Billy Baldwin with Michael Gardine (Little, Brown: $19.45; 352 pp., illustrated)

December 29, 1985|Hutton Wilkinson | Wilkinson is a Los Angeles-based interior designer and a member of the board of directors of the Elsie de Wolfe Foundation and the Anthony and Elizabeth Duquette Foundation for the Living Arts. and

Billy Baldwin, who before his death in 1983 was known by the cognoscenti as the dean of American decorators, recorded his fascinating life, and had it set down by his friend and collaborator, author Michael Gardine.

If you would enjoy reading the life of a man of accomplishment embellished with tales of the great and near great of this century who were more than his friends, then you will enjoy reading "Billy Baldwin." If, however, you are looking for advice on furniture placement, color schemes or a personal design philosophy, then you would be best advised to read another book.

In Billy Baldwin's own manner of speaking, a style which Gardine found "extremely easy to imitate and reproduce," the Great American decorator regales us with a marvelously readable story told in the first person. A most likable raconteur, Baldwin holds forth on matters of taste, fashion, friendship and the celebration that comes from living a rich full life.

Baldwin was born in Baltimore, Md., the first child of well-to-do parents whom he remembers as being young and attractive. Though he disliked his father and loathed his little sister, Baldwin remembers the beauty and gracious style of his mother with fondness, as well as her interest in interior decoration, clothes and her son. Baldwin recounts his attempts at working for his father and his eventual choice of the profession for which he was better suited. There is a brief chapter dedicated to his meeting and employment by Ruby Ross Wood, Baldwin's mentor, protector and sponsor.

To the delight of those who have read "Billy Baldwin Decorates" and "Billy Baldwin Remembers" this autobiography presents new and exciting material. The pages come alive with his recollections of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Cole Porter, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and arbiters of taste such as Hubert de Givenchy and Diana Vreeland as well as the great decorators Elsie de Wolfe and James Pendleton.

Both sensitive and objective, Baldwin generously praises his competitors for their innovations while mentioning his own triumphs and disasters in a career that spanned over 40 years. It is this past, so near and yet so far that comes wonderfully alive with his candid statements.

Not since the great Elsie de Wolfe invented the business in the early 1900s has there been, in my opinion, a more influential person in the field of interior design than Billy Baldwin. His was a unique and recognizable style which has been taken up and adapted by a generation of designers and self-styled decorettes, whose classic imitations of his pared down tastes have become a formula for the modern interior as we know it.

Although he was small in stature, as Ruby Ross Wood said, "His sting is deep." A bon vivant with enormous personal flair, Billy B., as he was called, surely had many wicked tales to tell. Surprisingly, throughout this book, he is more than kind about his friends and brings up their shortcomings almost apologetically. Few autobiographies that I have read equal this one in perception, grace and immediacy. Gardine has created a valuable document, both fascinating and entertaining.

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