Mr. Varney is the world's leading authority on the war on gunk, as carried out by . He ought to be: He oversaw the decoration of three subsequent Crawford apartments, and his 1999 book, The Decorator , is a roman à clef about their relationship. I grilled him about the eternally fascinating, wire-hanger-hating harridan and got oodles of spring-cleaning tips–and a whole lot more.
Mr. Varney met Joan Crawford in 1965, when she was just about to vacate her massive Fifth Avenue apartment at 2 East 70th Street, overlooking the Frick Collection, and move to a smaller pad at the Imperial House on 69th Street and . After the death of her husband, Pepsi Cola chairman Alfred Steele, Crawford could no longer afford the staggering–for 1965–$3,000 maintenance (i.e., the first wife got the life insurance). Precocious Mr. Varney was only 22 when he got the life-changing commission to decorate the new apartment. Pepsi-promotin' J.C. was in her late 50's and still shooting the occasional movie: She had just completed Trog –one of the most retarded movies ever made–when they began their collaboration.
"I was the cosmetician, and she was the director," said the dapper Mr. Varney as we chatted from either side of a coffee table which had belonged to Crawford. "She blocked out the floor with tape in each empty room and walked around as if she was playing scenes."
But it wasn't all smooth sailing. The move to humbler digs wore on Mommie Dearest's nerves and upped her vodka intake: She drank from "a large plastic barrel-shaped glass with a fly-casting symbol on it," according to Mr. Varney's 1980 memoir, There's No Place Like Home: Confessions of an Interior Designer . But Mr. Varney enjoyed the challenge. In fact, he even confessed to feeling an amorous frisson toward the aging movie icon. "It was an unusual feeling, a combination of the emotions a man has when he looks at a desirable woman and those he has for his mother." Eeuw!
I ask Mr. Varney if there was ever any hanky-panky. "No!" he said. "But I used to take out Christina. In fact, I know Joan would have loved to have had me as a son-in-law." Double eeuw!
Though the still-attractive Joan had graduated from cracking Christina over the head with Bon Ami containers, her obsessive compulsions, according to Mr. Varney, raged throughout their relationship. Guests were asked to remove their shoes chez elle, and Joan herself wore floor-protecting rubber flip-flops. She always carried a box of Kleenex with her in case her pooches pooped on the floor. Furniture and lampshades were all protected against the sooty metropolis. "There were more objects wrapped in plastic in Joan's apartment than in an A&P meat counter," recalled Mr. Varney.
In his memoir, Mr. Varney dismisses analytical theories about Joan's Lady Macbeth-ish tendencies, claiming that she simply "enjoyed being neat, clean and tidy" and that "her mania never prevented her from living well. If you disregard the bother of having to 'break the seals' on rising from a plastic-covered couch in warm weather."
Mr. Varney's loyalty continues to this day. "I never saw the movie," said Mr. Varney, referring to the 1981 classic Mommie Dearest . (Call me warped, but I never thought that the movie was such a terrible indictment of J.C. What's so great about putting expensive frocks on wire hangers?)
"I always remember her being very kind to Christina," said Mr. Varney. "But I admit, Joan wasn't easy."
Neither, I have the distinct impression, is Mr. Varney. At 60, he has the same curmudgeonly commitment to his oeuvre and his persona that he once observed in Crawford. "Always remember, Carleton, I invented me," he recalls her once telling him. After half an hour with Mr. Varney, one could easily imagine him trotting out the same line.
P.S.: Another of Mr. Varney's clients was Ethel Merman, the foghorn-voiced legend who was also eccentric, though not about cleanliness. According to Mr. Varney, Ms. Merman kept a Christmas tree in her entryway 365 days a year. On her deathbed, Ethel told her decorator, somewhat enigmatically, "Get on the boat before it leaves the pier."