A Classic Man of Style: John Galliher

He was a most unusual person, the likes of whom I’d never met before. Although no stranger to the world known as “Society” in the 20th century, he was the kind of character you’d read about in a novel but never think to know or meet. And yet, in his way, he was a simple man.

I met him at a dinner party at Billy McCarty-Cooper’s house in Los Angeles. A friend of mine had told me beforehand that I was about to meet the chicest man I’d ever meet. “And why?” I asked. “You’ll see,” he said.

This was about 30 years ago. At the time, he was in his mid-sixties, with a full head of white hair (which someone told me he brushed 50 times each morning). He was “old” to these much younger eyes: small-framed, with a soft-spoken, quiet presence, and very bright eyes.

I had never heard of him before that night—and I’ve always heard of him since. The word “chic” is over-used and I’m not sure what it means. Though John, or Johnny, as everyone liked to call him, defined it in his completeness: always a gent, well-turned-out, never calling attention to himself, a good ear, a good laugh, a bit of mystery, and a good life well-lived, apparently doing nothing but being “chic.” Therein lies the mystery; he was sensible.

We became friends in the years following that dinner, and when I moved back to New York he’d occasionally invite me to a small lunch or dinner he’d have at his apartment on East 69th Street (and later on 63rd), where he’d gather six friends for a simple meal (cooked himself) and a lot of talk, often amusing.

I soon learned that he’d led a very cosmopolitan life since the 1940s in London, Paris, New York, and, early on, in Los Angeles. He’d met and known the rich and the famous of that era, now many historical names, and he seemed to have made his way not in any profession, but in the business of being a “good man to have around.”

He was known to his multitude of friends down through the decades as Johnny, Johnny Galliher (pronounced Gal-yer), or Johnny G. He possessed a unique combination of characteristics and qualities—easily said but rarely found in life—and therefore difficult to define. An old friend of more than 50 years, Tony Hail, the San Francisco interior designer, put it most succinctly: “He was fun to know.”

It didn’t appear that he ever had a real profession or even a job. Nor was it believed that he was independently wealthy, though perhaps a small trust provided income. He was a charmer in his own way. He was naturally gentlemanly, curious, and the kind who if he didn’t have something nice to say (or amusing, which might be more like it with him) said nothing at all. As a very agreeable (a favorite word of his) man, he navigated skillfully for more than 60 years through a world where gossip, bitchery, and malice could be commonplace and even lethal.

He was born in Washington, D.C., on May 24, 1914, the second son of five children. The Gallihers were a prosperous family of Anglo extraction, although never one of great wealth and worldliness like those the second son would go on to swim with.

The boy grew up to be handsome, about five-nine—an average height for his generation—lean, but sinewy, with a thick head of curly black hair and bright blue eyes. As a very young man, in the early 1930s, his path in life appears to have opened to him when he became a favorite of a leading Washington hostess, mining heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean, and her daughter, also named Evalyn, who was seven years his junior.

After high school and then college at Lehigh University, John joined the navy, and served in Europe during the Second World War as a lieutenant. After the war he moved to Los Angeles, where he shared a house in Beverly Hills with Diana Barrymore, whom he had met through Evalyn McLean. Diana was the glamorous daughter of the great star of the stage and screen John Barrymore and New York socialite Michael Strange (a nom de plume for Blanche Oelrichs).

IMG_0004Now in his late twenties, out in the great big world, John’s path in life had begun to show direction. It seemed to have risen out of natural interest and curiosity, as if swept up by Dame Fortune. His inherent ambition and self-discipline would propel him into the high life of Hollywood, New York, Paris, and London, as a member, an associate, a friend, and—presumably at times—as a lover.

While living in Beverly Hills, one day John ran into Lady Mendl, Elsie de Wolfe, whom he had met before. Learning that he was “new” in town, she asked if there was anyone he’d like to meet. He couldn’t think of anybody, since he’d already known so many. Then he thought of Garbo, who had recently retired from the screen and was already a legend. “That might be difficult,” John later recalled Lady Mendl saying.

A few days later, he got a call from Lady Mendl’s secretary: Lady Mendl was inviting him for cocktails the following Tuesday at 5:30. It happened that he already had a previous engagement, as he told the secretary, expressing his regrets. “Break it,” she emphatically advised, sotto voce.

So he did. On the following Tuesday at the appointed time, he went over to Lady Mendl’s Mediterranean villa, After All, and found waiting Lady Mendl, Cary Grant, Marlene Dietrich, and…Greta Garbo.

His relationship with Garbo is emblematic of John’s social career—and it was a career, a very successful one. All kinds of people were attracted to him. His charm was his intelligent evenness. He liked people, never obviously pushed himself on them, and accepted them on their terms. He did not suffer fools. If there were aspects to a person that were cruel or vulgar, he removed himself, quietly and quickly—and resolutely.

He was not one to describe anyone as a “friend,” although as it was with many who knew him and considered it a friendship, John saw Garbo many times after that first meeting, though rarely by seeking her out. Garbo, he knew—as did everyone who came in contact with her—was highly unavailable to anyone who had any expectations of her presence, or company.

There was the time when both John and Garbo were guests on producer Sam Spiegel’s yacht in the Mediterranean in the 1950s. It so happened both he and she were early risers, and the first thing both did was to take a swim before breakfast. They’d bump into each other leaving their respective cabins for the swim. Only a nod was exchanged, however—never a word. Garbo liked to swim in the nude, something that John blithely ignored for her sake, swimming just far enough ahead of her. When finished, both would return to their cabins without uttering a word.

Later at breakfast, however, with everyone present, they’d exchange their first words. “Good Morning, Miss G.” “Good Morning, Mr. G.” It was the beginning of a long “friendship” always on her terms and calendar.

In the late 1940s, John went to work for the Marshall Plan in Paris and kept an apartment on the rue de Bourgogne that was said to be a gift of retail heir Donald Bloomingdale, believed to be another of John’s conquests. He worked briefly with his friend Hubert de Givenchy at the beginning of the designer’s career. Givenchy did not speak English and John spoke French beautifully. With his linguistic and social talents he served as a “liaison” for the rising couturier.

IMG_0002_combinedAfter 15 years of living in Paris, in the 1960s he bought a house in London in Chester Square. It is said that in the following years he bought and re-did several houses, making a tidy sum from the business. His social sphere was replete with names. Both Noel Coward and Cole Porter were close friends and influenced his style. He was often entertained by Barbara Hutton and her cousin Jimmy Donahue; with Fulco Verdura; with Elsa Schiaparelli (with whom it was said he had a long affair); with Arturo and Patricia Lopez-Wilshaw; as well as with Alexis de Rede, Aly Khan, Rita Hayworth, Daisy Fellowes, Porfirio Rubirosa, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Not only charming, handsome, and fun to be with, he also had a great reputation as a lover—of both sexes. More than a few reveled in repeating Diana Barrymore’s famous description of him as being “well-bred and well…everything else.”

He loved to play cards, and it was at the card table that a bit of a different side of Johnny Galliher came out. He played to win. This man, who’d made an art of living a life unfettered by temperament, hated to lose. The games were most often played for money, but it was never a question of stakes. He could get very angry, openly, at his partner if he thought they’d played an especially bad hand. His temper at losing was so out of character that friends easily sloughed it off with a laugh, albeit sometimes feigned, for they always remained cowed by it.

In the mid-1980s, having given up his Paris apartment, he also sold his properties in London and consolidated his life to a small but pleasantly appointed apartment on East 69th Street off Madison Avenue. He often visited his friend Billy McCarty-Cooper in California until Billy’s premature death from AIDS in 1991. He continued to travel frequently to visit friends in Europe or on the Mediterranean.

It was a world of formality: rules, etiquette, and pleasure. Anything goes, but watch yourself. To its real connoisseurs, the life was a talent. John Galliher possessed that talent. He’d had, over time, a couple of close associations (or boyfriends, in today’s parlance) and was well provided for. But he was always his own man, at the center of his world.

His friend, the novelist and journalist Billy Norwich, writing about him in 2001 in the New York Times, concluded that he was “the favorite host for all seasons in New York. Everyone wants to go back to Johnny’s…for lunch or dinner or Saturday-afternoon card parties. (Gin, not bridge.)”

His style of entertaining at meals, Norwich reported, followed a trend started by Louis XIV for a round table of six, where the Sun King would dismiss his servants so that everyone could talk freely and without interruption. John had no servants but instead invented a convenient replacement: a laundry basket lined with a plastic-covered cloth. After each course, the table was cleared by loading everything into the basket, which was eventually carried into the kitchen when guests left.

There was always something of a mystery about him financially because while he lived well, if “modestly,” he wasn’t an “income earner,” and if there was an inheritance, it wasn’t notable. He lived alone, and comfortably, yet somewhat frugally when I knew him in the last 20 years of his life. He was invited out often because he was good company. In those years he spent a few weeks each winter in Gstaad, guest of his friends Bill and Pat Buckley, as well as in Lyford Cay with Sybilla Clark, or in Palm Beach or California with other friends who had houses there.

In the last years of his life, now in his eighties, he was often seen around New York attending the theater, movies, opera, and ballet. Three times a week he walked—three and a half miles each way, always at a brisk pace—from his apartment on East 63rd Street to the pool in the Asphalt Green on York and 92nd Street, for an hour’s swim. To the world, it seemed that although age had come to John Galliher, the levity of youth remained his. It was a very orderly life, active and organized right down to his weekly walks. So it came as a surprise to those who knew him to learn that just before Christmas, in 2003, he had been gravely ill and died.

After his death, he surprised many by leaving bequests totaling almost $2 million. He left each of 35 friends from all walks of life $25,000 tax-free. Many of those friends were people who could use—indeed, needed—that gift, even though they never told him. The remainder of his estate was divided among City Harvest, God’s Love We Deliver, and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.

His small fortune was also a surprise for obvious reasons. The mystery remains, even in memory. I concluded with a serious guess that the secret was: he did have a profession—he had been a spy, or more specifically, worked in intelligence in those days after the war and perhaps much longer. I’d come to that conclusion because of the wide variety of acquaintances he kept up with, ranging from movie stars and tycoons to European politicians, dukes, and duchesses, to authors, to artists, as well as not a few ordinary working stiffs. He was comfortable with all—and all with him—because he was, above all, a gentleman.