Mr. Blackwell - From Rags To Bitches
(Air Date: Week Of 10/13/96)
36 years ago this month, fashion designed Mr. Blackwell created and released the first annual Worst Dressed List along with a Best Dressed List. The first few lists attracted modest attention, but as the House Of Blackwell became more and more famous, so did Mr. Blackwell's lists, especially the Worst Dressed List. Mr. Blackwell's recent autobiography, written with Vernon Patterson, is as concise & pitiless as his lists, but this time the subject under scrutiny is himself. Mr. Blackwell's autobiography reveals a life of what seems to be relentless struggle, describing the Golden Era Of Hollywood in unsparing detail.
He was born Richard Selzer & fought for survival in the tough neighborhood of Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, New York. Blackwell's childhood was filled with beatings, a knifing & other horrifying incidents of violence and abuse. His life-long climb out of poverty began at age fourteen when he was cast as Tommy in a 1936 summer stock tour of "Dead End". The role was the first of many both on stage and in the movies. Film buffs can spot the future Mr. Blackwell in 1938 as Bud opposite the Dead End Kids in Universal's "Little Tough Guy" & as Ears opposite a young Rita Hayworth in Columbia's "Juvenile Court". Throughout his early entertainment career, he found himself at auditions for roles that never materialised & in bit parts that often wound up on the cutting room floor. A name change to Dick Ellis didn't help much, nor did being signed to a contract by Howard Hughes on an ill-fated Faith Domergue vehicle, "Vendetta. Hughes did suggest the name change to Richard Blackwell, however, but when Hedda Hopper discovered that he was really the former street-wise juvenile Richard Selzer, Blackwell's big break evaporated and "Vendetta" was recast. (It didn't see the light of day until its fifth director finally finished it four years later in 1950.)
A disastrous singing engagement on a cruise liner and a less than satisfying personal life led him to try personal management. His first client, a newly-chic nightclub singer named Wanda Curtis, wound up with a gig at an Argentine nightspot during the Peron era. An international incident developed, Mr. Blackwell tried to sort it out in person and, well...read the "Argentine-Hello" chapter for THAT incredible story. I couldn't put Mr. Blackwell's book down the entire trek from Los Angeles to San Francisco, even though I had to read it in the dark by flashlight! Blackwell's heady days as a hot fashion designer are well-documented,, as well as the accompanying financial, health and emotional hazards and his enduring disdain for Women's Wear Daily and its publisher John Fairchild.
If anyone ever deserved every penny of his success, it's Mr. Blackwell. Although he now enjoys a much-deserved private life with his long-time partner Robert Spencer, it's our loss that Mr. Blackwell is no longer an active designer. We could use his taste and imagination quite a bit more than once a year.
Copyright 1996 Monica Sullivan
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