TOM: No Foolery

From Tom Ford’s Spring/Summer 2021 slideshow at Vogue.com

I have known Tom Ford since he moved to New York and wanted to be an actor.  We both had shags.  We even shagged each other.  But that is for another time and another memoir.

I have always had a sweet spot in my heart for Tom because when I see him I also am able to see there on the horizon of our lives that moment when we, so innocent in our longing, each, yes, longed to find our artistic selves in the lay of the land there before us which was lit by so much hope.  That was before he could look at the sun rising on our lives and not cringe because the crimson there was just a shade off and would look better if the hue with which it was paired there on the horizon was somehow a deeper aubergine,  even though the very sound of the word – Oh-Bore-Gene– sounded a bit vulgar to him because part of his genius as a designer is that he can give color a kind of voice. Don’t get me wrong.  Tom Ford loves turning vulgarity on its your-roots-are-showing head.  Indeed, his signature style to me is a transcendent vulgarity that his keen eye re-conjures into an artfully curated style that has the essence of vulgarity as one of its elements.  It is as if Audrey Hepburn arrived for tea smelling of Anna Magnani’s musk after a week with her on the Riviera.  Something like that.  Ford even reportedly said once that he hoped his fragrance Black Orchid smelled “like a man’s crotch.”  Add that to the curation of his aesthetic.

Tom asked that I interview him for this cover story in The Advocate back in 2009 when he made his brilliant directorial debut with the screen adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man.  We met at his former store on Madison Avenue.  I had showered that morning so I arrived smelling of my own musk, its base notes a freshly scrubbed crotch and memories redolent of our shared youth in which crotches were shared, ours as well as others, and a throbbing of color there on that early horizon that matched the throb of longing we had for our lives to unfold.

Tom Ford and Colin Firth doing press for “A Single Man” back in 2009/2010

The story:

“I don’t think of myself as gay.  That doesn’t mean that I’m not gay.  I just don’t define myself by my sexuality,” says Tom Ford with no sense of irony in his voice.  This is a man who built a fashion empire at Gucci and then as the heir to Yves Saint Laurent and now with his own Tom Ford line of menswear and accesories by defining whole collections and marketing campaigns around his highly honed sense of the needs of others to define themselves as sexual beings.  “The gay aspect of A Single Man certainly wasn’t what drew me to make a film of the Christopher Isherwood book.  It was its human aspect, that unifying quality,” he continues, segueing into a discussion of his remarkable directoral debut.  The film opens in limited release on December 11th.  “If you said name ten things that define me, being gay wouldn’t make the list.  I think Christopher Isherwood was like that too.  There are many gay characters in his works because his work is so autobiographical but their gayness isn’t the focus.  The one thing I liked about Isherwood’s work – especially when I was younger and grappling with my sexuality – is that there was no issue about it in his writing.  That was quite a modern concept back during the time when he was writing.  Quite honestly, I just don’t think about my sexuality.  Do you?  But maybe this has to do with you and I being a part of the first generation to benefit from all the struggles of the gay men and lesbians that came before us.”  

        Ford and I are lounging on a plush sofa in the upstairs inner sanctum of his eponymous store on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue.  The sofa is shade of gray that matches the lighter gray of his shirt and the darker gray of his trousers.  His closely cropped hair is not gray – a deciscion that seems more his than his hair’s.  I have known Ford for close to 30 years since we were both slightly more than boys making our way in New York City.  He was one of the city’s great beauties back then – much more beautiful than any of the bartenders at Studio 54 where we first learned to lounge on plush sofas together – and he is still, at 48. remarkably handsome.  His forehead is also remarkably unlined.

        “Do you use Botox?” I ask, moving in for a closer look.

     “Of course I do,” he readily admits, a brash honesty having  always been one of his most endearing traits.  “Usually I’m not even able to frown but my last injections are wearing off a bit and I am able to frown right now.  I’d never get a full face lift though.  Face lifts on men are a disaster.  But I’m a firm believer in Botox and Restylane.  Absolutely.  Why not.”

        Such self-regard does not always  lead to self-reflection – other than the sort one can suffer from when being too immured in the many-mirrored fashion world .   But Ford, after feeling forced out of Gucci and Saint Laurent, dealt with  a bout of existential angst that resulted in the kind of self-reflection that went much deeper than the mere dermatological..  Re-reading A Single Man  – the stream-of-consciousness story of one day in the lfie of George, the firty-eight-year-old college professor who is trying to break free of his grief over the death of his longtime lover, Jim – and deciding to adapt it for the screen as both the writer and director was an attempt to stake his claim as an artist and, in so doing, begin the healing process of a kind of rarified grief of his own: the loss of himself.

       “I was going through, yes, a very similar thing to what George is going through in the book – a very s serious midlife crisis.  I think back during that part of my life I wasn’t in touch with my spiritual side.  I had neglected that and had become absorbed really in materialism.  I had a wealth – both figurtively and literally – of every kind of material success.   Fame.  A great boyfriend.  Plenty of houses.  Tons of money.  I could indulge in anything I wanted – which included  a lot of cigarettes and vodka which I have now stopped.  But then I hit a point when I turned 40 – even though I was still at Gucci until I was around 43 – when I had a very severe midlife crisis.  I have always struggled throughout my life with depression.  I’ve never made any of this public because … well …”:  He pauses and gathers himself.  “You know me.  I’m not one to wear any of this on my sleeve.  When someone would come into my office in the morning and ask me how I was I’d always go, I’m great!  Great!  But I wasn’t great.  Yet I’m not alone.  Lots of people struggle with this.  We are all suffering to some extent.  But my own emotional suffering led me to realize I had neglected this spiritual side of my life.  I had always depended on this inner voice to lead me along in life and I had shut it out.  I had silenced it.  I was raised a Presbyterian and went to a private Catholic school in Santa Fe but I guess I’d describe myself now as perhaps closer to a Daoist.  And this is why the book spoke to me so much – this renewed need for spirituality in my life.   I had originally read the book in my  20s when you and Ian (Falconer) and I were visiting David Hockney and he introduced us to Christopher Isherwood,” he continues mentioning his first boyfriend.  Ian Falconer, who became even a closer protege of Hockney, is not only a much-in-demand set and costume designer for ballet and opera companies now but also the author and illustrator of the vastly successful series of Olivia children’s books.  But we were all back then part of a kind of Hockney harem of young guys who yearned to have artistic careers of  our own.  “I think I developed a taste for vodka and cigarettes because my first kiss with a guy was with Ian and he tasted like vodka and cigarettes back then,”  Ford says, both bemused and touched by the memory as he displays again a bit of his endearing brashness.  “I never knew I liked men sexually until Ian came into my life.  And he wasn’t just my first male kiss.  The first blow job I ever gave anyone was the one I gave to Ian in the back of a cab on the way home from a night at Studio 54 as we made our way down to where he lived on Eighth Street and Fifth Avnue.   Of course, it was a Checker cab,” he jokes with his innate ability to be both snooty and vulgar at the same time.  Indeed, one of the many personal touches that Ford has incorporated in his version of A Single Man is giving George a last name: Falconer.

       

On a brash roll now, he mentions another.  “In the movie when George talks about shaving off his eyebrow after taking some mescaline – that happened to Ian and me on that trip when we all were visiting David.  One night Ian and I took some mescaline to go to Studio One – remember that? – and I ended up shaving my own eyebrow off..  Back when I read that book in my 20s, I loved it and kind of had a crush on George as I read it.  I’ve always had a thing for older smart guys.  And then I read everything I could find by Isherwood after we all met him.  I was in awe of him and became a bit obsessed with him really.  I found out that he was a Virgo – his birthday was one day earlier than mine.  And in his diaries he was trying to quit smoking and drinking vodka tonics – something else I could certainly identify with.  When I picked up the book again in my 40s it affected me on a much deeper level.  I realized this is a book about the false self.  The first line kind of stopped me in my tracks: Waking up begins with saying am and now.  To me the underlying theme of the book is letting go of the past and being able to live in the present – which was what I was struggling to do at that point in my life.  I no longer had a crush on George but felt as if I had become George myself – both mentally and spiritually.  Though I certainly love the book, through the process of making the film I grafted much of myself onto it.  It was cathartic.”

         Although Ford has elicited Oscar worthy performances from Colin Firth as George and Juilianne Moore as his blowsily stylish confident, Charley, many Isherwood purists may be upset by some of the grafting he has done.  The most important Isherwood purist, his longtime lover Don Barchardy, has given his seal of approval to the film, however, and told Ford that Isherwood himself would have loved it and been okay with the changes he has made.  Ford has made George, now a bit younger at 52, much less frumpy in his version of the story.  He is now downright chic.  There is even a slight resemblance to Yves. Saint Laurent in the figure that Firth cuts onscreen.  “Other people have said he reminds them of a young Michael Caine,” says Ford. “Yves Saint Laurent had never occured to me.  For one thing, Colin is masculine and Yves was very femmy.”

      “Is there a correlation between your putting your own spin on Christopher Isherwood and the way you had to put your own spin on Yves Saint Laurent when you took over that company?”

       “I don’t even remember much about my time at Yves Saint Laurent though I do think some of my best collections were at Yves Saint Laurent – other than that black-and-white initial one.  That one wasn’t very successful and wasn’t very good.  But being at Yves Saint Laurent was such a negative experience for me even though the business boomed while I was there.  Yves and his partner Pierre Berge were so difficult and so evil and made my life such misery.  I’d lived in France off and on and had always loved it.  I went to college in France. It wasn’t until I started working in France that I began to dislike it.  They would call the fiscal police and they would show up at our offices.  You are not able to work an employee more than 35 hours a week.  They’re like Nazis, those police.  They’d come marching in and you had to let them in and they’d  interview my secretary.  And they can fine you and shut you down.  Pierre was the one calling them.  I’ve never talked about this on the record before but it was an awful time for me.  Pierre and Yves were just evil.  So Yves Saint Laurent doesn’t exist for me.”

     “I take it you didn’t buy anything from his estate sale,” I say.

      “God.  Of course not.  I have letters from Yves Saint Laurent that are so mean you cannot even believe such vitriol is possible.  I don’t think he was high when he wrote them either.  I just think he was jealous.  And Yves and I were friends before I took over the company.  But then we began to move  the company forward and were very successful.  And Betty Catroux, his muse, was sitting in my front row wearing my clothes and he just became so insanely jealous.  As I said, I’ve never talked about this before but you brought up Yves.  That phase in my life just doesn’t exist anymore.” 

From Tom Ford’s Spring/Summer 2021 slideshow at Vogue.com

 

       So let’s get back to this newest phase of Ford’s lfe as a movie director and some of the other changes he has made to Isherwood’s book.  The biggest is his decision to have George walking through his day planning to commit suicide at the end of it; the revolver he removes from a drawer is almost fetishised throughout the film.  And he has deleted important characters in the story to focus on George and Charley and Kenny, the student of George’s who becomes a kind of stalker.  Kenny is played by Nicholas Hoult who gives a rather problematic performance.  Are his slightly stilted line readings the result of Kenny’s own ill-at-ease youth or Hoult’s?  Or is the deeply English Hoult – remember him as the child in About a Boy? – just being extra careful with his American accent?  He is, thankfully, achingly sexy and ultimately quite affecting.  Ford also uses his own beloved dogs, Angus and India, with heartrending results in the film.  Richard Buckley, his own longtime lover, is seen fleetingly in a cameo appearance and he puts some of Buckley’s own witticisms I have overheard at parties into George’s mouth.  He creates a scene with a Spanish hustler at a liquor store that is not in the book but is one of the film’s most visually stunning.  And his own love of architecture and style and fashion gives the film a heightened visual scheme.  The movie set in 1962, has the look of a haute couture Mad Men.  The film stock seems to have been saturated with a stunning combination of sadness and beauty.

       “To me beauty and sadness are very closely linked,” Ford says, sliding lower into the sofa’s plushness, his languor not studied,  no longer louche, but the result of his busy world-wide work schedule.  “Truly beautiful things make me sad because I know they are going to fade.  When I see a beautiful twenty-year-old boy or girl – and they are breathtaking – I am filled with a kind of sadnes.  But maybe they are beautiful because we know they are not permanent and they are in a kind of transition.”  He pauses and remembers his posture.  He straightens his spine.  “I know what I am as a fashion designer and when I started out to make my first movie I asked myself, ‘Well, who wants to see a Tom Ford film? What am I about?  What do I stand for?  What do I mean?  What do I have to say?’  You have to be true to yourself.  And I am not a person who is about reality.  I am about enhanced reality.  If I were working in a different period I would have been working at MGM.  By the way, Mr. Hitchcock – who is my favorite director – never made anything realistic in his life.  Everything by him is so stylized.  Another of my favorite directors is Wong Kar-wai.  And Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly  is one of my favorite films.  Part of the image of those two directors is the look of things.  I’ll always be that way also.  But please don’t use that Mad Men reference.  It’s pure coincidence – even though I do use John Hamm from Mad Men in a voice-over role when Colin as George learns of Jim’s death in a auto accident from a relative over the phone.  But I was just sitting next to John at a dinner party one night and was chatting with him and was thinking, God, this guy’s voice is perfect for what I’m looking for.  So I asked if he’d come in the next day and do a voice over for me and he said sure.  I was not thinking of Mad Men at all.  I was just thinking I’ve got 21 days to make this movie and this is a problem solved.  There is nothing about Mad Men and A Single Man that are similiar except that they are both set in 1962.”  Ford’s spine becomes even straighter.  He fidgets with one of the several unbuttoned buttons on his gray shirt.  He buttons it – then unbuttons it once more.  “When you come down to it,” he says, “style without substance isn’t worth anything.  I didn’t want to make a stylish film that wasn’t about anything.  The substance was what was important to me and the style was a part of telling that story – nothing more, nothing less.”  With that, his spine seems to unspool and he slides back down into the sofa.

         “Let’s talk about Richard,” I say.

     “Let’s,” he says, grinning like he used to grin before his life became so grand and we bacame such grownups.

      

      Fashion journalist Richard Buckley has been Tom Ford’s lover for over twenty years.  Their relationship continues to be the anchor in Ford’s life and is the one area where this self-described control freak can relinquish being the boss.  “Richard is the boss in  our relationship.  You’re right.  He would tell you that’s not true but it is true.  It’s a kind of passive bossiness.  One might think on the surface that I’m the boss but really Richard is driving and running the relationship.  That’s because I want more than anything in the world for Richard to be happy.  I sometimes think he doesn’t still believe that.   But it’s true.  So in that way, he’s the boss.  One would think looking in from the outside that it would be about me because of my career … blah blah blah … but it’s not.  It’s about him.  Sometimes I think he forgets how much I still love him and how much his happiness means to me.”

       No amount of Botox or Restylane can disguise the emotion in his face when he talks about Buckley.  His whole countenance softens.  All worldweariness disappears and is replaced by a look of devotion and even delight.  He has told me in the past that it was love at first sight.  What was it about Buckley that made him fall so?  “His soul,” he says without hesitation.  “Something clearly spoke to me.  It wasn’t his beautiful blue eyes and his silvery hair and his slender handsomenesss.  It was something that reached out to me through his false self – his true self connecting with my true self – and it was instant.  On our first date he took me to a southwestern restaurant in New York because he knew I was from New Mexico and we were poor and could eat for about five bucks each.  At the time one of Richard’s best friends was dying of AIDS and one of my best friends was dying of AIDS too so we talked a lot about that as I’m sure a lot of guys did on first dates back then.  We were both just so emotionally exhausted.  So there was no sex on that first date.  I think it took about three dates before we had sex.   He knew I had a fondness for sugary breakfast cereals so he had put a box of Fruit Loops under the bed hoping I would come home with him that night of our third date.  I did.  And the next morning he pulled out that box of Fruit Loops from under the bed.  It was so cute.  We moved in together a month after we met.”

         Would they marry each other after all these years together?  “Yes.  When it becomes a federal law.  Right now it doesn’t do any good in the states.  A few weeks ago Richard had to go into the hospital for something and I had to carry around all these legal documents saying I could make medical decisions for him.  It was insane.  The fact that we are not married in the federal sense means that if I were to die he’d have to pay all these taxes on my estate and receive but a fraction of it and he’d have to alter his life  – whereas if we were married he wouldn’t have to face that burden.  That’s disgusting.  It’s wrong.  But that said, I think I am in favor of terming what I’m talking about as a civil partnership.  We all get so caught up with this word marriage.  For me the word marriage is something that a religion should decide.  Just give me all the same rights.  A civil partnership is what I’d like for everyone – heterosexual as well as homosexual.  Call it what you like.  It’s the rights that are important.  I think getting hung up with the semantics derails the cause we’re all fighting for.”

       Ford has told me in the past that he wanted to have children but that Richard did not.  Any regrets that Richard – proving once more that he’s the boss in their relationship –  won that argument?  “No.  I think Richard was right now.  I’m not so sure I would have wanted to create a child and inflict the world we live in on him or her.  That’s not to say there’s not wonderful things about being a parent and having children.  But I think all people experience so much pain and struggle – and, yes, I know there are wonderful things to balance all that out – but why put a child through all that just to satisfy some need in yourself?”  But isn’t he glad his own parents didn’t feel that way?  “No.  I’m not so sure,” he says quietly.  “I’m not so sure I wouldn’t have been happier never existing.  I’m not so sure at all. Of course, if I had never existed I wouldn’t know.”  Those frown lines he is still able to summon crease his brow at such a thought.  But then he wanly smiles at me in the way that could melt my heart a bit back when we were oh-so-young and would stay up all night discussing all we longed for in life and how burdened we felt by such longing.  “I’m not so sure I’m glad I was born,” he whispers.  “I’m not so sure, Kevin.  I’m not so sure.”

     “Are you happy, Tom.  You have so much to be happy for.”

   “I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life.  After I left Gucci, I was in that deep depression but that was a good thing because out of that came a better understanding of myself.  And now I can truthfully say I’m happpy.  But that said, life is hard and can be so isolating. That is the theme of A SIngle Man that struck me so  and I exaggerated that theme in the film – the isolation one can feel in one’s life.  But the most important thing that George says – and the thing that has proved the most valuable to me in my life as I get older – is that ability to connect.  That is the one thing I live for – to connect.”

             “You have homes all over the world.  Where are you the happiest these days?” I ask.

        “Any where Richard and my dogs are,” he says with more certainty than he’s said anything today.  “If I knew it were the last day of my life and you asked me what would be the thing I’d miss the most, I think one of the things I’d miss the most would be burying my face in the neck of my dog.  In fact, maybe it’s worth being alive just to be able to do that one simple thing.  But I guess if you pin me down to a locaton I’d have to say on my ranch.  New Mexico.  Santa Fe.”

        “So you’re basically just an exiled lesbian at heart,” I tease him.  “I’m going to start calling you Willa.”

        “You know me too well,” he says laughing at the thought of his inner Cather.   Maybe he can adapt one her books next to the screen.

        “You have said, dear Willa,  that you were afraid of dying before you completed filming A Single Man.:  Is that true or were you just being facetious?”

       “That’s completely true,” he says.  “Because this film is so important to me – not only the message of this movie but because I was putting so much of my soul into it.  When I die no one will look at any of my fashion collections and get any true sense of me.  But they can watch this movie and know what I was about.”

  • Kevin Sessums is the author of two New York Times bestselling memoirs, Mississippi Sissy and I Left It on the Mountain.

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