Entering Albert Hadley’s Fifth Avenue apartment amounts to crossing into another, better, New York—into the dazzling fantasy of Manhattan that lures so many thousands of young people to the city with visions of glamorous parties and scintillating talk. Hadley, of course, needs no introduction. Along with his late business partner, the blue-blooded Sister Parish, he designed some of the most glorious rooms ever to grace the nation’s residences, like Babe Paley’s “taxicab yellow” drawing room and Brooke Astor’s oxblood-red library. He helped decorate the Kennedy White House, as well as Greentree, the Whitneys’ Gatsbyesque estate on eastern Long Island. Hadley and Parish are the only two interior designers whose work is on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution, having elevated interior design into something of lasting national importance. But more impressive than any of these accomplishments, Hadley’s talent has permeated the culture to such a remarkable degree that his influence is unavoidable. Aside from the innumerable trends he set in motion, he is indirectly responsible for some of the most iconic images of American glamour: in the background of many a Richard Avedon, Slim Aarons, or Annie Leibovitz portrait is an Albert Hadley interior.
Needless to say, Hadley’s own apartment is a treasure trove, filled with a lifetime of exquisitely curated art and furnishings. For instance, there’s an Art Deco German pyramidal bookcase, and an Alexander Liberman painting that once belonged to celebrated Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. There are sketches by Van Day Truex, Hadley’s mentor at Parsons School of Design, and a delicately rendered portrait of Elsie de Wolfe.
Hadley is known for producing interiors suggestive of great wealth (Brooke Astor once drafted Parish-Hadley to decorate her “ Money Room” ). But while his own apartment is luxurious, it’s also intimate, and rife with playful touches. The ceiling of his living room is covered with silver hologram paper, and the faintest glimpse of glitter sparkles through the paint on the room’s walls. Bright bursts of Schiaparelli shocking pink, Tiffany blue, and canary yellow recur throughout the apartment, lending spark to its refined palette. The parlor and powder room boast Hadley’s own iconic wallpapers. And though the apartment is a fairly modest size, it gives the impression of spaciousness due to the designer’s masterful sense of proportion and scale. In every detail, it communicates the wit, warmth, and sophistication of its owner.
Given his exalted career and social connections, there’s really no way for Hadley not to sound grand. For most of his life, he’s resided at the apex of high culture, hobnobbing with the rich and mighty, from the Duchess of Windsor to Happy Rockefeller. But despite this, he’s an exceptionally kind fellow, with a genteel manner and youthful charm. Hadley’s perennial youthfulness has not gone unnoticed. According to biographer Adam Lewis, both Bunny Williams and Mariette Himes Gomez have, rather delightfully, compared him to Peter Pan. He’s also known as a veritable philosopher. For Hadley, interior design has always been an intellectual enterprise. “ It’s about giving form to an idea,” he insists. “ It’s about taking what’s inside, and realizing it in the world. But in order to do that, you have to know things. You have to know history and art. You have to read and be curious. In order to live amid beauty, you have to intellectually engaged. This has nothing to do with shopping for furniture....That’s what’s so marvelous about ladies with great style, like Babe Paley and Annette de la Renta. It’s not merely the advantage of their background. It’s their level of cultivation and connoisseurship. Connoisseurship does not necessarily develop from great wealth.”
Hadley’s own experience is a case in point. He first came to Manhattan in the 1940s, as a World War II veteran from Nashville with little money and few connections. Spending his first nights in New York at the YMCA on W. 63th Street, he was one of those thousands of young people drawn to the city by a dream. Now, almost seventy years later, Hadley is still a young person with a dream, who has, to a remarkable degree, remade much of what’s most beautiful about Manhattan according to his own vision and style. “ Decorating is not about...making pretty pictures for the magazines,” he told Adam Lewis. “ It’s really about creating a quality of life, a beauty that nourishes the soul.”