But it was a long road from his scabby-kneed Dickensian childhood in post-war England to the fizzy life of letters and glamour he has cultivated. And his writing success, which commenced at age 46, came as quite a surprise to him, after the childhood trauma of failing a high-stakes school placement exam at the age of eleven.
I sat down with Doonan and his Norwich terrier, Liberace, in his epilepsy-inducing Greenwich Village apartment, which he described to The New Yorker as “palatial gay fantasia.” A papier-mâché Prince head laid beleaguered in the corner, and upon my noticing it, he suggested that we pose with it for a photo. He is warm, irreverent, and inappropriate. He is just as funny speaking of the cuff as he is in his books. And yes, he does shop in the boys’ department occasionally.
From window dressing to a highfalutin writing career of books and columns. How did that happen?
I think my career is a series of serendipitous occurrences. I never had any kind of plan, and I don’t think people believe me when I say that, but I didn’t. When I graduated college I got a job at a factory in my town.
What kind of factory?
I worked in a series of factories, but the one that stands out is the cork factory, where my mother worked making the inside of bottle tops. That didn’t pay too much. I would go every day to the Manpower agency when I was 21, 22, where they would give me a job. I did a whole bunch of things after college, and I had literally no idea what I was going to do. I got a job demolishing public toilets.
Wait, with, like, a sledgehammer?!
Yes, that was horrible. And I did that for a few weeks because construction jobs paid more, but I decided that was not me. They were so foul I’m surprised I didn’t get some horrible flesh eating bacterium. There was a local department store where my gay best friend, James “Biddie” Biddlecomb, worked in the soft furnishings department, and it was much less money, like instead of 18 pounds a week you’d get 11 pounds a week, but I thought at least it’s bearable. The local department store was very Are You Being Served? I got a job in clocks and watches, and since there was a recession going on we weren’t exactly inundated with customers. Eventually, Biddie and I saved up money and got a squalid apartment in London.
I got a job in a fashion store near Saville Row, and then I applied for a display job at Aquascutum. I didn’t want to work in a factory because it was too dirty, so I thought, “Ok, I can work in a store,” but it was boring just flicking a feather duster around, so I got a job in display, because even in my hometown I could see the display people had more fun. I started doing freelance window display jobs, and then I got a job as display manager at Turnville and Asser and they had lots of little windows in a rococo style. I had a lot of great freelance jobs. I got a job for Tommy Nutter, he was the trendy tailor on Saville Row. They wanted outrageous, fun windows. One day I was doing the windows and putting in stuffed rats with little bow ties on and a guy, Tommy Perse, came in and said, “You are really twisted! This window is great! You should come work for me in LA.” And I went home and said to my drag queen roommate, “This guy wants me to go work in LA, where’s that?!”
You really didn’t know where it was?
The world was a lot smaller then. I thought, “Wait, is that part of Beverly Hills? Hollywood?” There were two recessions in the ‘70s, so no one rushed in and offered you jobs. You had to tear your living out of the world. So I packed a bag and went to live in LA when I was 25. And I stayed there for eight years. It turned out to be a very well known store, Maxfield. It was the first groovy store on the west coast.
I started a t-shirt business with my friend, and eventually I got some movie related things. I helped create the gallery scene in Beverly Hills Cop. I got a screen credit and when it was to be released they said, “Do you want some points?” and I thought they were trying to cheat me out of my cash! The first thing I said was “No one is going to go see this movie because any movie I’m working on is clearly straight to video,” except they didn’t have video back then. So I thought, no no no I don’t want those points, whatever they are, and then it went on to be the most successful movie ever.
I was very peripatetic in those days. I lived in downtown Hollywood, by strip clubs and stripper supply stores like Playmates. It was a very sleazy, dusty time in Hollywood. If an actress was going to the Academy Awards she would just run out and buy herself a dress. I feel very lucky to have lived in LA when it was still ratty and there were trains going down Santa Monica Boulevard.
I probably would have still been there, but then a friend of mine said we should go to New York to work for Dianna Vreeland on the Met Costume exhibits. And I thought, volunteer? I don’t do that, I get paid to do stuff like that. So somehow I managed to get a paying gig and I came out here and slept on the floor of my friend’s apartment while I worked on this exhibit. I wasn’t invited to the opening of the exhibit, but you could buy a $100 dessert ticket, and if Anna Wintour knew that now she would die! At the opening, I met Gene Pressman, who was the owner of Barneys, and they were just about to open the women’s shop on 17th street, and he said “I know you, I know all the work you’ve done at Maxfield, and we want to be the store with fun windows that everyone talks about, you should come work for me.” I’m very obedient, so I just went home to LA and sold my car and had a yard sale and moved to New York.
Back then, I was just designing the windows and bit by bit I got more responsibility. Initially I was very involved in store design, then advertising, then executive vice president of creative services. I was a full-on suit wearing person. By then I was in my late 30s early 40s and I thought, “Fuck it, I need to get some money in the bank.” And I was enjoying it, I was surprised I was actually good at that stuff. I was good at sending memos, scheduling meetings – the corporate, bossy stuff – and I juggled it while doing the windows.
You must have had really long days.
I did. I would arrive at work around 8:30 a.m., and then leave at 9 p.m. I definitely paid my dues. I didn’t have a broad frame of reference, but it was a dream job because of the opportunity it presented me. I had a whole block of Manhattan to play with, to create installations myself and then have people collaborate with me, everyone from Robert Mapplethorpe to Lady Bunny, and it was an incredible opportunity for me, which is why I stayed. I remember running into Susan Lucci when I had been at Barneys for 20 years, and we both agreed if you’ve got a good gig, you stick with it.
It’s interesting you say you didn’t have a broad frame of reference because your windows are so referential, encompassing so many different worlds and cultures.
It became broader, but I also became less feral.
What were some of your favorite windows and how did you come up with the ideas when they were changing every week?
The thing about windows is that they are relentless. When I worked at Maxfield they changed every week, so over the 8 years I worked there I essentially had to come up with 400 different windows. It was the ‘70s, so I did all kinds of outré windows. If something wacky was going on in the news I would replicate it in the windows. Like the Hillside Strangler. Or a woman’s baby was abducted by a coyote so we restaged it in the window.
I learned a lot doing that because people always think you’re making fun, but I wasn’t. I thought it was reportage. But people always think you’re taking the piss out of it when you put something in a window because it degrades things, it makes everything into Coney Island sideshow.
Did that ever upset you?
No, I didn’t have time to become indignant because I always had to do another window! That’s why I never wanted to become an artist because you get so constipated worrying what everyone thinks about your line quality. In display, you don’t have that luxury. It’s more like being a mime. If you do a bad show, there’s another town square you could go to.
I never wanted to upset people, but I was just young and those were the times. My tenure at Barneys coincided with the rise of celebrity culture, and that had an impact on my design. I started to do caricatures of celebrities, but I always made sure to include lowbrow. Tammy Faye Bakker is one of my all-time favorites. I had a huge effigy of her made and I plonked it in the middle of this room with a giant mascara wand that was a Christmas tree. Another favorite is when I did Margaret Thatcher as a dominatrix.
So how did you become a writer?
Nicholas Callaway approached me to say I should do a book of all my windows, and I had always been so sloppy at documenting them, but I did have a lot of images, and he asked me to write the introduction. When I handed it in, he said, “This is so hilarious! You have to write more!” He encouraged me, and then the book, Confessions of a Window Dresser, became text-driven. That was in 1998. Madonna bought the rights to it. Then not long after that Peter Kaplan gave me my column at the New York Observer, which I wrote for ten years. And I did more books [Eccentric Glamour, Wacky Chicks, Beautiful People] and now I write for Slate.
Did the enthusiastic response to your writing take you by surprise?
Yes. Like a lot of English people of my generation, we grew up listening to the radio. It was very highbrow. Even though my family wasn’t educated— my parents both left school when they were very young—we would listen to Iris Murdoch, or Harold Pinter, so I grew up with a high level of English in my ear.
At the age of 11 we all had to take this exam, called the 11-Plus that decided whether you were stupid or smart, essentially sorting kids into vocational (i.e. the factory) or academic tracks. I failed it. I went to what was sort of a technical school. It was incredibly stigmatizing to fail, because all my friends, including Biddie, passed the exam. So they all went sailing off to a middle class life of couture and I was left in the gutter. For an 11-year-old it was a very traumatizing experience. But I thought the kids at this school were all kind of groovy! The girls all had beehives.
There were also some great teachers there, like we had an English teacher who would read Chaucer and happily use the word “cunt” all the way through it. That school kicked us out at 16, but I wanted to go to college, and I managed to get into the grammar school just to do my A-levels, and then I got into Manchester University. So I’m a success story. I think from that school I’m one of a few kids ever to have gotten into university. I used to study very hard because I realized I was in deep shit and if I didn’t watch it I was going to end up working at the biscuit factory. I wasn’t admonished or anything, it was just like, “You can work at the biscuit factory, it’s not that big a deal.”
It was good for me to fail the 11-Plus because I learned that nothing is that big a fucking deal, you just learn to figure it out. I hear kids now so riddled with anxiety about their stupid careers and they’re in their 20s. I’m just like, “Chillax, Mary!” It ain’t that big a deal. Who cares if you work in a juice bar, if you’re having fun and feel good about yourself? I’m vaguely appalled at how driven and careerist young people are. One thing I am sympathetic to is the lack of jobs. At least with me, I could get a job, even if it was a horrible job demolishing toilets or working at the factory. My sister and I worked at the local factory every school holiday, and everybody did. There was tons of that kind of work and now there just isn’t.
Right, that’s part of what Occupy Wall Street is about, not just trying to dismantle the system but to demand jobs. It’s especially hard for American kids, too, I think, who have had their self-esteems massaged since kindergarten, to deal with working “dead end” or minimum wage jobs…
It’s actually much better to be told you’re a piece of shit! Failing the 11-Plus matured me in a way. It made me take responsibility for myself. Most people don’t get around to that until much later on. I never really had a lot of anxiety about my career. I was always a very hard worker and very positive and enthusiastic in the workplace.
By the time I was in my 20s I was very focused on creative satisfaction. I didn’t care that I was paid $100 a week at Maxfield. It was fun having those windows to do every week, it’s a very instantly rewarding thing. You get instant feedback, everyone gets to see it. It’s democratic. Writing a column too. People read it right away. I’ve always focused on those kind of things, rather than having some kind of clear-sighted vision of what I wanted to do, I just thought, oh that will work, that will be fun.
So were you writing at all before you became a “writer”?
No. I wrote invoices. I had a good turn of phrase, my parents are very funny. Growing up I used to read everything.
I was wondering, because as you said, your parents left school early, and you spent most of your early education in a vocational school. What kind of access did you have to the written word?
It wasn’t like being white trash in America. My parents read everything. My mom was a working class Tory and my dad was a lefty, so we had everything in our house from the trashy News of the World to the New Statesman and Private Eye. I read Private Eye from the very beginning. I still have a subscription, so that way of seeing the world that’s sardonic and satirical, that was my window into the world. Even TV back then was sophisticated. The mission at the BBC was to give people what they ought to have, instead of being ratings driven. Just hearing people speak in an educated way, you didn’t hear the dumb dumb stuff you do today. Even trash culture was always witty in an English way.
A lot of my family is Irish so they were all very funny and great storytellers. In the ‘60s, I read all of James Bond and Edna O’Brien. I read a lot but I wasn’t aware of why I was doing it. There was nothing else to do. English childhood back then was fantastically indolent. We literally had nothing to do. Most of my time was spent avoiding my relatives who lived in the house, my grandmother who had a lobotomy and lived upstairs, and my Uncle Ken who went crazy.
What was it like seeing your first book Confessions of a Window Dresser in print?
Nerve racking. My parents were kind of horrified that I had written all this stuff about our family.
Did you talk to your parents before it came out to brace them for the contents?
Nope, I just handed it to them and said, “Here’s this book that I’ve written.” And I sent it to them. They both had very difficult, crazy lives with their families and they survived it by never talking about it. But for me, being in America and having psychotherapy, it’s about talking about everything. So it was traumatizing for them. They had never come to terms with the fact that my sister and I are both gay, so it’s like why would you tell everyone that? So they were horrified and stunned by the whole thing. And they felt bad too because why did they subject my sister and I to growing up with all of our mentally ill relatives in a rooming house? So they felt bad, but I told them they didn’t need to. I’m a fun-loving creative dude because of my back-story.
How did you get past it?
I remember giving them a copy and I never saw it again. I don’t know what they did with it. Like when I failed the 11-Plus. It was never discussed. People didn’t dissect things. My father’s father killed himself, his mother had a lobotomy, his brother went insane, he ran away from home at 15. So he had a very complex start in life. My mom’s dad was a belligerent drunk, her brother was a criminal who was in and out of jail, her mother was a religious maniac. My mom left school at 13 and became a pork butcher. So I don’t fault them for anything. They used to drink a lot, so I think that’s how they dealt with traumas they’d sustained. They were funny, too, and very likeable. They were both very unconventional, they had no sense of occasion whatsoever. When they got married they got so drunk they lost the wedding certificate. They never celebrated wedding anniversaries, they thought that was so bourgeois. They could call me up and say, “Oh, by the way, your grandmother died.” Birthdays? What birthdays? Everything just sort of sailed past.
I don’t have a sense of occasion either. I’m known for being very inappropriate. I’m not the person you call when you want your wedding done, I’m the person you call when you want an effigy of Tammy Faye Bakker.
How old were you when the first book came out?
What do you think are the advantages of coming to writing on the later side?
I came to it with a lot of enthusiasm and low expectations. That’s probably one of the advantages. It was a surprise to me. This book Nasty, I thought it would be huge and Simon and Schuster thought it would be huge, but it wasn’t. It got picked up as a TV series by the BBC- Beautiful People– It has a cult following. I get letters from people saying, “It helped me come out to my parents”, and I feel like, oh finally I did something nice.
I also have a wealth of material to mine, and I continue to generate more material, working in the fashion world, and I think that’s why I’m able to write a regular column. I’m not the typical closeted writer who lives in a shed in Vermont. I’m out in the world. I think people start to scrape the barrel if you don’t get out in the world enough.
Once an interviewer said to me, “I don’t get it. You work in a department store and you call yourself a writer, what’s that all about? You’re never going to be taken seriously.” And I said, “Well I think that if Virginia Woolf had had a job working the scarf counter at Harrods a couple of days week, she would have gotten out of the house, and had her staff discount, and she probably wouldn’t have gotten so moribund!” Whenever I see films about the Bloomsbury Group I think, “Retail would have helped these people so much!” They were disappearing up their own asses. They should have gotten a job slicing ham in the food court.
How do your visually creative jobs- window displays, merchandising- play into writing?
That pressure to create new displays on that hamster’s wheel is very similar to the pressure to come up with new writing ideas, because the Observer column was every week, and then Slate is every other week, so it’s a certain way of thinking where some part of your brain is constantly scanning the horizon for something that is column-worthy, just as I trained my brain to look for things that would make a good window the following week. So strangely, it’s very similar.
I’ve noticed that you select and string together tons of adjectives in your writing. A few favorites: poignant, fin de siècle, dreary, swishy…Do you think that tendency to decorate your sentences comes from window dressing?
I didn’t go to writing school so I didn’t have anyone telling me I should strip everything back to blank minimalism. In a window, if you want it to be more interesting, you can make it more dense. If you look at my holiday windows, they’re very dense with a lot of layers, texts, things you can discover and linger over. That’s what makes a good holiday window. I think the same applies to writing. With stripped down prose, sometimes less is less.
What is your writing process like?
I never dither about it. There are people who keep going to the fridge and finding other things to do because they don’t want to write. I don’t have that problem. I know my time is allotted that I have to write and I just get on with it. I’ve never been a procrastinator, I don’t understand that. Like today [Friday], I have to start working on my Slate column and I plan to file Monday or Tuesday. I’m fairly organized, when I get an idea I just make a note of it on my computer so I always have three or four column ideas gurgling ahead of time so that I don’t have that empty bucket feeling.
I don’t write about fashion per se because I don’t think the average Slate reader is interested in if Raphson is going to Christian Dior or not. That is not a story in and of itself, so I’m always looking for aberrations. Like tattoos were a fad and then they become an epidemic. So I wrote a column about that, things that everyone can relate to. That’s similar to windows. I always did things that people would recognize. Diana Vreeland used to say, “If a seven-year-old girl from Harlem doesn’t understand this exhibit, then we’re wasting our time.” She was democratic. I’ve never been esoteric. I’m very wary of anything art-related unless it’s understandable anyway. I’m democratic, I’m pop in my sensibility. I have an advertising brain, not an editorial brain.
You’ve performed a number of hilarious and touching MOTH Stories. Do you notice any differences in writing for performance vs. text?
I’m working on my new book now, Fashion Asylum, that’s a collage of anecdotes, and doing MOTH stories has helped me enormously in tossing out irrelevancies, and making a story have a really tight arch. I’m very grateful for those experiences because it’s made me more skillful at tightening things up and getting rid of the extraneous, and knowing when to go into a digression. Once you get up there you connect with the audience, you start to really tell it. It’s very rare that I’ve missed a funny detail because it all comes back to you. It’s very transcendental.
Do you get nervous?
I’m fine with fucking things up. I find that people are very sympathetic. Once I was given an award and I accidentally dropped it and it smashed onstage and people said, “This thing is normally so boring, thank you!” Informality and catastrophe can make an otherwise boring evening. The main thing is people are having a good time, not if the hors d’oeuvres are lined up.
Have you ever doubted yourself in any of these fields, or felt like a phony?
Yes. I always come from the position of, “I can’t believe they asked me to do this.” I always think, “Wow I never thought I’d be in this kind of position.” And I’m not being like a Dickensian Little Nell character, it’s simply because I did come from a crap town and I had an inauspicious beginning, so I was always coming from that perspective, rather than feeling like I was going to conquer the world at an early age and then not be able to. I came from the perspective of thinking I would never conquer anything and then I was thrilled to conquer a few little things. Everything is a delightful surprise. Like I was just on Conan the other night, and Jack Black was the other guest, and this is national television. I thought this is so beyond! This is so fab! So the result is that I’m very relaxed. I’m always sort of pleasantly surprised by things.
How do you come up with the ideas for your books and columns?
Our culture is churning it up all the time. There’s always some crazy shit going on that I think deserves to be looked at objectively. Like I noticed that girls started wearing a few hair extensions to make their hair more lustrous to wearing so many that they look like Charles II. So looking at things as if I flew in from Mars. Looking at things readers can relate to, and not as a fashion insider. I’m well aware that that has a limited appeal.
Who inspires you?
People who are irreverent and witty. I read the obituaries, and when I read about a writer who has died I buy their books. Like Beryl Bainbridge. And then I read about a woman who went by the name Miss Reed, and she wrote about English village life, and it just seemed so perverse to me to call yourself Miss Reed that it made me think maybe I should call myself Mr. Doonan! Her books are so well written and funny and the humor is very subtle.
Often, movies inspire me. Like I just recently watched British New Wave night on TCM, like Tony Richardson, who directed Mademoiselle, A Taste of Honey, The Loved One. He’s incredibly inspiring to me. John Schlesinger, Midnight Cowboy… Film directors from that period I feel are very inspiring because they were completely rule breaking and creative, not interested in ratings.
America is very inspiring to me. New York is great. New York still has a fabulous eccentricity about it. I love places in America, like Scottsdale and Vegas. It’s horrifying and fascinating. I love Seattle and Portland. I find American culture much more interesting than European. Europe is in the grip of history, but America is just madness.
You are married to another creative genius, designer Jonathan Adler. Do you bounce ideas off each other?
I go to his studio at least once a week and he shows me new things he’s working on and I’m always astounded by how beautifully crafted they are. Usually, we look at all the things he’s making and I’ll say, “Wow that’s insane! How great!” He’s a very evolved designer, he’s been doing it a long time. Sometimes I’ll look over a book he’s written. I’m always in awe, in fascination. I don’t have any contributions to make other than to be amazed and delighted. People have the idea that we are two gay men duking it out over interior design, but it just doesn’t happen.
I’ll read him my columns when they’re rough, and he’ll tease me and say, “You’re an idiot and tests have proven it!” Referring to 11+. He always describes the exam as “comprehensive.”
What advice would you offer young writers or people trying to make their way in a creative field?
If you want to be a writer, you need to have an additional profession. You can’t subsist on a writing income. There are, like, two people in the world who have those plumb jobs that allow them just to write. It’s just not a well-compensated profession. It’s not a bad idea to have another string to your bow. When I read that Augusten Burroughs book I didn’t understand it. I was like, “What is he complaining about, he’s got this great job in advertising that can only inform his life as a writer?” But he treated it as some sort of corrosive thing to his soul.
So how do you recommend people balance their writing life with their day job? How did you make the time and space for your writing?
If you can’t make the time, then you don’t want to enough. If you say, “I want to be a writer and I don’t care if I live in abject poverty…” I don’t know. You need enough money to pay your medical insurance and buy a car if you need car, even if it’s a crappy old car. I was joking about Virginia Woolf working at the scarf counter at Harrods, but really I believe that. My writing career is ideal to me, because I do two or three days a week at Barneys and then write the rest of the time. And it’s pleasurable, I am able to subsist. There’s no guarantee that you’re going to be able to make a living from writing. You should treat it as something pleasurable and be able to enjoy it. Don’t expect to extract a living from it.
You might have a period where your money-making job takes over and cannibalizes your time, but then it might switch again and you can spend more time writing. There’s a tremendous amount of writing work available because of the Internet, but none of it is well compensated. By the time you’re 35 or 40, you need to be able to buy yourself some niceies and icies. And if you go out for dinner, you don’t want to always be the one with no money. It’s so boring!
So you shouldn’t allow your day job to be some dismal reflection on your worth as a writer if you find it taking over?
Your day job will always inform you as a writer. And the writers who don’t have that will always have to scrape for material. Look on it as an opportunity to study people and listen to speech. Even if you’re working in a rental car office. Think of the material you could get out of that!
Developing a signature style is pretty important. I don’t think you’ll enjoy writing in the long run if you don’t develop a signature style. That’s similar to my display career. When I was doing windows at Aquascutum they were very regulation, conventional windows, and I couldn’t have done that for too many more years but I stuck with it because I found ways to make it fun and anarchic. Develop a signature style that’s got some individuality to it, or else why would you do it? Typing isn’t that much fun!
When will your next book come out?
I don’t want to rush it because I want it to be great. It happens pretty organically. Probably eighteen months to two years. I write a lot on planes because I can get absorbed because I’m so bored. This weekend I’ll be working on my column and the book. When I get too close to the column and can’t look at it objectively, I’ll work on the book, and then go back to the column when my Alzheimer’s and dementia will let me see it as if somebody else wrote it.
That might be another advantage to starting late in life!
Exactly! Norman Mailer said that. When he’d get up the next morning to look at his work from the day before, he said it was like marking up somebody else’s pages! I totally get that.
Interview by Elizabeth Greenwood