My own acquaintance with Robert began in 1993 when I paid a visit to his office to persuade him to let us profile him in W. He played hard to get but agreed. Somehow I passed muster too, and we became friends. Robert moved in the most diverse circles, so one of the many delightful things about being his friend was that you didn’t know what you would be getting into when he phoned and asked, always in the same very casual manner, what you were doing that evening, or, say, on New Year’s Eve. A typical night was a marathon tour of the most outré nightspots in the Bronx, with Robert at the wheel of his vintage Dodge Charger. One particular New Year’s, it was a trip to the White House, where he had asked me to escort him to the Clintons’ Millennium Dinner. Here’s what I adored—and respected—about Robert: He was exactly the same on both outings, unpretentious, dry-humored and kind of shy.
With his close friends, Robert was funny and commanding, but in public he was reserved. At the fetes he staged, Robert was usually out the door as the guests arrived. If he did stay, he stuck to the sidelines, watching quietly. He never sat down to those banquets, the only exceptions I can recall being the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute gala in 2001, for its Jacqueline Kennedy exhibition, to which he accompanied Mrs. Mellon, and the Millennium evening. Robert could be almost pathologically modest, but that night in D.C., when this boy from Duluth was among the American artists and creative people the president and first lady honored, it was hard for him to hide his pride.
In Greenwich Village, Isabell lived alone in a complex of houses he had joined and converted into a dark and glamorous private casbah. A self-styled “homeboy,” he loved black and Hispanic street culture, which was wonderfully alive on the West Fourth Street basketball courts down the street from his house. He always enjoyed strolling past. A devoted New York Yankees fan, he was never so happy as when he was in his second-row box at the stadium, especially when Bernie Williams or Derek Jeter was at bat. He had a fascination with Mafia lore, and he never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t like.
Isabell was a superb barometer of power and money. In the early Nineties, he talked incessantly about these people no one had heard of, a couple with three blond daughters who lived in the most magnificent town house just decorated at the greatest expense by Renzo Mongiardino. Within a couple of years, everyone knew the Miller sisters—the daughters of duty-free magnate Robert Miller—in no small degree because of the über extravagant wedding balls Isabell designed for them. (Marie-Chantal’s $8 million Greek temple–theme party in London outdid them all.)