Before Robert Isabell came along, New York parties weren’t truly Events. But he took entertaining to that next level. The tide had turned, surely, by August 1989, when, to celebrate the 50th birthday of Saul Steinberg, Isabell conjured up a 17th-century Flemish drinking hall inside a tent on the lawn of Steinberg’s Quogue estate, featuring 10 tableaux vivants based on the financier’s favorite Old Master paintings. The astonishing spectacle branded Nouvelle Society, and throughout the Nineties Isabell more or less had the party business locked up. Whether you were a king of Wall Street or Seventh Avenue, a duty-free heiress or an A-list charity queen, you had Isabell on your speed dial. Kennedys didn’t get married, or buried, without him; the Clintons had him trim the White House Christmas tree.
Isabell’s accomplishments were all the more remarkable considering he came out of nowhere—or, to be specific, Duluth, Minnesota. The son of a power-company lineman, he worked briefly as a florist in Minneapolis before making the jump to Manhattan in the late Seventies, when he was somewhere in his mid-20s. (“I’ve been lying too long about my age,” he often admitted.) Steve Rubell plucked the handsome, dark-haired lad out of a line at Studio 54 and put him to work decorating the disco’s nightly revels. After a brief stint running a flower shop out of Bergdorf Goodman, he opened his event planning business in the mid-Eighties.
Having risen to the top of his field, Isabell opted to pull back in recent years. He took on only jobs he wanted, which gave him time to pursue new interests, such as constructing a six-story commercial building on the site of his longtime atelier on far West 13th Street. But what occupied much of his time was what many considered a most unlikely friendship, with Rachel Lambert “Bunny” Mellon, 99, quite possibly the grandest lady alive in America. The daughter of a pharmaceuticals magnate and the widow of banking heir Paul Mellon, she is renowned for her exquisite taste, her horticultural skills and her mentoring of Jackie Kennedy, for whom she designed the Rose Garden at the White House.
The reclusive Mellon first met Isabell while advising Jackie on Caroline’s wedding in 1986. (See sidebar.) In recent years the pair were practically inseparable. Isabell spent much of his time at Oak Spring, Mellon’s 4,000-acre estate in Upperville, Virginia, or at her other homes in Paris and on Antigua and Cape Cod. So fashion designer Norma Kamali, another of Isabell’s closest friends, knew something was wrong the Wednesday after the Fourth of July weekend, when she got a call from a worried Mellon. Isabell hadn’t called her for a couple of days, and they usually spoke twice a day.
Her fears were realized when police, alerted by Isabell’s office—who also knew something was amiss when billionaire Anne Cox Chambers reported from France that he had not arrived there as scheduled to consult on a party—entered his Greenwich Village town house and found him dead in bed, apparently the victim of a heart attack. He had last been seen Saturday night in the Hamptons, where he had arranged parties for Lally Weymouth and Jane Lauder. In accordance with his will, there was no funeral service, and Mellon planned to bury him at Oak Spring. He was 57.