Far less elaborate were the seaside nuptials he planned for Caroline and, later, John Kennedy Jr. Comparatively simple affairs, I think they might have been the events he was most proud of. His saddest jobs were surely the funerals he did for Jackie and John, both of which he never spoke about, out of respect for the family.
Shy as he might have been as a guest at social events, he was Mussolini behind the scenes. “You have to be a dictator when running a party,” he told The New York Times in 1996. “[I] go ahead and do what I want.”
Flowers were integral, of course, but they were only one ingredient. He obsessed over the lighting, sound and floor plan. These elements often came together at the very last minute. “It was just like a curtain going up at a show,” recalls Glorious Food boss Sean Driscoll, who frequently catered Isabell-designed affairs.
Although new clients, unfamiliar with the process, often had panic attacks, veterans knew the drill. “He would never actually tell you what you were getting,” recalls Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour, who worked with Isabell on countless events, including eight Costume Institute galas. “He wasn’t an articulate person. He didn’t do drawings. It was all in his head, but you learned to trust him.”
Like Prospero breaking his wand, Isabell was probably surrendering his crown in 2005, when he gave up the Costume Institute job. “It was his call,” says Wintour. “He didn’t want to do the 7:30 a.m. meetings anymore. But there were no hard feelings. We remained friends.”
Often traveling with Mellon, Isabell lost touch with some of his old friends, though he remained steadfast with his inner circle, which included Ian Schrager, Kamali and Cathy Graham, an artist who is married to Katharine Graham’s son Stephen.
Still, Isabell continued to take on parties that interested him, even if they were on shoestring budgets. One notable example was Hulaween, the annual benefit for Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project, which creates green spaces throughout the city. Knowing that Midler, like Mellon, was a passionate environmentalist, he took her to Oak Spring a couple of years ago. “It was enchanting and moving to see them together,” Midler recalls of the two friends. “They had a wonderful warmth between them, and this teasing rapport.”
“Their connection had to do with nature, which they both loved,” says Graham. “When you saw them together, they were just in complete harmony.”