But his business was just getting off the ground. In 1983, he formed Robert Isabell, Inc., and he became the city’s preeminent event designer very quickly. His Studio 54 contacts were pivotal, as was his association with George Trescher, an event planner who was trusted by the ladies who ruled New York society, from Brooke Astor and Jackie Kennedy Onassis on down. Ever since the late-nineteenth century, when Archibald Gracie King broke with tradition and gave a private ball not in his home but at Delmonico’s, New York high society was in the habit of thinking of a party in the framework of a parlor. Isabell had another idea. When he created the décor for Caroline Kennedy’s wedding in 1986, his friend Merle Gordon, who volunteered to help, overheard the mother of the bride tell the designer, “This is just like theater, but it’s only for one night.” Instead of welcoming guests into a living room, Isabell thrust them onto a stage.
Isabell adored fireworks, baseball games, hip-hop clubs, and amusement parks. “He had a sense of wonderment with the world that many of us lose after the age of 5,” says the architect Jack Suben. The architectural paint consultant Donald Kaufman, with his wife, Taffy Dahl, met Isabell in 1981 and shared office space with him for many years. “The first car he got was a Jeep,” Kaufman recalls. “One favorite ride we had with him was in a snowstorm in Central Park. He would seek that out—‘Oh my God, there’s a blizzard, we’ve got to go to Central Park.’ Just because of the spectacle.”
Some of the excitement that New York offered was sexual. Isabell loved the Mineshaft, the most notorious of the gay clubs at the time, located in the midst of the butchers, hookers, and leather men who coexisted in the meatpacking district. It was a place where the lights were dim and the music was heavy. Men were getting fisted in slings, being pissed on in a bathtub, coupling in the dark. “That was his playground,” says artist Alexander Vethers, a close friend in the eighties. “Robert was heavily, heavily involved. One morning at 10:30, my doorbell rings and there’s Robert and he’s been out all night. I think he was more like a voyeur than someone executing things. I’m sure he participated, but that was not the main thing. He was watching. That was the way he was in life too. He was watching in order to learn.”
“I want it big and over-the-top,” said the 21-year-old Alexandra Miller. Isabell delivered.
Isabell was surrounded by people who say they adored him yet found him mysterious and unknowable. Vethers calls his connection with Isabell “the most incredible friendship I ever had,” but once it dissolved, he looked back and concluded that “after ten years, I felt I really didn’t know him.” Schrager considered himself Isabell’s closest friend. “We loved each other,” he says. “He was very, very private. He had a very compartmentalized life. There were things I didn’t know about.” After the news of the death, Schrager visited Isabell’s townhouse hoping for some sort of closure. He didn’t find it. “I went into his house to say good-bye to him,” Schrager says. “I felt I was intruding.”
In large gatherings, Isabell would usually smile, eyes crinkling, but he would say little or nothing. His inclination to deflect attention away from himself was professionally useful, because a good party planner is a little bit like a therapist: He listens. One of Isabell’s talents was the ability to divine what his clients desired from their terse or inarticulate instructions. “I want a hot, hot party,” Tina Brown told him, when she was commissioning the splashy event at the Statue of Liberty that launched her short-lived magazine Talk. “Hot.” Jackie O. was similarly pithy when planning Caroline’s wedding on Cape Cod. Pressed to say what kind of party she wanted, she finally whispered, “North Atlantic summer.” (To Isabell, that meant using only native New England flowers.)
You had to trust him, because he wasn’t good at communicating his scheme and he would usually complete it moments before the guests arrived. “Even though it frustrated a lot of clients, it did happen,” says the Glorious Food caterer Sean Driscoll, who often collaborated with him. “It happened with a little more nerves than usual.” While Isabell was able to keep to a tight budget when working with nonprofits and blue-chip corporations, most of his commissions came from the city’s more extravagant fashion, fragrance, and publishing companies, which were trafficking in glamour and willing to spend on it. Anna Wintour used him from 1995 to 2004 to stage the Costume Institute Gala at the Met. Tina Brown retained him frequently for Vanity Fair. For an event in honor of photographer Annie Leibovitz in 1991 at the New York Academy of Art, Isabell complemented the building’s classical statues with nearly nude models that he had painted off-white and dressed in bits of starched muslin. He covered the floor with white tile, draped the walls with white fabric, created towering pyramids of white roses, and lit everything with a cool, bluish light.