Albert Hadley is standing in the middle of his office, recalling a conversation he had with Brooke Astor in the late seventies. The doyenne had invited Hadley to tea at her 778 Park Avenue apartment. He knew the duplex by heart, of course; he’d decorated it in the late sixties with Sister Parish soon after he’d joined the firm. Astor had moved into the Rosario Candela–designed building at the corner of 73rd Street after the death of her husband, Vincent Astor, in 1959.
Astor had arranged the meeting so she could give Hadley some bad news: She had decided to enlist the English decorator Geoffrey Bennison to redo the apartment’s library. She knew this would incur Parish’s wrath, and wanted Hadley’s advice.
“I said, ‘Brooke, you don’t have anything fake in your life except this room,’ ” Hadley recalls. He was referring to the Louis XV–style wood paneling that had been done in the early thirties, when the building was completed, and which Parish had left intact during the first decoration. Provoked, Astor asked him what he would do. He thought it could be both classic, to complement the architecture, and new. “She loved that,” he recalls. “Anything that was up-to-date, she got it right away.”
Hadley got the job, and created a magnificent library for Vincent Astor’s rare books, which until that point had been in storage. The library he created featured brass-trimmed, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and red lacquered walls whose rich color required ten coats of paint. The room became a benchmark of Hadley’s career. (There is still one fake item in the final design: The false book panels behind the camel hide the air conditioner; see slide two.)
Its owner’s sad final chapter is well known, but the apartment’s future isn’t; brokers are vying to represent its sale. Will the library, or any of the rooms Hadley did, survive a change in ownership? He spoke to us about the apartment, using photographs from his own archive that preserve one of New York City’s stateliest residences—a home built for entertaining and doing business, where presidents and kings took tea with Mrs. Astor.