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Evansville
Thursday, August 11, 2022

Honestly Halston

I sat in my kitchen on the phone for hours with Sue Watkins, the younger sister of late American fashion designer Roy Halston Frowick, who is most famously known as Halston. The Halston. The world-famous Halston. The designer who conquered the fashion world in the late 1960s and 1970s and who called Evansville his home, his roots. At the end of the conversation, Sue, who talked to me from her home in California, warned: “This is the third time I have opened up to someone about Halston, and I have been disappointed each time.” Perhaps the best way for me to tell this story is to not tell the story. Halston’s sister should. This is what she wrote.

Testing a memory of 60-plus years is a challenging endeavor, but certain memories don’t fade away easily. (Footnote 1) Evansville holds a great deal of good memories for my family, especially my two older brothers who have, sadly, left this life. I adored all my brothers. Bob (Footnote 2) and Roy (Footnote 3) (Halston) had many good things happen to them during their formative years in Evansville. My younger brother, Don, was the only one of us born in Evansville, but we moved when he was nine years old. Halston was five years older than I was, and during some of those years, that was a significant difference. One of my first memories before Evansville days was when I was just four, and we were visiting our family in Iowa. Halston, 9, made me a hat by covering a straw hat with chicken feathers. (Footnote 4)

We moved to Evansville from Des Moines, Iowa, (Footnote 5) when my dad (Footnote 6) took a job with Goad Equipment Company and later worked as an auditor for Republic Aviation. (Footnote 7) Our first home was on Villa Drive, and it was idyllic for having a family of four children. The neighborhood still has the same qualities I recall when I go back to visit. The homes are meticulously maintained and the mature landscaping shows pride of ownership.

It was in the early 1940s when no one felt threatened in his or her home. Doors were never locked; children could play in the neighborhood without fear and could walk to friends’ homes alone. Fashions for women were dresses, hats, (Footnote 8) gloves, and high heeled shoes when they would go out shopping. Estella Flach and her daughter, Sarah, still live in the same block where we lived. Estella had told me about a white felt hat she wore one day. Halston, 12, asked her how important the hat was to her, and she said he could have it. The next day he brought it back, and she was amazed at how he had changed it into a totally different and attractive design. (Footnote 9)

He would often redo our mother’s hats, and she would proudly wear them. They weren’t all award winners, but to her they were special and deemed worthy of exhibiting. She always encouraged his creativity and would marvel at his talent even at an early age.  He made me a skirt when I was about five, and he also would style my hair. I would complain because it was not always a pleasant experience, and our mother would say, “You should be happy your brother wants to do special things for you. One day it will mean something to you.” Now it does.

When World War II was over, the soldiers came home, and our landlady’s son would need our home. So we moved a couple of times before we ended up on Washington Avenue in 1950.

Bob and Halston started working their first jobs as soda jerks at the Merry-Go-Round. (Footnote 10) Mom, Dad, Don, and I would go often to watch them make our sundaes. Don recalls the fabulous pork tenderloin sandwiches. He also has good memories of Mac’s Barbeque. (Footnote 11) We would also have late night waffle parties at home. [pagebreak]

When Halston would ballroom dance (Footnote 12) on stage at Bosse High School for talent shows, (Footnote 13) we would all go to watch him. We likened him to Fred Astaire at the time.  He was so handsome and a great dancer. He always felt pride that Bosse High School was the most beautiful, stately high school with a great stadium and grounds that were maintained perfectly. (Footnote 14)

When I was approaching my thirteenth birthday, he said, “Susie, don’t tell Mom, but we’re going somewhere special today to sunbathe.” We caught a bus, transferred Downtown, and ended up at Duck Island. (Footnote 15) He would have me turn every 15 minutes, put lotion on me, and we would stay for a few hours. We did this same routine for a week. On my birthday, he took me Downtown to a department store and bought me a black and white quilted sleeveless dress with a scooped neck, empire waist, and circular skirt with three-inch, bright red shoes and told me to walk down Main Street. He followed behind to watch people’s reactions. It was taxing because I had tried on my mother’s shoes only a few times, but I made a valiant effort. Evidently, he was satisfied with the results because he couldn’t wait to go home and tell Mom. (Footnote 16)

We lived almost directly across from Washington Theatre. (Footnote 17) Halston would go to the movies and would critique the actors’ wardrobes. He was always style-conscious. He would go to his rich friends’ homes and come home to Mom who would stay up to hear his descriptions of how their homes were designed and decorated. He also got all of his friends to start wearing their fathers’ white dress shirts with rolled-up sleeves and blue jeans, something unheard of before.

Don remembers Halston would remind us on many occasions that he won the Iowa State Fair’s prettiest baby contest and “you didn’t.” He also recalls Halston coming home from Chicago with his big black poodle, Onka, and driving a black Mercedes convertible. He started turning heads when riding around Evansville with the top down and Onka leaning out the back window.

Some of my remembrances of times away from Evansville with Halston are walking down Fifth Avenue in New York with Bob, going to fabulous dinners, spending a week or so in Manhattan with him on different occasions for his fashion shows, evenings at Studio 54, receiving “care packages” from him with all the latest styles, and going out to Montauk, N.Y., where he rented a compound from Andy Warhol. (Footnote 18)

When Halston introduced Ultrasuede, he designed me a peach caftan dress, my daughter, Renee, a mini skirt, and a “skimp for a shrimp” for my baby daughter, Chelle. He also had a fashion show in Little Rock, Ark., where I was living in 1974. He designed gowns for my daughter, Renee, and me for the evening. In 1975, he designed Renee’s wedding dress, my dress, and dresses for my mother and my niece, Lesley.

Halston came back to Evansville when I married my childhood sweetheart, Bryant (Bud) Watkins, BHS Class of 1953. He was pleased we decided to marry in Evansville (Footnote 19) because he wanted to visit. He coordinated with Susan Enlow on our wedding, rehearsal dinner, and reception. He designed my wedding dress of pale green chiffon. We had family and old friends attending. It was a great mix of people, and some still consider it the best reunion they ever attended. Our wedding was in the Neu Chapel at the University of Evansville, rehearsal dinner at the River House, and our reception was at the Petroleum Club. Halston bought all the Dom Perignon in the Tri-State area for the occasion. It was a happening.

That was the last time in Evansville for Halston who always reminded the press that he was a Midwestern boy where his roots were deep, and he developed a hearty work ethic, good memories of his upbringing, and loyalty to his family and friends. (Footnote 20)

— Sue (Frowick) Watkins [pagebreak]

FOOTNOTES:

1 This is a story of the greatest fashion designer of all time and his roots in Evansville told primarily through one of the few people who knew him best, his sister Sue, for accuracy. She wrote every word, so she is accountable for it. Sue and her younger brother Don Frowick are uneasy about speaking to the press. Always.

Halston’s passion for fashion started at an early age and took him from a window dresser in Chicago to an upscale fashion luxe department store, Bergdorf Goodman, in New York to the launch of his first fashion line in 1966. His work distinguished him as the premier American fashion designer, who “evolutionized” the fashion world. “Evolutionized,” not “revolutionized.” He made this clear when he first began his line: “Evolution, that’s what keeps fashion in flux today. Revolution is out. Life’s too active to be pinned down by one revolution or another. Too often, revolution means going back to things past.”

His evolution is an impressive resume influencing today’s latest fashions: Ultrasuede (a fabric known for its alluring elegance, soft plush, and wear-resistance), the halter dress, shirtwaist, spiral skirt, or knee-length pants. He credited his Midwestern roots for his fashion design. His design—described by freelance fashion writer, Elaine Gross, and former Halston workroom supervisor, Fred Rottman, in their book Halston: An American Original—was an “uncomplicated formula—simple by day, simply extravagant by night.” He developed a sensual interpretation: how clothes felt was as important as how they looked. His Midwestern charisma pushed his designs forward, too; he built relationships with the women he dressed. His motto: There are no fashion designers, only fashionable clients. If this is true, his fashionable clients like Liza Minnelli or Anjelica Huston are the reasons for his four Coty Awards—the fashion world’s Academy Awards.

His fashion was evolutionary, and so was his business. He was the first designer to expand beyond clothing: luggage, bed linens, uniforms for Braniff Airways, cosmetics, and Halston—his own fragrance which raked in $1.5 million in its first three months. His fashion was a multi-million dollar empire. He graced countless magazine covers, and in 1973, his dominance was so consuming, Esquire magazine asked, “Will Halston take over the world?”

In a 1977 article in The Washington Post, Halston was called “undeniably the heaviest hitter of American fashion design for half a decade.” He skyrocketed to a fashion superstar with an elegant lifestyle to match, and the same Post article focused more on his following than his fashion: “He arrived yesterday—flying first-class, of course—with an entourage of eight and two more shifts of six each arriving later, for press interviews and a television appearance…Palling with Elizabeth Taylor (who was due at last night’s ball)…is a far cry from Des Monies, where Halston was born, and Evansville, Ind., where he grew up.”

He had his own team of models, the Halstonettes, which included Huston and Karen Bjornson. His friends were also  famous—Minnelli, Andy Warhol, and Bianca Jagger—and the media, at times, was more obsessed with Halston’s jet-setting crowd than his fashion. His social nights were next morning’s headlines.

When the gossip of his evenings trumped the fashion of his days, the truth about Halston became an unclear composition. A Halston biography is suspect, Sue maintains, because some stories are so erroneous Evansville is in Illinois.

Seventeen years after Halston died of AIDS, his elegant lifestyle lingers in memory, but with his clothing on display in museums throughout America including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and in February 2008, an exhibition at the Evansville Museum of Arts, History and Science, it is his fashion that will be remembered because his fashion is art.

His fashion is so revered today that movie moguls Bob and Harvey Weinstein’s The Weinstein Company acquired the Halston name for nearly $20 million in March 2007, on the recommendation of Jimmy Choo shoe founder Tamara Mellon, who will advise the brand. After several companies have failed to resurrect the name, the Weinsteins plan to dress actors in their movies in Halston fashions, hold a fashion show at 2008’s Cannes Film Festival, and possibly open a stand-alone store in Manhattan.

Manhattan is where Halston’s fashion blossomed, but Evansville is where Halston grew. As Sue said, “He learned everything there. It’s where we knew he was going to make it.”

2 Bob Frowick is the oldest of the four Frowick children (Bob, Halston, Sue, and Don). He had an impressive career as an ambassador. Don, 16 years younger than Bob, remembers having to follow behind two successful older brothers. “It’s just amazing,” he said. “You get out of the gate, and they’ve already won the Kentucky Derby.”

3 With hours spent talking with Sue, this is the first I had heard her refer to her brother as Roy. Don, too, frequently referred to their brother as “Halston” because Halston was born Roy Halston Frowick.  “We had an uncle Roy,” Don said. “We had a brother Halston. He loved the name.”

4 Halston was a milliner long before he was a fashion designer. While working at Bergdorf Goodman in New York, he designed the pillbox hat—a flat crown with straight, upright sides—worn by Jackie Kennedy on the 1960 Inauguration Day. The hat sparked a national trend and accelerated Halston’s career.

5 The Frowicks moved to Evansville in 1943; Halston was 10, attending Washington and Hebron Elementary and Bosse High School, where he graduated in 1950.

6 James Edward (Ed) and Hallie Mae Frowick were Halston’s parents. Ed was a certified public accountant; Hallie Mae was a dedicated housewife, Halston’s first model, and biggest supporter of his creativity.

Hallie Mae wore Halston hats to church long before Halston was something everyone wanted. Once, she wore a Halston hat made from Chore Boys—the scouring pads, Don recalled. The hat was so interesting, a woman approached Hallie Mae and said, “That’s a very unique hat. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it was made out of Chore Boy.”

Causally, Hallie Mae replied, “Oh, it is.”

7 The Goad Equipment Company was a manufacturer of equipment for hotels, restaurants, and various other businesses. The Farmingdale, N.Y.-based Republic Aviation Corporation located in Evansville during World War II to produce P-47 fighters because the East Coast, according to the owners, was too vulnerable to attack.

8 Halston’s first passion was millinery. This part of his life he shared mostly with his family.

“I would have never guessed that he would turn out to be a major fashion designer because I didn’t know he was designing anything,” Ron Grimm, one of Halston’s closest friends at Bosse, said. “He had the personality, but there was no way to know."

But, Grimm admitted, Halston was always well-dressed. Late in his career, Halston consistently wore a black turtleneck, sometimes, with a sweater draped around the shoulders. “The sweater,” Grimm remembered. “He was doing that in high school.”

Ann Partridge—another close friend of Halston at Bosse—knew, however, about his passion. When her mother, Hester Holsclaw, visited Chicago, Halston was the first in line to see Holsclaw’s new wardrobe: “She wore very simple tailored clothes, and I often thought he may have had that in his mind.” Decades later, Holsclaw bought one of the first jackets from Halston’s Ultrasuede collection. When she died in 2005 at the age of 94, she still owned the jacket.

This—according to the 91-year-old Estella Hart Flach, who has lived in her Villa Drive home for 57 years—was Halston’s first pillbox hat, complete with a feather and other minute adorations. “It was astounding,” Flach agreed. “It really was. He was still playing in the sandbox at the time.”

The Frowicks were neighbors to Estella and her husband Raymond “Spike” Flach. Ed and Hallie Mae, Flach said, “were two of the finest people I’ve ever known.” Flach’s parents died when she was 16, and during the 1940s when she lived near the Frowicks and Spike was serving overseas, Hallie Mae would hold and comfort Flach. “They took my darkest days and made them bright.”

Years later, Flach visited New York during Halston’s success. Halston was listed in the phone book under his name, Roy Frowick. When she called, “the houseboy answered, I asked for Roy Frowick, and he stopped breathing,” Flach said. Halston answered immediately and told Flach he was sending a car and dinner was on him. Already with dinner plans, she declined, much to Halston’s disappointment, who said, “The next time you’re in New York, you put me down for a date.” [pagebreak]

10 The Merry-Go-Round Restaurant opened in 1947 on what is now old U.S. Hwy 41, where, today, the restaurant serves country cuisine.

11 In 1946, Kenneth A. “Mac” McKinney took possession of a restaurant at 1409 E. Maryland St. to create Mac’s. The restaurant was sold to Wolf’s Bar-B-Q Restaurant in 1983.

12  Halston was an incredible dancer. Grimm, who frequently double dated with Halston and his high school girlfriend Dana Jo (Scism) Holleman, remembered Halston agreed to take Scism to prom on the condition she would learn to lindy. “Dana Jo could dance, and Roy could dance,” Grimm recalled. “But, Roy was a much better dancer and knew a lot of steps.”

This was Halston’s nature: comically inspiring. During high school, Partridge was a passenger during a fender bender with friend Pat McConnell, and she was worried about testifying in court. Halston stepped in with distraction. He picked out her clothes for the trial, and Partridge, McConnell, and Halston rehearsed for court. Halston acted as the plaintiff’s attorney while Partridge and McConnell practiced their lines. “Instead of us sitting around, wringing our hands,” Partridge said, “we made fun out of it.”

13 Bud Watkins, Sue’s high school sweetheart and husband of 20 years, saw many of Halston’s performances in high school and years later told Halston, “You could have been a good actor.”

He replied, “Of course, I could have; I just didn’t want to.”

14 Halston’s charisma grew at Bosse. Describing Halston the high schooler, Partridge remembered he was “very cheerful, very pleasant, delightful to be around.” She then paused to ask her husband Don, “Am I exaggerating?” Don, who also knew Halston at Bosse, confirmed she is, indeed, not exaggerating, and Partridge continued, “He accuses me of exaggerating sometimes.”

15 Duck Island was a three-mile long beach, the source of weekend relaxation or social gatherings during the 1940s and 1950s. In 1972, new dams raised the river’s water level, sinking Duck Island. The historic LST-325—a World War II military vessel—now floats above it.

16 This was one of Sue’s fondest memories and also one of her biggest regrets: “I wish someone had taken my picture that day. I looked fabulous.”

17 Located at Washington Avenue near Kentucky Avenue, Washington Theater, which opened in 1936, still stood throughout the 1940s despite the great flood of 1937, in which the theater was so engulfed only the marquee could be seen.

18 Warhol painted portraits of several Frowicks but not Sue. When Halston asked his family for photographs so Warhol could paint their likenesses, Sue sent an entire roll of film in different outfits and poses. Halston later called to say her pictures were unusable because she smiled in every shot.

“Ever since he did Marilyn Monroe, Andy doesn’t do teeth,” Halston laughed, referring to Warhol’s famous portrait of the iconic actress. Sue sent a new roll of film, but Warhol unexpectedly died of a heart attack in 1987 before he could finish.

19 Halston was influential in the high school sweethearts’ decision to wed in Evansville in 1987. It had been more than 30 years since Halston last had a chance to visit. Halston added his legendary charisma to the wedding. On the marquee of the River House Hotel, Halston posted these words: “Hey Sue, This Bud’s for You,” a play on the popular Budweiser slogan.

While the wedding was cause for celebration, it was also a reunion, and during the reception, Sue saw Halston for a moment away from the gathering on the top floor of the former Old National Bank building where the Petroleum Club sat, overlooking Downtown. It was as though you could see his memories of Evansville washing against his face. “He was having a moment,” Sue said.

20 “When (the Frowicks) have a friend,” Sue said, “we call them ‘lifers.’” Halston never forgot his friends in Evansville, and Grimm attested to that.

Years after high school graduation, Grimm contacted Halston for a high school reunion, but Halston was introducing his new luggage line in Europe. Disappointed, Grimm received Halston perfume in the mail—enough bottles of perfume for every woman in his Bosse class attending the reunion. Distance doesn’t end friendships, just the regular practice of it.

And distance never stopped the Frowicks from recalling Evansville in one of Don’s favorite memories: “I had the dubious honor of burning my brother’s bedroom down.” As a child, Don discovered fire by playing with matches. In reality, “it was mostly smoke damage,” Don said.

During Halston’s years in New York, Halston gathered his siblings as often as he could at his Manhattan home with a 50-foot glass wall, Andy Warhol paintings, a sunken living room, bamboo flooring: the ambiance of the world’s best fashion designer. The entire place was lit with 100 candles, and “No,” Don joked, “Halston never did ask me to light a candle.” (Footnote 21)

21 I sat at my desk, working on the Halston story late in the evening, when Sue called. After our initial interview three days earlier, she had “a list” of concerns, but as soon as we began to talk, she said, “Well, I can’t remember what they were.”

I asked her if she wanted to write the story, to tell people everything she wished they knew about Halston. And she did. What’s important about Halston—the fashion designer, the businessman, the brother, the friend, the Evansvillian—was said best by his brother Don: “He had a big heart. He wanted us to have a special time when we were with him. He did quite a bit for us, and we miss him terribly.”

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