André Leon Talley

A sense of self at the rainbow’s end

By Cynthia Adams

A gangly Black kid, left in infancy to be raised by his grandmother, a domestic in Durham, became the “last great fashion editor,” declared The New York Times.

André Leon Talley, who died January 18, wrote: “To my 12-year-old self, raised in the segregated South, the idea of a Black man playing any kind of role in this world seemed an impossibility.”

His eyes “were starving for beauty.” Talley found it in high fashion.

His death at 73 was first announced on Instagram to his 403,000 followers.

Talley, 6′ 6″ in his stocking feet, became a towering figure in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, W, Interview, Ebony, HG, Women’s Wear Daily, Vanity Fair and Numéro Russia.

Yet, he remained gracious. My friend, Irene Moore, who worked for W, said, “In spite of his forbidding look, he was a really nice guy.” Maureen Dowd remembers how “He told me about his late grandmother in Durham,” after she wrote about how her mother descended from a line of Irish maids.

Bennie Frances Davis was a stylish and proud grandmother, a lodestar.

Dowd intimated Talley was a hoarder, stuffing his home with crystal, linens, even Truman Capote’s sofa. Like Capote, the legend was “prowling the world in search of glamour and beauty, disdaining ‘dreckitude.’” Dreckitude, Talley explained, “is the lowest point in the lowest ebb.”

Talley’s touchstones remained his Southernness and beloved grandmother. These, Southern writer Julia Reed said, secured their friendship until her death.

In his memoir A.L.T., André Leon Talley wrote: “At the end of the rainbow that has led me to a successful career in the world of fashion . . . I find that the things that are most important to me are not the gossamer and gilt of the world I live in now.” His deep Southern roots furnished “a sense of place, a sense of self.”

Born in 1948, Talley’s sense of self came early. He recalled walking across Duke’s campus, where Davis worked in housekeeping, and being peppered with rocks by students. (He was on his way to read Vogue.)

Talley studied French and literature at N.C. Central University, with graduate studies at Brown University.

He interned in New York for his idol, Diana Vreeland, at the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute. She connected Talley with Andy Warhol, founder of Interview.

Designer Tom Ford kept notes, faxes and emails from Talley, describing them as “works of art.”

Post Vogue, Talley experienced the chilling effect of “Nuclear Wintour,” the staff’s nickname for the brusque and demanding Dame Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue portrayed in The Devil Wears Prada.

Despite all, Talley remained the toast of New York and France, where he had lived and was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Yet he was tugged southward to the Carolinas for frequent honors. Last November, N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper awarded Talley the state’s highest civilian honor, the North Carolina Award (for Literature).

Since 2000, Talley was a trustee at SCAD, The Savannah College of Art and Design. He also was a headliner at Charlotte’s Mint Museum, curating an Oscar de la Renta exhibition in 2018 and chairing the 2019 Coveted Couture Gala. In addition, he was a television personality on America’s Next Top Model and artistic director for Zappos.

He wistfully hoped Wintour would reconcile with him at his deathbed.

On April 19, Louis B. Gates Jr.’s popular ancestry-tracing program, Finding Your Roots, will feature André Leon Talley.

Yet, Talley already knew who he was — a caped crusader, fighting the good fight against dreckitude.  OH

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor for O.Henry. She can be reached at

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