August 29, 1922 – October 19, 2008
by Mark Langlois
Mr. Blackwell was Hollywood’s King of Bitchy Queens. His yearly “Best & Worst-Dressed List” was internationally known and his ridicule of celebrity bad fashion paved the way for red-carpet commentators decades later.
Here are a few of Blackwell’s best biting remarks:
On Marilyn Monroe (1961): “In private life, Marilyn Monroe is a road-show version of herself. She should get off the stage.”
On Elizabeth Taylor (1967): “Looks like two small boys fighting under a mink blanket.”
On Melanie Griffith (1991) : “Melanie defines ‘fatal fashion folly,’ a Botoxed cockatoo in a painting by Dali!”
On Madonna (1997): “Let’s be blunt, yesterday’s Evita is today’s Velveeta.”
On Jennifer Aniston (1999): “Brad Pitt looks better in a dress than she does!”
On Mary Kate Olson (2005): In Bag Lady rags that look depressingly decayed – forget the accessories and buy some Raid!”
Mr. Richard Blackwell was born Richard Selzer in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn NY. A child of poverty with an abusive stepfather, Richard would reportedly sleep on the fire escape with a broken bottle for protection. A frequent truant and thief, he was in and out of Boy’s Homes, and was a drop out by 3rd grade. He became a prostitute as a young man and made his Broadway debut (as understudy) in the 1935 juvenile delinquent drama “Dead End”.
By the late 1930s, he had moved to Hollywood (with the stage name “Dick Ellis”) and got small parts in films. In between roles, he worked as a Warner Brother’s Studio messenger. Howard Hughes later changed the young actor’s name to Richard Blackwell during a short stint at RKO Studios, which is now Paramount, but the RKO globe is still there.
Blackwell left acting behind by the late 50s when he found he had a talent for design (making hats for wealthy socialites and stage costumes for actresses). The “House of Blackwell” designed $800-$1,000 dresses for Yvonne DeCarlo, Peggy Lee, Jane Russell and Jayne Mansfield. Blackwell’s creations can also be seen on Elly May Clampett in the 1964 episode “The Dress Shop” on The Beverly Hillbillies.
A one-time article assignment (in 1960) of his “Best and Worst Dressed” celebrities led to a 48-year franchise and career as a fashion journalist. In the “Best /Worst List” heyday, Blackwell would assemble journalists (on the 2nd Tuesday in January) for breakfast in his mansion then appear before the TV cameras to reveal his picks and quips. By the 2000s, he issued his list via email.
He hosted a Los Angeles radio program from 1972-1981 and appeared five times on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. He also appeared as himself on various TV shows including Seinfeld and The Simpsons parodied him as “Mr. Boswell”. In 1995, Blackwell published his autobiography “From Rags to Bitches”.
Mr. Blackwell and his partner of almost 60 years (Robert) Spencer
lived at this home
in LA’s Hancock Park neighborhood and were often seen together at Showbiz Events & Parties, or shopping at the 3rd Street Ralphs Supermarket. The day I showed up, there was an estate appraiser
parked in front. It would have been interesting to read the appraiser’s mind, while pawing through Blackwell’s clothes.
Mr. Blackwell died Cedars Sinai Medical Center,
at 4:15pm Sunday, October 19, 2008. Cause of death: complications due to an intestinal infection.
A memorial service
was held on Thursday, October 23rd at Hollywood Forever Cemetery’s Chapel and was attended by dozens of celebrities, including Tippi Hedren, Margaret O’Brien and Jo Anne Worley (who did her pearl necklace twirling shtick as a tribute). Someone commented, “How can I get Jo Anne Worley to do this at MY funeral?”
The back page of the Memorial booklet had a great photograph of Blackwell and Jayne, which was originally signed to Blackwell by Jayne. Cool.
Donna Lethal met Mr. Blackwell several times at showbiz events in his last year and was invited to his memorial. She shared the following on her website blog:
“He was an absolute sweetheart and adored by everyone who knew him, and as he and his partner, Spencer, put it: “We were never in the closet.” My heart goes out to Spencer. I went to Mr. Blackwell’s memorial service…It was standing room only, and a few of us even ended up outside due to the 95+ degree heat. A large oil portrait of Mr. B presided over the room, and Ruta Lee sang I’ll be Seeing You as we watched a video tribute. Perhaps Tippi Hedren said it best: “How many of us thought about our outfits as we were dressing to come here today?” Blackwell would have had a good laugh. Rest in peace, my friend.”
Mr. Blackwell was cremated, and is buried at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Shortly after his burial, fans marked his grave fittingly with a coat hanger.