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Robert Isabell, 57; planned Kennedy weddings, lavish galas

One New Year’s Eve, Robert Isabell trucked 4 tons of glitter to Studio 54, where it carpeted the floor 4 or 5 inches deep. One New Year’s Eve, Robert Isabell trucked 4 tons of glitter to Studio 54, where it carpeted the floor 4 or 5 inches deep. (Ruth Fremson/New York Times/File 2002)
By Bruce Weber
New York Times / July 12, 2009
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Robert Isabell, the floral designer and events planner whose shrewdly lavish esthetic helped create the buzz around Studio 54 and who made Kennedy weddings and a White House Christmas, as well as museum galas, corporate celebrations, and charity balls, into occasions of glorious moment, was found dead Wednesday in his Greenwich Village townhouse.

He was 57.

The cause was a heart attack, said Alex Folger, a lawyer who is one of the executors of Mr. Isabell’s estate.

The club owner and hotelier Ian Schrager, a friend, said he had seen Mr. Isabell last Saturday in the Hamptons and that Mr. Isabell had left at about midnight to return to Manhattan, but that no one had seen or spoken to him after that.

Mr. Isabell was an events planner before such a thing was common. He was known for imagining an occasion in its entirety - the flowers, of course, but also the location, the decor, the lights, the table settings, the sound - and in the eyes of many of his clients, his skills amounted to artistry. Among the style-conscious, fashion-conscious, glamour-conscious, and status-conscious, Mr. Isabell was considered, in the words of Anna Wintour, the editor in chief of Vogue, “the king of the event world.’’

“He was the first one that all of New York society went to for a wedding, for a gala, for a private party,’’ Wintour said in a telephone interview Friday. “If you could afford him he was a magician. All the great society hostesses - Pat Buckley, Annette de la Renta - used him, and because they used him, all the others wanted to use him.’’

Afraid of neither simple elegance nor opulence, gifted with both taste and creativity, he used them all in the service of the joyous, the somber, and the playful. He worked on Caroline Kennedy’s Cape Cod wedding to Edwin Schlossberg in 1986 and John F. Kennedy Jr.’s wedding to Carolyn Bessette on Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia in 1996. He worked on the funerals of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1994 and of her friend the horse breeder and philanthropist Paul Mellon in 1999.

Mr. Isabell created an enormous wreath of noble fir dotted with 1,500 lights dipped in blue gel for Christmas at the Clinton White House and conjured a Greek temple on a London estate for the wedding of Marie-Chantal Miller, the daughter of the billionaire Robert W. Miller, to Crown Prince Pavlos of Greece.

For the fifth-anniversary party of Vanity Fair, he turned an unused ballroom into an homage to the Copacabana, complete with gold spray-painted palm trees and a saxophone choir wearing gold Louise Brooks wigs.

One New Year’s Eve in the late 1970s, he trucked 4 tons of glitter into Studio 54, where it carpeted the floor 4 or 5 inches deep.

“You felt like you were standing on stardust,’’ said Schrager, who, with Steve Rubell, opened the club in April 1977.

“People got the glitter in their hair, in their socks. You would see it in people’s homes six months later, and you knew they’d been at Studio 54 on New Year’s.’’

Tina Brown, the former editor of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, said Friday that she had worked on about 30 events with Mr. Isabell.

“He was able to take any space and make magic in it,’’ she said. “He had this soft rose lighting that made everyone look wonderful. And as a florist, there was no one like him. He was sort of a genius, actually.’’

Bruce Robert Isabell - he legally dropped Bruce as an adult - was born in Duluth, Minn. His father, Joseph, was a lineman for the local power company.

He worked in a flower shop as a boy, and after high school, moved first to Minneapolis, then to New York in the early to mid-1970s. For a time he worked for the party planner and florist Renny Reynolds, one of whose clients was Studio 54. Recognizing Mr. Isabell’s creativity, Schrager hired him to create parties on his own.

“He never tried to do too much, it was never design on steroids, yet there was always the razzle-dazzle,’’ Schrager said.

By the mid-1980s, Mr. Isabell had started his own company. For a time he operated an independent floral shop in Bergdorf Goodman’s department store, but shortly thereafter, he moved his business downtown to the far West Village in Manhattan, establishing what Joe Heffernan, now the senior account executive for the company, described as “a full-service event-production house.’’

It has about a dozen full-time employees and has designed events all over the world, from weddings in Saudi Arabia to a casino opening in Macau.

Heffernan said the business would continue, though he acknowledged that Mr. Isabell was its creative light.

“He was the king of the ‘Wow!’ factor,’’ Heffernan said.