There’s a photograph in Tom Ford’s house in Beverly Hills, a Polaroid of him with his husband, Richard Buckley, who died last weekend at 72 after more than 30 years of health issues resulting from cancer.
The picture was taken on Shelter Island in New York in 1987 by their friend John Duka, a fashion journalist who worked at The New York Times before going on to help found KCD, the fashion industry’s most powerful public relations firm.
Perhaps because history is made to be erased (or at least airbrushed), it is sometimes forgotten that fashion wasn’t such a utopia for openly gay men back then. Numerous gay designers (including Bill Blass) refused to discuss their sexuality. Other major industry figures married women, including Mr. Duka, whose wife at the time was his KCD co-founder Kezia Keeble. By 1990, he was dead from AIDS.
So the ease with which Mr. Buckley and Mr. Ford lived their lives (along with the stereotypes they defied, according to the journalist Billy Norwich, a longtime friend and colleague of Mr. Buckley) set a powerful example of what gay men could be.
Particularly since Mr. Buckley was among the fashion world’s best-known journalists.
Later on, as Tom Ford became “Tom Ford,” the scope of Mr. Buckley’s career sometimes felt like a footnote.
This was probably inevitable.
As Bridget Foley, a former colleague of Mr. Buckley’s at WWD, noted in an interview, the most famous fashion designers are always going to be more famous than the people famous for writing about them.
Yet Mr. Buckley was, Ms. Foley said, “a star” within the industry, someone known for his uncanny ability to seem at home in rooms filled with rich, powerful and glamorous people while remaining an “observer and chronicler” of them. He endeared himself to them by being more interested in their inner lives and interests than in who they were dating, hosting or even wearing. (Also: Inquisitiveness is a very good way to win the hearts of people who are chronically self-absorbed.)
The pieces he wrote about fashion drew connections to art, movies and global politics. He later brought those skills to columns he wrote for The New York Times, as well as to quirky fashion shoots in Vogue Hommes International, which he edited from 1999 to 2005.
It was not really a secret that Mr. Buckley had been sick, on and off, for a long time. That friends managed to be surprised by his death, despite abundant evidence of its inevitability, was largely because of Mr. Buckley’s quiet way of getting on with it. Making tough things look easy was and is a Buckley-Ford family trait.
‘That’s the Guy’
Mr. Buckley was born in Binghamton, N.Y., in 1948. His father was in the military; his mother, Mr. Buckley said, was something of a narcissist, and “home” was constantly shifting. One year it was Germany, the next France, then back to the United States, where he was bullied in school because he wasn’t, as he later put it, “sporty or athletic.”
During college and afterward in graduate school, he dated women. Then, in the early 1970s, he came to terms with his gayness and onward he went.
Mr. Ford first spotted Mr. Buckley while attending a David Cameron fashion show in the fall of 1986. Mr. Buckley still worked at Fairchild. Mr. Ford was designing sportswear for Cathy Hardwick. Their eyes locked from across the runway, but they failed to make an introduction, Mr. Ford said through a spokeswoman. (Though he greenlit friends to speak for this article, he did not speak personally.)
Soon after, Mr. Buckley was on the roof of the Fairchild offices in New York, preparing for a fashion shoot with his colleague Dennis Freedman. Mr. Buckley told Mr. Freedman about this guy he’d just seen, when the elevator opened and out he walked, carrying Cathy Hardwick samples for them to shoot.
“That’s him,” Mr. Buckley said. “That’s the guy.”
They had their first date on Thanksgiving weekend. By New Year’s Eve, they’d moved in together.
They used no euphemisms like “roommates” or “friends.” They were simply Richard and Tom, which was the general ordering of their names then.
The cloud of AIDS was part of what made Mr. Buckley’s Stage 4 throat cancer diagnosis in 1989 so difficult for friends to process.
The couple’s longtime friend Lisa Eisner recalled how cruel it felt that these two people managed, through a mix of luck and caution, to avoid the thing that was killing everyone, only to get the thing that wasn’t.
The doctors who diagnosed Mr. Buckley’s cancer, Mr. Norwich said, were certain that there was little for him to do besides get his affairs in order. Instead, Mr. Ford called Blaine Trump, who was a major fund-raiser for Memorial Sloan Kettering. Soon enough, Mr. Ford went to see Mr. Buckley in his room at another hospital and told him to pack his clothes because they were going to Sloan Kettering.
The treatment he subsequently received bought him 32 years. And by 1994, Mr. Ford and Mr. Buckley were living in Europe. Mr. Ford had gone to work for Gucci. The image he built for the once-moribund house was inseparable from the persona he developed — confident and sexy, heavily influenced by Halston and Yves Saint Laurent but without the attendant sense of offstage tragedy.
Among the Stars
Though Mr. Buckley was not a Pygmalion figure in Mr. Ford’s life, it was abundantly clear to friends, including Anna Wintour, that their private relationship fueled what Mr. Ford became. “With Richard in his life, Tom was able to soar,” she wrote in an email. Partly this was because of their differences.
Mr. Ford, a Virgo who believed fervently in the importance of the astrological calendar, was controlling, impulsive and a peacock, albeit one who managed to become a sex symbol for women by not veering into what Mr. Norwich referred to as a kind of “gay minstrel” trope.
Mr. Buckley, a Libra, was contemplative, averse to being the center of attention and hilariously indecisive.
Friends like Rita Wilson told him constantly that he needed to write a book, but Mr. Buckley didn’t settle on a topic. Instead, he became one of those people known among his friends for the ability to discover great art, movies and books before everyone else.
Ms. Wilson said she was able to option the novel “Middlesex” because Mr. Buckley told her about it within minutes of its release. A good number of art collectors in Los Angeles learned about Mark Bradford through Mr. Buckley.
“Early in my career, and I mean early, he came to one of my talks,” Mr. Bradford said. “I don’t think there were even 20 people, and this quiet, gray-haired man came up to say hi.”
Mr. Buckley didn’t speak of his association with Mr. Ford that day — or for a while after.
“He didn’t mention it, he didn’t talk about himself,” Mr. Bradford said, recalling instead how Mr. Buckley asked really perceptive questions about his art and transmitted his belief in him without delivering exhausting, if well-intentioned, clichés to do so.
Among other friends in Los Angeles, where he and Mr. Ford spent an increasing amount of time in the last 15 years, Mr. Buckley’s long, discursive emails were practically events.
Ann Philbin, the director of the Hammer Museum there, knew she had to be sitting down at a computer to process them. He’d drop in photographs; sometimes there were quotes from Robert Frost. He was just as likely to paste in a witty meme-like aphorism.
One about getting older was received by the actress Gina Gershon on a recent birthday: “I’m at that age where my mind still thinks I’m 29, my sense of humor suggests I’m 12 whilst my body mostly keeps asking if I’m sure I’m not dead yet.”
Which was as good a way as any to make light of how deadly serious getting older eventually ends up being.
In recent years, Mr. Buckley underwent brutal operations and treatments to deal with various health issues. He repeatedly got pneumonia. But in 2012, he and Mr. Ford had become fathers, with the birth of their son, Jack. That turned into the organizing principle of their lives and gave him determination to keep going, Ms. Eisner said.
The upside of Covid-19 was how much time it gave Mr. Ford and Mr. Buckley to be together with him. The downside was that Mr. Buckley’s health struggles made it riskier for him to see anyone else.
In August, Mr. Buckley was in fine form at a 60th birthday party he hosted for Mr. Ford over Zoom. Afterward, Ms. Wilson got an email from Mr. Buckley, in which he said: “I sit in a very comfortable chair where I took this picture. Beside the door in front of me, there is a smaller one to my back. I sit all day reading with the breeze washing over me. On Sunday, the woman who owns the house cut two fresh magnolia blooms and put them in a bowl. The breezes filled the room with Magnolia perfume.”
“He never complained,” Ms. Wilson said.
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