Two Single Gentlemen

“The Bachelor most joyfully
In pleasant plight doth pass his daies,
Good fellowship and companie
He doth maintain and kepe alwaies.”
—Thomas Evans, Old Ballads, Narrative and Historical (1777)

“Hello, Johnny. Look at us! We’re both still here.”

Percy Leach greeted Johnny Galliher at a party a few years back and they laughed and embraced. The two elderly gentlemen didn’t really like each other very much and had never been great friends but as they grew older they seemed to accept and even appreciate one another.

Embracing like that they certainly were something to look at: Percy, heavy-set and heavily scented, his hair dyed an unnatural black; Johnny slender and svelte with a great mane of wavy silver hair and languid, imperious mannerisms.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

A few years before the party just mentioned, Percival H. E. Leach had been included on the V.I.P guest list for one of Malcolm Forbes’s ballooning weekends at his chateau in Normandy.

My job at the event was to make sure that all the rich and famous people who’d been invited would have as good a time as possible and that they would return from the weekend extolling the virtues of Forbes magazine and the Forbes family. I took one look at Percival Leach, described to me as a “genius at fund-raising,” and thought that I had my work cut out for me. He presented an image of someone who was demanding, difficult, and humorless.

The image was entirely misleading.

Impeccably upholstered in navy blue Savile Row, bejeweled with a gold braceleted Patek Philippe, eye-popping cuff links, and a hefty carnelian intaglio ring that deserved to belong to a Middle European potentate, it was easy to jump to conclusions about Percy Leach. His accent was a bit too British and his portly swagger a bit too self-assured to be appealing.

But after dinner one evening, many of the guests congregated in one of the pretty drawing rooms of the chateau and were discussing collecting and collections. The topic, no doubt, was inspired by Malcolm Forbes’s much publicized assemblages of Fabergé, toy soldiers, American historical documents, toy boats, and various other things.

One lady talked about her love of soft-paste porcelain, a man about his interest in pre-Columbian art, and another man about the joy of finding antique German Christmas ornaments.

Leach, who was indeed a collector and whose house sighed under the weight of his china and furniture and assorted objets, leaned over to me and said, sotto voce, “I collect souvenirs of love. Do you?”

Realizing that he wasn’t speaking of old letters and scented hankies, I was both surprised and amused. Clearly this ostensibly pompous and pretentious queen had a sense of humor. We were destined to become good pals.

Percival Leach had been born in Boonton, New Jersey, and was a graduate of Montclair High School, class of 1944, but he never publicized either of those facts or, indeed, many of the details of his background. We do know that his father had been in the British military and may or may not have been a cousin of Cary Grant’s and that his mother was the daughter of English colonials living in Jamaica. For some reason, the family settled in New Jersey and at the age of eighteen he chose American citizenship.

In 1946, while serving in the Navy and stationed in Boston, Percy received a letter from his parents telling him about a derelict colonial village in Western New Jersey that was slated to be bought for development by the oh-so-private but enormously rich financier O.W. Caspersen. Caspersen was considering options for the property, including flooding part of it to create a large lake and resort community.

Home on leave, the young sailor was taken out to look at the area and promptly fell in love with it. And that was one love affair that was to last the rest of his life.

After his military service, Leach enrolled at the now defunct Whitman School of Architecture and Interior Design where he met Louis Gualandi, who was to be both his business partner and his most serious romantic interest.

On an early date, Percy took Lou to visit the village and his new friend was as enchanted with the place as he was. After their graduation, the pair set out to do something about their dream to restore this ruin and to turn it into a historical landmark and cultural center. The fledgling decorators must have been a formidable duo, for they were able to realize this dream and to create Waterloo—a kind of smaller Williamsburg or Old Sturbridge Village.

First opened to the public in 1964 and fully functional by 1967, Waterloo Village attracted busloads of school children, historically-minded tourists, and music lovers to watch world-class artists like Luciano Pavarotti, Marian Anderson, and Van Cliburn perform. And as the reputation of his village soared, Percy Leach grew grander and grander. If the gentlemen in the Casperson family who did some of the bankrolling of this project had their suits made at a certain London tailor, Percy would use the same tailor. When fashionable people started flocking to the original Le Cirque, he made it a point to become chummy with Sirio Marconi, the ringmaster. Similarly he met and befriended some of the richest and most powerful industrialists, politicians, creative artists and sports figures in the world. From time to time, his circle included people as varied as Grace, Princess of Monaco, organist Kent Trittle, boxer Mike Tyson, and Jacqueline Kennedy.

But he was also a very naughty fellow.

Percy often told a story about the time he was a little boy and his parents took him to a carnival and introduced him to cotton candy. He liked it so much that he wanted a cotton candy machine of his own. When his parents at first declined the request, he held his breath. He held it until he started to turn blue. He got the machine.

That’s how important sensual pleasures were for him. And he usually got what or who he wanted without holding his breath.

Percy bragged that when driving along the New Jersey Turnpike he would speed up when spotting an appealing State Trooper. Pursuit would result and he would be pulled over, only to feign a choking attack and forcing administration of the Heimlich maneuver.

Sometimes Percy would talk about the 1950s subculture of gay bars and clubs like the Blue Parrot and the Faisan d’Or where not only the unattached would congregate but to which many ambivalent husbands would resort. He also remembered a restaurant of sorts called the Bean Pot near the docks of the lower West side where longshoremen were happy to oblige the men in business suits or black tie. Percy himself was a frequent customer. And it wasn’t a very long road from the Bean Pot to the infamous Everhard Baths, the Gaiety male burlesque theatre, and the Times Square peep shows.

These peccadilloes notwithstanding, the great passion of Percy’s life was, indeed, Waterloo Village. Since his death in March 2007, this unique facility has been effectively closed. Without the formidable Mr. Leach to cajole and flatter and convince the political forces necessary to keep it open, the village has been slumbering in the Western New Jersey countryside.

In an article in New Jersey Monthly entitled “Waterloo Meets Its Waterloo,” writer Paul Drexell put it this way:

Despite all the programs and visitors, it was rarely solvent. But Leach always won the support of state officials and private power brokers. In 1977 the state leased 365 acres to Leach’s Waterloo Foundation for the Arts at no charge. In 1981, a consortium of banks, including Carteret Savings and Loan and Midatlantic, saved Waterloo from bankruptcy by infusing millions of dollars into its budget.
“Percy was an artist,” says former Governor Thomas H. Kean. “No artist should be a bookkeeper. That’s why it was important to surround Percy with people who were financial experts.”

In the long run even the financial experts were not able to save Waterloo Village and by the time Percy was dying, there was little hope that his achievement would continue as he hoped it would into the next century.

It’s easy to be reminded of the lines from Edna St. Vincent Millay:

“My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light.”

If Percy had wit and a village to attract the rich and famous, Johnny Galliher had charm. Although he was known to have been born in Washington, DC, in May 1914, and reported that he was a graduate of Lehigh, class of 1935, much of the details about his background are almost as mysterious as those around  Percy’s. He sometimes claimed to have been descended from Pocahontas, but members of the Bolling family, the legitimate heirs of that Indian princess, disputed that claim. Frankly, it couldn’t have mattered less who his antecedents were. Like Percy Leach, the gentleman was a star.

Referred to in Lanfranco Rasponi’s 1966 book The International Nomads as “a favorite extra man . . . whose Irish dimples some hostesses find irresistible,” Johnny had no apparent source of income other than his periodic winnings from gin rummy, but nonetheless managed to live very well. He could be relied on to improve any dinner or house party with his gentle sense of humor and elegant persona; he’d always be invited back because he was almost never bitchy and he knew how to keep secrets and not to betray confidences. Tony Hall, a San Francisco decorator and old friend of Johnny’s put it succinctly: “He was fun to know.”

And Johnny seemed to know just about every bold-faced name of the twentieth century: Pat and William Buckley, Noel Coward and Elsa Maxwell, Rubirosa, Rita Hayworth and the Aga Kahn, Errol Flynn, Chips Channon, even Greta Garbo. And, interestingly, although he was occasionally known in later years to be over ambitious with younger gentlemen, Johnny never seemed to have a regular partner. As opposed to Percy who was always falling in love, Johnny was far less romantic.

He saved his love for glamour. Watching Johnny and his dear friend Bobby Short could be particularly amusing. Their mannerisms were almost identical — the way they used their hands, adjusted their impeccable neckties, threw back their heads when amused. They were white and black versions of the same elegant man about town.

Interviewed once about the best parties he remembered, Johnny’s answer seems to sum up his life.

I remember New Year’s Eve at the Gilbert Millers’. For many years it was the most entertaining and glamorous evening in New York—an annual party at their apartment at 550 Park Avenue. The invitation would be to an 8 o’clock dinner. There was a long table which seated perhaps eighteen people. The men in black tie, ladies in dinner dresses and with their best jewels. People had wonderful jewels, and they wore them in private houses in those days.

The guest list would include Diana and Reed Vreeland, Winston and C.Z. Guest, Serge Obolensky, Elsie Woodward, Billy Baldwin—the regulars. And while we were having dinner, the living room was being readied for dancing. You see, more people were invited for 10:30, people who’d been at other dinner parties or even at the theatre, and they’d all join the festivities.

In the living room there was a Hungarian orchestra with the musicians all wearing scarlet coats. And they played across the room from Kitty Miller’s famous painting—the Goya of the little boy in the scarlet coat. (Kitty sent it over to the Metropolitan whenever she was away from New York, and now it’s there permanently.)

At midnight, the music stopped abruptly and the leader announced the new year, and then they started to play “Auld Lang Syne.” And you had to embrace whoever was next to you. One year, I remember, I was between Ellen, the parlor maid, and the Duchess of Windsor, and the three of us all embraced happily.

After a while, the dining room would be open again for supper and breakfast buffets.

It was always an extraordinary party—a party with constant movement. Early arrivals would be leaving and others arriving, the movement of going from room to room. Nobody ever got stuck! And, ultimately, it was a party of good friends, of people who knew each other. Or, at least, people you’d like to know.

Shortly before he died, Mr. Galliher was fond of repeating some advice given to him by the Duchess of Windsor that is actually good for everybody, particularly those setting out for a party: “When you get old, there’s really very little you can do except to be very, very clean and well-dressed.”

A few months after Johnny’s death in 2002, I returned home to find several cases of red and white wine waiting for me. Since I hadn’t ordered any wine, I thought that there must have been some mistake. But then I read the card: “Dear Tom, Many thanks for all your hospitality. Here’s something for future celebrations! Love, Johnny.”

It was like receiving a kiss from the other side of the grave. But surprising as it was, the gesture was typical of Johnny. Later I learned that he had arranged this goodbye gift with his executor and that close male friends had all received similar deliveries and that flowers had been sent to his favorite ladies.

Percy and Johnny. How lucky were those of us who knew them!

Issue Twenty Two