Santa Fe ‘Elder’ Eric Gustafson Reflects on Famous Friends and a Glamorous Life in the Arts

Santa Fe’s Human Rights Alliance (HRA) has begun an ambitious project to document the LGBTQ History of our historic city. Among the subjects they’re relying on is Eric Gustafson, whose close connection to the Santa Fe Opera and local arts scene dates back decades.

“I believe everyone lives in a supported fantasy,” says Eric Gustafson, who drew on his own imagination and a strong will to build a life in the arts and a wide network of friends among the celebrities, social and political leaders of the 20th Century.

In a varied career that spans the 1950s through today, Gustafson has had small roles in films made in Italy and Tunisia, managed multiple galleries, curated exhibits at Lincoln Center, lectured around the world and authored a number of articles and authoritative books, as well as two highly entertaining memoirs “Cinderella is a Man” and “Last Man Waltzing.” A thumbnail review of his life follows.

Eric at film night in Tunisia

Escapism & Then Escape

In the 1930s and 40s, Gustafson grew up in an almost bucolic northeast corner of the Bronx where his family’s home had room enough for his father to build a walk-in playhouse in the garden for Eric and his sister.

He loved feel-good American films during World War II. Not necessarily the A pictures, but feel-good fantasy films like Arabian Nights adventures (often starring “Turkish Delight” actor Turhan Bey) and comedies where the lead characters spoke with ideal, Mid-Atlantic diction far from the stereotypical “dems” and “does” accent he grew up around.

“Those films impressed me so much; they instilled in me the idea there was a glamourous world out there,” he says. “I started checking etiquette books out of the library. Before my teens I knew how to address a Prime Minister and what exactly is a French Duke.” 

Queens College, and before that a high school for gifted students in lower Manhattan, offered more exposure to the people and places the young man wanted to know. “I was in the arts and surrounded by like-minded people.”

After college, in 1957, he traveled to Europe, interviewing the top actors with the La Comédie Française and international stars like Jean-Pierre Aumont.

Whatever Happened to Class?

After returning to New York from Europe in the late 1950s, he found work in the arts, serving as a charming liaison with top clients at the Parke Bernet gallery, a fashionable auction house, where the “beautiful people of the world knew me and I was one of them.” 

“What do I miss from society in the 50s and 60s? A sense of style. Everything is so dumbed down today. Recently a couple wanted to take me to lunch at “an upscale bowling alley. Is that possible?”

He misses elaborate dinner parties. “I lived in the community of Far Hills, NJ for a long time and my neighbors were (publisher) Malcolm Forbes and Jackie Kennedy (following JFK’s assassination). She and John John would ride their horses near the community,” he says. Putting Far Hills’ elitism in perspective, Gustafson says, “There was such snobbery that Jackie Kennedy was not invited into most people’s homes because not only was she Catholic, but she was perceived as vulgar, flashy and publicity hungry.”

Celeste Holm, Eric and Ruth Warrick

Many of Gustafson’s fondest memories of elegant living involve events both intimate and elaborate at the Lu Shan Farm estate of his close friend Lila Luce Tyng, first wife of Time/Life publisher Henry Luce, better known for his second marriage to playwright (The Women), congresswoman and ambassador to Italy Clare Booth Luce. Gustafson’s loyal friendship with the first Mrs. Luce (who once attended 36 galas in 36 weeks) discouraged any level of friendship with the second.

During her last years, apparently Clare Booth Luce had an idée fixe that she introduced at several dinner parties—”Her two regrets were never visiting Lu Shan and never having Eric in her life.”

“The dinner parties at Lu-Shan were unforgettable. There would always be a roaring fireplace with 14 seated in the Venetian Room,” he remembers. “There was the etiquette of a formal dinner and I could wear black or white tie. I loved every minute of it. Those dinners were extraordinary because many guests were prominent heads of state, writers, and social figures.”

His relationship with Mrs. Luce Tyng mingled the personal and professional. Gustafson launched and then ran The Apollo Muses Center for the Arts on her estate for 24 years.

Eric at Lu Shan

Wild About Harry

Shortly after JFK was elected in 1960, Gustafson got to know not only the Kennedys, but also former President Harry Truman, his teetotaling wife Bess and their daughter Margaret, relatives of his partner David Wallace.

They met at the Kennedys’ New York triplex. “I always felt mild disapproval from Bess, who was a strict Baptist. She was very prim, smiling blandly. But Harry was warm and jovial from the first minute,” he recalls.

“She asked, ‘Would you boys like something to drink?’ and proceeded to bring us glasses of water. Harry jumped in to say, ‘These boys don’t want water!’” Overriding Bess’ objections, the former President led Gustafson by the elbow “into the library, past Jack Kennedy’s rocking chair and the famous red phone and pulled out a bottle of bourbon.”

“That endeared me to Harry. He was adorable.”

Later the couple visited the Truman’s at home in Independence, MO. Gustafson and the former President became stronger and today Gustafson regrets not asking more pointed questions of the man who agreed to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, soon after inheriting the presidency from FDR. “He always expressed despair about that in his recollections.”

Eric with Bess & Harry Truman at their home

Icons From A to Z

A stroll through Cinderella is a Man reads like a Who’s Who of 20th century fame, including gay community icons — Tallulah Bankhead, Maria Callas, Rudolph Nureyev, Mae West and more, significant artists (Dali, de Kooning, Rothko and Santa Fe’s Georgia O’Keefe), the aforementioned political leaders, and even a private audience with Pope John XXIII.

Known in later life as New York’s “hermit about town,” reclusive film legend Greta Garbo was born Greta Gustafson, and began referring to Eric as “my nephew” when they met in the early 1960s.

“This is when women dressed with care and great taste during the day and only the beginning of the period when jeans became the thing (‘They were a joke at first, but one that became serious’), but she (Garbo) would come into Parke Bernet dressed in sneakers and a floppy rainhat,” he remembers. “She asked, ‘Who is that beautiful young man?’ When we were introduced she said, ‘Gustafson was my name before I changed it. You could be my nephew.’ For years I would tell friends who knew her well to ‘Say hello to my aunt.’”

Gustafson shares a fun story about Andy Warhol. “Andy had an apartment near me when he lived uptown. We shared a taxi home from an event and he invited me in. His Polish mother was in the kitchen, a bottle of whiskey nearby, signing the backs of Andy’s paintings. He said, ‘She has much better handwriting than me,’” he remembers.

“Then he invited me into his bedroom where he showed me an arrangement of six or seven wig stands, with an assortment of wigs ranging from neat to very messy. I thought, how convenient!”

Gustafson had a sort of friendly, slightly adversarial relationship with fashion icon Diana Vreeland, editor of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue before taking on a second career curating historical fashion exhibits at The Metropolitan Museum.

“She was doing wonderful shows at the Met while I was doing theater design shows at my American Gallery of Theater Design. I thought she was ignoring me, not paying enough attention to my accomplishments,” he admits, owning up to a sense of envy of her higher profile and larger budgets.

Catherine Deneuve and Eric

Rita Hayworth, Elizabeth Taylor and New Beginnings

Sober for many years now, not all of Eric’s memories of this time are all that glamorous.One incident involves pin-up queen Rita Hayworth, known for teaming with Fred Astaire in two musicals and for her seductive dancing as Gilda. Both heavy drinkers at the time, Eric and an older Rita set out to “do a floor show at Hal Prince’s wedding,” he remembers. “She came with Zero Mostel and Gary Merrill. They all sat at my table. Rita wanted to dance, but the floor was very crowded. With elbows and hips we encouraged people to leave the floor, but then she wouldn’t follow my lead and we ended up making fools of ourselves.”

Gustafson first encountered Elizabeth Taylor in Rome during the early 60s when she was filming Cleopatra. Cast and crew would receive complimentary tickets to many cultural events, tickets Richard Burton’s assistant would give to Eric and his partner, who assumed Burton was dutifully returning home to his wife and children. Soon he learned about the affair that broke up both their marriages and led the decade-long pairing known as “The Battling Burtons.”

“At the time, I knew why I wasn’t seeing Richard Burton at all the glamorous events, but wondered why Elizabeth Taylor wasn’t at any of them either. I found out.”

He continued to see Taylor off-and-on through the years, including one fateful day years later in New Mexico, when she was visiting her brother in Taos. “She told (artist) R.C. Gorman, who was drinking heavily, to ‘get your ass over to Betty Ford,’” he recalls. “Her comment wasn’t directed at me, but when the empress of the screen says something, I do it! I picked up the phone later that day.”

“The experience changed my life.”

Elizabeth Taylor and Eric

Many Passages to India

About 20 years ago the well-traveled Gustafson felt drawn to a new environment, India. “India was a big question mark for me. I went for the Millennium and originally planned to go to other parts of Asia, but in India there was just too much to explore,” he says. He returned 17 times over the next decade, seeing all parts of this densely populated country, from the largest cities to the Himalayas.

It’s a love affair tinged with sadness. “There are bloodcurdling things about India, like poor families mutilating their children to generate more charitable donations to widows choosing to join their husbands on their funeral pyres.”

He adds, “During my time in India I fell in love with a young Brahman. Initially he was my driver, but he came to mean everything to me.” Gustafson supported the young man through a series of family tragedies, eventually helping him launch a successful restaurant.

Many of his experiences are recounted in Expect the Unexpected: Adventures of a Westerner Sitting in the Lap of Mother India.

Eric – guest speaker at a spiritual conference

50+ Years in The City Different

Gustafson’s relationship with Santa Fe dates back decades. In 1968, he helped produce an event that enhanced the reopening of the Santa Fe Opera, which had recently burned down. “I came back here for the opening of the new opera in 1968 and brought a selection of theater designs for an exhibit that accompanied the opening,” he says.

This exhibit was a continuation of the work he’d begun in New York at his gallery and at many other venues, curating exhibits of theater, ballet and opera designs/costumes, including one highlighting the costumes of his close friend, Australian soprano Dame Joan Sutherland (“Designs for a Prima Donna: Dame Joan Sutherland” at The Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.)

Designs for a Prima Donna: Dame Joan Sutherland

In the early 70s, after a European adventure with an Italian Duke, he returned to Santa Fe to become the director at The Jamison Gallery, one of the first in the city to focus on contemporary art, largely at Gustafson’s suggestion. Though the gallery closed in 1993, many of its works are now housed at the New Mexico Museum of Art.

He describes this period as a sort of gay wild west, very open to the artistic and social contributions of attractive gay men with social graces. “Rich women from Texas and Oklahoma with homes in  Santa Fe needed escorts and I was frequently available,” he remembers.

Gustafson wasn’t, however, blind to the poverty and racism faced by working class Native Americans and Mexican immigrants. “I was living among rich Anglos and in that group there was such disregard for these communities.”

Santa Fe Today

His time in India and the Southwest further awakened Gustafson’s spirituality. “There’s an intangible spirituality that’s inherent in many aspects of New Mexico. We’re at the center of a vortex. There’s a reason Santa Fe has been on the map for so long. It has an energy that encourages people to function at their best,” he believes. “Of course, there’s also the incredible natural beauty of the landscape.”

Content in his new home, he sometimes yearns for New York’s vast arts community. “I miss absolutely fine music, which you don’t find here in the quality you enjoy in New York City,” he says. “That’s also true for theater and especially ballet, which can’t really exist here because of the high altitude.”

“I never expected to live this long,” admits Gustafson, 85, “and thought I better give my money away before turning 80.” Since then, the high-life aspects of his life may have dimmed, but he’s relishing new friends, challenges and unexpected opportunities.“It’s not the same, but I’m enjoying potlucks with good friends now as much as the dinner parties I attended in New York.” A few years back, a wealthy friend flew him East to be honored by the New Jersey Ballet to celebrate his 80th birthday. “A year later, Yale University’s research library bought the paper trail of my life, which meant clearing out every manuscript, letter, even telephone books.” Freed from clutter in his Villa Alegre apartment (though he still has an impressive collection of books and memorabilia), he’s planning his next book of essays.

Reflecting on his life, Gustafson has advice for the aspirational LGBTQ youth of today, based on hands-on experience.  “I always did my homework and often tried to be agreeable to the right people,” he says, adding, “Having fun is a lot of hard work.”