Over the telephone, Carleton Varney comes across just as suave and urbane as one would expect of the head of New York-based Dorothy Draper & Co., the oldest established interior-design firm in the country.
Not to mention one who has homes in Palm Beach, Fla.; St. Croix; County Limerick, Ireland; and upstate New York; who has designed for (and hobnobbed with) celebrities as varied as Joan Crawford, Joe Namath, Jimmy Carter and Jacqueline Kennedy; and who has spearheaded such high-profile design projects as Ashford and Dromoland Castles in Ireland; the Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla.; the Plaza and Waldorf Towers Hotels in New York; and The Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.
TV personality, darling of the lecture circuit, bon vivant and the author of 27 books — his latest, Mr. Color, will be out this fall — Varney will bring his savoir faire to Lexington as keynote speaker at the Bluegrass Trust Antiques and Garden Show at Keeneland.
He will provide design tips and reminisce about his 40-year career with Draper, the decorating doyenne who jump-started America's love affair with bold fabrics in shades of chartreuse and turquoise, and wallpaper boasting oversize peppermint-pink camellias and cabbage roses.
And what a career it has been. Here are a few highlights:
■ 21 years as Joan Crawford's personal decorator.
■ Collaborator with Errol Flynn's widow, Patrice Wymore, on their plantation estate in Port Antonio, Jamaica.
■ Design consultant for the Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta.
■ Decorator of suites named for six former first ladies at the Grand Hotel on Michigan's Mackinaw Island (he's now working on the Laura Bush Suite.)
Asked to dish on a few of his famous clients, he offered a charming anecdote about being asked to redo the apartment of then-94-year-old Fay Wray, best known as King Kong's first squeeze.
"I asked her why she wanted to redecorate after so many years," Varney said, "and she said, 'I like new friends, new color, fresh flowers every day ... all of these things make me feel alive when others think I'm not.'"
What makes Varney feel alive is continuing the tradition of his mentor, who revolutionized American interior design.
"Dorothy was an icon," Varney said. "She became a trendsetter in the 1920s when she made modern Baroque her signature style, and succeeded in branding herself. I hesitate to say that she was the Martha Stewart of her day — she was too original to be the anybody of her day — but she did become the first woman to license products, everything from perfume to wrapping paper.
"With her glamour and design daring, she was a force to be reckoned with."
If she were alive today, Draper surely would consider Varney a chip off the old finial block. Although he acknowledged some differences in their decorating style, Varney is a torchbearer for Draper-era glamour, especially in projects such as The Greenbrier, where he recently oversaw a major renovation.
"One of the primary reasons I'm coming to Lexington is because of the connection between The Greenbrier and Keeneland," he said. (Last year, the two announced a partnership designed to attract each other's well-heeled customers.)
"Both places have an element of glamour and sophistication that are too often lacking today," he said.
That glamour quotient is about to skyrocket with another of Varney's new projects — the ultra- luxurious Greenbrier Express Train, which will shuttle passengers daily between Washington, D.C.'s Union Station and the resort, and between The Greenbrier and Lexington several times a year, for Keeneland's spring and fall race meets and for the September yearling sales.
Varney, who is working on the project with Draper colleague Brinsley Matthews, said the train will emulate the legendary Orient Express in its top-of-the-line décor and amenities, albeit with one twist: Instead of evoking the ghosts of Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot, this train will be more "presidential."
In addition to the two dining cars and a club car, each of the seven cars will be named after a president who used The Greenbrier as his summer White House.
The relationship between The Greenbrier and Keeneland isn't Varney's only connection with the Bluegrass. He has fond memories of Frances Dodge, who was married to Frederick Van Lennep, former owner of Castleton Farm ("we worked on a project together at Pompano Park in Florida," he said) and he is involved in a collaboration with radio personality Rick Dees, whose farm, Sweetbriar, is near Danville.
Carleton Varney the sophisticate and Rick Dees the rock-and-roller working together on any kind of project might seem like an odd match, but Varney insisted that it isn't so.
"We're combining our talents and producing a CD that can be integrated into a house's design," he said.
Titled Music With Style, the CD has been reorchestrated by Grammy winner Dees to include many of Varney's favorites, including Moon River, As Time Goes By, Far Away Places and I'll Be Seeing You. Varney said those songs "would make a perfect sound track for an intimate dinner party."
Style is a word that defines Varney, but he also is a man of substance, and that made him irresistible to Sheila Omer Ferrell, executive director of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, when she chose him as a featured speaker for the show.
"Carleton's style and substance combined with his restoration expertise at many of our nation's beloved landmarks makes him an inspired choice," Ferrell said. "We can't wait to hear what he has to say."