A Client, Her Decorator, Nine Homes (and a Funeral)

When Frances Cheney met George Stacey, it launched a beautiful lifelong partnership. Browse photos of Cheney’s homes.

By Maureen Footer

Once upon a time, there lived a fabulous It girl, Frances Davison, known to all her family and friends as Frankie. Because she was a dashing iconoclast with pots of money (her father was J. P. Morgan’s most trusted partner), her 1926 marriage to Ward Cheney, the handsome heir to the Cheney silk empire, was heralded as the wedding of the season. By day, she ran an inno vative art gallery. By night, she mingled with stylish, arty, and influential friends. Yet there was one thing that eluded this glamorous creature: a decorator who understood her. Not someone who would merely dress rooms in expensive fabrics and the latest trends, but one who saw beyond the dazzle, the sophistication, and the Schlumberger jewels and could create true homes for Cheney and her family — albeit with pizzazz.

Of course, the young Mrs. Cheney knew plenty about decorators. Her mother had used the services of Lord Duveen, and she had already hired Elsie Cobb Wilson for her and Ward’s newlywed apartment, which had been featured in Town & Country. But by 1933, Cheney, aesthetically restless, decided to call upon the legendary Rose Cumming for the interiors of her new country house, an Art Deco update of Monticello at Peacock Point, which was a Davison family property in Locust Valley, New York. Fate intervened in Cumming’s shop, for it was there that Cheney found her design soul mate: George Stacey.

Just back from a dozen years studying classical interiors and selling antiques in Paris, Stacey was then Cumming’s assistant and sulkily sweeping the basement. The flamboyant Cumming breezily delegated the Cheney project to Stacey, who — thrilled to ditch the broom and turn his talents to design — stayed up all night to draft the first round of plans. At some wee hour, perhaps punchy from lack of sleep, he penciled in a play ful chinoiserie figure on the hearthstone. This flight of fancy completely captivated Cheney and launched a remarkable and enduring decorating partnership. Over the course of nine projects — amid much laughter and storytelling, cozy lunches and confidences, impromptu visits and European travel, and world-shattering events and personal transitions — Stacey and Cheney became artistic allies as well as fast friends.

The pair scored big with the chic weekend house at Peacock Point. Stacey’s mix of irreverence and elegance — Steuben crystal with klismos chairs, antiques with moderne furniture, luxury with avant-garde — resulted in a lilting café society sensation unlike anything seen before. The press flocked to cover the house; Vogue even sent Cecil Beaton to photograph Cheney in her living room.

Up next was a Fifth Avenue duplex overlooking Central Park for the young family. With its tufted banquettes, series of small tables, and mirrored walls, the dining room felt like a nightclub. In the living room, Stacey experimented with velvet-upholstered doors, pediments, and trim. The master bedroom featured a knockout mirrored ceiling (which mortified Cheney’s school-age daughter). The whole ensemble so impressed Diana Vreeland, by this time another fashionable Stacey client, that she used the apartment as a backdrop for Harper’s Bazaar fashion shoots.

During World War II, when Cheney’s husband was stationed in the South Pacific with the Navy, she downsized to a temporary wartime apartment, which Stacey helped outfit, adapting the contents of the duplex when possible. (The magnificent bedroom seems to have gone into storage.) Peace and the return of Mr. Cheney prompted a buoyant new Fifth Avenue apartment that blended preexisting treasures with stylish new pieces to produce the interior-design equivalent of Christian Dior’s New Look. For just as Dior soothed the war-weary with his gorgeous, high-maintenance, and slightly escapist belle epoque profiles, Stacey produced romantic havens of sophisticated color and serene perfection.

Responding to postwar informality — and shrinking domestic staffs — Stacey applied his easygoing yet high-style dynamic to a beach house in Amagansett, New York, much loved by the Cheneys’ children and grandchildren for its carefree simplicity. In a smart setting of willow furniture mixed with gilt wood and exotic accessories, the family lived with a glorious minimum of fuss. They even cooked their own meals. When their daughters married, the Cheneys moved into a diminutive townhouse on Sutton Square, which featured a serene bedroom containing French furniture and pale blue toile, a living room with gracefully composed wall arrangements of watercolors, sconces, and a rococo gilt-wood mirror, and a glass-enclosed studio that the couple lent to artists — all designed by Stacey, of course. And there were more homes to come: For the widowed Mrs. Cheney, Stacey designed yet another Fifth Avenue apartment and an Arizona villa, where French furniture commingled with adobe architecture and tile. Like Cheney, so at ease wearing haute-couture clothes, Stacey’s high-style houses exuded an effortless, unforced quality.

Stacey was so woven into the celebrations, croquet games, and lives unfolding at all the Cheney homes that young cousins thought he was family. He even had his own place at Peacock Point, the old squash court, which he fitted out as a country cottage with a chic high-low mix of 18th-century French furniture and terra-cotta pots of geraniums.

Frances Cheney died in 1969, but the storytelling and bantering continued with the next generation. Those interested in design would stop by Stacey’s apartment on 57th Street in New York, where he was neighbors with Cheney’s sister, Alice Gates, to pore over art and design books, review schemes, and stir martinis. Anne Zinsser, Cheney’s daughter, would visit Stacey in France, where he kept both a Paris apartment and a house in the country, and Stacey would frequently dine with her family in the city. When Cheney’s nephew Jim Davison studied in Paris, Stacey found him an apartment near his own flat. Another nephew, Gates Davison, brought the admiring young Mario Buatta (the future Prince of Chintz) to meet him.

Finally, in 1993, Stacey, who at 91 still loved making daily visits to his favorite antiques shops along 57th Street, collapsed on the sidewalk and died a few weeks later. After nine Cheney homes designed by Stacey, the family ultimately accommodated their decorator. They buried him in the family plot in Locust Valley — an elegant tombstone marks the spot — placing George Stacey forever in proximity to Frances and Ward Cheney. In case Frankie needed more panache in paradise, George would, as always, be there to design it.

Interior designer Maureen Footer is the author of the recently published George Stacey and the Creation of American Chic (Rizzoli).