Halston’s Personal Orchid Man on the Netflix Series, Studio 54 and Tending Flowers for the New York Élite
A glimpse into the wonderfully unusual world of Peter Wise
My fascination with the great designers and couture houses has been a lifelong thing, undoubtedly born of my mother’s stint as a high-end womenswear buyer for a southern California chain of department stores when I was very young.
This was the mid ’70s, when on the other coast New York City was exploding with creativity and ridiculously Good Times. Funnily enough, several people whom I would later in life come to know and in some cases collaborate with were smack dab in the thick of it all. Peter Wise is one of them.
It only took me a day or two from the May 14 release of Netflix’s hit limited series Halston for me to wolf down all five episodes. I enjoyed it more than I expected to, and my attention was particularly drawn to the prominence throughout of Halston’s beloved orchids.
Having binged the Netflix dramatization and on a Halston kick, I switched over to Frédéric Tcheng’s fantastic 2019 documentary, also titled Halston. Of course, orchids are featured, and late in the film, the man who was actually in charge of Halston’s treasured plants appeared onscreen. And if it wasn’t Peter Wise.
I first got to know Peter about a decade ago when I enlisted his longtime friend and business partner, the famed photographer and Andy Warhol protégé Christopher Makos, to collaborate on a music project. We hit it off then and have had many a conversation since, but the Halston history never came up. So of course I insisted he spill, and he happily obliged.
Christian Josi: So I have known and collaborated with you and Christopher for quite a while. How did I not know you were Halston’s orchid guy, in charge of the storied plants that were so much a focus of and factor in his life? Anything else you want to tell me?
Peter Wise: (laughs) Yes, I was Halston’s orchid guy for a few years. I had been working for his original orchid guy, who burned out. I got a call one day from Halston asking if I’d work with him on a benefit and retrospective for the fashion designer Charles James, of whom Halston who was such a great fan. It was a large reception and dinner event at The Brooklyn Museum and he wanted me to do the flowers. So I kind of just dove into it. I guess I did okay, because he was quite pleased, and he just said, “I need somebody to do this. You got the gig.”
And the rest was orchidacean history…
This was a time when orchids were much more rarefied, you couldn’t just buy an orchid in a supermarket, for instance. They were only available from established growers. I happened to know some of the really good ones, so I was able to rent some of their very best plants when they came into bloom. And orchids can bloom for a month or so. So the basic business was to rent plants, schlep them to New York and place them in clients’ homes and offices. I mean, I worked with Susie Gutfreund, Liza, Halston of course was my biggest client, Andy Warhol, Calvin Klein. But Halston, at any one time, we had 20 or so plants at his townhouse at 101 East 63rd, and then he’d have another 20, 25 plants at the Olympic Tower studio and showroom.
Sounds … stressful?
It was really very simple. Orchids are delicate as far as transporting them goes, especially in cold weather. But Halston had a garage at his house and the Tower had this fabulous elevator, you know, that you would drive into and would take you downstairs so you could unload the car and move them upstairs. So once there, in situ where they’re going to stay, they just sort of do their thing. You need to water them occasionally, but not so much. They’re bromeliads, which are plants that essentially grow on trees and get their water from the air. The worst thing you can do with orchids is to over-water them.
Yes, I learned that the hard way. So you didn’t set out early on to be a florist or a floral designer, right? What was your original “thing” and what brought you to New York? You were born and raised elsewhere I recall?
No, I didn’t set out to do that. I’m primarily a painter — a fine artist. I paint and I draw. I got a degree in fine arts and moved to New York right after college at Amherst. I was born in Boston and raised on Cape Cod.
That’s right, now I remember. And so you moved to New York and I know enough about you to know that you ended up hanging out with Makos and found yourself right square in the middle of that whole Halston-Warhol-Liza Studio 54 mix. How did you initially get caught up with all these characters? Not really a group one just falls into …
Geeze (laughs). That’s a tough one. Let’s see. I made friends throughout the art world because I’d gone to Skowhegan Art School in school in Maine, so I was exposed to a huge swath of very well established artists, you know, like, Alex Katz, Louise Nevelson, Wayne Thiebaud, people like that. And through those contacts, I met some people in New York, moved there, one thing led to another and I soon got to know Christopher, who of course was working with Andy and very much a part of that scene. And I just started thinking, oh, well this is just what New York is like. And of course I was living through this unbelievable period in a very tightly knit community. You could hop on your bike and go see anybody. You know, Keith Haring was not that far away. Jean-Michel (Basquiat) was not that far away.
What did you, as someone who was as close to the inner workings of HalstonLand as anyone, think of the Netflix series?
The Ryan Murphy thing. Yeah, it was a dramatization and I think he purposefully didn’t do much archival research. He was going for kind of a dramatic story, which is fine. But a lot of things portrayed were not as they really were, which is fine too. You know, it’s not a documentary.
For sure. Been a little easy for some to forget that, I think. By the way, I thought it was odd that Warhol was nowhere to be found in the series.
Yeah, I know. That was very surprising. Well, Ryan Murphy is doing a series on Andy for which Christopher and I have both been interviewed for hours, and it’s going to be a three-part thing coming out on Netflix in about a year. So that’s why Andy wouldn’t be in there, I think. He’s saving it.
Mystery solved! So let’s wrap this with a little more about the orchids. Why were they so critically important to him? That he be surrounded by them at all times?
You know, he just loved them. Like he loved dressing beautiful women. He loved simplicity. He loved color. I mean, his colors were fabulous. And he loved beautiful, colorful orchids and the fact that they were so rare at that point — you had to have both an appreciation for them and money — especially if you’re at any one time maintaining up to 60 plants, you know, that’s real money.
Was it really forty grand a month? The orchid bill?
It was a lot. But they made him very happy.
OK, give us a good Halston orchid story to close. Was he bitchy with you about them?
He couldn’t have been nicer. One time right after Thanksgiving, I was at Olympic Tower all alone because it was a holiday, just checking on the orchids and everything and moving them around a little bit. Halston comes in unexpectedly. And he’s walking around and says of the orchids I been tending to, “Well, this looks good, but, you know, I think it could be better. What do you think?” So for the next hour and a half, literally he and I both shifted pots around, mixing and matching, not really talking much, just doing it. And so we sort of finished up and he lit a cigarette and said, “Well, now, that’s pretty good, isn’t it? And I said, “Yeah, that’s very good, Halston.” That’s the kind of a guy he was to me, at least. He was a joy to work with.
So the extreme temper that’s portrayed in the series — you were never on the receiving end of that? Was that overplayed?
One time I was. I wasn’t able to deliver flowers one holiday Monday and he calls — I wish I’d saved the answering machine tape — and he says, “This is Halston. I’m wondering why it’s MON-day, and why there are NO new flowers up here.” And that was it. Click. “Thiiis is Halstonnn …” I’m like, “And who else would it be?” Anyway, that’s the only time he ever got mad at me, but he used to really unload on lots of people, that’s for sure.
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