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Noel Taylor dies at 97; longtime costume designer for stage and screen

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Noel Taylor, an award-winning costume designer whose career spanned seven decades and started almost by accident after artist Marc Chagall sought his help, has died. He was 97.

Taylor, a longtime resident of West Hollywood, died of natural causes Thursday at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, said Patrick Munoz, executor of his estate.

Nominated four times for an Emmy Award, Taylor won in 1978 for costume design for the PBS drama "Actor: The Paul Muni Story." He also had designed for more than 70 Broadway plays, many local stage productions and nearly 30 television shows and films.

At 16, Taylor dropped out of high school to work in the theater and at 22 was starring on Broadway in "Cross Ruff," a play he also wrote.

Trained as a painter, Taylor turned toward costume design when Chagall asked him to help paint costumes in the late 1940s for a New York City Ballet production of "The Firebird."

"When I'm doing a costume, I don't think of it as a piece of wardrobe," Taylor told The Times in 1980. "I think of it as a painting."

On Broadway, he was prominent and prolific until his early 80s. In the 1950s, he laboriously dyed fabric for "The Teahouse of the August Moon" and did costumes for "Dial 'M' for Murder," and the early 1960s plays "The Night of the Iguana" and " One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

He was nominated for Emmys for the 1991 Civil War miniseries "Ironclads," the 1982 special "Eleanor, First Lady of the World" and the 1965 Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation of "The Magnificent Yankee."

"He was a brilliantly talented designer," said Rachael Stanley, interim director of the Costume Designers Guild, which gave Taylor a lifetime achievement award in 2004. "His sketches are really pieces of art in and of themselves. One he did of Katharine Hepburn is on my wall."

Before Hepburn would agree to Taylor designing costumes for her 1986 TV movie "Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry," she insisted on seeing samples of his work, according to the 2006 biography "Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn."

After Hepburn pronounced his designs beautiful, "we were best friends," Taylor said in the book. He worked with her on several more TV movies.

In 2005, he accompanied Julie Harris to Washington, D.C., when the actress received a Kennedy Center Honor while wearing a Taylor design. Their friendship began "20 plays and 30 years ago," Taylor had told The Times in 1980.

In 1961, when Harris was uncomfortable with a costume for Broadway's "A Shot in the Dark," Taylor said he made another overnight because "nobody ever has to wear anything I make that they don't like."

He was born Harold Alexander Taylor Jr. on Jan. 17, 1913, in Youngstown, Ohio, the second of two sons of a stockbroker and his wife, a painter.

At 7, he moved with his family to Paris for two years and acquired "Noel" as a childhood nickname.

In his 20s, Taylor often summered in Austria, where he witnessed the growing discrimination against Jewish people during the rise of Adolf Hitler.

He wired his mother to tell her, "Forget everything you thought you knew," Taylor later said, and solicited her help in raising $200,000 to help exiled Jews.

Jailed for participating in illegal meetings, he was released after four days by a sympathetic Austrian interrogator and soon returned to the U.S., he said in several interviews.

During World War II, Taylor was an equestrian trainer for the Coast Guard.

In Los Angeles, he had worked on theater stages both large and small, and had designed costumes for the Laguna Playhouse's "Harvey" in 2003 when he was 90.

He had two major life partners, George Sullivan and artist Adnan Karabay. Taylor is survived by a nephew.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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