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The Ballad of Ken and Denise
Mac McClelland | Photo: Jake Stangel | November 29, 2012
She’s a European-born aristocrat. He’s a small-town boy from Virginia. Together, Ken Fulk and Denise Hale form the city's most fabulous—and strictly platonic—power couple.
WHEN PEOPLE ASK Denise Hale and Ken Fulk what keeps them together, they say it’s the sex.
Yes, there is a bit of an odd-couple quality to the youngish interior design guru and the older society queen—the decades she has on him (she admits only to being “39-plus”); the fact that he’s gay and in a 20-year relationship and she’s been thrice married to rich and famous men; the fact that she is old-world, old-school, and blue-blooded, while he transformed his small-town Southern self into the design darling of San Francisco’s upper crust.
But their differences only amplify the way that Hale and Fulk square each other’s social significance. He is the undisputed thrower of the best parties in the city; she tops the list of guests to get. While he lends hipness to anyone and anything around him—his soirees as well as the boutique businesses and rich-as-God individuals who hire him for one-of-a-kind decor—she brings glamour in spades.
Tonight, in early October, Fulk is hosting a reception (his fourth party this week) for Cornelia Guest, the daughter of Truman Capote gal pal C.Z. Guest and Winston Churchill’s second cousin, who has known Hale since she was a girl. On the fourth floor of Fulk’s SoMa design studio, the accessories are occasionally bizarre but always flawless: the antler chandeliers hanging from exposed beams, the taxidermied head of a lion posed on a coffee table and wearing a top hat, the Jules Verne ashtrays. Cornelia Guest perches on a desk on her knees, chatting with CNET cofounder Shelby Bonnie. The other invitees (who include culinary maven Cecilia Chiang, political dynamo Susie Tompkins Buell, and San Francisco ballet star Damian Smith) cradle wine glasses in one hand and, in the other, puppies— actual puppies—brought in from the SPCA to serve as entertainment.
“A person can borrow puppies from the SPCA?” I ask Fulk. “Well…” he says, trailing off politely—the implication being that I couldn’t, and you couldn’t, but yeah, he can. (He’s a trusted member of the board.) If you met him, you’d probably lend him your own baby if he asked. At the party, he’s liberally calling people “dear”—and he means it, sincerity emanating from every pore. It’s no wonder that people give him anything he wants. Or hire him. Or work with him—or for him.
A guest tells me that Hale, too, is a person “people can’t say no to,” but her power is of a more, well, commanding kind. Although I flatter myself that I’m not particularly easy to intimidate—I’ve interviewed unfriendly cops, rebel-army generals, and murderous felons—I admit that within moments of meeting Hale, I’m a bit afraid of her. Though we are complete strangers, she reaches up and wraps a hand around the side of my face. There’s no up-talk, not an ounce of uncertainty in her tone or opinions. She is generous—both to the party guests, with compliments and affection, and philanthropically, funding everything from public television to hospitals—but she is so firmly rooted, to herself and to the ground, that she conquers by sheer self-assuredness. When the cast of Downton Abbey (Hale provides the money for the show’s local broadcast on PBS) was in town last year, for example, she invited them out for a very late dinner. The president of KQED said that was sweet, but they had so much work to do and would be too tired, so no thanks. “No,” Hale told him, she wasn’t asking him. “Ask them. They’ll want to come.” And so they did.
Hale’s support of Downton Abbey—and of other “beautifully done” endeavors, like the symphony—is the result of her grandfather’s motto, “Deeds, not words,” a credo that she’s long had the means to uphold. She was born to Serbian elite, and she married well, first to an Italian business baron, then to famed Hollywood director Vincent Minelli—Liza’s dad—and then to “the love of my life,” the late Prentis Cobb Hale, a director of both Bank of America and Union Oil who chaired, among other department stores, Neiman Marcus. She’s gone from World War II refugee to Hollywood royalty to arguably the most prominent jet-setter in San Francisco, and the connections she has made along the way are too vast and impressive to count. A society-page picture of her with her arms draped around Gavin Newsom seems barely worth mentioning when her acquaintances include Gloria Vanderbilt, Nancy Reagan, the maharaja of Jaipur, and world-class fashion designers and architects.