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The Ballad of Ken and Denise

Mac McClelland | November 29, 2012 | Lifestyle Story City Life

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.

Fulk, on the other hand, hails from Virginia, an English and history major whose path to becoming an interior designer for billionaires started with real estate staging. He now has a staff of 35 in the converted four-floor studio on Seventh Street, in the heart of the leather district, that he bought from Mr. S Leather. (The original sign is integrated into the lush landscaping on the studio terrace.) Sometimes people still come in off the street looking for exotic sex toys, a member of Fulk’s staff says. Instead they find a rotating array of $2,000 antique chairs, spectacular rugs, designer menswear, taxidermy, and, until recently, a Provincetown-inspired reclaimed-wood dune shack, perfectly reconstructed and perfectly appointed with furniture and accessories, right down to the vintage flask on the perfect little desk.

Four years ago, a mutual friend predicted that Hale and Fulk, despite their obvious differences, would fall platonically in love. They did indeed. “No one lives like this anymore!” Hale said of Fulk when they first met. “Not everyone will just say yes when you call them up and ask them to do some crazy thing. Every girl should have a Ken in her life.” Fulk was more at a loss for words when he tried to describe his friend to me. “Denise’ll see when you meet her. She’s special.”

As it turns out, the two have many things in common. They both enjoy hard work, he running every detail of his business, she overseeing the 8,000-acre ranch she owns in Sonoma County. They both like to relax and spend time with their dogs (she has German shepherds; he has golden retrievers). They gab on the phone at least every couple of days. And they both have enough energy to walk out of Manhattan’s Carlyle Hotel at 2 in the morning with a bottle of champagne and wander around the city, taking a break on the steps of the Met to toast themselves.

And so much to toast! Start with the party that Fulk threw for Hale’s birthday two years ago, which counted among its 400-plus guests the then–California Supreme Court chief justice and an oil billionaire. Everyone was greeted outside by bare-chested men in leather and top hats and entertained inside by drag queens. Or take the elaborate fantasy-themed birthday celebration, complete with a live pony dressed as a unicorn, that Fulk pulled off —with only 36-hours’ notice. Or the next big party, which Fulk is discussing tonight, where Stevie Nicks performed and which Hale attended.

As for Hale, her influence is such that she often assures people that she can make—or break—careers. (“Doors will be closed” is the threat she likes to throw around.) When one of the reception guests suggests to me that as a writer, I should ingratiate myself with Hale and score an introduction to her friend Graydon Carter (the editor of Vanity Fair), she is not joking. “I know everyone,” Hale confirms after the party has moved to Fulk’s house next to Sutro Tower (at least for those who were clandestinely handed heavy-stock business cards scrawled with his address). “Everywhere. San Francisco, Hollywood, New York, Europe.”

Still, it’s San Francisco that seems best suited to the kind of mixed marriage that Hale and Fulk represent—a place where provincials can make as big a splash as plutocrats if they seize or create the right opportunities, where aristocrats can slum it with commoners they love for their talent or charms. “Instead of hanging out with the same seven people, you meet interesting and engaging people that you wouldn’t otherwise meet,” Fulk says of his events. “So many people think that’s what San Francisco’s about, but it doesn’t always happen. We bring those worlds together.”

Originally published in the December 2012 issue of San Francisco.

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