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October 20, 2008

"Mr. Blackwell" Dies at 86

Hailed as chief of all fashion police with his celebrated worst-dressed lists


Mr. Richard Blackwell

Richard Blackwell, creator of the annual "Worst Dressed List," died Sunday of an intestinal infection. He was 86.

Born Richard Sylvan Selzer, Blackwell was raised in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, New York, in a poverty stricken neighborhood. A persistent truant, he was in and out of boy's homes throughout his early years. 

As a young stage actor in New York,
he had his first taste of fashion, making hats for wealthy socialites and actresses in his apartment attic.

After realizing that his Broadway ambitions were going nowhere in New York, he pursued his acting career in Los Angeles under the name Dick Ellis, in productions such as Juvenile Court starring Rita Hayworth, Dead End (having appeared in the Broadway production), and Little Tough Guy. He returned to New York in 1944, starring in in the stage production Catherine Was Great with Miss Mae West.

He eventually landed studio contracts, playing small parts in movies with such stars as Humphrey Bogart and Gene Kelly. It was Howard Hughes who fatefully changed his name to Richard Blackwell when he signed him to RKO.

When he left acting for a short stint as a Hollywood agent, Blackwell found himself making stage costumes for clients and discovered a substantial talent for design. Once again strapped for cash, he finally decided to pursue a career in fashion in 1958 and built his formidable line, House of Blackwell.

He created fashions for such stars as Jayne Mansfield, Dorothy Lamour, Peggy Lee, Ann Blythe, Jane Russell and a favorite among political wives such as Nancy Reagan and Coretta Scott King.

A key designer of the 1960s, Blackwell became the first in history to present his line on a television broadcast and the first to make his line available for plus-size women. 

He appeared on virtually every talk show on television with his “Worst Dressed List,” naming the biggest fashion fiascoes of the year and the less recognized "Fabulous Fashion Independents. Plus, he also hosted his own radio show on KABC in Los Angeles.

Blackwell's “Worst Dressed List,” now in its 48th year, has remained a source of controversy, amusement and conversation among the fashion elite and the unlucky (or lucky) celebrities who adorn it.

In 1995, Blackwell published his best-selling autobiography From Rags to Bitches and continued to write for major publications under both his own name and a pseudonym.

He is survived by his partner of almost 60 years, R.L. Spencer. Private memorial services are being scheduled.  In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the ROAR Foundation at shambala.org, to the Actors Fund at actorsfund.org or noonprop8.com.

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