Ewan McGregor as Halston is streaming now on Netflix and depicts many real-life people in the designers life like legendary Liza Minelli, jewelry designer Elsa Piretti and set designer Joe Eula, among many others.
It also goes into great detail about two of his lovers; the kind, mild-mannered Ed Austin, played by Sullivan Jones and the volcanic, sex bomb Victor Hugo outrageously brought back to life by Gian Franco Rodriguez. (Watch for an Emmy nom!)
Director Daniel Minahan bought the story to the screen with producers Christine Vachon & Ryan Murphy “based on a true story” from Stephen Gaines‘ biography, Simply Haltson.
Of course, as with all topics, some details have been changed for dramatic purposes—or left out entirely.
We see Halston try to pick up Ed Austin in a (presumably gay) NYC bar and they end up sleeping together. In real life, their introduction was a bit different. According to Gaines, they first met at a tea dance on Fire Island in 1964, Austin was talking to friends when the designer sent him a drink and Austin replied:
“I don’t accept drinks from strangers [but] send a drink back from me to whoever sent it.”
The pair spoke to each other later that night, when Austin found the designer smoking under a lamppost. Only after they had slept together and Austin had visited Halston’s NYC apartment did friends tell him who Halston really was. As in the encounter in the series, the designer had said his name was Eric.
Edward James Austin grew up in Newark, New Jersey and according to his sister attended the fashion college F.I.T. in NYC. At the time of their meeting, Austin was an assistant buyer in the menswear section of a department store (Macy’s? Gimbel’s?) According to Austin, who was interviewed for Gaines’ book, the pair had sex weekly for five or six years, but did not go out in public together.
“He kept me hidden away from his friends. He wouldn’t take me out to dinner publicly. I still don’t know the reason for that, unless he was trying to protect his image.”
Their relationship took a back seat after Victor Hugo arrived (more on that) but Austin did become the manager of Halston’s boutique and dresser of its windows and before the company was sold, he was also an assistant designer and vice president.
Halston’s previous boyfriend, Austin, was already doing that job. The conflict between them came to a head during the Christmas season of 1973, when Halston had Hugo redecorate a window Austin had designed.
Austin told Gaines,
“I was fired. Christmas Eve, thank you—out the door, no severance, nothing,”
Austin never saw Halston again.
In a tribute written by Austin’s sister after his death, Ed he became a designer in his own right, the only Black designer to have a couture business on Madison Avenue with his company Austin Zuur. He went on to work at Givenchy and Yves St. Laurent in Paris, before moving to Houston to work as a costume designer and then to California to become a curator. Austin twice received the F.I.T. Award for Design.
Ed Austin died in 2003. His family never revealed his cause of death.
Halston met Victor Hugo in 1972 when he showed up to have sex with him after calling for a male prostitute. Illustrator Joe Eula (David Pittu) said the designer regularly engaged the services of male sex workers calling this his “dial-a-steak, dial-a-dick” service.
Victor Hugo assumed his name not on the famous writer (as Halston/McGregor) says in the series but as a pun on his “huge-o” penis. This is not boasting as is proven by Andy Warhol‘s series sex parts series (*see below).
Although the Netflix show portrays the relationship as a tempestuous sexual one to the end, Hugo himself said in Simply Halston:
“Halston and I never had sex after the first three months, it was a great love affair—not about sex.”
When the pair met, Hugo was a student making ends meet through sex work. He became the first of Halston’s boyfriends to live with him and, like Austin before him, worked in the designer’s boutique. He started in the packing room, but quickly progressed to the role of window dresser.
Hugo’s presence in the company led to Austin’s departure. Austin told Gaines:
“I put in the window about a week before Christmas. It was fabulous, nothing but red clothing and silver jewellery. But Halston came downstairs with Victor Hugo, and he didn’t like it. Halston had Victor redecorate it.”
Hugo remained, and continued to be a volatile presence in the designer’s life. Gaines said of the relationship in a NewNowNext interview:
“Halston liked being humiliated and having the shock value of having Victor around. It was a whole other side to Halston.”
As the series shows, Halston was under tremendous pressure, as his empire expanded into fragrance, luggage, menswear, lingerie, and handbags. He was primed for a release valve when Studio 54 opened in 1977—and Halston jumped headfirst into the new venue, changing his office hours to cater to his partying schedule and supporting Hugo as he played host to lavish after-parties at Halston’s Upper East Side townhome.
The parties, according to the New York Post, featured
“Man-on-man orgies late into the night Warhol enjoyed photographing from the sidelines….”
As publicist R. Couri Hay told the NY Post,
“Victor had the keys to the safe with the cocaine.”
Former Interview editor and longtime Vanity Fair special correspondent Bob Colacello said in the 2019 Halston doc,
“Andy did Victor’s portraits. He did two. One day he shows up, and the painting is completely covered with graffiti. [Victor] had painted over them, thinking that this was taking Andy’s art to another level. And Andy was really mad. He was like,
‘Don’t think I’m doing new ones, Victor.’”
Halston’s friend and employee Sassy Johnson figured out the psychology of the relationship between the two, she said in the Halston doc,
“My theory has always been that Halston came from an alcoholic family, that his father had a problem.
And that Halston recreated his family life with Victor as the dysfunctional person who is constantly going to keep everything off balance.”
Director Daniel Minahan said,
“I think Victor got so deep into his addiction and so overwhelmed and drunk off the attention they were getting that he became a really destructive force.
I think maybe Victor, in the beginning, was the person who could tell Halston the truth about things. But then that became something more manipulative. Their relationship is a sad story. But I think we kind of try to capture the excitement of it and the danger of it, and then finally the dysfunction of it.”
After Halston was diagnosed with HIV in 1988, he moved to San Francisco to be closer to his family—and to get away from Hugo. Halston’s niece Lesley Frowick told People that in Halston’s final years,
“He tolerated [Hugo], but he was trouble.”
Three decades later, Halston’s friends still point fingers at Hugo for his negative influence on the designer.
Andre Leon Talley told the New York Times.
“That Venezuelan call boy was his downfall. He was a grifter who clung on like a parasite, like a barnacle on a ship.”
In the Halston documentary, filmmaker Frédéric Tcheng asked Joe Eula for his analysis of relationship. Eula minced no words.
“Why did Halston put up with Victor?”
“Because he was in love with him.”
“When did it fall apart?”
“The day they met.”
Gaines in the New Now Next interview:
“Victor was stealing stuff out of the house when Halston was dying. They had to lock him out.”
But Halston left Hugo “several million dollars” in his will. The designer’s estate also paid him to sign a non-disclosure agreement—an agreement that Hugo broke.
Even after Halston’s 1990 death from AIDS, Hugo continued to try to make money off the designer, according to Gaines.
“Victor absolutely would not give me an interview unless I paid him. All the money just went up his nose and on crazy spending and destructive stuff.”
Per the book The Last Party, Hugo burned through all the money and was sleeping on the streets by late 1993. Artist Scott Covert took him in, before he was admitted to hospital with the AIDS that would kill him in early 1994.