For Joseph Cicio, Life’s a Gift
For Joseph Cicio, the act of gift-giving — and receiving — is filled with meaning and memory.
It’s also an art and Cicio is a master who has turned this particular talent — one could call it a gift — into a stunning, picture-and-story-filled book, “FRIENDS* *Bearing Gifts” (Pointed Leaf Press).
Enter his Warren home — which is the star of the just-published coffee table-sized book — and you will see a life on display. You will be visually drawn in not only by his sense of taste, balance and comfortable elegance, but be also engrossed by the specificity of detail.
Each painting, photograph, sculpture, figurine — many of them gifts highlighted in the book — suggests a story to tell, a secret to be revealed, even a sadness to be shared. These presents evoke the past and, like Proust’s madeleines, unlocks a flood of memories.
“I remember what my mentor Cici Blum Kempner once told me,” says Cicio, taking down off a shelf a black-and-white photograph of the ’60s-stylish Lord & Taylor buyer — “when buyers were legends” — to gaze upon as he continues. “‘When traveling,’ she said, ‘Buy one beautiful thing and someday when you’re as old as I am, you’re going to have a beautiful home filled with beautiful things. But remember, it’s not the things that are important. It’s what they represent in your life, who you were with, who gave it to you, where you were. You will look at it and it will all come rushing back to you.’”
The gifts — and the memories — surround Cicio everywhere he looks in his sprawling Litchfield County home and garden where he has lived for 18 years. These presents are by designers, actors, comedians, wine experts and the just-folks down the street. They include American society’s royalty (Lady Nancy “Slim” Keith, Brooke Hayward Duchin) as well as the real thing: a prince (as in Charles) and a princess (as in Grace).
In the book — and on this overcast late-spring afternoon with his two wire fox terriers at his side, Cicio recalls stories of the gifts he received from friends, including Joan Rivers, Carol Channing, Audrey Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, wine czar Robert Mondavi, the artist Erte and Nancy Kissinger, who wrote the foreword to the book.
“I look at that pig,” says Cicio, pointing to a black figurine on a nearby table, “and I remember the day Bill Blass and I were at an event in San Francisco and we left early to go get a hamburger, and then went antiquing.” Talk of that day with Blass brought to mind other stories about the fashion designer, including his tip on exiting a party gracefully: “Arrive right on time when there won’t be many people, do the kissy thing with the hostess, talk for a few minutes so she’ll remember you’re there — and then disappear.”
“It's being able to look at that object and remember Bill,” says Cicio, with more than a hint of an accent from his Brooklyn roots. "Or looking at that orchid plant and remembering being at Costco with Ann [Schmidt, a neighbor] and getting it for $16 and how we laughed that it’s still alive. It’s the relationships that are important to me, not the price of the object.”
Well, almost. There was the time he received as a gift from a friend a purple plastic salad spinner. They still laugh about it, he says. “I mean does this house looks like it needs a purple salad spinner?” he says with mock outrage.
In an age of Amazon clicks, is the art of gift-giving going the way of thank-you notes, cursive writing and the telephone call?
“It probably is not going in a great direction,” he says a little ruefully.
Cicio says one of the reasons he wrote the book was that he wanted to bring some kindness into the world “that is filled with so much divisiveness and hate. It’s a very difficult time now. I want people to focus on relationships. We’re not here forever.”
The other reason is that he wanted to share stories about his fabulous friends that reveal a side of them not always seen: The generosity of Joan Rivers, who surprised him one afternoon with a set of too-expensive iron branches that now adorn his garden gate. (“The best gifts are when you’re not expecting them,” he says.) Or Lauren Bacall — “not as tough as she appeared on screen” — gifting him a silver lace cigarette box from an old admirer. Or Audrey Hepburn — who was exactly the same sweet soul off-screen as she was on — and her gift to his son of a UNICEF rag doll.
“I didn’t want it to be about me,” says Cicio, 73, but adds that in the storytelling a lot of his life story emerged: about being a kid raised in a boisterous Italian-American household in Brooklyn, about attending the monastic Benedictine priory right after graduating from high school, and then leaving the order three years later in search for his place in the world.
Through the encouragement of a former high school guidance counselor who felt he had a natural creative side, he went to Pan American School of Art, took a window display course and ended up getting a job at Lord & Taylor.
“You just can’t imagine for this kid who came from nowhere what it was like,” he says of the hubbub surrounding the high-end merchandizing world of the 1960s. “This was like show business to me. Retail is a very exciting industry, a little less today, though.”
His positions became increasingly elevated at the famed department store, then on to Macy’s, where he eventually became a vice president; then as CEO of I. Magnin followed by a position as president of Donna Karan’s retail division, then top roles at Sun International, Mayors Jewelry, Penhaligon’s, Erno Laszlo and, most recently, as a consultant whose clients include His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales.
“I’m sitting at Buckingham Palace having dinner and I’m seated next to Camilla and I’m thinking, ‘Holy [expletive]. Let’s be serious. How did this happen?’”
But Cicio’s gifts to others over the years have also made their mark on others.
He remembers several years ago visiting the Benedictine seminary of his youth. “Brother John, who was in his 90s at the time, remembered these felt banners I made as Easter decorations.”
“‘We still hang them,” the old prelate told him. “And every time I walk into the chapel, I think of you.’”
Frank Rizzo has covered Connecticut arts for nearly 40 years.