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People Are Talking About Mary
March 26, 2023

Society Photographer Mary Hilliard

Photos by Mary Hilliard

 By Tara Kelly

Met Gala. Malcolm Forbes’s birthday party in Morocco. Save Venice ball. Valentino’s 1992 party at the Armory. Countless ballet openings. Fashion shows. The Interview Magazine party at Mortimer’s. What do all these events have in common? Aside from the fact that they were iconic social events of their time—Mary Hilliard was there. If she wasn’t clicking away with her camera, you would probably confuse her with one of the guests, but instead of a diamond necklace dangling from her throat she was sporting multiple cameras and a strobe light. 

Hilliard is quite shy and is the opposite of a pushy paparazzo. Maybe that’s why she has such a stunning portfolio of A-list entertainers, artists, designers, models, media moguls, people at the epicenter of New York’s social life. She’s been at the party capturing intimate moments for more than three decades without alarming her subjects.

The recently published, Mortimer’s: Moments in Time features Hilliard’s photographs. Flipping through the book is a time capsule of a particular slice of New York in the 1980s and 90s; an Upper East Side restaurant, the epicenter of arts, culture, politics, and media. Most of the subjects are famous for a particular thing rather than just being famous for being famous. 

Hilliard tells the story of how she came to document so many moments at Mortimer’s. She was already an established fashion photographer working shows for Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Calvin Klein, and Versace. Her photographs were in Vogue, Town & Country, and W. She’d been hired by Carrie Donovan, fashion editor of The New York Times Magazine, to do “on the street” features, sort of like what Bill Cunningham was doing in the Style section of The New York Times.

“One night I got a call from Carrie. I’d just walked in the door from a long workday, and she says, ‘There’s a great big party going on right now at Mortimer’s! Go. Now!” She grabbed her camera and ran. Donovan got her party pictures, and Hilliard got noticed by Glenn Bernbaum, the owner and overseer of every little detail at Mortimer’s. Soon he was calling Hilliard to come and take pictures at his other parties. 

Hilliard doesn’t ask her subjects to pose. She doesn’t style or stage her subjects. She says. “They knew me. They paid attention in a sense, but they continued to talk and visit with each other.” This is particularly clear in Hilliard’s next book, a small volume titled People Will Talk Mary Hilliard Photographs. 

“The picture is the picture,” she says. Learning her craft, working with film, meant she had to select the best of what she took, in the moment. “Digital allows you to check the photo and if it doesn’t look right, take another one. But with film I didn’t have that luxury. These are true candids.”

Selected from tens of thousands of photos from her archives, they’re eye-catching and mysterious. Nicole Kidman looking sideways at Adrian Brody. Valentino entertaining Meryl Streep. Stella McCartney and Karl Lagerfeld sitting glumly by, as Anna Wintour makes a point. She captures them mid-sentence, mid-thought. And the reader is dying to know: what are they talking about?

Hilliard has been coming to the Millbrook area since the 1960s, and now has a weekend home in Stanfordville that she says, “I don’t spend nearly enough time in, but it’s a great get away from my frenetic life in New York.” Of course, she’s also likely to run into some of the same friends she’s photographed in the city.