Gary Brouwer, the Dutch-born millinery artist who designed hats for high society, Hollywood royalty, Broadway, opera,and circus stars during a nearly
50-year career that spanned two continents, died in his home in Harriman, NY,
on July 25, a scant month before his 91st birthday.
Born Gerbrand Brouwer on August 28, 1929, he was the son of Hendrika Volkers and Gerben Brouwer, who was celebrated as the poet laureaute of Frisia, the historical coastal region in the North of the Netherlands. Just four years old when his mother died, Gary went to live with his uncle Arnold and Aunt Be and their happy houseful of children, whom Gary would regard as his brothers and sisters for the rest of his life.
Sent to a private school in Amsterdam when his father remarried, Gary was
a pre-teen when the German Army captured the city during World War II. As the occupation dragged on for five-years, including the “Hunger Winter” famine of 1944-45, Gary was recruited to deliver dispatches from the Resistance “because I was too young and innocent-looking to arouse suspicion.” But he was not too young to realize the importance of his mission. Secretly prying up a floor board in the closet of his school bedroom, he hid a copy of each dispatch. Years later he donated his cache to an Amsterdam museum.
As an adult,Gary joined the Royal Dutch Navy and was deployed on a mission as an air controller in the East Dutch Indies, now Indonesia. Returning to Holland, he began studying fashion design in The Hague and cultivating his keen eye for beauty, stylish people, and an elegant lifestyle – his student “dorm” was in an historic building overlooking the lake and manicured grounds of important government buildings in The Hague.
Gary’s fashion focus soon turned to millinery, hand-making hats in the time-honored artisan tradition, shaping lengths of felt with steam on blocks of cherrywood. His creations quickly went to the heads of Dutch society, including two Queens. (A lifelong Royals -admirer, Gary kept silver-framed photos of Queens Juliana and Beatrix in his Harriman living room.) His custom-made hats famously flew out of the exclusive shops. Gary never tired of telling the story of a man – director of a large Dutch company – who would phone the shops, begging them not to tell his wife that Gary had made new hats; she would buy them all straight away.
It was the same story with American women after Gary decided to try his luck in the U.S. Encouraged by a sponsor, he and his fashion portfolio arrived in New York during the days of hats and gloves when star milliners like Mr. John, Lily Dache, and Halston got equal billing with high-fashion apparel designers.That ended abruptly with the beehive hairdo days of the 1960s, but not before Garybegan winning important commissions from other hat designers (he always said that he actually made Jackie Kennedy’s famous pillbox but credit went to the commissioning designer, Halston).
With American women going bare-headed – it was the first time in human history that hats were not considered wardrobe essentials – Gary turned his talents to designing headwear for stage, screen, and TV stars, among them the likes of Carol Burnett, Jackie Gleason,John Voight, Phyllis Diller, and Pia Zadora. On stage at The Metropolitan Opera such divas as Lenontyne Price and Marilyn Horne sang from under Gary’s headresses. He designed for successive productions of “My Fair Lady,” both in New York and abroad, and for many of the shows that made up the Broadway canon of the 20th century, including “Sound of Music,” “Hello, Dolly, and “Cabaret.”In Las Vegas, showgirls danced in Gary’s hats and Siegfried & Roy wore Gary’s headdresses as they cavorted with their white tigers. So did the elephants in the Barnum & Bailey Circus rings.
As the go-to artist for headwear on both sides of the Atlantic, Gary’s own fame landed him on the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and “What’s My Line?” where celebrities struggled to guess what this handsome, loquacious Dutchman did for a living (they couldn’t).
Meanwhile, Gary’s personal life revolved around the handsome Italian-American crafts designer he’d met during his first days in America, the late Michael Cannarozzi, an editor at Woman’s Day magazine and later, at 1,00l Decorating Ideas (now defunct). They were married on July 25, 2012, eight years to the day of Gary’s death. Together in the l960s, they bought a tiny, rustic log cabin in Harriman, which Gary constantly enlarged, burnished, and refurbished during the next 50+ years.
A memorial event honoring both Gary and Michael was held in their Harriman home on September 26, so family, friends, and neighbors could gather and celebrate two lives, well-lived.