A Tribute to Patricia Norris, 1931 – 2015
By Patrick Norris
Even when I worked with my mother, Patricia Norris, she wasn’t warm and fuzzy. The first time I worked with her, I actually called her mom on a set in front of other people. Looking like she was going to kill me, she pulled me aside and said, “When we’re at work, it’s Mrs. Norris.”
“Good to know. I didn’t know that.” I said. “I’ve been calling you mom all my life.” She began to reconsider and said, “I like you, so you can call me Patty.” With that, she turned and walked away. So I always called her Patty at work.
Patricia Norris was born Patricia Ann Hurley, March 22, 1931, in Los Angeles to Harold Hurley, a successful Paramount studio executive, and Leonita Parker who we grandkids called Nana. Patty grew up as an only child in a privileged family, studied ballet and loved dance and classical music. The Hurleys entertained some of the biggest stars in Hollywood and one of Patty’s best friends was Shirley Temple. She attended Westlake private school for girls and lived in Beverly Hills.
Patty’s parents also weren’t warm and fuzzy. The happiest part of her childhood was the drive in the limousine from their house in Lake Arrowhead to their house in Beverly Hills where, sitting between her parents, they would listen to the radio together all the way home. That was the closest she was to them. They never hugged her or told that they loved her. Her governess was the mother figure in the early part of her life.
When she was 16 years old, Patty experienced a devastating upheaval in her family when her father died by suicide. Her family lost everything. She was forced to leave Westlake High school and finish at Beverly Hills High school. Their house, and their security, was gone. They were forced at times to find shelter and food at the Red Cross.
Nana had to reinvent herself and went to work at Bullock’s as a saleswoman for a prestigious glass company, later becoming one of their most successful saleswomen. Patty finished high school at her local high school and went on to study art at Marymount College and then archeology and paleontology at Stanford University.
At 21, Patty married a successful film director and within eight years, had five children: Michael, Patrick, Christopher, Kelly and Kathy. Her plan, similar to most women of the time, was to settle in to raising her children and being a homemaker. But by the time she was 30, she realized, for the second time in her young life, things were not going according to plan. Her husband was an alcoholic and abusive to her and the children and, in 1961, she made a decision to take us kids and herself away from that environment and set out on her own. She became the sole provider, and it became her responsibility to help her young family of five children survive.
Fashion was not her intention. Her intention was to have kids and a happy marriage, but things got out of control, so she became the person who had to be a survivor and keeper of these kids.
Patty moved Nana to our house to help take care of us while she went to work to provide for us all.
Her first job was ironing clothes for people at our home. She ironed a lot of shirts. Before she got in the business, she’d load us in the car to go to the market. She’d go in the front door, but go out the back door and get all the old vegetables that they had just thrown away. She had the best homemade chili. We started to put it together–a lot of it was older vegetables or day-old bread. She knew the market’s schedule to throw away produce. She was frugal with her money because she needed to stretch it a long way.
She was a big Blue Chip Stamp collector. She’d have us all lick them and paste them in books to redeem and get things we needed like a toaster or a mixer. She was such a role model of survival.
If we kids were fighting too much, Patty would fall on the floor and pretend to faint. The fighting would stop, and we’d gather round her and ask, “Are you okay, Mom?” After we’d gotten a good scare, she’d get up and say, “What if that killed me? Where would you all be then? Just get along.”
Through friends, she applied for a job at MGM in the stockroom in the costuming department where she did laundry and received and cleaned stock. She had to be tough from the start. There was a party atmosphere in Hollywood back then and protections for sexual harassment in the workplace were nonexistent. She was a beautiful young woman–blue-eyed, blonde, willowy–who looked like Rita Hayworth. If someone made a pass at you, you had no HR department to complain to. You had to take care of it on your own. Tommy Walsh, a production designer who worked with Patty said, “Patricia was the only woman who was able to crack the good old boys club from the beginning.”
Patty’s work ethic was apparent from the very beginning of her career. She was surrounded by people partying in Hollywood in the 1960s, like Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando, but the addiction of Hollywood was her drug of choice. She was completely straight–never did a drug. She didn’t drink. She was very direct, very efficient. She would never take the risk of joining them and losing her job.
As she was getting started at MGM, we kids were playing ball on our street and our ball fell down the sewer. We didn’t have the 25 cents to get another ball so my mother lifted the manhole cover intending to climb down and get our ball. Instead, the cover fell and broke her foot. That was the only time Patty wasn’t able to go to work and they wouldn’t pay her because she had not been there very long. She went back to ironing for three weeks until she was able to return to MGM.
Back at MGM, Patty worked her way up to set costumer and then became a costume designer. As her career blossomed, it became more and more difficult for her as a single mom to spend time with her children.
Nana and Patty never got along because Patty always wanted to be the one who was home with her kids. You could feel her longing to be home; she enjoyed being home–she’d dance ballet and put opera on the turntable.
Patty orchestrated our lives and her career for us, though we kids rarely saw her during the work week. Her family was the most important thing to her. She made sure we were at school, made the doctors’ appointments and used her mother to get us from place to place. She always made herself available for conversation if we kids were in trouble. If someone was going through something, she would work it out to phone us or we’d talk
when she came home. That was the style of love she gave, though her parents never gave that to her. She did not know how to do it any other way.
I found a letter from Kathy and Kelly, my sisters, that she saved. At the end of the letter it had this little girl’s figure drawing of an upside down happy face, the really sad face. It said, “Come home. We miss you.” She missed high school graduations, sings, birthdays. Patricia said the hardest thing about the business was “being away from family and having to work and no one understanding that you had to be there for your kids.” It made the relationship between the kids and her a personal void. I didn’t know as much about her being a mother as I knew about her career. Emotionally, it was hard to have any contact with her.
I didn’t have any idea of her talent as an artist until I saw David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” where she was both the costume and production designer, creating the entire look of movie. From then on I was hooked on her work. Whatever she created, I wanted to see it. Her talent was so enormous, and I was so turned on by what she did, she inspired me to make bigger career choices for myself, such as directing.
I started to see my mother’s creative process, her leadership style, get an idea of how indispensable she was to each director she worked for and understand that our humble, hardworking, super direct, super simple, super smart mother was a creative titan in designing the look of the world of A-list movies.
Patty had no formal training in production design or costuming. She would start a project by doing lots of research and sketches. She would constantly be tearing out clippings of fashion and architecture. Her sense of design was phenomenal. I’d go with her to International Silk and Woolens, one of the finest fabric stores in Los Angeles, and I’d be the guy who would tote the bolts of fabric she threw, saying, “Take this up front.” It was fascinating to watch her create that way. She taught me how to shop by touching and feeling the fabrics.
She never talked about her mentors. She never wanted to be Hollywood’s “next Edith Head.” Patty was self-taught, self-driven and wanted to stay low key in the background. The one Costume Designer she was inspired by was William Travilla. William, who designed for Marilyn Monroe’s films, had won an Oscar for Costume Design in 1950 for “Adventures of Don Juan.” Patty and William became friends in the late 1960s. As it turned out, Patty became friends and family with a lot of Costume Designers and Costumers over her career and was well respected by all.
She was very hands-on as a production designer and Costumer Designer, and known to always have the best in the business on her crew. On some films she controlled the entire look of the film, as both a Costume Designer and production designer, but her passion was always costume. When I was doing “History of the World: Part 1,” my job was to clean the armor. If I didn’t do it right, Patty would step in. I used to dress hundreds of extras in period clothes, and she would see every one of them as they went out the door.
As I continued working with her, I would attend actor fittings. She ran an unbelievably direct and very tight operation no matter what she was doing. She was very strong, very direct, and very good with actors–Brad Pitt, Joaquin Phoenix, Julie Andrews, Dudley Moore, Robert Redford, Mel Brooks–the list goes on and on. She’d say, “This is what I have. This is what I am doing. What do you think of this?” She put a garment into an actress or actor’s hand and say, “I think it should be this. Put this on. This will look great on you.”
Patty loved researching each world like a historian. Her private collection includes books on everything from 17th century history to fashion magazines from the teens, ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s. Patty was intent on depicting authentically the world of the movie and its characters.
Actors and directors relied on her for the look, but also the depth of knowledge she had about the world of the movie. She read everything. She read anything. She knew about government, about taxation, geography, history, geology. Lupita Nyong’o, who portrayed Patsey in “12 Years a Slave,” thanked Patty when she picked up her Oscar. She appreciated that not only was she given shoes by Patty, but also instructions on how to walk in them, based on what Patty had read about the lives of the slaves.
Patty would research exhaustively to unearth the authentic look of the movie. On “12 Years a Slave,” she realized that the images she could find were not reliable. There were no photographs during the time of slavery and sketches she found romanticized notions of slaves laughing and having lunch under a shade tree on the plantation. Her design came from a combination of research, pictures and the reality of what she read. She knew the kind of fabrics that were being used and how they were laundered. Her costumes were fact. They were researched to death by her.
To the fullest extent of her creativity, she was always that right-hand person for every director she worked with. There are letters among her things from so many actors and directors–David Lynch, James Gray and Brad Pitt, thanking her for her indispensable contribution to their films.
She collaborated with some of the biggest directors, and was the only member to win Lifetime Achievement Awards from both the Costume Designers and Production Designer guilds.
Despite her unparalleled success as a Costume or Production Designer, she was always trying new things, and taking risks. She opened her own costume house called Cozzie’s and Private Collection. She just gave up her business four years ago. The body of her collection is at Western Costume, under the Patricia Norris collection.
She kept many of her most precious treasures, and I am finding them now, tucked away in her home. She loved to shop at swap meets, pawn shops, antique shops and auctions, everywhere she went. Like a raven, she’d go out and find something shiny and bring it back to her nest. She told me to “go slowly” when going through her house, which she willed to me. I think she knew I would be able to appreciate all that she collected over the years.
Patty rarely dressed up for anything. She was a woman in black. Black jacket, black slacks, black shoes. I never saw her in any color–super practical, super smart. When she was off work, she just wanted to talk about the world. Never wanted to talk about the business. She wanted to be in her garden, pulling weeds. She also loved to cook. She liked to be home, except to occasionally go to the ballet. Never went out to eat. She dated a few times.
She married for a couple of years, and it didn’t work out. She could never find a man as strong as her.
She had a passion for animals. She would, in times of frustration, relate more to the affection of animals than to people. She always had long-term, four-legged companions who were a good replacement for humans.
It was phenomenal the way she produced for people. Everyone pretty much left her alone to do her thing. They didn’t know better than she knew. I don’t even think she knew that. Ultimately, as strong and pointed as she was, she was very shy about her success and very humble about who she was in this business of Hollywood. She didn’t see herself as the star that she was. I must say, Patricia Norris was a great example of talent, creativity, truth, honesty and survival. Not only in Hollywood but in parenting and family life as well. I for one will truly miss this talented woman.