Stuart Jacobson Has Produced the Ultimate Gift Book: It's Got Only the Best Presents

updated 08/12/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/12/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Until last year Stuart Jacobson was a successful fashion model whose professional responsibilities included romping on Virgin Islands beaches with Swedish beauties for $2,500 a day. Naturally, he wanted more. Explains Jacobson: "When you model, you're selling someone else's product. I wanted to put the same energy into a product of my own."

His first creation, Only the Best, a book he describes as "a celebration of gift-giving in America," has certainly benefited from that energy. But when nine publishers turned it down, Jacob-son, with the backing of 30 investors, decided to finance it himself. First, he had to persuade more than 100 celebrities, including George Burns, Jimmy Stewart and Helen Hayes, to agree to interviews and pictures of their favorite gifts. Now, two months before publication, he has already sold 35,000 copies (at $35), a phenomenal number for a coffee-table book. Best-sellerdom is a certainty.

Not surprisingly, the publishers who said "no" wished they hadn't. (One, Harry N. Abrams, the art book purveyor, later agreed to produce and distribute Only the Best.) "Many publishing execs told me there would be no market for the book," says Stuart, who has since won over not only bookstores but department stores and blue-chip corporations. Tiffany's has bought 4,000 copies with its traditional blue box on the cover. And Mary Kay, the cosmetics company, has ordered 7,000 as incentives for its sales reps.

Only the Best consists of lush photos of celebrities' most treasured gifts, accompanied by anecdotes relating their histories. It is, Stuart figures, the perfect gift book. "By giving this you are saying, 'I feel about you the way these people felt about each other.' " Jacob-son, 30, fully expects many Christmas shoppers to take home half a dozen copies. They just might, if his tireless promotion bears fruit. Each day Jacob-son types up a detailed list of everyone he plans to call or see about the project. Letitia Baldrige in her introduction to the book describes him as "a runaway express gathering speed." His Texas drawl hasn't hurt, nor have his blond good looks. "I'm no fool," says Jacobson. "I don't think people would have been so open if I were unattractive. Whatever gifts you've got, you've got to use them."

Use them he does. On one recent swing through Dallas, his hometown, Jacobson laid the groundwork for his coming 21-city book-promotion pilgrimage, which he has dubbed "The Spirit of Giving Tour." At a meeting with mail-order mogul Roger Horchow he debated the merits of adding another 10,000 copies to Horchow's original print order of 50,000. And he checked with his lawyer, John Theirl, about the contracts for his next project, a European edition of Only the Best. Everywhere he doled out invitations to a November 13 Only the Best gala in New York, which Nedda Harrigan Logan is organizing with Macy's to benefit the Actors' Fund. And everywhere he wore Perry Ellis; as a promotion of its own the clothing manufacturer gave him a complete wardrobe.

Jacobson is no stranger to money. His father, Coleman Jacobson, is a prosperous Dallas dermatologist, and when Stuart visits his parents he stays in a suite complete with a fireplace in its cathedral-ceilinged bathroom. At Wesleyan University in Connecticut he majored in political science but dropped plans to study international law after one of his father's patients, a modeling agent, saw Stuart's picture and asked to meet him. Working at first in New York, Jacobson moved on to Paris and was an immediate hit in his preppy, tortoise-shell glasses. "I represented American apple pie," says Stuart, "and they ate it up."

Then three years ago Stuart and his father were visiting former Ambassador to Great Britain, Walter Annenberg (who serves with the elder Jacobson on the board of the national Dermatology Foundation). When Stuart asked his host about a framed photograph of Winston Churchill on his mantel, Annenberg started talking. "Because I asked him about a present that was so meaningful to him, he opened up as if he'd known me all his life," says Stuart. At that moment the idea was born.

When publishers didn't share his enthusiasm, Jacobson went home to Dallas, where he got 30 fellow Texans to invest $10,000 each. It took just three weeks, he says, to put $300,000 in the bank. Then he set out to meet "the kind of people whose gifts we would look to for examples of quality and caring." One celebrity led to another. "Bill Blass called Pat Buckley, and Pat Buckley called Clare Boothe Luce," he says. "These are not trendy people. These are people who have withstood the test of time."

In each case Jacobson asked the celebrity to pick his or her most cherished gift. It never took more than a minute, he says. "There was always one thing that meant the most to them." Helen Hayes chose a set of lace Victorian valentines, a gift from Alfred Lunt. Jimmy Stewart emotionally showed Jacobson a portrait he received from Henry Fonda. Says Stuart: "You couldn't buy most of these gifts. They were created. They involved thought."

Jacobson believes the 130 celebrities he spoke with agreed to see him "because for once someone was not coming to ask them whom they slept with the night before. I wasn't looking for the trash. I was looking for the love." And he found it. Joan Fontaine was more reserved than most. "She was cordial," he says, "but with everyone else it had been hugs and kisses." Then she brought out a camera that Prince Aly Khan had given her, and she insisted Stuart take it. In his modeling days, he says, "I didn't meet a lot of people of quality. But I definitely met them through this book."

Jacobson turned over the actual writing of Only the Best to editor Jill Spalding, and he hired Jesse Gerstein, a onetime assistant to Richard Ave-don, to take the sumptuous photos. But Jacobson's organizational duties occupied him completely for 18 months. "If I'd had a relationship," says Stuart, a bachelor, "I wouldn't have done the book." He rarely models these days—he says he is willing to work only for clients "who represent the same sense of quality I have tried to create with this book"—and he claims to have no idea of the profits that will come from Only the Best. "When people talk about all the money I'm gonna make, it stings me," says Jacobson. "What's important to me isn't material objects. It's what's behind the objects." Then Stuart laughs at his patter. "People are going to write in," he jokes, "and say, 'Good, send the money to me.' "

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