Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Desmond Heeley papers, 1884-2018, bulk 1946-2016

Summary Information


Two-time Tony-award winner Desmond Heeley (1931-2016) was a British-American costume and set designer who worked primarily in theater, ballet, and opera. His productions have graced the stages of major theaters in the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, Australia, and Europe, including the Royal Opera House, the Metropolitan Opera, Houston Ballet, the National Ballet of Canada, Australian Ballet, and the Stratford Festival in Ontario. This collection contains Heeley's sketches and designs, along with production documents, photographs, correspondence, audio recordings, and other memorabilia relating to his life and work.

At a Glance

Call No.: MS#2134
Bib ID 17625655 View CLIO record
Creator(s) Heeley, Desmond
Title Desmond Heeley papers, 1884-2018, bulk 1946-2016
Physical Description 32 Linear Feet (62 boxes (52 document boxes, 5 flat boxes, 2 tall document boxes, 1 paige box, 2 tube boxes), 2 folders in a mapcase )
Language(s) The collection is primarily in English, with a small number of items (mostly newspaper clippings and correspondence) in German, Greek, and Danish.
Access You will need to make an appointment in advance to use this collection material in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room. You can schedule an appointment once you've submitted your request through your Special Collections Research Account.

This collection has no restrictions.

All original copies of audio / moving image media are closed until reformatting. Please email rbml@columbia.edu for more information.

This collection is located on-site.



This collection is arranged into six series and three subseries. Series I documents Heeley's design process through sketches, notes, scrapbooks, and fabric samples relating to a range of theater, opera, and ballet productions. Series II comprises administrative documents and professional correspondence relating to Heeley's design activities. Series III contains memorabilia relating to theater, opera, and ballet productions that Heeley worked on, consisting mainly of review clippings and souvenir programs. Series IV contains personal memorabilia: Subseries IV.1 and IV.2 contain memorabilia relating to Heeley's relationships with Tanya Moiseiwitsch and Lance Mulcahy respectively; Subseries IV.3 primarily comprises his personal correspondence. Series V contains Heeley's photographs, which document the full breadth of his personal and professional activities.

Although this collection was originally compiled by Heeley himself, it had to be reassembled in the wake of his passing, collated for donation amid the dismantling of the designer's estate. The immediate preservation of these materials was a complex and exigent process and required significant intervention on the part of the donor. As such, portions of this collection were reorganized by the donor prior to accessioning. Thus, the original order of the collection creator has not necessarily been preserved. There are some items in the collection that date from after Heeley's passing, usually mixed in with items collected during his lifetime. There are also some notes and inventories that were produced by the donor - generally regarding their sorting of the collection. These have been preserved in the collection wherever practical.

The boxes donated to the RBML were largely organized by format, with the exception of two boxes: one relating to Heeley's relationship with Tanya Moiseiwitsch and the other relating to his relationship with Lance Mulcahy. These groupings were largely maintained in processing, with minimal reorganization undertaken by the archivist in order to minimize further intervention in the collection's ordering. Thus, the collection's six series reflect the order of materials as they were donated: although the original ordering is lost, the minimization of further intervention may be useful to researchers seeking to make inferences about the original order. The audio recordings (which were donated in a separate box) have been housed in Subseries IV.2, as these appear to largely contain recordings of music by Lance Mulcahy and were labeled as such by the donor. Researchers looking for material on a specific production or company would be best served by running a word search on the container list. Heeley did not always record the full titles of works or companies in his labeling of the collection. And because Heeley's own folder or item labels have been preserved in the finding aid, it is often best to search for individual words in a play's name, rather than the full title (i.e., "Julius" or "Caesar" rather than "Julius Caesar," "Stratford," "Shakespeare," or "Festival" rather than "Stratford Shakespeare Festival," etc.).

Series I is generally arranged by production; however, there are some folders that contain sketches from multiple productions, often interspersed with assorted unlabeled and unidentified sketches. In Series II, Heeley's appointment books and planners are arranged chronologically, while other documents are arranged by subject or by format. Series III is arranged according to genre, with opera, ballet, and theater materials foldered separately; in some cases, materials relating to specific venues (i.e., the Guthrie Theater, the Stratford Festival) or productions (i.e., The Merry Widow, The Importance of Being Earnest) have also been separated. Series VI and its subseries are largely arranged according to format. The correspondence in Series VI originally took a variety of organizational patterns, which have been maintained in the current arrangement: some boxes of correspondence were arranged by correspondent, some were arranged by subject, some were arranged by format (with greeting cards, postcards, and letters stored separately), and some contained an assortment of correspondents, dates, subjects, and formats. Series V is arranged by format and then by activity, with photographs of similar subjects generally grouped together unless doing so would greatly compromise the original order; thus, many folders contain a range of photographs on a variety of themes. Series VI reflects the original ordering wherever possible; however, some materials have had to be separated to aid preservation and storage. Although most model pieces are unlabeled, some have been arranged according to production.

All of the audio-visual material in this collection has been grouped into Subseries IV.2: the box of audio recordings was surveyed prior to donation as the "Desmond Heeley and Lance Mulcahy Audio Recordings," and most recordings appear to document Mulcahy's musical career. However, there may be some audio recordings in this series that do not directly relate to Lance Mulcahy or his compositions.


Scope and Contents

This collection comprises a range of personal and professional material, spanning the full length of Heeley's theatrical career. His creative process is documented through numerous labeled and unlabeled sketches (encompassing various theatrical productions), along with loose pieces from Heeley's set models. Many sketches are arranged into "production bibles," grouped together with fabric samples, design notes, and logistical documents.

A significant number of (mostly unlabeled) photographs - in the form of slides, negatives, contact sheets, prints, and tintypes - provide a visual record of key aspects of Heeley's life: set construction, costume fittings, his designs, his architectural inspirations, his travels, his doll collection, his social engagements, and his cats.

A large portion of this collection is devoted to Heeley's personal correspondence, including cards, letters, and faxes from various friends and colleagues. His correspondence with the theater designer Tanya Moiseiwitsch, who also worked at the Stratford Festival, is kept separately, along with other memorabilia relating to her career. Likewise, personal communications with Heeley's partner, Lance Mulcahy, have been kept with other material relating to Mulcahy's life and work.

This collection houses assorted administrative and professional documents, including Heeley's notebooks and scrapbooks and a small amount of professional correspondence. It also contains souvenir programs and newspaper clippings (of reviews, interviews, profiles, etc.) relating to his production designs. Finally, the collection contains several audio recordings - mostly of music composed by Lance Mulcahy - on audiocassettes, compact disks, and reel-to-reel tapes.

  • Series I: Set and costume designs, 1952-2009, undated

    This series comprises sketches, notes, fabric samples, and other artistic renderings of Heeley's production designs. It includes designs for props, costumes, accessories, set pieces, stage layouts, backdrops, and posters for a large range of productions in opera, theater, and ballet - with his Shakespearean designs particularly well represented. Many of these designs were loosely stacked together, with no apparent chronological, alphabetical, or thematic ordering. However, some were arranged according to production - organized into folders and scrapbooks, or contained in sketch-pads and "production bibles" (books of sketches, notes, and design materials relating to a single production). These production bibles often contain other documents relating to the production, such as fabric order forms, personnel lists, and schedules. This series contains several fabric samples, used by Heeley in the planning of his designs and often pinned to the designs which they relate to (although some were kept loose). Many of the sketches contained in this series are originals, produced in ink, pencil, paint (watercolor or oil), or crayon on onion-skin paper, printer paper, or cardstock. However, this series also contains many photocopies (generally high-quality xeroxes), seemingly produced by Heeley, which may still provide value to the researcher. Generally, photocopies and originals were mixed in together, although photocopies were only infrequently stored alongside the originals which they correspond to. Many sketches are unlabeled and/or undated, and, in lieu of any obvious thematic ordering, it is difficult to know which production they correspond to. Most sketches are annotated by Heeley, with labels relating to color, materials, construction, dimensions, or design ethic. The designs appear to span a range of theaters across a number of decades, including the Guthrie Theater, the Stratford Festival, Houston Ballet, New York City Opera, Australian Ballet, Glyndebourne, the Royal Opera House, Broadway, and Dorothy Hamill's Ice Capades. Heeley also produced designs for several children's picture books, for production posters or programs, and for a wall calendar; materials (sketches, photocopies, notes, etc.) relating to these design activities can be found in this series. It is often difficult to distinguish between these designs and his production designs, especially when these designs were mixed in with set and costume designs. Furthermore, Heeley's picture books were often related to his theatrical work: many were published to coincide with certain stage productions (for example, Heeley's Hansel, Gretel, the Witch, and the Cat seems to have been sold as merchandise at the Ice Capades show of the same name) and many relate to the plots of stage works or to life in the theater (for example, Mouse Goes to the Ballet). Finally, this series contains visual ephemera (scrapbooks, magazine cuttings, postcards, art calendars, photocopied book pages, etc.) which appear to have been used by Heeley as inspiration or research for his designs (or at least seem to have formed some part of Heeley's aesthetic world). As these visual materials were often stored alongside Heeley's own designs, they have been organized into the same series.

  • Series II: Professional and administrative documents, 1952-2016, undated

    This series primarily comprises print documents relating to the organization and administration of Heeley's theatrical career. It includes his appointment books and day planners (for most years from 1964 to 2011), his professional correspondence (faxes and letters), documents relating to his union activities, and administrative files relating to his design work. It also contains a record of his industry contacts, mainly in the form of business cards and addresses clipped from envelopes. The administrative documents found in this collection are limited and piecemeal in their scope, only relating to discrete facets of Heeley's professional activities; however, this series does contain invoices, schedules, personnel lists, and other communications for select productions. Some of Heeley's professional correspondence can be found interspersed among his personal correspondence, arranged in Subseries IV.3.

  • Series III: Production memorabilia, 1884-2016 (bulk 1952-2016), undated

    This series consists primarily of press clippings (of reviews, interviews, feature stories, and profiles) and souvenir programs (playbills, season brochures, etc.) relating to productions that used Heeley's designs. The full geographic, chronological, and aesthetic breadth of Heeley's design work is covered in this series, with programs and clippings relating to opera, theater, and ballet productions in several national and international venues. This series also includes some press clippings about Heeley's non-theatrical activities (other design work, art exhibitions featuring his designs, etc.) and a number of profiles of Heeley.

  • Series IV: Personal memorabilia, 1957-2018, undated

    This series primarily consists of Heeley's personal correspondence (with friends, family, and colleagues, but also includes other memorabilia relating to Heeley's private life. Heeley's collection of personal photographs can be found in Series V. The divide between Heeley's professional and personal life was generally porous, and many of Heeley's colleagues in the theater industry were also his friends. Thus, some of Heeley's professional correspondence was found mixed in with his personal correspondence: This professional correspondence has been included in this series, maintained in the order in which it was found.

  • Series V: Photographs, 1946-2018, undated

    This series contains Heeley's photograph collection. It encompasses a range of formats, including negatives, contact sheets, printed photographs, slides, and ferrotypes. These photographs are wide-ranging in their scope, covering many aspects of Heeley's private and professional life. Many photographs document Heeley's life in the theater: pictures of costume fittings, set construction, dressing rooms, workshops, and set models - along with a large number of production stills - illuminate key facets Heeley's design process. Other photographs document Heeley's international travels, including nature and street photography relating to the places where Heeley lived and worked (Stratford, Ontario is particularly well represented). Heeley's social life is documented in portrait photography of his friends and candid snaps of parties, picnics, and other gatherings. His home life is reflected in photographs of his interior design, his doll collection, and his cats. Most photographs in this series are unlabeled and undated and, out of context, it can be difficult to determine what they depict. Personal and professional photographs were invariably kept together (i.e., in the same envelope, slide case, contact sheet, negative roll, etc.) and it is not always immediately clear how photographs relate to each other. However, even the photographs with an unclear origin may provide insights into Heeley's visual sensibility and provide a sense of the people, things, and places that inspired Heeley's design aesthetic, stored, as they were, alongside photographs of his designs. This series contains several duplicate photographs - either printed photographs that were developed twice, or images that exist across multiple formats. Many of Heeley's personal photographs can also be found in Series IV.

Using the Collection

Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Restrictions on Access

You will need to make an appointment in advance to use this collection material in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room. You can schedule an appointment once you've submitted your request through your Special Collections Research Account.

This collection has no restrictions.

All original copies of audio / moving image media are closed until reformatting. Please email rbml@columbia.edu for more information.

This collection is located on-site.

Conditions Governing Use

Single reproductions may be made for research purposes. It is the responsibility of the user to secure permission for publication or use from the appropriate copyright holder.

Preferred Citation

Identification of specific item; Date (if known); Desmond Heeley Collection; Box and Folder; Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library.


Additions are expected from the donor.

Custodial History

Following Heeley's passing in 2016, these materials were collected from the designer's New York residence by Philip Caggiano, who then donated them to the Columbia Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of Philip Caggiano, July 2023.

About the Finding Aid / Processing Information

Columbia University Libraries, Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Processing Information

This collection was processed by Callum Blackmore (GSAS, 2024). Finding aid written by Callum Blackmore in November 2023.

Generally, materials have been rehoused in the order in which they were donated. However, some interventions have been undertaken in order to aid access and preservation. For example, Heeley's sketches were generally kept in loose piles, often set apart from the folders which originally housed them: in these instances, sketches that obviously once belonged to the same grouping (by dint of their labeling, style, or materials) have been foldered together.

In some cases, Heeley's annotations suggested a correlation between sketches (i.e., sketches in a similar style labeled "Prospero," "Miranda," and "Ferdinand" were likely produced for a production of Shakespeare's The Tempest). However, Heeley's career spanned over six decades, and he was inevitably hired to produce designs for different productions of the same work (for example, Heeley designed productions of The Tempest for the Stratford Festival in 1962 and 1982). Thus, sketches that merely relate to the same work (and not necessarily to the same production) have not been removed from their donated order (unless they clearly derived from the same production or were found in obvious proximity to each other).

Heeley's press clippings in Series III, which were originally piled loosely in boxes, have been generally reorganized thematically - by theater or by production.

Prior to processing, Heeley's sketches (Series I) were generally stored loose and piled into paige cartons. These have been rehoused in document boxes or flat boxes. The larger sketches, many of which had been folded for storage, have been rehoused in oversize boxes and mapcases. Heeley's "production bibles" have been removed from their original ring binders and organized into folders, with the original page order maintained.

Heeley's slides, which were generally stored in plastic containers, have been organized into plastic slide sheets and then into folders - their original order largely maintained. Heeley's negatives, which were generally stored in envelopes, have also been rehoused in folders; however, some envelopes of negatives have been stored in boxes, described as individual items.

Letters, cards, and photographs have generally been stored alongside the envelopes that they were sent in. However, Heeley kept some envelopes (or parts of envelopes) aside to serve as his address book, and these have been stored separately and can be found in Series II. Other materials included in correspondence (such as photographs, clippings, poetry, etc.) have been kept with the letters that they were attached to; however, some biological materials (pressed flower petals) have been deaccessioned.

There are a number of audiocassettes, compact disks, and open-reel tapes which have been set aside for digitization. These materials can be found in box 51.

Series I contains a number of fabric samples used by Heeley in planning his designs. These fabric samples were often affixed to his sketches using sharp metal pins, which, if left intact, would hinder the preservation of these designs. These fabric samples were unpinned from the sketches that they were attached to, placed into an envelope, and re-affixed to the same designs using plastic clips. Generally, the location of these clips on the paper - along with the groupings of fabrics within the envelopes - reflects the original layout of the pinned samples on the design.

Generally, Heeley's original folder or item labels have been maintained in the container list, with a few alterations to aid accessibility. This is especially true for item-level description of the photographs in Series V and the audio-visual materials in Subseries IV.2: the labels for these materials have been fully transcribed in the container list. Notably, initialized play titles were written out in full where appropriate (for example, "H.V." was changed to "Henry V," as this label appears to refer to the Shakespeare play). Numbers in play titles have generally been written out, unless they are roman numerals (for example, "12th Night" was rewritten as "Twelfth Night"). In general, other abbreviations of play titles have not been expanded, in order to avoid labeling errors (i.e., "Merchant" could feasibly refer to Shakepeare's The Merchant of Venice, but it could also refer to Shylock the character, a merchant character from a different play altogether, or a real-life merchant with whom Heeley had business; therefore, it would be inappropriate to tacitly expand this label to "The Merchant of Venice"). Some spelling errors were tacitly corrected (i.e., "Julius Ceasar" was adjusted to "Julius Caesar").

Several boxes of financial documents and a few folders of medical records were deaccessioned for privacy reasons. Heeley's set models remain unprocessed. They were originally stored loosely in boxes, occasionally grouped in plastic bags: these have been temporarily rehoused in new boxes to avoid damage, but a more permanent housing system is yet to be devised. Many set model pieces are in poor condition: torn, bent, unglued, or deteriorating due to wear and tear. Others are very delicate and may be damaged if they are crushed or moved around in transportation. The set model components come in a range of sizes: larger model pieces are generally bulky and three-dimensional, which could make storage difficult. Others are very small, and could easily be lost or damaged. Two-dimensional set pieces (such as designs for stage flats or prosceniums) have been stored in folders where foldering would not disrupt the donated ordering.

Separated Materials

Audiovisual materials (Subseries IV.2, box 51) have been set aside for digitization.

Subject Headings

The subject headings listed below are found in this collection. Links below allow searches at Columbia University through the Archival Collections Portal and through CLIO, the catalog for Columbia University Libraries, as well as ArchiveGRID, a catalog that allows users to search the holdings of multiple research libraries and archives.

All links open new windows.


Heading "CUL Archives:"
"CUL Collections:"
"Nat'l / Int'l Archives:"
Costume design drawings Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Set design Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Theater Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID


Heading "CUL Archives:"
"CUL Collections:"
"Nat'l / Int'l Archives:"
American Ballet Theatre Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Australian Ballet Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Ballet -- Stage-setting and scenery Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Bedford, Brian, 1935-2016 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Costume design Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Deutsche Oper Berlin Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Fonteyn, Margot, 1919-1991 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Gay men -- England Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Glyndebourne Festival Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Guthrie, Tyrone, 1900-1971 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Hirsch, John, 1930-1989 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Houston Ballet Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Kain, Karen Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Kongelige Danske ballet Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Langham, Michael, 1919-2011 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Lyric Opera of Chicago Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Metropolitan Opera (New York, N.Y.) Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Moiseiwitsch, Tanya, 1914-2003 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Mulcahy, Lance Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
National Ballet of Canada Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
New York City Opera Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Opera Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Plummer, Christopher Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Royal Opera House (London, England) Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Royal Winnipeg Ballet Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
San Diego Opera Association Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Shakespeare Memorial Company Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616 -- Dramatic production Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Stoppard, Tom Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Stratford Festival (Ont.) Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Stuttgarter Ballett Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Theater -- Stage-setting and scenery Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID

History / Biographical Note

Content Description

Desmond Heeley (1931-2016) was a Tony-award-winning set and costume designer for theater, ballet, and opera. Heeley, a British national, lived much of his life in New York City; however, his career was truly international, spanning three continents and lasting over six decades.

Born in Staffordshire, England, Heeley began his career as a workshop apprentice at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1947, where he gained the attention of the director Peter Brooks, whose support helped to launch Heeley's design career. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Heeley worked mostly in England, designing productions for the Sadler's Wells Theatre, the Old Vic, the Glyndebourne Festival, and the Royal Opera House (including the premiere of Benjamin Britten's ballet The Prince of the Pagodas).

In 1957, Heeley's work at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre landed him a job at the recently founded Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada - then managed by Heeley's long-time collaborator, director Michael Langham. That year, Heeley's production of Hamlet inaugurated Stratford's newly built auditorium, marking the start of Heeley's long and fruitful association with the Festival: he would go on to produce forty different productions for the Festival, culminating in his 2009 production of The Importance of Being Earnest, which earned him his third Tony Award when it transferred to Broadway in 2011.

Heeley won his first two Tony Awards for the same production - the premiere of Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead - which was awarded for both set and costume design after it transferred to Broadway in 1967. Heeley designed a number of Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, including the acclaimed 1981 Broadway revival of Camelot. Two of Heeley's Broadway productions (Teibele and Her Demon and Cyrano) were transfers from the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, for whom Heeley designed several productions.

Heeley's ballet productions achieved a particularly global reach, having been performed by the American Ballet Theater, the Houston Ballet, the Australian Ballet, the National Ballet of Canada, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the Stuttgart Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet, and the Deutsche Oper Berlin. His 1975 production of the ballet adaptation of Léhar's The Merry Widow has received a number of revivals, including a high-profile New York run starring Margot Fonteyn. Heeley's work has appeared in some of America's most prominent opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Diego Opera, and New York City Opera, for whom he designed revivals of the musicals South Pacific and Brigadoon.

Heeley passed away in New York City at age 85 on June 10, 2016. His partner, the Australian-born composer Lance Mulcahy, died in 1995. Heeley's designs were at once unabashedly glamorous and painstakingly veristic: he became known for crafting opulent renderings of historical settings on a low budget, using everyday materials to capture the visual intricacies of the period.