Thursday, June 16, 2011

Nan Kempner: The original social X-ray

I have just read an obituary on Nan Kempner, the adored and adorned New York socialite. July 3rd marks 6 years since she died of emphysema after a lifetime addiction to Parliament cigarettes, a few weeks shy of her 75th birthday. Astounded, I was, at the life tales this fierce bitch led, retaining her elegance and dignity right to the very end. Hamish Bowles recalls one of her final public outings, lunching on Upper East Lacroix couture: "A kind of homage to Toulouse-Lautrec, so chic. It was only later that I realised she was trundling along with her oxygen machine." 
I had never known much about her except that she owned the largest collection of YSL couture. But I dedicate this post to honour and enlighten those unaware of the barline of decadence she has bestowed upon the world. 
RIP, you fucking decadent bitch.

Born Nan Field Schlesinger in San Francisco in 1930, Kempner was born to die the privileged life. She was an only child - her father owned California’s highly profitable Ford motor car dealership and her mother was a socialite whose consuming interest was fashion. Nan grew up in San Fran, attending Grant and Hamlin schools before she went to Connecticut College for Women where she studied art history for a year and then spent a year in Paris taking painting lessons from Fernand Léger. He, realising that there was little point in teaching her anything, gave her her money back.
From a young age she became exposed to the pressures and conformities of image, after acquiring her father's looks - "You’ll never make it on your face," he told her, "so you’d better make yourself interesting". Raised in a time when women had little choice in the way of career motif, from a young age, it was apparent that Nan would make her impact with power if looks alone would taint her. Nan was influenced to take fashion avenue very early on - Her mother, she would say, dressed "divinely", while her grandmother "was unbelievable. I come from a long line of clotheshorses". While she never gained her grandmother’s exquisite taste to wear "classy silk jackets to bed, with sheets to match", by her late teens she had absorbed her mother’s precepts that there were only three colours - red, black and grey - and had been chided in person by her style idol, Lauren Bacall, for wearing easy-fitting shoes. Nan spent most of the rest of her life in high heels.
Her early infatuation with fashion fuelled her obsession with figure. Nan began her first diet at the age of 12, and was smoking by the age of fourteen. Every morning of her life thereafter she trod the scales and monitored her meals accordingly, and maintained the waif, sample-couture size frame her whole life. 

In her lifetime, Nan didn't miss a single Paris couture show in some four decades except the year her father died. She was 19 when she acquired her first couture gown - a white satin sheath dress with a white satin mink-trimmed coat - from the first collection by the young Yves Saint Laurent, who was designing for Dior. When her mother refused to purchase the dress, Nan "cried and cried until I got them down to a price I could afford". The designer, curious by Nan's exasperation, asked to then meet her, from which point she became his most devoted friend and client - she never missed a single one of his shows, and was rumoured to have some 250 pieces of YSL in her couture collection alone.

Aside from her devotion to haute couture and clothes in general, Nan entertained life on a grand scale, while fitting in regular trips to London, Paris, Gstaadt, Venice and the Caribbean for fashion shows, parties, skiing and sun-bathing. Her extravagant life was funded by the account of her husband Tommy, the chairman of Loeb Partners Corp., an investment banking firm. Nan's collection of gowns, said to be big enough to be archived for a museum, was the object of hysteria by her generous and deeply understanding husband, "he used to think it was an extravagance, and it now turns out that I was an art collector!" The pair met in in New York, while Nan was on her way home from a junior year abroad, through a mutual friend from San Francisco. Tommy noticed her Dior skirt was "too short." Later that night, they all went out in New York City to the Monkey Bar, where "Tommy and I traded insults all night," Kempner recalled. "Dislike at first sight grew into great, passionate, sexy love." 
They married in 1952 and after a stint in London (during the post war where with rationing was still in force, she speedily learned to wheedle an extra egg out of the grocer with a kiss), settled eventually in New York, where they raised three children (Tommy Jr., Lina and James). Kempner joined the Junior Council at the Museum of Modern Art and soon became a fixture on the social circuit. She also worked as a fashion feature editor at Harper's Bazaar in the late 1960s and into the '70s, a design consultant to Harry Platt at Tiffany, the American resident editor at French Vogue and is now an "international representative" for Christie's. Their relationship thrived on the understanding that she travelled to all the fashion shows and bought extravagantly, while turning a blind eye to his occasional infidelities. They led an exuberantly lavish life - lunches at Swifty's, La Grenouille and Cafe Boulud, black tie galas for American Ballet Theatre, cocktail parties for Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, vacations and even business trips to Marrakesh (for Harper's Bazaar) and to the homes of her globe-trotting friends for her coffee table book, "R.S.V.P.: Menus for Entertaining From People Who Really Know How." But Nan admitted that she never knew what to write when she was filling in travel documents. "I'm not rich enough to be a real philanthropist," she explained. "And I loathe being called a socialite. So I write 'housewife'."

On her wedding day in 1952. Nan designed the dress herself.

Image credit: Miles Ladin

Known best for her wardrobe, however, the definition of style as Nan once said, is "expressing your individuality and having a knack for throwing things together," such as an Yves Saint Laurent jacket with jeans (she wears boys' Levi's.) "You have to think about what suits the occasion, whether it's becoming and whether it's comfortable."
Nan has many stories to defend her dedication to style and individuality, such as an occassion in the 1960s when she wore a pantsuit to dinner at La Cote Basque restaurant, where the dress code forbade women in pants. When denied entry at the door by Madame Henriette, Kempner yanked off the pants, handed them to her husband and told Madame, "I hope you like this better." She wore the tunic top as a dress, placed lots of napkins in her lap and "didn't dare bend over," she recalled. Another favourite is the story of having been held up at gunpoint in her home, almost the first call she made afterwards was to her jeweller, Kenneth Jay Lane. "Kenny," she said, "I’ll take three of everything." Shopping remained her greatest passion. At the age of 72 she still bought mini-skirts (but only for the beach) and revealed that her recent purchases had included an Etro bikini with a matching poncho. "I tell people all the time I want to be buried naked," she once said. "I know there will be a store where I'm going."


Believed to have owned world’s largest private collection of couture wear, a year after her death the Costume Institute at the Metropoliton Museum of Art curated Nan Kempner: American Chic to exhibit a selection of her favourite couture ensembles from her collection of gowns and celebrate the glamour, spare elegance, and iconic style of one of the most renowned members of the Best-Dressed List’s Hall of Fame.

Nan Kempner's lavish life did catch up with her in the end. Ailed with emphysema, she was an extremely frail and sick lady when she died. Her dignity and upbeat manner remained . "My dear," she once said in an interview with Vanity Fair, "Wait till you discover the wheelchair. You go to the front of every single line. They push you right through… I tell you, it's First Class Plus."


  1. Chelsea,
    My photograph of Nan Kempner
    is not credited. Please Place a credit under the picture
    (picture is horizontal with woman on the lifting. drinking champaign glass)
    along with a LINK to my site
    Please do this within 10 days.
    thank you,
    Miles Ladin

    Here is a link to the image that you are using:

  2. i think theres a picture of milicent rogers here 3rd from top.

  3. The third picture is not Nan Kempner, it shows Millicent Rogers!

  4. Indeed......It IS Millicent Rogers, you BITCHY QUEEN----------not to spoil Nan's party, but next to TRULY GRAND ladies like Jacqueline poor Nan came across as rather vulgar........
    It is important to remember that she was not incredibly wealthy-------by today's standards she was merely "well-to-do" (that phrase MUST NOT be uttered at any place of distinction), and the "secret" to her vast collection was that she always had priority with the "samples" discounted for her at an enormous markdown......
    Since he is dead as well now, I must tell you that he was GAY------how many of these socialites had gay husbands?!
    I think if you read the NYTimes obituary you can read between the lines, and see how the writer superciliously uses language to offer us the portrait of a VACUOUS, SAD woman constantly in need of approval.
    Have I spoiled your party?
    She did.
    When asked what she would do if not invited to a grand ball (and was she to Capote's?) she answered that she would DIE. Carolina Herrera, a true aristocrat,when told the story commented: "What is interesting is that SHE DID SAY IT out loud"........
    Nan tried, and in my opinion made a quite remarkable "life" out of what she had been dealt........

  5. I just loved your blog... one of a kind... most blogs are pretty to look at but I never read them....

    Your posts are my time well spent !!


    Swati A.

  6. Her show at the Met was beautiful. Her life a reflection of the world she lived in and larger than life. Her style a sublime blending of art and artifice. Her looks God given and not always well photographed. Her personal trials and tribulations were her business. She was not a bore- I have never read anything that says she was a bore. Not everyone is intended to emulate Mother Theresa. I think critics are just envious that she wore what she wore with style and had so much. She was not alone--Jackie, Imelda, Doris Duke, Nancy Reagan, Princess Diana, Brooke Astor, The Duchess of Windsor, The Queen. All could be classified as clothes horses because they are in the public eye, photographed constantly and God forbid some bitchy quene sees them in the same outfit 3 times. They would have been killed by the fashion mafia and "W" . So all you critical closet quenes should pay homage to a real closet queen. She was what you wish to be.

  7. What is the source for the photo of Nan Kempner with YSL? And who is the photographer??

    I am looking to put this in a publication but don't see any attribution so I'm unable to track it down,

    thank you, Ruth Peltason

  8. The third photo from top is not Nan. It is Millicent Rogers, an you can see here.

  9. LOVE this! See mine, She was there. too :)

  10. YSL may be dead/gay but Nan Kempner's husband is neither. As a matter of fact he married his mistress 10 days after his wife's funeral.

  11. The author is an ignorant pig.. San Francisco is NEVER called San Fran !!!!! Wise up and learn and fact check your blog.

    1. Well dear pretentious queen's do call San Francisco SAN FRAN--But they are not natives. I'LL never forget it a great looking muscular guy - in conversation referred to it as San Fran-- he opened his mouth and a purse fell out.

  12. I love all your comments, and yes it is Millicent Rogers photo, she too was a well dressed clothes horse once upon the rich and social, but left to pursue a more quiet life in New Mexico , but Nan was Nan and God rest her soul, she may have been thin but fife was a banquet and she did not starve, she ate with gusto to the end, and that is what counts she did it her way.

  13. correction life was a banquet and she did not starve....

  14. I do believe the real joke is on us. Seriously. Ms. N, probably forgot what she had on the next day. As a fashion student (still!!), I believe she loved "creating" a mood more than being an icon. Though we never met, I bet she'd divulge her secret of just wearing what her mood dictated. Ultimately, such folks never take themselves that serious- we know that life has more rewards! Cheers Ms. Nan! -Leonard E. Taylor *Philadelphia

  15. I remember an ABC 20/20 story on Nan in the 80's following her around to the couture shows and remembering how fabulous she was and repeating her famous line "I'm a drunk when it comes to clothes!" The only as entertaining thing covering the fashion world on TV I remember was the Polly Mellen piece in 60 Minutes in the 80's when she's see something she loved on the runway and exclaimed "Chills!" Supposedly it had cracked up the crew and Mike Wallace (or was it Morley Safer?) so much that for YEARS the producers and correspondents in the show's offices would use "Chills" when something struck them as good....Anyway, I digress

    Upon seeing Nan on 20/20 absolutely GUSHING over this truly amazing duchesse satin great coat, I thought to myself, "God, why can't she be my mom?!? She really gets it! I can't wait to live in NY!" And how she'd say Tommy would tell her to check if the Dow closed up or down the previous day before placing her order with Yves. Silly, but...whatever. The show at the Met was mind boggling in its recreation of her closet...I can't believe it was 9 years ago already! I mean, just the cashmere and vicuna sweaters alone, arguably the LEAST interesting of all the items her wardrobe, left me in slack-jawed wonder just at the sheer volume of her conspicuous consumption! The quote she said about not being rich enough to be a real philanthropist is really the only thing I ever read of all her quotes that kind of rubs me the wrong way. I don't care what she said, Tommy's grandfather was Carl Loeb, so the firm which he's been CEO of for many years - Loeb and Partners - it's now called, in its like 6th incarnation, is still pretty much a blue chip house on the street. His parents, brother, sister, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents -- Loebs, Leamans and Kempners ALL were or still are philanthropic members of NY society. Had she bought less clothes perhaps she could have thought of herself as one as well.

    The couple of times I saw her in person: 1. The mid-nineties: once in the winter on E. 52nd walking into La Grenouille for lunch. It took a few seconds to realize it was her as I couldn't take my eyes off how thin her calves were. Crazy! Second time must have been in 1999 or 2000 at the Watermill Center annual gala. She was the first one in a crowd of hundreds standing at the buffet line, plate clutched in hand, waiting for the waiters to open the chafing dishes. She clearly was very hungry...and it took them about 10 minutes to start the food service. I found it quizzical that someone who clearly who had great control issues around food, had no problem being conspicuous about wanting to eat in front of others.

    If you ever want to read the most amazing thing I've ever read in terms of being envious of a decadent bitch life, you have to search the web for an article NY Mag did in the late 80's documenting Tommy's mistress - Iris something or other - that he ultimately dumped in a less than nice way....I've since tried to Google it with absolutely NO luck...Basically she details the time Nan actually stayed in Manhattan, which essentially amounted to about 6-8 weeks of the calendar year...essentially the best weather weeks of spring and fall...The rest of her time spent going to couture and ready-to-wear shows in Paris and Milan twice a year, the rest of the time in Southampton, Lyford Cay, and the other random weeks visiting friends in the most glamourous spots around the globe...OMG, I was green as The Hulk with envy! There's no one like her anymore. A true American original. I do hope there's a closet in your heaven, Nan.

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