Quite frankly, I don't think these women are admired enough in society. I simply cannot get enough of them, and so I dedicate these postings to the Decadent Old Bitches* of the world.
*Decadent Old Bitches is a term I have coined over the years, and neither reflects nor encapsulates a literal characterization of these women. Age is meaningless, and sass is just an admirable trait.
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 husbandTommy, 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 http://MilesLadin.com
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."