Tuesday, October 23, 2018

An ode to Carolyne

Carolyne Roehm at a book party hosted by Susan Gutfriend for her 13th book, “Carolyne Roehm: Design & Style: A Constant Thread," a double portrait of her life and career, richly illustrated, with many of the photographs taken by the author.
by Jesse Kornbluth of HeadButler

Carolyne Roehm is 67 years old.

This is not possible.

She looks exactly as she did when I met her in 1986. Her face is unlifted and unlined, her weight is a constant next-to-nothing, her enthusiasm for the next great moment is unchanged. If she has jeans ripped at the knee, no one has the photograph.

Is her Dorian Gray moment laying in wait for her?

I’ve known her for 32 years now, and I think not.
Roehm already had legs in the early 1980s. Credit: Mary Hilliard
And this is ironic, because when we met there was no woman in New York who seemed more destined for a late life reckoning. She was 35 then, and light years distant from Carolyne Jane Smith, of Kirksville, Missouri (population: 17,000).  Now she was a fashion designer beloved by women whose days began with lunch. After a disastrous marriage to a rich, oppressive German, she was married to Henry Kravis, whose private equity firm would soon buy RJR Nabisco for the highest price ever paid for a commercial enterprise.

Her life was a marathon, run like a sprint. Up early. A glazed donut for breakfast. Piano lessons. French lessons. Lunch — a sandwich and a beer — at her desk, then zoom home and, four nights a week, throw on a party dress and go to a gala. And the travel! There was a 1765 house on 59 acres in Connecticut, and others in Southampton, the Dominican Republic, Colorado.

Just writing that paragraph makes me want to take a nap.
Carolyne Roehm, Henry Kravis, and Barbara Walters, 1989.
We met at the height of Wall Street prosperity, when I was writing a piece about Roehm and Kravis for New York magazine.

On a magazine cover, they looked like Reagan-era royalty. But that article — The Working Rich: The Real Slaves of New York — only hinted at the glossy surface and flawed reality of those years on the Upper East Side.

Looking back, I see the title was prescient: for everything she got, she lost something. Her husband’s teenage son was killed in a car accident. Her fashion business was shuttered. Her marriage ended. She devoted herself to the decorating and gardens of her Connecticut house; it was destroyed in a fire.

You would think this series of reversals would inspire a brief retreat — and then the kind of marriage that comes with a dismissive title: trophy wife.

That was not even a thought.  This fall, she published her 13th book, “Carolyne Roehm: Design & Style: A Constant Thread.” At 304 pages, it looks like its destiny is the coffee table. But it’s much more ambitious: a double portrait of her life and career, richly illustrated, with many of the photographs taken by the author.

In New York, there was a book party at Susan Gutfreund’s apartment that saw guests unused to lifting weights outside the gym toting Roehm’s six-pound baby, followed by a lovefest of a dinner for friends at the Knickerbocker Club.
Carolyne signing for friends last week at Susan Gutfreund's apartment.
Outside the bubble, reactions to this book are more amped up. No one in New York seems even dimly aware of this, but in the provinces Carolyne Roehm is a rock star. Many thousands of women own all of her books, were waiting impatiently for this one, and are even now raving about it on Amazon and hoping she’ll lecture in their towns. They have no hope of having what she has, but they completely identify with who she is: the small town girl who conquered the Emerald City, was knocked around, got up, and has returned, still believing that a more beautiful life is just one decision away.
Guests seated beside a classic Roehm floral arrangement.
This is not an uncommon message; Oprah has the patent. But Carolyne Roehm is loudly grateful for her life and refreshingly self-deprecating. Sure, she worked for Oscar de la Renta and never partied with anyone on the B-list, but as she says, “What I loved at 5, I still love.” That’s flowers. Puppies. And her grand obsession: learning how to transform her fantasies of a beautiful life into her daily reality. “Oscar always referred to me as ‘the perpetual student,’” she writes, “and he spoke the truth: education was the thing to which I reflexively turned, especially in times of crisis.”

This education has taken her to Paris, where she apprenticed herself to Henri Moulie, the master of flower arranging. She learned valuable lessons in workrooms, where she discovered that luxury has nothing to do with price and everything to do with quality. And she spent a summer at Oxford, studying Shakespeare.
Christian Lacroix and Carolyne Roehm in 1988. Credit: Mary Hilliard
Her biggest takeaway at Oxford had nothing to do with literature. “Surrounded by people who’d never heard of me, or of any of the big names I’d considered so indispensable to my existence, I recovered my sense of perspective and, more significantly, my humility,” she writes. “I didn’t have to impress anyone, and couldn’t have if I’d tried, but my classmates took me as I was, and that seemed just fine. It was to me as well: for six weeks at Oxford, I reintroduced myself to a girl called Janie Smith and found myself surprised, and pleased, to discover that she was still a pretty good kid.”