Monday, November 14, 2016

The ultimate chronicler of the lives

Fall bounty in Central Park. Photo: JH.
Monday, November 14, 2016. A beautiful Autumn weekend in New York with mild but cool temperatures in the low 60s in the day and down in the 40s at night.
Aileen Mehle, the ultimate chronicler of the lives of what used to be international society in the last half of the 20th century, died here in New York on Friday afternoon.  She was 98 on her last birthday, June 10th.

Born in El Paso, Texas in 1918, a place unknown to Easterners, where automobiles were still a wonder and people still traveled by foot, horse or bicycle, her lifetime rise to prominence and a great career is its own great tribute to the woman’s personal power. Her columns reflected it. You knew she knew the story and that she was fooled by none of it. But you also knew she had a wonderful time taking it all in, and lived in a world full of interesting, stimulating, and quite often – but not always—very rich people in the spotlight.
Photo: Condé Nast via Getty Images
I first read her in 1959 when she joined the New York Daily Mirror with the nom de plume Suzy. My father, a born and bred in Brooklyn New Yorker, got the Mirror and the News everyday. By the time I was eight or ten I was reading them too. Walter Winchell was in the Mirror, and so was Suzy who wrote about the magic (to this kid growing up in a little New England town) world of New York. Winchell syndicated had 30 million readers a day (!!).  Suzy did not, nor did she have much syndication. But they were a team to the reader. She gave the glitz the shimmer while he supplied the nitty-gritty.

She was a working girl in a glamorous looking job and she wore it to the hilt. She sparkled whenever she was out in public.  She was very popular with both the men and the women of the society of mid to late 20th century. (money-fame-power). She too had a very real kind of power in the world of what we are now calling the Elite. It was her wit and charm, smartly packaged in a woman who had the common touch.
Social writer/journalists have been popular in America since the early 19th century when it was a new country and forming its traditions. By the late 19th century and the days of The Mrs. Astor, the great wealth of the city bred what we called “Society.” It appeared to be an amusement, a showering of accouterment, an entertainment, fantasy presented as reality. There have been other successful women columnist/journalists in her field. Suzy had the longest run and the winning popularity.

Mehle photographed by Bill King for a 1977 Blackglama ad.
She was very competitive, not surprisingly. It was not unlike her to request of a hostess to not invite certain other media people. By the time I came along, late in her career, I was one of them, and another was Liz Smith. Although I was obviously disappointed not to be sharing in her presence, I understood: business is business, and it was her territory. Away from that area of her life, she was a sweet and generous friend who got the picture.

Realistically, she never had competition and never will. She was all those things that her millions of readers loved about her: an original. And, she was lovely to look at ...

When I learned of her death last Friday afternoon, I recalled writing something about her several years ago about the time that she was just ending her career, already in her late eighties. She’d come into Her World when she was a young woman in her thirties, and left when that world when it was over.

Here is what I wrote in late February, 2007:
Aileen Mehle and Norman Parkinson at Suzy's Gold Ball, 1985. Photo: Mary Hilliard.
Aileen Mehle. The dowager, doyenne and queen of society columnists in America, Mrs. Mehle, is said to have been “discovered” by Truman Capote who first started talking about her in New York (buzz-buzz) when she was writing a society column in Miami. Born deep in the heart of Texas (El Paso), her stiletto wit, always accompanied by the signature satin-y slap and a tickle made her a must-read for anyone with the slightest appreciation for the puncturing of pomposity and the human comedy.

She first came to the New York Daily Mirror, which was the Hearst morning tabloid competing with the New York Daily News, in the late 1950s. The number one social column for decades had been Cholly Knickerbocker, also a nom de plume which was then the domain of Igor Cassini, the suave and sophisticated brother of designer Oleg Cassini.

The reason for its prominence was circulation and syndication. Cholly Knickerbocker was in the Hearst afternoon paper, the New York Journal-American. It had been first by a man named Maury Paul who coined the term “café society” after the repeal of Prohibition when society began its long and ultimate descent into proletarian manners and mores that define us today.
Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, Jr. and Maury Paul writing as Cholly Knickerbocker.
By the late '50s, early '60s, Mr. Cassini (known as Ghi-ghi to his legions of socialite friends) left most of the grunt work — the writing, that is — to another young Texas girl who’d been in town only a few minutes longer than Mrs. Mehle — Liz Smith. This juxtaposition of Texas girls covering the social scene never was to be, it turned out, harmonious. As the French would say (even in Texas) “c’est la vie.”
Igor Cassini with his second wife, Darrah Waters, in Southampton.
Number two on the list of prominent society reporters in those days was the Daily News column written by Nancy Randolph (also a nom de plume) who was more of a hat-and-white-gloves sort of reporter (Cholly Knickerbocker was a little clubbier and intimate than Randolph’s textbook reportage where a big story was who got kicked out of the Social Register for marrying whom). The Daily News, of course, had the largest circulation in the city.

The New York Times and New York Herald-Tribune never had a society gossip column per se, being above all that (or so they pretended — or were possibly uninterested. The Trib was owned by the very rich and top drawer social lion Jock Whitney) but they did have society pages that were devoted to the ladies who lunched and volunteered and married (and eventually died). Divorce, even when it occurred, was never touched on and only vaguely alluded to in those papers.
Jock Whitney, publisher of the gossip-less New York Herald-Tribune.
And the World Telegram which started out life in the 19th century as three different papers, namely Joseph Pulitzer’s The New York Evening World, had a column written by another hat-and-white-gloves proper lady named Mimi Strong (Mrs. Stephen van Rensselaer Strong), now a top literary agent, whose husband’s family went all the way back to the real Knickerbocker families.

So when Mrs. Mehle arrived on the scene, The Daily Mirror’s number one columnist was Walter Winchell, who was and remains the most widely read gossip columnist in American press history (50 million people a day!). These were, it would turn out, Winchell’s last days and so society, or café society, or the horsey set (who often mingled with café society) was open season for the clever and never-not-amusing Mrs. Mehle, now known as Suzy. She had free rein and they were ready for someone to rustle up the silks and satins. And that she did.
Walter Winchell, who was read by 50 million people a day from the 1920s until the early 1960s.
A very goodlooking woman, movie star glamorous (a real babe), she was already the lady of choice to a lot of panting South American playboys and rich American sportsmen (the accepted word for rich boys who didn’t do anything but play). And she always had a few words of wisdom that were sufficiently sympathetic and empathic for the ladies of the smart set, so she was never a threat. Although she had already been married and was mother of a son, for a long time she was romantically linked to Barbara Hutton’s first cousin Woolworth Donohue. Later in her life, she had a long relationship with film producer Walter Wanger but she never married either man.

As light as the bubbles in a glass of champagne as she could be in print, she could be feisty too, and it was some of her press feuds that brought her attention (and always victory) and endeared her to her gathering fans who reveled in her snarky seasonings. Once in a feud with Zsa Zsa Gabor, she referred to the Hungarian-born beauty as Miss Chicken Paprika of 1914. Zsa Zsa lost, alas, my dollink.

By the late 1960s, the seven major dailies were reduced to three – the three which remain today: The Times, the News and the Post. By that time (the early 70s), she was the only society columnist in New York, and therefore the most important one in the world. Liz Smith, not so incidentally, had moved on to her own column which took up the reins of the great Winchell column, where she remains today also. After a number of years, Mrs. Mehle moved to Women’s Wear Daily and W where she remains at the time of this writing.

In the process, the transmogrification of what was called high society, and then café society was succeeded by the jet set and eventually what became (dubbed by Women’s Wear) Nouvelle Society and the society of charity benefits. And Mrs. Mehle, still writing as Suzy (they dropped the Knickerbocker when the J-A ended) became not just the chronicler and commentator of society in New York but the actual ad hoc arbiter of what people regard as society, and there she remains today (the Mrs. Astor may she R.I.P.) — still looking like the movie star she never was but might have been.
Mehle with the Duke of Windsor in Paris.
Her items now have more to do with Brad and Angelina that Bitsy and Reggie because, as she might possibly agree herself, those days are gone forever and the reading public (what’s left of them) want to feast on celebrity-dom, no matter how dumb they might be.

In 2006, after a half-century of chronicling the ways the international rich and social, Mrs. Mehle retired from her daily column in W.
Clockwise from top left: Aileen Mehle at the Spanish Institute gala in 2006; With Sam Peabody at a Vuitton party, 1989; Sparkling at MoMA in 1989; WIth Bill Blass at the Metropolitan Opera, 1997. Photos by Mary Hilliard.
With Anne Slater, 1985.
With Duane Hampton and Nan Kempner at the American Academy in Rome gala, 1999.
Aileen -- here with Ezra Zillhka -- around town in the late '80s and early '90s.
With her son Roger in 1985.
Suzy in 1988.

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