She was one of the most photographed women of the American 20th century. She was chic and elegant with an aristocrat’s irreverence — the quintessential personification of the term “the Beautiful People.” She enjoyed publicity which she treated as a kind of soft notoriety. Although, as much as she was willing to be interviewed and to pose for the camera, she claimed it never occurred to her to have “saved” any of the articles or the pictures.
Mrs. Guest married a Phipps heir, Winston F.C. Guest when she was 27 and bore him two children, Alexander and Cornelia. Very early into the marriage, she had a acquired a certain fame that remained with her throughout her life. As a young adult she was known as a socialite horsewomen (and was photographed for the cover of Time). As she got older she became known for her gardening and turned it into a career selling books, garden tools and implements and writing a gardening column for 350 newspapers. She had a press agent’s genius for promotion and never tired of selling her wares.
She liked people and befriended a variety of personalities from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to movie stars to Andy Warhol to gangster’s molls to all kinds of people unknown to the world but nevertheless fun and full of beans. She also loved dogs and always rescued lots of them, keeping them living well on her Long Island estate (which recently served as background in a Ralph Lauren advertising campaign — in which she makes a brief appearance).
|CZ on the cover of the April 2003 issue of Quest magazine|
As irreverent and free-thinking as she could appear to be, she had little patience for those who did not follow the rules that maintained the status quo. For years, she and Mr. Guest kept a place in town in the penthouse at One Sutton Place South. One day she ran into a new resident of the building, a woman about her age, also an aristocrat with a famous name, carrying some groceries through the lobby to the elevator. “Groceries are delivered only through the service entrance,” she reprimanded; “rules are rules.”
On a Monday night, three weeks ago, at the Autumn Dinner of The Frick Collection, I was wandering around having a look and taking pictures when I saw her looking camera ready, casually yet elegantly sitting on a bench in the atrium with her friend. Naturally I asked if I could take her picture and naturally she agreed, pointing out how beautiful the atrium garden we were in looked on this night. I took one picture (with the Digital), didn’t like the result and asked if she minded if I take another. Not a problem. I took another, which appears above.
The moment reminded me of an incident that had occurred a few months ago when she was being photographed for a magazine layout. She arrived on time, which was her habit, only to find that they weren’t ready for her. A young woman who was being photographed before her was holding up the process (and everybody else) because she didn’t like her hair and makeup.
When Mrs. Guest realized vanity was the problem, she stepped right in.
“ Look,” she said to the young woman in her soft, flat, but authoritative mid-Atlantic accent, “I’m a lot older than you and I’ve been doing this all my life. It’s very simple. Get in front of the camera and let them take your picture. Then get out of here so the rest of us can get on with it.”
The young woman heeded the advice and CZ got on with it, which was her wont.
11/17/03 - On Saturday, a cold-ish, silvery day I went with a friend out to Old Westbury on Long Island to a memorial service for CZ Guest who died on that day a week before, and was laid to rest beside her husband last Wednesday.
The service was held at the small, very modest, modern, gabled stone Church of the Advent. There were more than 200 attending (see list), crowded to the point that about a dozen latecomers had to stand. The simple ceremony was conducted by Father Beardsley. I am assuming it was an Episcopal church because Mrs. Guest was by birth White Anglo-Saxon Protestant from Boston, and in that part of the world, the very social WASPs were very often Episcopalian, if not Congregationalists.
Then William Ivey Long, the Tony Award winning Broadway costume designer, read a profile of Mrs. Guest that was written by her friend Truman Capote as an introduction to her first garden book, published in 1975 (the book was written by Elvin McDonald).
The designer is a curly-headed, round-faced, wire-rim bespectacled man with a jolly countenance and a perpetual smile. He is enormously creative and enormously successful and, on meeting, Mrs. Guest took him up with the same devotion with which she graced Mr. Capote. No doubt his talents intrigued and amused her in much the same way as did Mr. Capote’s.
Mr. Long’s reading was the highlight of the otherwise austere religious service because it was warm and witty, and confirmed once again what a great and wonderfully engaging writer Truman Capote was. There was also the element of wistfulness in the context of his piece being read at this moment before those assembled.
Capote’s “introduction” was
written around the time he had published his then notorious Cote
Basque 1965, which unmasked the gossipy and slanderous
doin’s of the New York socialites of that day.
He was roundly ostracized and treated thereafter like
a pariah by many of them, especially those whose activities
he set down in his semi-fictional stories. He never recovered
from that and died seven years later.
Now of course, that “notoriety” and social exclusion is all just part of the writer’s literary history. Most of the people he was hoisting up to ridicule or spotlighting in acidic portrayal are dead and mainly forgotten, succeeded, as they always are, in this fasttrack “society” of New York, and mainly not by issue or descendants bearing family names. They have been succeeded by a new generation of themselves: ambitious strivers who bury their pasts in advance, as fast as they can or as well as they are able.
separated Mrs. Guest from many of her world of
high society and international celebrity, besides
her own genealogy, was that she wasn’t a girl
who felt she had anything to hide — behavior,
heritage or otherwise. She was also one of the few
Capote friends in that particular social orbit who
never did exclude him after his piece was published
in Esquire. He was often a weekend houseguest
at her rambling brick house in Old Westbury.
So William Ivey Long’s reading not only entertained and amused, but served to remind the congregated (at least a few of whom could use a little reminding) what Friendship was all about.
After Mr. Long’s reading, there was the reading of “The Apostles Creed” and the saying in unison of the Lord’s Prayer, and then the Dismissal (“Rest eternal grant to her, O Lord: And let light perpetual shine upon her. May her soul and all the souls of the departed, Through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.”). Then everyone sang all four verses of “America The Beautiful” and the service was over.
Mrs. Guest’s beautiful daughter Cornelia was the most bereft. After the service she held a buffet lunch for everyone at her mother’s house which is now her house: baked ham, macaroni and cheese, haricots vert, Brie and Stilton and crackers. It was a large and talkative crowd back at the house, and they were enjoying themselves being in CZ’s elegant but very country, very long-lived in surroundings. Those who were frequent guests over the years were especially full of cheerful nostalgia about the departed friend and hostess.
There was the story told with amusement about the summertime visits of Capote when his hostess was trying to help him stop drinking. She’d try to keep an eye on him by taking her with him when she was with her horses on in her garden. But he’d beg off, saying he preferred resting in the sun by the pool, where, after CZ was out of sight, he’d have the staff bring him a mineral water bottle filled with vodka.