Sunday, February 18, 2007

Serena Rhinelander Stewart

Serena was the only child of Janet and William Rhinelander Stewart. The Rhinelanders were premier landowners in New York City beginning in the late 18th Century. The family fortune provided a life of leisure for generations that created a vagueness as to their professional claims. Asked what the Stewarts did for a living, Serena, with characteristic candor replied, “I don’t know. They never worked. I know my grandfather didn’t. My father didn’t.” Serena herself took exception with the long family tradition and only recently retired from a long career as an architect.

William Rhinelander Stewart was a major fixture on the Manhattan nightclub scene. Vincent Astor considered him his closest friend. He was often photographed clubbing with Cole Porter and Elsa Maxwell. Most likely because of the late nights, he never got up before noon. When people telephoned before that hour, his butler was instructed to tell them that “Mr. Stewart is out running around the reservoir.”

Serena’s mother was known as “Mrs. William Rhinelander Stewart, the most beautiful woman in New York,” and was a member of the first Best-Dressed List, although she thought “spending money on clothes was ridiculous.” In fact Serena could never understand how her mother made the best-dressed list because she never spent money on clothes. Once, after being complimented on a dress she was wearing, she told her admirer what she’d paid for it: $5.98.

Despite her great social prominence and even celebrity Janet Stewart was a woman known for telling it like it is. When Vincent Astor's second wife Minnie decided to divorce him, he went looking for a new wife immediately. He first went to the widow of his old friend – Janet Stewart. When he proposed the idea of marriage, she replied: “Marry you? I don’t even like you; why would I marry you?” And he is said to have replied, “well, I’m getting on, I’m not in good health, and you know I have a great fortune which would go to you.” To which she is said to have replied: “Well, I have enough to live on already ... and ... what if you didn’t die? Then what?”

She was famous in the social world for her “salons,” or rather, her cocktail hour, a kind of open house for friends beginning every late weekday afternoon that she was around. Such gatherings were not uncommon for social and show business people. It was an open invitation and a place for people to congregate, and as it is in public places today, to see, be seen and to meet and greet. She was also once married to a great-uncle of President George W. Bush and a member of the Thomas Fortune Ryan family.

Her daughter Serena Stewart lives a very independent life, like her mother and her father, although she is more like her mother in that she loves people with ideas and artists. She’s sailed a lot in her life — around the world at least once, on her own boat — besides her work. She has no interest in the social world as it exists in New York today, although she still sees many relatives and people she’s known all her life. And she likes to read. She loves books.