Carolyne Roehm is one of those people who, whatever their origins, has been born a thoroughbred filled with nervous energy and tensed for a demanding race that they set up for themselves. Unsurprisingly, she is tall, lean and elegant. There is a taut quality to her poise, and even her diction, which, despite certain unguarded moments, is very careful. But all of this is tempered by honesty, a sense that she is also quite vulnerable and cares greatly what others think. She is clearly a tremendously hard worker, having had a career in fashion design followed by a string of books on flowers and stylish living. Interestingly, despite her famous marriage to Henry Kravis and the whole Bonfire of the Vanities circus of that time, she now sees herself, probably truthfully, as something of a loner.
You were once Oscar de la Renta’s assistant. Was that the realization of a dream?
Oh yeah. I actually had another offer [from Jerry Silverman] and it really wasn’t what I wanted to do. He said to me ‘well, what do you want to do?’ I said I want to work for Oscar de la Renta. I really love ruffles and evening clothes and girly-girly stuff … I digress but I remember once I had to do the prints for the umbrellas [that were to be licensed] … I mean you did everything. And Oscar makes an umbrella and says ‘Let’s put a little ruffle around the edge of it.’ Then this guy [involved in the licensing] says to me ‘This guy puts fucking ruffles on everything!’
You were young and relatively new to New York but you seemed to definitely have a plan, and ambition.
At the time I was earning about $13,000 a year and I went to work for Oscar for $9,000 … I think it was $126 a week! I had a rich boyfriend (he was a good boyfriend — from Lichtenstein!) and he bought me this Saint Laurent skirt, the cashmere sweater and brown suede boots … and that’s how I went for my interview with Oscar. He said to me, ‘You’ll make more money [elsewhere] and I’ve never had a female assistant, but call me on Monday.’ Little did I know that when he said that (and I know this now after working for him for more than ten years) it was how you got rid of people. He was always in the country at the weekend and only came back around lunchtime on Monday. [eventually] I became sort of the daughter.
What about his wife at the time [Françoise de Langlade, Editor-in-Chief of French Vogue]?
I was scared to death of her. She was an amazing woman, very strong. I think I learned more about lifestyle, certainly through Oscar, but she, she did it in a way that Americans didn’t do it. No one used scented candles or scent in a room at that time – you have to remember this was the 70s. No one had the beautiful linens that they used on a daily basis. But being very French, she was very direct and I was the kid. She had a tremendous impact on my very provincial, mid-Western …you know …I remember traveling with them once, when he launched his perfume and this was 1976 and I was seated behind them in first class (I guess the perfume company was paying), and they were sitting there planning who was going to be coming to this event …it was the first time I ever saw a couple as a real team.
Did you leave when you got married to Mr Roehm?
Yes I did. And within the first month I realized I had married a lunatic. I left the Lichtensteiner for the German. He asked me to marry him on our second date. I remember Françoise calling me on the phone and saying ‘You are making a terrible mistake marrying this German. It will never work.’
So you came back after 13 miserable months in Germany and then you were single for a while before you met a nice Jewish guy. [Financier, Henry Kravis, from whom she is now divorced.]
Yeah. We were at that lunch place … what was it called … you know at that time there was just that one place everybody went. Well I was with a friend who introduced me to Kirk Douglas. He said ‘She just came back. She was married to a German.’ And Kirk Douglas turns around and says, ‘You need to marry a nice Jewish boy.’
Was he going to supply one?
So, I meet Henry at a party, while I’m still working for Oscar. You have to remember at that point he hadn’t made … you know … the money. KKR was just a couple of years old.
And was it at that time you launched your own design business?
I thought maybe it’s the time – before I become the world’s oldest assistant – (you know, ten years!) … so I spoke to someone at Saks who’d I gotten to know and said, ‘Do you think I can do this on my own?’ and they said, ‘Yeah’.
When that business closed (following a family tragedy), how did you cope?
I was getting ready to move my business to the next level … the contracts were drawn and everything, and that was June and my stepson was killed in July. He was 19. It’s the nightmare of all nightmares. I remember it so clearly. I was up at Weatherstone [the country house] … Do you remember Hurricane Sam? There was a hurricane that came through in the August and it was also when the coup in Russia came, it was 1992. And I remember watching it on TV and I said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on in the world. We’ve gone through this horrible tragedy. There was this huge hurricane coming in and there’s a coup in Russia and I’ve got to back and design a resort collection.’ And I remember picking up a review of Chanel; and it was a mean review. And I said, ‘This is such total bullshit. I don’t know that I can spend my life this way.’ But it [closing the business] was a mistake.
So why do you think it was a mistake?
Because I think you shouldn’t make life-changing, life-shattering decisions when you are very depressed and when you are going through a tragedy.
Do you still feel that way?
Er, no, not now. But at the time I was a career woman. People always think ‘Why in the world would you work? You’re married to one of the richest men.’ I thought ‘I have worked all my life and they think that I’m in this business because I married a rich man.’ All those years of work, all of that meant nothing. When I made the decision to shut down the company it was like another death for me. But I was finished. I was on the verge of a breakdown.
You strike me as very conscientious. I bet you were a good student.
I was a good student. I was not a rebel. I was a goody-goody.
Has that changed over time?
Er … how have I rebelled? I think that everyone anticipated that I would re-marry and marry the same type … and … I think you know, I’m a loner. In the 80s and 90s, I just didn’t have any fun. I was like the hamster in the cage. Trying to do the philanthropy, trying to do the career, trying to run seven houses … it was nuts.
You just got back from Aspen where your current partner, Simon, lives. Does he live there full time?
Oh, well you’ll probably stay in the relationship for a while.
[laughs] Well, I’ve been in it for three and a half years! [to the maid ‘Oh we need ice you know, Rosa? Ice tea … that’s the operative word for ice and everybody wants ice. You wanted ice in your drink, right?] You know at this point in my life, I have such a busy life and I have a wonderful life, although sometimes a little frantic life, er … since I don’t have children and he doesn’t have children, so we don’t have any of the complications of that, and you know … I can get on a plane, I don’t take any luggage. He is a devotee of jetBlue, so in two seconds, we can just meet up. It gives me my independence and my own life … and he … well he is sweeter about it. He says ‘I miss you, I miss you.’
What do you like about New York?
New York gave me a tremendous a life … if I hadn’t come here …like everyone else …you know, I went to see a fabulous play last night, I got to go in for two seconds to American Kennels this morning and see puppies and then I love the fact you can go out to a greengrocer and buy flowers.
You buy flowers from the corner store?
Sure. My favorite store in New York is Dean and DeLuca.
So you don’t necessarily need to spend a lot of money to get your kicks. I bought the skirt I am wearing from Zara for $17.99 – would you ever buy something like that?
Is that a Zara skirt? I think you look fabulous! I’m a big JCrew lover. And this is a $298 dress from a little place in Paris … the shoes cost more than the dress.
Why do women love clothes so much? Even if a woman says she’s not interested in fashion, I never quite believe them.
I don’t either. It gives us the opportunity to be a lot of different people and that’s why I love fashion.
You were born Jane Carolyne Smith and came from what people like to call an ‘ordinary’ background, growing up in Kirkville, Missouri. What does your mom think of your career and the life you created?
Oh part of her is very proud and part of her thinks it’s really ridiculous. She says ‘Why don’t you just relax?’
Why don’t you?
Because it’s interesting to do things.
You love your dogs and have pictures of them dogs everywhere. Are there any cats?
Louis [my cat] died. He was 13 and I decided that I was going to get another cat, actually I decided to get a cat for my mother. I thought it would be nice for my mom. But my mom said ‘I’m not taking that cat. I want to be able to travel.’ And I said ‘that’s so mean!’ But I should have called that cat Israel because [it’s surrounded by] all those dogs, just like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran … like the Arab states waiting for the demise of Israel! His name is actually Nicky, and we kept his claws.
Do you like to eat? What did you have for breakfast?
You don’t want to know what my breakfast was!
Donuts. I always have glazed donuts with the maple icing.
Only one … today. In Aspen I was going to turn over a new leaf and start eating a healthy breakfast but there’s a place called Paradise Bakery … I get the sugar cookies and the snipper doodles … I have a new thing: you put them in the freezer.
What do you like to read?
Trash … but anyway. I mean people who say they don’t [read trash] … well good for them … aren’t they hoity-toity. I’m right in the middle of a Patterson. I love murder, whodunit and espionage. I’ve read every Agatha Christie and there’s 81 of them.
As you say yourself, you have a wonderful life but I suppose someone could look at all you have and perhaps think you’ve skipped the bad bits.
Oh honey … you don’t even know the half of it … [laughs].