Free as a bird

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Overlooking the East River from Carl Schurz Park's waterfront promenade. Photo: JH.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020. Cloudy yesterday, but mild with temps cooling down to the mid-40s (with RealFeel in the mid-30s). Well, it’s only five weeks til the first day of Winter.

Nina wearing her 15-carat diamond ring and art deco diamond bracelet. Photo: Patrick McMullan.

I got an email message yesterday morning from Christie’s about the collection of Nina Griscom (or specifically, the late Nina Griscom). It even feels odd using the word “late” because I can still hear her sly but melodiously husky laughter when amused by something she’d just heard. 

It’s been ten months since Nina left us and when giving it a thought, it still feels as if she’s just been away on a trip. Thinking about it, it was more like a voyage. It was not one she wished to take but she had no choice. And so, throughout, almost to the very last breath, she was totally Nina, even in her struggles. A beauty, a charmer, a mother, a daughter, a wife and partner, and a very brave girl. Who also loved her dog.

So that’s what comes up when reminded of our late friend. The laughter and the bravery. The message from Sara Fox at Christie’s was the following:

“I wanted to share under embargo the collection of the late socialite∗, model, entrepreneur and author, Nina Griscom. Christie’s will offer American Muse: The Collection of Nina Griscom across live and online sales.

“Her collection of fine and decorative art will be offered online from December 2-17, and her extensive jewelry collection will be included in the Magnificent Jewels live sale on December 8, as well as the Jewels Online sale which runs from November 18-December 1.”

The online sale of interiors from her New York home — browsing begins on November 19th — will include 34 lots with fine art ranging from Old Master drawings to 20th Century sculptures, as well as modern furnishings and decorative objects. Ms. Griscom’s extensive jewelry collection features Art Deco jewels and classic designs and will include 35 lots across the live and online sales. The group is highlighted by a diamond ring of 15.02 carats (estimate: $120,000-180,000).



Nina was a glamour girl. It came naturally. She was a beauty but it was worn unconsciously — because she was interested in what she was seeing. Life for her was a discovery, a constant experience. She had had four husbands but as she once explained, “It took the first three to get to Leo.” He was worth the waiting for. 

She wasn’t a homebody but much of her social life centered around the home, and dinner with friends both here and in the country where they had a house. She was enterprising, always interested in projects that she could build on. She loved to travel but mid-life she discovered Africa. She loved Africa. She made several voyages to the continent. It was a discovery that very possibly changed her view of life. And it was exhilarating. And she was brave.

Nina on a dhow in Mozambique in 2014. “I go to Africa every year. What draws me is the people — the kindness and joyfulness — and the spectacular beauty,” says Nina.

We’re including here an early visit (from 2007) with Nina for our HOUSE series. It captures the girl (the lady) perfectly:

I read somewhere that you really hate the word ‘socialite’ and I’m interested to know why.

I don’t think it’s very depictive. First of all, what does it say? It’s not a job description. To me I’ve always associated it as a pejorative term for someone whose job description is supposed to be getting ready for a party.

If you were to describe yourself, how would you do so?

The owner of a business, the mother of a 13-year-old.

But you like parties.

Less and less. I liked parties as much as anybody else in my day, but I think as one ages, one has done it to death. The luster completely wears off. For me it’s not the same anymore. I mean my interests have changed, where I want to spend my time has changed, and who I want to spend it with has changed. I haven’t been to a club in years. As you grow older it’s not what you’re looking for in life.

Nina’s dressing room, covered in a Rose Tarlow paisley paper, contains Nina’s large collection of Bill Blass dresses.
Some ivory trinkets upon a chest of drawers by Garrison Rousseau.
A table from India with a photo of Nina’s daughter, Lilly, shares space with L.L. Bean all-weather boots.
Bill Blass drawings of dresses he designed for Nina line the walls of the dressing room.
A portrait of a lady tucked behind a chest.
Never enough room for shoes.
We had to make a return trip to agather caption information and discovered Nina packing for a trip abroad.
A birthday and a Mother’s Day gift from Lilly.

What are you looking for?

Well something that’s more authentic. I think as you get older you give yourself permission to do something that’s authentic. When you’re young everything’s a series of firsts … and certainly that period in the 80s, there were a lot of people coming on the scene then. It was like a feeding frenzy. It takes you in too many directions. I’m just passionate about what I do – going to auctions, traveling, antique fairs, researching on the web.

How good are you at being alone?

Very. I have two sides, and I suspect a lot of us do, where I love being with people but I also cherish my alone time. Sometimes I’m very ferocious about it. If I don’t get my alone time I can become very nasty and resentful.

What bores you?

That would be rude to whatever I would say. I’ve made it clear what I like to do.

A pair of Italian sconces from the late 1800s, purchased at Christies, hang on either side of the master bed. The French bedside tables are from Reymer- Jourdan Antiques
Night time reading.
A stuffed crocodile from Argentina was a gift from Leo.
The master bedroom. The wallpaper, curtains, bed, and slipper chairs are covered in Rose Tarlow fabric.
Nina’s night table.
A view of the bedroom reflected in a full length mirror.
Looking across the bed to the other night table.
And getting a closer look.
Mini portraits of and Leonel and mom.

You were married to a plastic surgeon for a very long time – that gives you an unusual perspective on cosmetic surgery. What are your thoughts on that?

I think it can be a very positive thing, much like therapy. It can help a person with self esteem issues. With the right ethics attached to it, it’s a very positive thing. But again when it is morphed into Michael Jackson and others who have used it as tool to do work that really ought to be done in other aspects of [their lives], it can be abused like anything else.

Where does it cross over from self-esteem into narcissism? How do you know when that line has been crossed?

Well I think instead of preserving [looks] [rather than] when people seek to do witness relocation …when people look to surgery to replace what is missing in their lives, that’s an indication too. If you’re doing that as a way to attract a man or find love, that’s not the right motivation. If you just want to keep things fresh and your self respect is already in place, then that’s okay.

You seem very relaxed, a very confident person. Have you always been confident?

No. I tend to hold my fears and my pain very privately. When I’m out there, I’m out there and I try to project somebody that’s upbeat and making an effort, or I don’t and I stay home and cry. I’ve been really lucky. I’m extremely close to my mother [Elizabeth Rohatyn] and a couple of really close friends that I went to school with. I speak to my mother constantly. She lives a block away from here and we’re neighbors in Southampton. She’s totally on my side but she’s tough. She’s not going to coddle, she’s not going to flatter or ice any cake.

I guess if you don’t have those kinds of people who really know you, you can’t reference yourself, you’re lost.

Right. It eliminates a lot of bullshit too. If somebody is your friend, A) the mask comes off, you are who you are and B) if you get out of line, if they love you they will say ‘get a grip.’

Lilly’s bedroom. The Anglo Indian twin beds and bedside table are from Robert Lighton’s British Khaki collection.
Some of Lilly’s favorite snacks wait for her, courtesy of mom.
Winter boots air out by the bedroom window.
Lilly’s wish list, taped to her wall.
Helping Nina prepare for her trip abroad.

How strict was your mother when you were a teenager?

Ooh wow! She was tough! Tough as nails! But she was right. Make-up, piercing my ears, coming home late at night … you name it. I would never have dared talk back to her. I was her only child.

How successful were you at disobeying her?

Pretty good. As good as I could be. I mean she’d met her match and I’d met mine. It was really just a contest of wills and that gets exhausting. And now I understand.

You’re just beginning (with your daughter)!

Oh God yeah! Now I completely see it. In the beginning I had my mother’s voice in my head when I was reacting to my child but now I have to realize times are so totally different. You have to be appropriate to the times whilst maintaining values. You can’t put your kid over your knee and spank them with a hairbrush or wash their mouth out with soap if they say ‘fuck you.’ (She hasn’t said that yet). Theoretically you’re supposed to be the adult and they’re supposed to be the kid but you want to take off your gloves and fight them like an adult but you can’t do that!

They have this hotwire to your central nervous system.

You bet!

A collection of master drawings hangs on either side of the living room fireplace. Nearby, 18th century marble columns were a gift from Bill Blass.
Two more views of the living room. The mid 19th century torso standing on the tobacco leaf table by Garrison Rousseau, was a present from Leo. In the corner, a French empire column lamp was purchased from Belgian dealer, Axel Veervoodt.

A portrait of Lilly.
An English tiered table is home to a collection of tortoises from around the world.

How good are you at handling failure or rejection?

Hmm … again back to this business of how I hold things very privately. I feel it really strongly because I’m a perfectionist and I’m working on being easier on myself. I also have a large degree of pride … I will absolutely admit to those close to me whatever the failing is or disappointment or humiliation … um … but I haven’t historically shown that. I guess I’ve worked hard to show exactly the opposite. And I’ve realized that that, in terms of my daughter … my intention is to appear strong and to withstand anything but it’s not a very appealing quality in some ways to not have any perceived vulnerabilities.

There was a very cruel picture of you on Page Six that I saw recently …

Which one?

Well, the one I saw was you wearing a very low-cut dress and you were very exposed … you were grinning and you looked … foolish …

Obviously that was the intention.

DPC makes an entrance escorted by Nina’s favorite guard dog.
A view of the library. A bench covered in leopard print in front of the fireplace and a French Empire chair with an ornate ormolu back were both purchased from Reymer –Jourdon Antiques.
A photo of Nina’s mother Elizabeth Fly Rohatyn and her stepfather, Felix Rohatyn.
Nina with Leo tucked in.
L. to r.: A tufted leather reading chair purchased ‘years ago’ in Southampton dominates the corner of the library. The lizard-covered telephone table is by Carl Springer and a one of a pair of standing reading lamps was purchased from James Pine.; A frontal view of the library sofa with pillows covered in Nina’s favorite animal print fabrics from Brunschwig et Fils. A marble model of Constantine’s arch purchased in Buenos Aires sits atop a French, turn-of-the-century coffee table from Paris.
Waiting patiently for JH to play.

But my question is, how do live with that kind of mean intent?

It’s horrifying of course, nobody likes that. You know I get as hurt by it and as pissed off by it as any other person. And the only way that you toss it off is to look at the nature of where it’s coming from. Everybody knows this is a trash can. And that’s just an unfortunate part of the territory of just being out there. I certainly don’t want to be thought of as stupid or frivolous but I am irreverent, clearly. And I can be very bombastic and so that can lead to interpretations …it can lead to the truth being of context.

But you are an extrovert.

You can be careful where you exhibit that. You can leash it back in. What I can do in this room being totally flippant or irreverent, you can see from the way I’m delivering it, the cadence, the tone of voice, the expression on my face that I’m just being flippant or silly that there was no intent of malice or mockery. But if that appears in print there’s a subtext it takes on that takes it to a whole different interpretive level. And I’m not looking to grab a headline. I’ve been outrageous, I admit it, but I’ve never done these things to attract attention.

In the dining room a set of Anglo Indian chairs and a table from The Robert Lighton British Khaki Collection are set for an evening book party. Atop the table a group of ivory and ebony candlestick holders, a present from Bill Blass, serve as a centerpiece.
A zebra skin in the front entrance hall.

Why have you been outrageous?

I don’t know. You answer that for me.

Can you give us some idea of your day?

There is no specific pattern. Every day is different, which is wonderful. When you’re self-employed, as I always have been, that’s one of the aspects I love about it. I do a lot of research on the computer in the morning, I speak with my suppliers and my customers, it could also be dealing with samples of my new candles, smelling them and burning them, thinking of names and what not. I spend a few hours in my store … um … what else? I don’t have that many lunches but when I do it’s 90 percent one on one. Try and get to the gym when I can … treadmill and weights blah blah … I hate it.

The terrace.
More from the terrace.

Are you careful about what you eat? Do you love to eat?

I go on spurts. I love to eat. I mean that was another career I had for years, food critic on the Food Network.

What are your favorite restaurants?

love Babbo. I adore Il Buco. There’s a sushi place called Karuma Zushi that’s fabulous. You could pay your mortgage for [the price] of one dinner there.

So let’s end with guilty pleasures, what would yours be?

Oh … um … mashed potatoes … and my man.

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