Wednesday, July 3, 2019. Coincidence: All my life from childhood to the present, I have had a close friend whose birthdate is today.
It’s been very warm here in the city. And although it was only Tuesday, the vibe felt like the end of the week in summer when many are off to other havens. Mid-80s, maybe a rainstorm running through, maybe not.
For the holiday coming up and with the social calendar empty, we are running an interview with Kenny Lane that George Gurley did three years ago. Kenneth Jay Lane died the following year around this time (July 20). He was a unique personality, a combination of imagination, other faces, other rooms, a performer and a sharp-minded, astute and clever businessman. You’ll read all of that in George’s text. He was a classic case of a boy from middle America who came to the city and created a persona that defined that personality.
I never knew him well although we met in California back in the ‘80s. We were introduced by a mutual friend, Luis Estevez. I’d heard about him, read about him, long before because he was a “character” almost out of a movie, except it was real life. Among other things, he was always an excellent host (dinner or lunch) with a small group of people, friends, acquaintances, and it was just a nice time. Almost like just folks; not quite but that idea.
I happened upon this entry last week while doing some other research. I’d forgotten about it, as it is with almost everything we’ve done on the NYSD. So I started re-reading and went with it. Vintage Kenny, and all that he was. A very nice man, underneath it all — as well as on the surface.
And a pleasure to know …
One afternoon in late 2000, Kenneth Jay Lane was in the back room of a new restaurant called Swifty’s. He was having lunch and chainsmoking and entertaining a small group of intimates: Carroll Petrie, Yanna Avis, Mary McFadden, and John Galliher.
Sitting across from me was DPC, who had just launched this website. He said every single person inches away at the next table had lived tremendous lives. They had known all the social and showbiz figures of the Twentieth Century very, very well, and were still very powerful creative forces with really interesting stories. They were like characters in the Great American Novel, which, he added, is better than being the writer.
Suddenly, Lane broke into snatches of a Cole Porter song, then remembered a cocktail party at the composer and lyricist’s marvelous Waldorf Towers apartment. The host hadn’t been feeling well due to the imaginary pain in his amputated leg, or saying much to his guests, among them Billy Baldwin, Jean Howard, Baron Niki de Gunzburg, Princess Natalia Paley, and Lane, who decided to serenade him with “Just a Gigolo.” It worked. Porter immediately cheered up and said how impressed he was that the handsome young jewelry designer knew all the lyrics to his rather obscure song from 1929.
A few days later I spotted Lane at Doubles. He was smoking Marlboro Reds, drinking vodka, and giggling with Nan Kempner but didn’t seem to mind being interrupted.
Soon into our brief chat, he mentioned Gilbert Miller and snapped, “Forget it, you don’t even know what I’m talking about. The husband of Kitty Miller! You don’t know who that is, either? Kitty Miller was ghastly. Kitty Miller said everything was ghastly. ‘Kitty, how was India?’ ‘Ghast-ly.’ ‘Kitty, you met Proust?’ She was the daughter of Jules Bache. ‘Your father brought Proust home to lunch, what was he like?’ ‘Ghaaaastly.”’
After he patiently explained that Gilbert was the producer of many Noel Coward plays and Kitty once gave the definitive New Year’s Eve party, I asked what he thought of the Christmas party so far. “Il y a bien du monde a Versailles ce soir,” he said, surveying the room. Did that mean a lackluster evening? “No, I just love quoting Marie Antoinette.”
All I knew then was that he was a suave, witty, well-dressed “extra man.” But I would learn much more from devouring his memoir, Faking It, which tells the story of how a kid from Detroit became “The King of Faux” and “Le Roi du Junque.” A short version:
He grew up comfortably in Bloomfield Hills. His father, who owned a company that sold automotive parts, was on the golf course making a lot of deals. His mother should have been a politician because she was frustrated as a woman. At age 20, she lied about her age to become the U.S. Marshal of Wayne County and arrested Sherman Billingsley, the bootlegger and future Stork Club owner. She used to say, “If you can’t be good, be clean.” A nanny encouraged Kenny to start drawing at age four.
His subjects included voluptuous women like Mae West, whom he later met backstage after a riotous performance in the Latin Quarter. On Saturdays he and his cousin Barbara would be driven into town. After the museum, a sandwich at Stouffer’s, they would race over to the theater where they worked as ushers, and see amazing productions starring actors like Mary Martinand Yul Brenner.
At 15 he came to New York for the first time. He wore a Chesterfield coat, gray herringbone with a gray velvet collar, and his mother said he could smoke only if he used a filter, so he bought a Dunhill holder. Also some yellow chamois gloves at Sulka. The two went to the theater every day and saw Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, and Carol Channing.
He fell madly in love with the city, and couldn’t get over how every good restaurant seemed to have a doorman. He knew the Midwest wasn’t for him. He wanted to live a little bit in the ambience of what he saw in the films of the 30’s, crystal chandeliers and such, and be part of that glamour he knew existed. But not back in “De-twah,” as he likes to pronounce it.
In high school he was impossible. While majoring in architecture at the University of Michigan, he returned to Manhattan and found himself at San Remo, a Macdougal street bar frequented by designers, actors, and Village people. He hit it off with a very cute, very funny Parsons grad, Carrie Donovan, who was working for Vogue. Lane believes all you need to know is one person when you’re starting out, and Donovan was perfect.
She introduced him to Hubert Givenchy but he wanted to be an art director at a glossy magazine. Next she took him to see Alexander Liberman who hired Lane at Vogue but he was soon bored to death. Back at Ann Arbor, he met an older graduate student, the poet Frank O’Hara. Their “younger brother-older brother relationship” is chronicled in City Poet, Brad Gooch’s classic biography of O’Hara. “Frank changed all my interests so that I never saw another old friend again,” he told Gooch. “I had left my middle class environment, my middle class family, my middle class values, and I met total nonsense, which I hadn’t really known until then. He gave me the sense of nonsense for the rest of my life…My mother loathed the very idea of Frank O’Hara.”
Alas, the close friendship never made it to the next level. “Frank and I were never lovers,” Lane recalls in City Poet. “We got very drunk on his last night and very giggly and Frank told me he was madly in love with me, and he put on more Marlene Dietrich, and we had to consummate it. So we started to, but we giggled so there was no way. I don’t think we could even kiss because you can’t kiss and laugh at the same time, and it was more fun laughing.”
After graduating in 1954 Lane moved to New York for good. His mother found him an un-air-conditioned apartment above a printing shop on Jane Street. Dirt sailed up into his pad and blackened his sheets. He wore custom made suits, a derby hat from Locke, shirts from Turnbull & Asser, shoes from Lobb. He became an associate designer for Christian Dior, then design director, and spent half the year in Paris, living for $10 a day in a room with a terrace at the top of the Hotel St. Regis. He was taken up by “the ladies” there were balls, and with his corporate American Express card he took the Agnellis to dinner, which was unusual for a 26-year-old kid.
In 1961, he was having lunch at the new hot spot La Caravalle on West 55th Street. The place to be seated was in the corridor, not the restaurant. Diana Vreeland and Richard Avedon kept looking over at him. Later that day Harper’s Bazaar called. Because Lane had “the straightest part in New York,” Mrs. Vreeland wanted him on the cover with Sophia Loren, Halston, and two models.
At the time he was designing shoes fashion designer friends’ runway shows. For an Arnold Scaasi collection he made some with jewels, added matching jeweled buttons, earrings and bracelets. The New York Times did a story on it. By 1962, nearly every store on Fifth Avenue was selling his faux jewelry, but he was still doing it on the side, for fun, for elegant friends like Mica Ertegun and Judy Peabody. In 1963 he went into the costume jewelry business full time. He would take very fine, magnificent jewels as inspiration and turn them into really beautifully-crafted costume pieces that made statements.
The business got successful so quickly he barely had time to find employees. After the Times ran another article about how the Duchess of Windsor was wearing his jewelry, Saks Fifth Avenue asked if they could use his name exclusively, as “Our Own Kenneth Lane.” For a promotional event, he agreed to dress up like a prince in a black velvet and gold braid outfit and ride on a sleigh at Rockefeller Center’s skating rink. As a couple models pushed him around, hundreds of spectators cheered. He wore the same outfit that evening to Mary McFadden’s “Come As Your Favorite Dream” theme party at her mother’s East 64th Street townhouse. When he got home very late he couldn’t remove his boots and slept with them on.
Other nights he would go to dinner with C.Z. Guest or the Windsors or to the Peppermint Lounge and share a table with a sailor and his girlfriend. He made the cut for Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball. “I was very flattered to have been invited,” Lane told George Plimpton for his oral history of Capote. “I had just sort of arrived at the star scene, having made my first bits of jewelry which all the ladies loved so desperately. So I got into Noah’s Ark that way.” His highlight of his evening was meeting Tallulah Bankhead for the first and last time.
In the late ’60s Newsweek and The Saturday Evening Post ran features on him. He bought a Rolls Royce with a “KJL” license plate and dabbled in the psychedelic scene, but strictly for design ideas. Pot never agreed with him, always put him to sleep, and when he went to England, it was boring. He’d go to a party and people would be nodding off. Boring!
His showroom on East 37th Street sounds more exciting than Swinging London. On any given day there would be Audrey Hepburn, Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Princess Margaret, Brooke Astor, Julie Christie, Lee Radziwell, the Queen of Sweden, fashion editors, women friends and their mothers, messengers, Andy Warhol, members of the Velvet Underground, husbands buying gifts for their girlfriends…
“And that’s how jazz born!” Lane exclaims several times in Faking It. Also: “I was very fortunate.” “I’m part pugilist, part genius, part magician, part snake charmer,” he declares at one point. “The end result is due to something between flirtation and murder.”
The book is filled with many photos of Lane with glamorous friends and his wondrous creations. I had always put jewelry in the same bag as other subjects to be avoided throughout my life. After devouring Faking It I became fascinated with it and Lane, a visionary artist whose jewelry looks like the real thing, and lasts forever. Some pieces, especially the old stuff, are just as collectible, prized, sought after as precious jewels. In 1978, the necklace Jackie asked him to make, a copy of a famous one Aristotle Onassis gave her, fetched $290,000 at Sotheby’s. His work can be seen in the Dallas Museum of Art, Smithsonian, Museum of Natural History, George Bush the Elder’s presidential library, others.
In his 80’s now, Lane goes out all the time, serves on boards (eg. The Met), raises money for cancer research, travels widely (China, India, Russia, Munich, India, Turkey, Greece) for business and pleasure. He frequently entertains at his Park Avenue duplex where he has lived since 1977. On nights off he reads a lot (history, biographies) or watches Turner Classic Movies.
Not too long ago, he found time to give me a tour of his office, have lunch, and took more questions during a night on the town. I was nervous to meet him and it didn’t help that my tape recorder malfunctioned twice.
GG: Okay. Some of these questions might be hit and miss.
KJL: Life is hit and miss.
GG: If one is boring, just say skip.
JKL: Don’t worry, I will.
GG: Okay, then, what–
GG: Earrings and bracelets you’ve made for next to nothing have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars, but isn’t that chicken scratch compared to the business you’ve done on QVC?
KJL: In 1997 I began making $1.5 million from a four hour appearance. Then regularly. Once, in less than 90 minutes of air time, there were ten million purchases of one of my necklaces. Our business is good. It’s ahead of last year.
Naturally it went down a bit after the financial crisis, but not too much. During the Great Depression of the 1930’s Revlon never sold so many lipsticks. You know, women, if they’re not spending a lot of money on clothes, they’ll buy a piece of relatively inexpensive jewelry. And oddly enough, last year was the biggest year I’ve ever had on QVC. A-mayyy-zing year. By far the biggest, and I’ve been on for over 20 years. The quantities that we sell are enormous.
GG: You have other people go on QVC for you now?
KJL: I did it for many years myself, and it was rather fun. Every once a while I’d get into a little trouble when something seemed too inexpensive to me. I’d say, “Well, this is for people on food stamps.” Whoops! Or when I said, “My jewelry makes you live longer,” their legal department got very nervous. I said, “Well, if you wear my jewelry, it makes you happy, and if you’re happy, you live longer.”
GG: Does “C.Z.” stand for C.Z Guest?
KJL: Cubic zirconium. They are done on a license which means I don’t manufacture it. Real necklaces like this would be $500,000 if they were in diamonds. These retail for about $500. I’d advises against a woman wearing one on the street, because thieves don’t know the difference. She might get hit over the head. But they’re wonderful for traveling.
GG: Didn’t you once attend a ball celebrating the opening of the Universal Studios Hotel in Hollywood?
KJL: They had two planes of people, one from New York, one from Paris, and it was quite a crowd. And since it was a new hotel there were signs in the ladies’ room saying “Please Put Your Jewels In The Safe.” There was one safe so there was a queue, you know, the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg–a lot of big stuff going in there! So I was walking by and saying, “If you were wearing Kenny Lane, you’d be in bed by now.”
GG: What’s your morning routine?
KJL: In New York, my alarm goes off at 8 a.m. Since I’m never going to retire, my nod to retirement is staying in bed an extra half hour. Trying to decide if I’m really alive. Every morning: Can I get out of bed or can I not get out of bed? The only self-doubt I have. Then I have breakfast, read the papers, and no appointments before 11 a.m. Because I don’t have to.
GG: Do you spend much time on the Internet?
KJL: I don’t own a cell phone or have an answering service or computer at home. My e-mailing at work is limited to googling “food stuffs,” say, some really good anchovies or sardines in Europe that aren’t first sent to Morocco to be packed. It’s very hard to find good Portuguese sardines, things like that. Turtle soup! Doesn’t exist because the turtle is endangered. So since I’m brilliant—ahhh, let’s try snapper. I found three sources for snapper soup.
GG: What are your favorite restaurants?
KJL: All these trendy new restaurants, you could die from the noise. My favorite is still La Grenouille but it’s too noisy.
GG: In Faking It, you recall taking your mother and aunt there and when the Duchess of Windsor saw you she jumped up on a banquette, shimmied around to show off the diamond belt she’d bought that day, and said, “Look at me, I’m Mrs. Kenneth Jay Lane!” Why was your mother so dumbfounded?
KJL: Well, she didn’t know I was married to Wallis, and I think she was rather amused for her sister-in-law. Then the Duke got up and said, “Mrs. Lane, your son is ruining me.” It was quite funny and very off-the-cuff. Do you smoke? Will it bother you?
GG: Not since December 28. Well, one last Friday. I have nicotine gum.
KJL: That’s revolting. Ghastly.
GG: Might join you with a piece of Nicorette.
KJL: No! That’s disgusting. Nicorette is like eating an ashtray.
GG: How many Marlboro Lights do you smoke a day?
KJL: Two. It’s my last vice. For years, I smoked unfiltered Camels. Coughed all the time. Can’t do that now can’t even get one down. I take care of myself and go to the doctor all the time. Honestly, I think if I stopped smoking it would be such a shock to my system, change my metabolism, and nobody lives forever. I’ve had a great life, not that I have any death wish.
GG: Any other guilty pleasures?
KJL: I stopped all the guilty pleasures, but I lost the guilt after my second orgasm.
GG: Can you describe your workday uniform (double-breasted blazer, navy blue shirt, jeans, tan Italian loafers).
KJL: The summer blazer, partially unlined in the back, is the same kind I’ve worn for the last hundred years. The denim trousers came off the rack in Rome, a lucky find. I recently purchased enough denim material for three pairs, and must find someone to make them with pleats. I used to wear a suit and tie all the time. People don’t anymore today very much, unless they’re journalists who want to make impressions. What I find appalling is the way people dress for the theater and the opera! At concerts they go practically in shorts. You have to have some respect for the orchestra. If I’m too well dressed, I feel like a woman wearing a hat.
GG: You made the International Best Dressed List in 1974. I notice that when you wear a tie it really pops out of your blazer.
KJL: My tie always has an erection. My tie has the erection I can’t have. No, ties should go up. Ties and scarves, they should go down. It’s a statement.
GG: You are always so impeccably-dressed, immaculately groomed and coiffed.
KJL: I’m lucky I have my hair. I take the pills. It works. I was losing a little bit. It’s not good for your sex life but at least I had enough before I started taking Propecia. Sowed the oats. I had many recipes for good things to do when the oats went cold.
GG: What did you think of the way American men dress today?
KJL: Well, when I see pictures of these collections of men’s clothes, I can’t imagine anybody wearing them. They photograph a ruffled shirt and a pair of jeans as a new look. You know it’s crazy. And I think these very short trousers that aren’t sort of above the ankles are perfectly hideous, you know what I mean.
GG: Any suggestions for a man trying to refine his look?
KJL: Just have one good suit. A blazer. Sponge your clothes as often as possible instead of sending them to the dry cleaner.
GG: On the back cover flap of Faking It there’s an amazing photo of you looking like a Russian czar or Roman emperor.
KJL: It was taken by Tony Snowden in Bill Cunningham’s Carnegie Hall studio. When he was doing it, Peter Sellers was photographing Tony photographing me, which was quite funny.
GG: Could someone commission you to make something custom bespoke these days?
KJL: I’ve only done that once for Jackie. You’d have to be a First Lady whose husband is assassinated to get me to do something on commission. No, Jackie was adorable. She’d call me, sometimes she had nothing to do. Once I told her I was having lunch with my Aunt Florence from Detroit. She said, “Can I come?” I said, “Of course.” Well, Aunt Florence almost collapsed. And Jackie couldn’t have been nicer.
GG: And a woman trying to refine her look?
KJL: Pearls are always good. They’re sort of “Instant Lady.” Two or three strands of pearls. If a tart wears three strands of pearls she becomes a lady even before she marries a rich husband. Of course the best way for a tart to refine herself is to get a very rich husband. It’s amazing how quickly she can get into Society.
GG: I like how you don’t mince words and rarely say more than a paragraph at a time, unless asked to.
KJL: There’s nothing more boring than someone who lectures, though some people do.
GG: Are any women around today comparable to the stylish young ladies and grandes dames you first knew in New York?
KJL: I have a one-word answer: alas.
GG: Anything else to add?
KJL: Swan Lake a la Truman does not even have an Odile left, let alone an Odette. There are some women who are well-dressed but style isn’t only about what a woman has on her back. You must consider her lifestyle, the way she walks into a room. There has to be a sort of intelligence, in a way, a little something, you know, that awful word, culture.
GG: Don’t the Olsen twins, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Cameron Diaz, and Sarah Jessica Parker own Kenny Lanes?
KJL: I don’t know so many of these new celebrities. In fact, I know so very, very few that I can’t really comment.
GG: Do you like when you see your first designs still being worn today?
KJL: It’s rather fun. What makes me happiest is if I see many women wearing a less glamourous earring. I mean, really, it’s rather nice to be able to reach beyond the couture customer.
GG: Who’s been your all-time best customer?
KJL: The hundred million women who watch QVC.
GG: Shouldn’t your work be at the Met?
KJL: It already has been, in the Costume Institute and my rather good collection of Orientalist paintings will be going when I cool to the Kenneth Jay Lane Gallery, which exists now. Because I’m a trustee, I can no longer sell my jewelry at the Met’s gift store—conflict of interest.
GG: Why did you give one of Diana Vreeland’s goldfish lighters to the Museum of the City of New York?
KJL: I never used it, it was impractical, you’d leave it on a table and maybe somebody would nick it. I gave a second one to the Met which he got years ago from Jerry Zipkin after he quit smoking.
GG: Do you think of yourself as an artist?
KJL: No! No. I’m not Cellini … I would like to think of myself as the old grandma in A Little Night Music. But I don’t want to be played by Stritch!”
GG: I think your work’s as good as Warhol’s.
Pause. That flattery didn’t go over very well.
KJL: I met Andy really early on. He was always Andy but this was before Andy superstar. He was extremely talented, he could draw, he was a wonderful colorist. I have a drawing of me he did, pre-Pop. I used to stop by his first studio on 35th Street and Lex when Warhol was doing shoe drawings for I. Miller and illustrations for Vogue and collecting funny things. It was sort of an open house, a little bit of a scene. He had a big round table, and anybody would take a brush and paint the tail on the donkey, you know what I mean?
Andy offered me, this is true, true, true, the first Campbell’s soup painting. The first one! It was six feet high, he painted it himself, not the silkscreen—as a gift. It was before his first show. He said, “Would you like it?” And I said, “Andy, I love it.” Because I’m not sure I did, you know what I mean. It was never, right—I didn’t know where I’d put it. It would be worth $100 million today.
GG: What was New York like back then?
KJL: It was crazy. When I first came here for many years there were two balls every year, the April in Paris Ball and the Feather Ball. You knew everyone and now there’s two things every night.
GG: Your first job was an assistant designer at Delman Shoes. What were women’s shoes like in the ’50s?
KJL: The ladies of my generation had perfect shoes. Girls today are little more casual about them. If they don’t have beautiful shoes, I don’t know them. At the time the model size was 4B and the only living, real person who could wear 4B was Aileen Mehle who still owns approximately 400,000 pairs of shoes.
GG: Are shoes important to you?
KJL: Never! Well, they have to be very comfortable. I’m too lazy to even buckle a buckle. I only like to slip in, slip right in. I like to slip into everything. Anything I can’t slip into I’m not interested. You’ll quote me please. Baron Leo d’Erlangerhad the greatest shoe obsession of all time. Before he met Edwina Prue in the 1920’s, he saw her in a London railroad station and fell in love with her perfect feet. He tracked Miss Prue down in the states, sent flowers and they got married.
At their marvelous villa in Tunisia, where I once stayed, a shoemaker would make Baroness d’Erlanger a brand new pair of shoes every day. But the famous story is at the end of the Second World War, Edwina was flying to America from Portugal and she sent her maid with her trunks onboard a boat that was torpedoed and sunk! And she would later say, “Oh my God, you can’t imagine what happened! I lost everything! I lost my hats! My furs! My chinchillas! My sable! My shoes! My maid! My lingerie! My jewels!”
GG: Did Delman’s have any famous customers?
KJL: One day I got a call from dress designer Norman Norell who asked if Marilyn Monroe’s shoes were ready. She and Marlene Dietrich both liked the heel very high so that the foot went down perpendicularly. “They’ve been ready for a long time,” I told Norell. He said, “Well, if you’d like to meet Marilyn, you could bring them over to her apartment.” So I did. She was absolutely adorable. Adorable! So pretty, no makeup, and the beautiful figure you could see under her cotton dress. And then I got a call one day. It was Marilyn. She said, “Kenny, do you have a tux?” I said, “Uh, yeah.” She said, “Oh, thank God! Arthur [Miller] hates going to these things and I have to go to the Waldorf tonight. Could you take me? Are you free?” I didn’t even look to see if I was free. I arrived at their apartment at 7:30 p.m. She wasn’t ready.
GG: What happened during those 90 minutes?
KJL: I talked to her husband and watched television.
GG: How did she look?
KJL: Like something you can’t imagine. I mean, in a red lace dress which matched exactly with the red shoes we’d made for her, and sheer black stockings. By the time we got to the Waldorf event, it was over. Back inside her big limousine, she suggested we go to P.J. Clarke’s for a hamburger. So we did.
GG: And when you walked in with her?
KJL: People stopped talking. Because of the way she looked! She was funny, exactly the way she was in films. The voice. She’d say, “Put up your dukes!” Then one day she wanted to go shopping for a new bed. She was in disguise, with a big black beret, covering her hair completely, big sunglasses, and there were old men there working, chiseling away, and nobody looked up. She was frustrated so I think the first thing she took off was her sunglasses. Nobody looked up. She took off the beret, shook her hair, the blond curls, and nobody looked up. It was really very funny.
GG: How did you meet Diana Vreeland?
KJL: My first conversation with Diana, this is true, I went up to her and I said, “Mrs. Vreeland, you’re the only one who can help me. I’ve got some new shoes from Lobb in London, and I can’t polish them, they don’t take polish.” She said, “Of course not! They’re wax cuff! You have to bone them.” And she’s hitting me. “You have to bone them! And you know in the entire city of New York, you can’t find a rhinoceros horn!”
GG: She was serious?
KJL: You never knew with Diana.
GG: More, please.
KJL: I once brought my father to the country for lunch and she was there. It was very hot and we went swimming in the pool. Later I said, “Well, what did you think of Ms. Vreeland?” Because, you know, she’s not someone you come across every day. And he said, “She has the prettiest feet I’ve ever seen.” What’s your next question? Are we writing a book? I mean, I could write a book about Vreeland.
GG: You were pals with Ava Gardner. Ever hang out with Frank Sinatra?
KJL: There was a big Sinatra concert at the Hollywood bowl, and I was in the front row with Jules Stein, Betsy Bloomingdale, blah, blah, blah, and Barbara Sinatra. Afterwards Frank came down, and I’d met him before because he used to hang around New York, with Heyward, Leland and Harriman, Pamela. He was always polite, very good behavior. So I said, “You know Frank, when I met Barbara and she came to my office and they announced her, I have never been so thrilled. Anybody else being announced, whether royalty or God knows what, was nothing like when they announced “Mrs. Zeppo Marx!” Everybody looked at me to see if Frank was going to hit me. But he didn’t. He laughed. With Frank you never knew. I must say I’ve had a rather rich life, as far as experience in people.
GG: What was Mrs. Harriman like?
KJL: She was an incredible wife and a wonderful woman.
GG: Did you know Grace Kelly?
KJL: Of course! Did you read my book? Yes, she’s in it! She’s called Grimaldi. It was in Venice. I threw the ruby into the canal.
GG: Besides compulsive interviewers, what do you find difficulty tolerating?
KJL: Very loud voices, enormously loud laughter in public, and girls who shriek. I think some women instead of going to the gym to take off weight might go to a voice coach. Some women have the most wonderful voices that caress one, like a massage. Deeda Blair has a wonderful voice, it’s like the good fairy coming and talking to you in your sleep. Jayne Wrightsman! Jackie had a wonderful voice. Most women I know do.
GG: Anything else drive you crazy?
KJL: Nothing, because fortunately, I’m self-centered enough not to let things bother me. I’m a very disappointing gossip, because I can’t be bothered, unless it’s really funny or really important.
GG: Do you have any mantras?
KJL: Only think positive thoughts. Diana Vreeland only thought positively. If something wasn’t positive, it didn’t exist.
GG: Is it true she used to call you to ask what to wear and you’d say—
KJL: That was only one time when I spent a week with her in Spain after she was let go from Vogue. I met her in Madrid and we stayed at the Ritz. And every morning she’d say, “What do you think I should wear today?” And I said, “What about black?” She said, “What a great idea!” In those days at the Ritz, a lady in trousers couldn’t go into the main salon. A man at the door was always on the lookout. It was very funny, Diana loved wearing trousers and looked very chic in them, so she’d wrap a code around her waist as if she was wearing a skirt. But they always noticed … She was imperious because she was an empress. Empresses should be imperious. No, she was marvelous. She was so special. Nobody like her.
GG: Didn’t she used to wear a pair of shoes once and then throw them away?
KJL: Not true! Not true! But she did have the soles of her shoes polished every day. She didn’t want to offend the pavement. Yes, darling?
Isabelle, Lane’s wonderful housekeeper, enters the living room. Lady Cosima Somerset is on the phone. He takes it.
KJL: What are you coming for, anything particular, besides wanting to see me? Hello? So let’s have dinner or around the 12th. Okay, I can’t on the 13th. I have the World Monument dinner. On the 14th, I’m having dinner with a girl, a friend if you like to join us. That’s perfect, and then we’ll make plans from there. Where are you staying? Mmm-kay. Who do you want to see in New York, anyone in particular? Hookers? Hookers. Oh gawd, darling, that’s the only thing anybody wants, ha-ha-ha! Well, you’ll tell me more about it when I see you. All right, my love. Look forward to it. Big kiss.
GG: By any chance did you spend any time at Studio 54?
KJL: Oh, I loved it. It was like the center of the world, everybody was there from Paris, from London. How I lived through it, I don’t know but I did. I was younger. I mean, when I was in my early 20’s, obviously, I was wilder than I am today. God knows. Thank God I was. Did I get it all out of my system? It sort of left my system. Hmmm.
GG: Any good Bianca Jagger anecdotes?
KJL: She swam ashore in Acapulco on New Year’s Eve, and she fell in love with Billy Berkson, Eleanor Lambert’s son. And Bianca wore little fake Balenciagas, she went to poetry readings in New York, because she couldn’t understand English very well. Oh, this was long before Mick!
GG: Is Babe Paley in your hall of fame?
KJL: Oh, yes. First of all, she was so wonderful looking that it was just a pleasure to be with her. Well, she had a warmth and a charm and of course, she dressed beautifully and walked beautifully, talked beautifully. I mean, she was perfection. Truman Capote once said, “Babe was perfect. She had only one fault.” “What’s that, Truman?” “She was perfect.”
GG: What would happen if she was sitting here?
KJL: You’d fall in love. That’s all. She knew she had a charm, and naturally–she didn’t want anything. I was very fortunate because she was one of those ladies who just kind of adopted me. When she looked at you, you just melted.
GG: Nancy Reagan?
KJL: A lovely woman.
GG: Sister Parish?
KJL: Marvelously funny.
GG: Gloria Swanson?
KJL: Terrific even though she served inedible health food.
GG: Gloria Guinness?
KJL: I remember being in the South of France and there was a big fishing expedition going on the next day. And somebody said, “Gloria, are you going?” She held up these marvelous pearls and she said, “Darling, I’ve caught my fish.”
GG: Greta Garbo?
KJL: I knew Garbo slightly. She came to my office but I met her before that in the South of France. We talked about nothing but ice cream. She said, “Oh, butter pecan. Pistachio. Chocolate chip.” You know what I mean, it went on and on and on. It was like an Andy Warhol film. In way we were teasing each other and when she left, she said, “Goodbye, ice cream man.”
GG: Chessy Rayner?
KJL: Ohhh, a great, great friend.
GG: Jacqueline de Ribes?
KJL: Marvelous. In the ’60s I was sitting behind her at a Saint Laurent show in Paris when Barbra Streisand arrived. She was the big star. Barbra was rather beautiful from a certain angle, or was. She had beautiful hands and arms and ankles and feet, you know, and very graceful. She was introduced to Jacqueline, she said, “Oh! I’m so happy, I’ve always wanted to meet you!” “Thank you very much. But why would you want to meet me? I’m only a French housewife, and you, you’re a big star,” la-la-la. And Barbra said, “Oh no, we have so much in common!” “What do we have in common?” And Barbra said, “Our noses!” Jacqueline has the most beautiful nose. I had dinner with her that night and she said, “Mon nez, c’est l’histoire de France.”
GG: Brooke Astor?
KJL: Extraordinary woman. Clever, attractive. She knew she was. She was a wonderful actress. For playing the role of “Mrs. Astor in New York” she deserved an Academy award. Nobody could have been a better Mrs. Astor, you know what I mean. When she gave money away to all those various organizations, she never gave any away to any place she hadn’t been, you know what I mean. She knew where the money was going, and she would go to the upper Bronx or Harlem or to an old folks home or God knows what, anything to make sure it was legit, and she liked it.
Mrs. Astor once gave me the most surprising and wonderful gift. She loved dogs! And I don’t have any dogs. I had goldfish once, and they didn’t last very long. They were boring. It’s very hard to have a good conversation with a goldfish. And they don’t look in your eyes. So a little box arrived one day, from the best Chinese antiques dealer in New York. And it was a little lovely jade dog. And the note said, “Kenneth, it’s time you had a dog.”
GG: Bill Blass?
KJL: The most wonderful sense of humor. But he became rather very depressed in his last years, not after cancer, before that. He became rather reclusive in his book was full of bitterness. It wasn’t a happy book.
GG: Oscar de la Renta?
KJL: A marvelous man.
GG: Annette de la Renta?
KJL: The best. I knew her mother very well, Jane Engelhard who was an extraordinary woman. Funny, wonderful, with a wicked sense of humor. Annette can make herself into a beauty in three minutes, not even five. I mean, she can wear no makeup during the day, let’s say in the country, in jeans, in an old shirt. She’ll disappear and three minutes later comes out, she has very good hair, does it herself, pushes it back a little. She has great huge eyes and she’s beautiful. From ordinary to beautiful. No, she’s wonderful.
GG: John Galliher?
KJL: John was a charming man who never wrote really worked, but always had a little money and entertained people for lunch. I knew him when he lived in Paris and London… and before he died he’d arranged it so that good friends, Pat Buckley, Nan Kempner would receive two big cases a very good American wine, Jordan, one red and one white, with a note saying “Love, Johnny.” That’s all. Very chic. Stylish.
GG: Glenn Bernbaum?
KJL: Glenn. Well, when I first knew Glenn, he would go to a psychiatrist every day and he would tell me how neurotic he was. And I would say, “What are you neurotic about?” He said, “You don’t understand, I’m just neurotic.” I said, “But you can’t just be neurotic: something has to be bothering you.” He said, “You have to be neurotic to understand.”
KJL: You’re never been?
KJL: Never gave it any thought. Never had time to become neurotic. It’s a great luxury, neurosis. Never been to a shrink. As soon as Glenn opened Mortimer’s, it became very popular, very quickly. I must say I had a lot to do with that. I did the first big, big party there — the whole place. It was I think Elsie Woodward or Kitty Miller’s birthday party. You know what I mean. Diana Vreeland started calling it “Mort-heim-er’s” and I said, “Glenn, you’ve made it! Diana calls it ‘Mortheimer’s.” He hung up on me. He thought it was rude.
Anyway, he was a very strange guy. But then he stopped seeing the psychiatrist because all of a sudden he was the arbiter of society, because he could give you a good table. Who gets the corner on the left as you come in? What happens if Brooke and Jackie are both coming in, you know what I mean? ‘
GG: Not exactly.
KJL: People who’ve never been spoken to rudely are almost amused when they’re spoken to rudely by a restauranteur. Otherwise, everyone’s always bowing and scraping. So people were amused by Glenn because of his rudeness. Sometimes he really went overboard. If he didn’t know somebody–and they could have been marvelous people– he would just have been standing at the door or waiting up a bar for an hour. He called me one morning and he said, “Who’s Princess Cheepee?” I said, “You mean Kiki [CK]?” “Whatever, who the hell is she?’ I told him. So I went there for lunch that day and in the corner, I never paid any attention to the first table—Glenn said, “See those young people, that’s Princess Cheepee!”
GG: Jerry Zipkin was there a lot?
KJL: Of course Jerry and Glenn didn’t speak for years. Something that Glenn said that was ride to Jerry. But Jerry was incredibly bright, incredibly well-informed and a very kind friend. He had a wicked tongue but he was funny. He wasn’t anecdotal but he was funny.
GG: Mary McFadden?
KJL: Mary, I adore. She’s a fantasia golapante as we say in Italy. Galloping fantasy, got it? Mary’s wonderful, I love her.
GG: Are you still in touch with any friends from school?
KJL: Every once in a while I get a call from someone who says, “You might not remember me.” I say, “Oh, I’m so sorry but you know I have early Alzheimer’s and I don’t remember anyone.” I don’t want to be rude.
GG: What was Frank O’Hara like?
KJL: Frank was the most delightful person I’d ever known in my life. Funny, clever, and we really clicked. He opened my eyes to a new literature, everything from Raoul Firbank to you know, the works, amusing literature. Otherwise I would have been square maybe.
GG: Have you ever been married?
KJL: Once, in 1975. I’m still friends with my ex-wife [Nicola Waymouth] who’s English and whom I farmed out to the Welsh countryside. She remarried. I went up and approved of her third husband, the one before me whom I knew. I think there were pictures of my wedding in Town & Country. I know there were.
In Lane’s living room there is a photograph of his beautiful mother, a very sexy dame, a real broad, and it’s curled up right below a much larger framed watercolor of Vreeland.
GG: Were they the two most important women in your life?
KJL: Diana Vreeland much more than my mother. I told Diana I was doing jewelry. [Faking It is dedicated to his mother, who said, when he told her he was going into the jewelry business, “Kenneth, please don’t tell anyone.”]
GG: Your mother sounds like a real saint.
KJL: Thank God I’m more into the devil.
GG: Could you be persuaded to write a second memoir, maybe a tell-all?
KJL: No, there’s too much name-dropping.
GG: What about for $5 million?
KJL: Ten! Sure. It’s a deal. No, I’ve been asked. The only way I can think of doing it is a travel book where I would mention houses and people because I would talk about the food and the recipes. That could be done.
GG: So what’s next for you?
KJL: I mean, there’s nothing that I have that I want to accomplish now. I don’t need another award. There’s no one I want to meet, practically, that I’ve never met. The only person I sort of wanted to meet and sort of insisted and was going to meet and played a couple people against each other, because she wasn’t easy to meet, was Daisy Fellowes. In the South of France. 1959. Somerset Maugham knew Daisy Fellowes very well, but, alas, she got away. She was the one. She was It.
GG: Last question: How do you feel about a certain label sometimes used to describe you?
KJL: You know, the “extra man” is a man that a lady can invite to a dinner party because she needs to fill a chair. There are couples and single ladies, and for every single lady, you need a single man. So you might say “single man” as opposed to extra man. The word “walker” also annoyed me, because I’ve never had the time to be a walker. I’m a worker. I run my own business too, always have. I don’t have a business manager. I have bookkeepers and all the necessary things going. Walkers were gentlemen who had no occupation, so they were always available to go shopping with a lady, that sort of thing. I’ve never really gone shopping with a lady, except maybe in antique show on the weekend, something like that. But not for clothes. I like bon vivant because that means living well. Let’s go eat, I’m hungry. Do you like garlic, I hope? Good.
Photographs by Patrick McMullan