Kitty Hawks

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We didn’t want to leave the Westchester house that Kitty Hawks and her husband Larry Lederman have spent 24 years perfecting—it is perfect. Although everyone we interview loves their homes, somehow Kitty seemed to love hers with a special and protective intensity. How it has paid off—comfortable rooms full of lovely things, a house surrounded by gracefully designed gardens that lead down to a lake of green water, shining in the early autumn sunlight.

The daughter of socialite Slim Keith and filmmaker Howard Hawks, Kitty struck out on her own, going to college and eventually becoming a designer and a teacher—she taught traditional residential interior design at Parsons for seven years. Nowadays, it’s gardening and contentment and quiet evenings by the fire, which makes her sound a bit dull. She isn’t.

So I’m curious about your name—was it a deliberate reference to the single-engine airplane, Kitty Hawk?

Well, it’s not Kitty Hawk, it’s Kitty Hawks because my father was Howard Hawks. But my mother … she had a lot of humor and I think she thought, this is one [name] that no one will forget.

People must drive you crazy asking about your name.

They used to but now we’re in a whole new generation and they’ve never heard of the Wright brothers. [The Wright brothers tested and flew aircraft in and around Kitty Hawk in North Carolina]

Kitty and Larry’s upper Westchester home.
Larry, Kitty, and Bizzie greet us at the entrance.
With the help of friend and architect David Piscuskas of 1100 Architect, Kitty and Larry created a dome ceiling front entryway that also serves as a library.
Looking across the front entryway and doors to a TV/guest room. The glass-and-iron shelves were designed by Kitty and built by metal artisan Cliff Startup.

A comfy sofa is the perfect place from which to perch and read from the room’s collection of gardening, art and architecture books.
Gardening tools and hats.
Peeking into the front entryway from the main hall. The ceiling fixture is by Verner Panton.
The dramatic vaulted ceiling of the main hall was designed by David Piscuskas of 1100 Architect.
L to R.: A group of three drawings from top including a work by Henry Varnum Poor and a crow by Franna Lusson from Creative Growth, an art center in Oakland, Ca. that serves artists with mental and physical disabilities. The toadstool belonged to Kitty’s mother, Slim Keith.; A pair of silk velvet chairs flank a magazine-filled Canterbury in the main hall.

What sort of homes did you grow up in yourself?

I had a very privileged upbringing. The first house I remember was the house in Manhasset, where my mother was living with my stepfather. It was not unlike this house—very suburban

I’m not sure I would describe this house as suburban …

Well, it was in the suburbs. The adjoining property belonged to Babe Paley, who was one of my mother’s best friends—so I was exposed to that house. I don’t think at the time I understood the enormity of what I was seeing, a house like that. One of my most outstanding memories was when my mother had divorced my stepfather and then married an Englishman and moved to England. I would go for the holidays. He had a wonderful house in Norfolk—a modest house now that I know other English houses. My mother basically modernized it.

Peeking into the kitchen where Larry is reading.
In the kitchen the ‘Artichoke’ light by Poul Henningsen hangs above a table from Tucker Robbins.
Atop the kitchen counter fresh fruit shares space with a vintage globe from George Glazer and a copper fish from Lexington Gardens.
French metal chairs flank an Asian chest in the main hall. The cork wallpaper is from Stark and the sconces are from Chameleon.
Bright yellow sunflowers and small heleniums were picked from Kitty and Larry’s flower garden.

Ooh, did she make the house warm? That would be a first for England.

She did! She put in central heating and nice bathrooms. She made it so comfortable. We went one weekend to Blenheim because she was friends with the Duke of Marlborough. And by then I was old enough to get it. Although it was hard to miss! The thing that was the most outstanding was that the long room was comfortable. There were sofas with slipcovers by the fireplaces. There were flowers and books. And I remember thinking, if this can be comfortable, there is no excuse for not making anywhere comfortable.

Did you ever live in a tiny apartment?

Oh absolutely. I loved my little apartment on 63rd Street between Lex and Third. When I first moved to California, I had a wonderful little apartment on Hayward Avenue. I remember going to Woolworths and buying on sale these sheets that were black and had huge cabbage roses, yellow, pink and blue on them. I stapled them to the wall in the dining room. I would give these parties every Friday where I would serve chili and baked potatoes in this tiny little apartment with these black cabbage rose things on the wall and everybody, I mean everybody, was so stunned. That’s kind of how things work out there – everyone hears there’s a new girl in town who makes great chili … so they come … Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty …

The vast living room has an elegant yet lived-in feeling. Large 19th century wallpaper panels depicting a zoo in the country, and which once belonged to Kitty’s mother Slim Keith, were the inspiration for the fabric and color scheme. “I wanted the look of the room to highlight nature by bring the outdoors inside, says Kitty.”
Stunning French 19th century wallpaper panels that belonged to Kitty’s mother Slim Keith hang above a sofa covered in fabric from Lee Jofa.
A pair of French bergère chairs face in to a Japanese lacquer coffee table from Charles Jacobsen in L.A.
Looking toward the front windows of the living room. The curtain fabric is from Lee Jofa.
Fresh flowers from the garden add a pop of color to the coffee table.
An oversized Oushak from Doris Leslie Blau anchors the main seating area of the living room. After purchasing the rug, which at that point was in poor condition, Kitty traded it for another rug from Darius. Realizing that the new rug didn’t quite work as well as the old one she purchased it back fully repaired and has since never regretted it.
A seating area is surrounded by custom bookcases painted in a moss green color from Pratt and Lambert. The sofa is custom and the antique Asian desk from Greenwich Oriental Antiques serves as a coffee table.
A TV is tucked into bookcases near a comfortable chair covered in a vintage crewel.
An arrangement of porcelain flowers is by ceramic artist Matthew Solomon.
An assortment of pillows covered in various fabrics from Claremont, Clarence House and Michael Smith cover the large custom sofa.
Details of the French wallpaper zoo scene. On the far wall, fresh flowers fill a small ceramic wall vase.
The French 19th century wallpaper panels hang on either side of the stone fireplace.
An Irish side chair was inherited from ‘Mom’ and the garden stool is from Far Eastern Antiques.
A pair of wooden swans and a painted French mirror is arranged atop the stone fireplace mantel.
In a corner of the living room a custom chaise lounge is perfectly positioned to enjoy the magnificent views overlooking the reservoir. Nearby an italian floor lamp is finished with a custom shade from Abat-Jour.

Wow, you made chili for Warren Beatty? Did you play down who your parents were?

I would always say they are my parents, and certainly it doesn’t hurt—but I am not them. I knew I was not going to be my mother. She wanted me to be a debutante in England and I said that’s not going to happen. She was amazed when I got into college or that I even wanted to go college.


Because it wasn’t a part of her life when she was growing up. I think she thought, you know, “She’s a good looking girl and she could have a debutante party, get married.” She thought I could have had a social life the way she had—social but also a fantastic life. She led a life full of adventure and glamour. I didn’t know my father well at all. Many years ago I read a biography and he had studied as an engineer—and I thought that explains a lot because I’m more serious. It explains why I was drawn to architecture. It explains why I was drawn to design. And I wasn’t that comfortable in social situations. I wasn’t gregarious the way my mother was.

And you’re candid.

And I’m candid, which doesn’t necessarily make you the best dinner partner.

Fresh flowers all from Kitty and Larry’s flower garden fill vases placed atop various living room tables.

A tufted club chair from Rose Cummings is covered in velvet from Claremont.
Miss Lizard takes a nap on the living room Oushak.
Lesley and Sian enjoying a delicious lunch.
Kitty’s clever solution to condensation drips is to tie a bandana around the stem of the glass.
Nature’s abundance and fairytale views overlooking a reservoir won over Kitty and Larry the minute they spotted the property.

KItty and Larry.

Did you sense that people wanted something from you because of who your parents were?

I could always tell if the efforts being made and the compliments being given were bogus or not. When I began to get traction of my own, I could just tell. But I’m very willing to step up to the plate if I can help somebody.

Your mother was so very glamorous—what are your thoughts on glamour?

I think it is a thing you have. I’ve always thought of glamour as authority, in terms of authority with which you wear something, the authority with which you project yourself. In the old days, you saw it in someone like Katherine Hepburn. It’s almost impossible now—George Clooney has glamour … Angelina Jolie … but not many more. I mean Lauren Bacall was 19 years old when she did “To Have and Have Not”. Have I seen a 19-year-old like that? Have you? It was a different time. It was time when being a grown-up was what you wanted to be.

And it was your father who pioneered this idea of strong, gutsy female lead characters, right?

Pioneered is the right word. And my mother was the role model. When you look at those movies, even the comedies, the difficulty of what they were doing with overlapping dialogue. When you really look at how the movies where shot with one camera here, moving from left to right without any cut, they’re having to remember very substantial amounts of dialogue. It’s very complicated and when you look at something like “His Girl Friday” or my favorite, “Bringing Up Baby” you begin to understand how revolutionary he was.

The powder room.
Peeking into the dining room from the front hall.
Bizzie gives us a curious look.
Silk Fortuny light fixtures hang above the mid-century table and chairs from Lobel Modern.
A custom sofa from Anthony Lawrence Belfair is filled with an assortment of pillows. The Oushak rug is from Darius.

A Chinese screen that belonged to Slim Keith covers the dining room wall.
Large windows fill the dining room with light.
The stairwell leading to the downstairs bedroom provided a space to hang photos by Michael Kenna, Ezra Stoller, Sheila Metzner, William Wegman and others.

Did your mother like animals as much as you do?

I don’t know if she liked them as much because it’s hard to like an animal as much as I like an animal but yes, she always had dogs. She loved animals.

She obviously had a really great eye.

She had a great eye and made a lovely home no matter where she was living.

We read that when it comes to your design, one of things that you’re interested in is Japanese culture – we can see certain influences in this room—can you say what draws you to Japanese objects?

I love Japanese culture. There’s no quote. I don’t try to copy it. There are objects. There are little pieces of furniture. There are vases and the way the flowers are arranged. It’s just a sensibility that makes its way in. There’s a resonance that one feels—I don’t feel it towards Indian culture; I don’t feel it towards Chinese culture, really. [Japanese culture] is refined and thoughtful and it has a certain affection towards animals—and that, of course got me.

A seating area is tucked into a corner of the downstairs bedroom hallway.
The ceramic sculptures atop the English server are by Paul Philp. The painting is by Justin McCarthy.
In Kitty and Larry’s bedroom Portault linens cover a tufted velvet custom bed. The felt découpage hanging above the bed and English cabinet on the far wall belonged to Slim Keith.
More views of Larry and Kitty’s bedroom. The walls are upholstered in linen from Rose Tarlow.

Family photos.
More views of Larry and Kitty’s bedroom. The walls are upholstered in linen from Rose Tarlow.
Bedside cabinets from Roman Thomas are filled with bedtime reading.
A photo of Kitty with Major Deegan is arranged next to more fresh flowers.
Views of the reservoir from Larry and Kitty’s bedroom.
A back terrace off the bedrooms overlooks the reservoir.

It’s interesting to hear you talk about the influence another culture brings to design because I was reading something written by an architect who goes over all over the world to do commissions and each time he hopes that he can bring in elements of the local culture but each time he finds that his clients all want the same thing: lots of glass and the linear contemporary look. He says it is as if they all want to bury their culture.

It’s so discouraging. The only place I’ve been that really felt like it was not of the rest of the world was Cuba—because they haven’t been allowed to do it. When you go there, it reminds you of what travelling used to be like.

Alex Papachristidis said to us that if people are going to be spending money on interiors now, they don’t want to spend it on furniture but they want to spend it on art.

I know. I worked for somebody and I wanted to put Oriental rugs on the floor but he said they would compete with the art. I said they wouldn’t. They are works of art. And I turned what had been a relatively soulless gallery into a much more comfortable living room. The art was beautiful but the room became more beautiful because it wasn’t so intimidating. It’s pretty overwhelming if you’re sitting next to a Rothko—not that I wouldn’t like one!

In the guest room, a delicate flower arrangement is made out of shells.

A French 19th century wallpaper panel fills a wall of the guest bedroom.

In a second guest bedroom a headboard and dust ruffle are out of lilac patterned fabric that Kitty purchased ages ago.

A chandelier from Marvin Alexander is suspended from the ceiling of the guest room.
A photo by friend and artist Willy Wegman of Kitty’s dog Earl hangs above the guest room desk.

Photos of the property and Kitty and Larry (mixed with a photo of Niagara Falls) were all taken by Larry.

Don’t you think those people who own Rothkos want to intimidate you!? Or at least impress you?

Oh yes! But the people who have those kinds of houses, don’t spend a lot of time in them. They work a lot and once in a while they have a big party. It’s not like this house, even though this is a fairly large room, it’s very comfortable to be in it by yourself, like in the winter with the fire lit. All the little things I get, I make into a story. I animate them.

You taught at Parsons—how was that?

I was amazed at Parsons. I taught there for seven years and I was the one person who was teaching traditional residential interior design.

How receptive were students to that?

Not too … when I took the job, the first thing I asked was, “Am I allowed to fail them?” There are schools where you are not allowed to in case the parents sue.

The stone retaining walls of original house are now part of the guest hallway. When Larry and Kitty purchased the house in 1990 they expanded the space by adding the top floor. The original house is now the bedroom wing.
Stone stairs leading from the guest hall up to the new main entrance. The property has been a labor of love for Kitty and Larry since they purchased it 24 years ago.
A landscaper is at work cutting down precarious branches from trees.
Miss Lizard enjoying the sun and guarding the property from the stone terrace.

A stone bridge was built over a pond that runs down to the reservoir.

Views toward the main house from the bridge.

Miss Lizard frolicking on the front lawn.

More views of the front lawn.

So did you fail anybody?

Well they didn’t do the work. They complained. One of them said, I didn’t do this project because I wasn’t here for those two lectures. I said, that’s not my problem, is it? You haven’t done the work and what you have done is pathetic … I was scary.

You are quite scary …

I can be wonderfully nice! I could have adopted some of them! But I had no patience for the ones who didn’t work. But when they did well and for those who were curious, I took them all over New York! The hardest thing was to get them into the library or to go to the bookstore. Because when you look at a book, you see all kinds of things you didn’t know were there. If you go online, there’s no accident. It’s very purpose-driven. I was just so disappointed that I couldn’t get them to love it the way I loved it.

The rose garden.
The greenhouse keeps plants thriving during cold winter months.

A seating area was created around a crab apple tree.
Bizzie roaming a path near the guest house.
A stone path leads up to the rose garden.
The rose garden.
A view towards the main house.

So what do you do when you’re here, just being home?

The garden … over the 24 years we’ve been here it’s turned into a passion. All winter long, we look at catalogs. I do get dirt under my fingernails—but I’m better pruning. I’m better upright these days.

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