When it was full-steam-ahead

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November 7, 2000: A big crowd turned out at Christie's for Nan Kempner's book signing of R.S.V.P. Menus For Entertaining From People Who Really Know How... People, many of whom looked like the people who really know how to entertain, bought a lot of books and waited in lines like devoted fans for Nan to sign each and every one. Which she did. The proceeds from the sale of Mrs. Kempner's book all go to the Society for Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. That was the motivation for Mrs. Kempner to write this book in the first place. Photo: JH.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021. Cold and blah, grey day mainly, yesterday in New York. What you can expect from January even if we’re not snow-and-icebound. I had a very early dinner at Sette Mezzo outside. There was one other table. Next door at Bella Blu there was one other table. Inside the restaurants are, of course, empty. 

We tend to look at this situation which defines New York life these days as just the-way-it-is. I don’t look at it quite the same way. I look at it as the hundreds of thousands of jobs (as in work) now stopped. These jobs are for those of us who rely on them to feed and shelter ourselves and our families (and our animals). 

History as in the history of civilization tells us what happens in situations like this. No money, no fun, no kidding. That’s putting it very lightly. And nobody wins. Nobody. I often wonder if our leaders give a thought to that. But then, of course, that assumes they’ve read history.

Nevertheless, the show goes on. Today we are giving you a look back at New York at this time of year, when it was full-steam-ahead, and some of the characters that played prominent roles in its community. Nan Kempner. I’ll say no more; I’ve said it all in the following reports. An amazing lady with an energy that, if ever, has yet to be replaced.

The one and only Nan.

December 30, 2009. This is especially memory and nostalgia week for the world as we depart a decade still undefined but fraught with turmoil. At the very beginning, in September of 2000, JH and I launched the NYSD.

Looking back through our earliest archives of our first days on the internet has evoked lots of memories, many of which are intriguing, fascinating, amusing and not unpleasant.

Yesterday JH came up with Diary number 17. What caught his eye was an item about Nan Kempner, a formidable and steller presence in New York and the social world in the early days of the new century. Memories flooded my thoughts.

Nan died five years later in 2005 at age 75. Many readers were surprised that I didn’t write more about her at the time. However, although I knew her – we were acquaintances – I was not a close friend, and I knew, because of her prominence, especially in fashion lore, that there were many others far more equipped to write about her.

I did write about her in one of the earlier of my Social Diaries in Quest, in early 1995. That happens to be memorable, and one of my favorite portraits, because I had (and took) the opportunity to write about her from afar. I was inspired one afternoon while sitting at the window counter in Starbucks on Lexington Avenue and East 78th Street, when she happened to stroll by, big as life, noble in carriage, commanding her space, like no one else.

Starbucks was only three blocks north on the avenue from Mortimer’s restaurant at 75th where Nan was a famous regular, lunching or dining there often daily. And on the cook’s day off, when she was home for lunch, or spending the evening with her husband by watching a little TV, she’d often order their dinner from Mortimer’s.

The early item from Quest 1995:

Wednesday. Cancer Research Benefit. Again, the Racquet Club. Society and fashion crowd; larger and more diverse than two nights before, most of whom appeared not to know each other except for the large paid-for tables of society types including Mrs. Thomas Kempner, chairman of this night’s event.

Mrs. Kempner, known to her friends as Nan, is a woman who more than anybody else around New York exemplifies that aphorism attributed to both Babe Paley and Gloria Guinness about how a woman can’t be too rich or too thin.

Mrs. Kempner is so that thin that it’s startling. She also has straight-as-an-arrow posture. So when you see her walking down the street, clop-de-clop-de-cloppity clop, as I did one sunny autumn afternoon while having my coffee at Starbucks on Lexington and 78th; when you see her looking like she knows exactly where she’s going, you notice.

Her beauty is her presence. She has good shoulders and a basically flat front and back. From either side, however, she has a small waist, small hips and long pencil-thin legs. She has a lot of thick, blonde, wavy hair. When she wears it pulled back, it accentuates a combination of the aquiline and the feline so that you might not know if she’s smiling, or plotting, just like in a novel.

There have been thousands of pictures taken of Mrs. Kempner. She’s been in all the fashion magazines many times. You can see her at parties here and all over the country and the rest of the world.

She must know thousands of people because she goes and goes and goes. There was a hub-bub awhile back about an errant husband Kempner. But that is not the interesting part, for Mme. Kempner travels only in the stratosphere.

The interesting part is how she looks. She’s very soignée in a way that is practically extinct. It’s an extreme fashionableness, an almost over-the-top kind of chic that is so attended to it becomes art. A social art.

I don’t know Mrs. Kempner, so I have no idea what her personality is like, be it charming or witty or chatty or somber (the latter of which I doubt). Her rigid self-presentation is distinctly cosmopolitan, Euro-New York. She is San Francisco born and bred. But she belongs to New York.

Walter Kerr, the great mid-century theatre critic for the Herald-Tribune and then the New York Times, wrote a piece 30 years ago about the great female stars of the Broadway stage. Merman, Mary Martin, Lynn Fontanne, Carol Channing, Katherine Cornell, etc.

He pointed out how unreal, how very unpedestrian they were. How exaggerated but so raffiné that they could (and did) claim all the attention for themselves.

He could have made the same observation about Mrs. Kempner. She was out of the school of Vreeland and Wallis Simpson and Coco Chanel. They’re freaks of style, aesthetic exaggerations, the genesis of high fashion.

November 7, 2000 from the New York Social Diary …

The Day. Up past two the night before. Up at eight. Fed and walked the dogs, read the Times, looked at the web site, checked the statistics. The web site is the new obsession. The baby. It feels like childhood again. I get nervous; also exhilarated.

Pat Patterson later that night at Nan’s book party.

One o’clock lunch date with Patricia Patterson. A longtime New York/Southampton/Palm Beach denizen, Patricia is one of those women who leads a very active life. She travels often: Texas, Florida, California, Europe; wherever, she’s been there. Among other things, she also works with Sotheby’s Realty selling big expensive houses and apartments. She’s well-turned-out, but she strikes you as a businesswoman.

At Swifty’s. I often get there last. This time I was first. The place was sold out. Dominick Dunne, Connie Spahn, Amy Fine Collins withRoberto Couturier, Joy Briggs, Siri Mortimer, Nanette Ross, Larry Kaiser, Armene Milliken, Barbara Cates. In another corner Arthur and Alexandra Schlesinger entertaining a friend. Kenny Lane and several men and women were seated at a round table by the back windows, all with mikes in front of them, recording a fashion panel discussion for Vogue Accessories.

Voices clatter. Lunchtime, weekday, New York. They put me in a corner. The tables are small; tiny. In the back room which has a skylight so that during the day it has that indoor-outdoor feeling you get in a restaurant in California. You get it in the front room with the front windows that fold open.

Conversation animated. Patricia and I got onto the subject of people who make up things about themselves, stories, lies, fabrications, whole lives. Secrets. People creating whole lives, personas, everything. We’d come to the subject via the woman at the next table, who had just told me about someone like this. A very well known woman. New York, being a high intensity culture breeds this brand of cat. Hollywood does too.

Nan Kempner holding up a copy of R.S.V.P.

The Night. About 6:20. Cab to Rockefeller Center, to Christie’s, across from NBC Studios. Autumn half-moon night. Rockfeller Center was beautiful: soft chalky blue spots beaming up the sides of the buildings, surrounding the skating rink, with its observation deck border of American flags flapping in the strong breeze. Everywhere a chalky gray white light, with the dark night sky above. Very metropolitan beautiful. Very romantic to see. Big city lights.

I go into Christie’s. Super-duper space of auction rooms, offices, reception rooms. Big crowd. A book signing party for Nan Kempner, who has written R.S.V.P. I haven’t read it yet, but from what I gather, it’s a book about being a guest and being a host. But it’s more than that. Nan is a world class authority on the subjects. She tells you where she’s been and tells you what it’s like. We all want to know what it’s like to dine with the princes and the sex goddesses. And the tycoons.

Nan is a very unusual woman, a thoroughly fashionable woman, the likes of which are rarely found. She’s one of those people who is always saying what’s on her mind. She’s got an eye for things, and a nose for things. She loves clothes. God, she loves clothes. She loves clothes the way an oenophile loves wine. She’s a girl from a good San Francisco family who came to New York, quite some time ago, married Mr. Kempner, a New Yorker and investment banker, had a family and created a very large and fashionable life. She’s done it with an artist’s dedication. Some may think I’m stretching it here, but I’m not. It’s all about dedication and living it to the hilt. Whatever your hilt may be.

Nan entertains her many fans …

So there was a big crew that turned out. Lots of her friends, fashionable and otherwise, as well as a lot of fashionable and otherwise who’ve met her or just came to see who was at the party, knowing that it would be an interesting group. Indeed, it was. They also sold a ton of books which everyone immediately took over to Nan to have her sign. People were buying three and four at a time, for Christmas, with the big and tall “Nan Kempner” scrawled across the opening page. Royalties go to the Society for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. That was the original motivation for the book. Success.

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