Memories of New York

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Mum's the word. Photo: JH.

The world has changed dramatically. At least for the time being. For this boy who makes his way around checking on the social culture of New York and its environs, it’s a stark adjustment. All of the social activity that I’ve been covering in New York for the past three decades came to an unprecedented sudden halt, and since then we’ve been on an emotional roller-coaster.

It was a very busy life, and very time-intense. That ended instantly this past March with the so-called lockdown. The cut-off from daily relationships and work has been a great hardship for many many Americans — most of whom are too overwhelmed to have any voice. The isolation impeded reality for many of us in ways often emotional as well as physical.

Quiet — for now.

Some believe it will never be the same. I’m not inclined to agree. As people, we have already become isolated through the intense use of our technology in communication. Ironic, and true, but we remain entirely social animals. With all this time emptied of schedules my thoughts focus on the Diary. 

Looking back on early Social Diaries, beginning in Quest  in 1994, was like turning to a new page and seeing how “times have changed,” and have been changing all along, including the subjects of discussion.

The following are excerpts of the Social Diary from those earlier days — in the early to mid-1990s. They brought back memories of New York, where all that has since transpired would have been unbelievable if prophesied. 

Henry Buhl. Photo: Patrick McMullan

September 1997. Hampton soirees; high summer hijinks. Something for everyone. A warm and balmy Saturday night in Southampton at the end of July: Henry Buhl, indefatigable host, had 325 over to his casa with its heavy-duty leitmotif of sunflowers, for dinner, dancing, and a Chinese auction (too complicated to explain but a very effective way of raising a lot of money from the well-fixed). 

This was a pay party for Henry’s SoHo Partnership which so successfully assists many of the homeless, down on their luck, in getting back up on their feet again. Lobster, chicken, corn on the cob. More than $125,000 was raised, with Sotheby’s Jamie Niven as auctioneer. Afterwards, everybody got up to the rock ’n’ roll to “just a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” and then it was off into that warm and balmy night …

… Where over yonder, about a mile west as the crow flies, Schenley heiress Elizabeth Rosenstiel Kabler had 80 or so in for a buffet. The hungriest poolsiders and beachcombers cleaned the mild-mannered hostess out of vodka and gin and devoured the poached salmon almost right down to licking even the biggest platters clean. All that fun in the sun builds an appetite.  

And then, last but not least: In another part of the same dune-swept forest, a very, very rich, very much publicized young couple gave a little gala for their chicest, richest pals.  The required garb, so stated on the invitation, was cross-dressing.  

Titterings and laughter accompanied the guys clicking in their stiletto heels … guys who were suddenly kvetching about the where’s-my-lipstick and aw-I-broke-a-nail sort of thing that ordinarily the girls are used to hearing amongst themselves. 

Some thought the girls’ crossing-over looked, in the words of one of them, more like butch lesbians than men. 

The guys were another story, most creative with their getups and makeup. Although one of the rouged and be-sparkled — and unshaven — micro-minied she-males turned up later that night at another party with his/her higher hemline too high to entirely hide evidence of his real gender. If you catch my drift. 

The most beautiful of these one-night-only “he-babes” was said to be a young hunk, son of a fashion couple, who donned one of his mother’s famous dresses and a blonde wig to become the most luscious woman in the room as well as in Jet East nightclub, where he showed up later with some of the party — Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome … life is a cabaret.

Mrs. Thomas Kempner. Photo: Mary Hilliard.

June 1995. Cancer Research Benefit at the Racquet Club. Society and fashion crowd, 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 the 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 afternoon while having my coffee at Starbucks on Lexington and 78th, when you see her passing by looking like she knows exactly where she is 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 lot of thick, blonde, wavy hair. When she wears it pulled back, it accentuates a combination of the aquiline and feline so that you might not know if she’s smiling or plotting, just like in a novel. 

Mrs. Kempner travels only in the stratosphere. She’s very soignee in a way that is practically extinct. It’s an extreme fashionableness, an almost over-the-top kind of chic that so attended to that it becomes an art…She’s out of the school of Vreeland, Wallis Simpson and Coco Chanel.

April 1995. Now they’re talking about Jim Reginato’s piece in the last W, an interview with Rosemarie Kanzler at her estancia on the pampas down Argentine way. Reginato has a talent for getting his subject to let loose. The piece included a photo layout of our girl reclining in a happy, come hither pose on one of her deep and ample sofas, dressed in the proper duds of a rancheras or whatever they call them – the jodhpurs, the boots, etc. With a few less garments, and a few less years, she could have been a subject for Gauguin. Not a young woman, but obviously still a game girl.

She’s had quite a life and most of it gilt-edged. Mr. Kanzler was the husband before last, an associate of Henry Ford II, and rolling in it. Her last husband after Mr. Kanzler was around for sixteen years, and it’s been said that he did not go gently into that good night, so forget him. She didn’t talk about that.

Here’s Rosemarie Kanzler (right) back in the day with H.S.H. Princess Grace of Monaco, and Turkish Perihan, Her Highness The Princess of Esfandiari-Bakhtiari in Monte Carlo.

After the rundown on her life and loves and houses and apartments and luncheons and dinner parties, in the interview she gives us her view of some of the other girls who’ve breakfasted at Tiffany’s. Unfortunately, she comes off as sniping. Which is a big bad habit of a lot of people in New York society. She gives it to Jayne Wrightsman, innocently sitting up there in her 18th-century French-imbued ivory tower. Wrightsman gets it right between the eyes for being too formal, too la-dee-dah. Which may be so, but who cares?

Next comes Sao Schlumberger. Mme. S. over-decorates and over-dresses and over-dresses and overdoes until Mrs. Kanzler can’t take it anymore. Can’t a girl have any fun? Then comes Mercedes Bass. Kanzler knew her “when.” 

Mercedes Bass with Sid in her rear-view mirror. Photo: Mary Hilliard.

Bass passes muster with Madame K. on the spending-too-much-money harangue, because after all, it’s there and that’s what it’s for. Kanzler would know. So would the guy sleeping under the cardboard bcx on the steps of St. James’ each night.

According to Kanzler, Bass fails, however, on the can’t-keep-her-eyes-off-her-husband-at-dinner-parties test. She’s either glaring daggers at the woman talking to him, or telling him what to eat and not to eat, So? She did know him when there was another Mrs. Bass.

It’s not like these girls can’t defend themselves. We’re not talking little Miss Muffet on her tuffet. But where’s the beef? Or even the curds and whey? What separates these women from the girl next door, or the lady down the hall, is their irrepressible ambition and/or their excellent powers of charm and in some instances, beauty. 

They really are different, often living on their own little planets with their own little agendas. Like the very well known Fifth Avenue hostess, renowned for her bronze dore ascendency, who had a brother who was always threatening to kill himself. Dozens, maybe scores of times. And sister had been frequently confronted with this disturbing threat. 

One night when he called to tell her he was doing it, he caught her between the salad and the dessert. The dinner that night was for some English lord or French count. “I can’t talk,” she tersely informed bro, “I’m in the middle of a dinner.” “But-but-but…” She hung up. He killed himself.

Jackie Onassis dishing with Maurice Templesman. Photo: Mary Hilliard.

July-August 1995.  That Thursday. Dinner with E. We talked about Jacqueline Onassis and how she burned the bulk of her personal letters in the fireplace of her Fifth Avenue apartment shortly before she died. She sat there tossing the beribboned bundles like little paper logs into the roaring flames; hundreds, maybe thousands of pieces of correspondence from some of the most famous and distinguished personages from all over the world.

Why? To keep what’s private private. But what is private when one’s life is over? What difference does it make once everything is history?

What an ironic choice for one of the most famous women of the 20th century, a woman who had great reverence for history; an editor who actively fought to publish biographies. We destroy personal papers for only one reason, and that is to obfuscate and control history, ultimately rendering reality meaningless.

One day a biography will be written that will try to transcend both the tawdry and the trivial as well as the public image that was so cleverly and credibly created around the woman, and she will no longer be legendary but human, brave and real. And forever fascinating.

September 1995. Dinner at “21”. Table talk: about the famous heiress who gifted an aging movie star with a check (7 figures) for her pet charity. Heiress died. Star kept the check.

More intense talk of the late Slim Keith’s auction. In the later years after her marriage to Leland Hayward, and after Sir Kenneth Keith, Slim had a close friendship with a famed designer/confirmed bachelor. Thick as thieves, she became his hostess. She came to see herself as indispensible. He had no taste, so went the story; his houses were so-so. Until Slim. They went everywhere together. Slim thought they were ripe for a mariage de convenance or otherwise. She said so. Quite publicly, much to her friend’s distress. 

They planned a trip together to someplace chic and quiet where they could eat well and lose a few of the avoirdupois. Nantucket. She would drive. Her big old station wagon. She brought her dogs; and he, his.

Slim Keith — A life well-lived.

From the get-go he seemed displeased about something. What? She couldn’t tell. The car; not chic enough? The dogs? The driver?  They arrived. She took the main house, he the guest cottage. 

Dinner time. Candlelight; table perfectly set, perfectly chic, perfectly rustic. He came over and took his place. The perfect meal seemed less than. He went back to his guesthouse.

The next day she discovered he had — with dog and nary a word — departed in the night. They never spoke again. At a public affair or a private party, there might be a perfunctory nod, but nothing more. Whatever happened was never explained. The lady went to her grave never knowing. 

Not everyone concurred. “She was the sort of woman who could not see what everybody else saw,” said another at the table at “21” that night. 

Hers was rich life, romantic, good, bad, glad, sad. There were the love letters. Two thick packets entrusted to a friend before she died, with instructions to put them in the right hands posthumously.  One packet was from Ernest Hemingway. The other was from a man with whom she had a passionate affair when still married to Kenneth Keith — an affair fraught with scandalous implications and never mentioned in her memoir where, as it is with most of us, candor was reserved for those she disliked, more than for herself.

It was a life full of irony. What happened between her and the confirmed bachelor also happened between Truman Capote and her. She’d shut him out after he published “La Côte Basque, 1965” in Esquire magazine. He too went to his grave never really knowing. After all, he had known her well, including the depth of her various loyalties. “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”

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