Susan Gutfreund hardly needs an introduction as the well-known interior designer, society hostess and wife of financier John Gutfreund, but even so, when you meet her, and see her Fifth Avenue duplex, it’s the stuff of novels. She’s someone who simply can’t do things by halves and New York would be so much the poorer, so very, very dreary without people like her and apartments like this one.
I do have a question to start off with—I am wondering if you are very weary of the air hostess question. It comes up every time in any description of you, that you were once an air hostess …
Certainly not. I think they were probably two of the best years of my life. I think that when you are a very young girl and you have an opportunity to go all over the world, as I did, with no responsibilities at all except to serve a cup of coffee … I’d like to be doing it now! And also you have to remember it was a very different time when I was doing it … it was very glamorous!
When did your passion for France develop?
Well I was going to school in France. What I’d like to say is that I think that that exposure that I had at a young age, not only living in France, but that travel gave me a great insight into different cultures. Now with my decorating it gave me a different view in terms of interiors. People in the Far East for instance, their lighting has to be a lot brighter because if you have low lighting it shows that you are trying to hide something. I never would have understood this without that exposure.
That’s very interesting …
Rather than look upon that [being an air stewardess] negatively, I look upon it as a great positive in my life … And I also think that it’s very difficult [to counter negative association], when you’re in a town like this, a woman arrives on the scene that no one has seen before, and the fact is my husband is a born New Yorker, he has been on many boards, and I think that people don’t want to understand that when you marry, maybe not today, but 30 years ago, when you married a man, you became his world, he wouldn’t automatically take on your world. So consequently he was the New Yorker. I was invited where he was invited.
How did you feel about that?
I accepted it. I’m a hausfrau. I think that’s why I feel that I’m good at what I do with my decorating. I care about running houses. I think there’s nothing better than being a housewife. I love my house. I love entertaining. I love the kitchen. I love to put flowers. I love the details of a house.
It is a strange thing these days that one has to defend a love of home, or running a household.
Exactly. But I have to also tell you that I know some very important business tycoons that watch the food channel! I won’t mention names, but you wouldn’t believe me.
What do you like to cook?
Oh gosh, I would say … in French we would say ‘la cuisine de bonne mère’. You know, ‘nursery food’, they would call it in English … anything that brings back memories of our youth.
What kind of thing would that be?
Oh gosh, my husband loves American meatloaf … you know, we do twice-baked potatoes … macaroni cheese. I do so many old-fashioned deserts for him, aside from the English crumbles, we do old-fashioned key-lime pie, peanut-butter pie …
So we’re sitting here talking about macaroni cheese in one of New York’s most amazing rooms, the kind of room that is going to be in books as a particular example of lavish New York style …
This is my fantasy …
But I am wondering, do you not sometimes wonder if you are tempting fate, as if it’s all going to crash in on you …
Well, I think if you have to live your life that way, you’d just better stay in bed. I can’t even imagine what you’re saying to me because I am not a depressive, thank God. I’ve raised money for depression, which you’ve probably read, but thank God I’ve never had this illness.
When you look back on the 1980s, the ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ era, what do you make of it now?
Gosh, I don’t think of it as Bonfire of the Vanities at all! I think Bonfire of the Vanities is recently … oh my God! The hedge fund people who had no money a couple of months ago and all of a sudden they get these bonuses, millions and millions of dollars they don’t know what to do with. I think in the 80s, men were still making very modest sums of money.
It’s horrible. I think it’s crashing down now.
I think New York is historically … if you go back and you read your Vogues, your social commentaries, the Mrs. Astors who had to have their own salons and someone else couldn’t break in, or someone else who had to had their own opera house—there’s always been the new group in town … it’s a cycle.
I never had a publicist. I never thought anybody needed to interview me. I was a housewife trying to do the best I could do. I would go to flower markets at three in the morning in Berlin to try and do flowers for dinners we gave for clients, and I would read later that I had spent a million dollars on a party … all of this fantasy because this is how people want to picture you. They don’t want to know that you’re trying to save money for the firm because it was the right thing to do. I used to change my clothes in the bathroom because I would have been up since three in the morning, spending all day doing flowers, working with the secretaries to make everything perfect. I would say ‘Bring me my clothes,’ … I’d change in the bathroom, come out and greet people.
You really throw yourself into things, into the underpinnings of it all. It’s hard work.
It is! But I think it was the right thing to do. Malcolm Forbes quoted me and said ‘Anything that looks simple requires a lot of work.’ When a dinner party starts, when the cocktail party started last night, I enjoy myself like a guest but I kill myself beforehand. It’s the way I approach decorating … it’s the same thing.
In a way you are working very hard to create fantasies for other people.
Yes! What you see here is one fantasy room. Everything here has a story, whether it’s these Italian sofas we have here which we bought from Vincent Fourcade, which he had in his house … these chairs came from a ballroom in Denmark. Everything here had a fantasy story.
When you talk about preparing for a party, you remind me of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. In that book, she says that she wants her party to be the place where mundane cares fall away and life seems golden and pretty, if only for a moment. Do you ever feel like her?!
I suppose I do! It’s the set designer in me, probably, that wants to do this …
When are you at your most relaxed?
Oh, I can’t even begin to tell you. It can be on an island in Ireland, it can be entering into mainland China, and just knowing that I don’t speak the language, I have nothing to do except explore and appreciate. It can be up in my room at six-thirty in the morning when no one is going to call.
How do you feel about modern technology?
Listen, I think it’s wonderful if it’s not abused. I have a real problem with people coming to my house for dinner and texting at the table or during cocktail hours. I have to tell you that I am a case about this. I go over to them and say ‘if it’s really important, do it outside.’ I just find it rude and it’s not my world. Like Mrs. Dalloway, you work very hard to set a mood for the evening and make people feel welcome. You’re going to give them a cold drink, a comfortable chair and a warm meal. That’s basically what I want to do – and to make my girlfriends look pretty with good lighting.
Do you have a lot of girlfriends?
What’s a lot?
I don’t know. I hardly have any girlfriends, I’m just curious. It’s hard to make really close friends.
It is in this city because you don’t have the time. It’s more of a suburban thing. You’re in the suburbs and you’re driving carpools together, you’re going to the country club and playing tennis …
Do you need close female friendships?
Oh no. I’m much more comfortable with men. Men tend to be very direct. And having grown up with brothers, I was never allowed the luxury of dissembling. So obviously it’s like ‘woman speak’ is something very difficult for me … a lot of subtext.
Yes, I like men. But most women have a need to confide …
I have my husband. I can even bounce decorating ideas off him. He’s got great eye.
Did you really book two seats on Concorde, one for you andone for a cake?
Yes, I was flying a cake covered in tiny [sugar] violets and I was flying it to Paris for a girlfriend for her birthday. The second seat was for my son but because I had two tickets, they wrote that it was for the cake. It [the cake] sat on my lap for four hours … if people want to fantasize, they’re going to fantasize.
You seem to accept that then.
What can I do about it? I have no interest in hiring a publicist. The only reason I would do this interview is because I chose to do it as a professional, to do my decorating. And I don’t think you can have it both ways. I draw the line at saying I’m going to get a publicist to say what a wonderful person I am.
So tell us what France gives you—I know you’re a Francophile.
What it gives me? Inspiration … douceur de la vie … in France you can still have a coffee with a friend in France, or a glass of wine at the end of the day without feeling guilty. In New York if you stay long enough after a lunch with friends to have a coffee, you should feel guilty because you’re supposed to be a board meeting … you’re supposed to be at a psychiatrist … you’re supposed to be getting a manicure, a pedicure. Everyone’s running somewhere else.
What is that compulsion to be seen to be busy all the time?
It’s a New York thing. You have to remember our backgrounds. We’re Puritans at heart. Anything that’s going to give pleasure has to be bad. Why in the heck does anyone care what the governor [Eliot Spitzer] was doing on his time, paying his own hotel room? Who cares!
So you’re not a Puritan at heart?
Again, we’re back to your first question—because of my travels … how can I be?