'My new Caroline Charles,' her companion replied, reaching for the bottle of mineral water with a perfectly manicured hand. She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. 'And last year's hat.' The diamonds on her heavily bejewelled ring finger flashed. She was wearing something that looked vaguely familiar from the pages of a recent Vogue.
These were Ladies Who Lunch. And they were lunching at Daphne's in Chelsea, a favourite eating place for a breed of woman whom Hillary Clinton would describe as 'Salon Women'.
Salon Women are beautiful and carefree. They are married to rich and powerful men; they are invariably soignee and well-coiffured and Hillary Clinton hates them all. On her recent visit to Rome, Mrs Clinton expressed a marked disinclination to be photographed with the pretty wives of Italian businessmen. 'I want to meet a sample of prominent Italian career women,' she declared. 'Preferably lawyers like me. I detest Salon Women.'
This disparaging statement brought a robust defence of Salon Women from Emma Soames of the Evening Standard. 'In Europe's great cities these beautiful women and hostesses are the most integral part of the very fabric of society,' she thundered. 'They are admired for their looks, their style and their powers of patronage.' Miss Soames then produced a list of Salon Women, whom she collectively described as 'The Cream of London'.
Glancing down this list, I realised that I hadn't the faintest idea who most of them were. Lady White of Hull? Never heard of her. Mrs Johnny Gold - who's she? And Lady Kenilworth? I'm sorry, I haven't a clue. Aware that I might be missing something, I decided to find out more about them with the help of a gossip columnist, Tim Satchell. Tim has formerly written for the diary pages of daily newpapers; he is now the 'Backbiter' columnist on the Big Issue . . . We met for lunch in Daphne's.
'Put your notebook away,' he hissed, as a passing waiter handed two gold-crested menus. 'Gossip columnists never take notes in restaurants.'
'Sorry,' I said, placing it out of sight on my lap and adjusting the collar of my 1989 Next jacket. I looked around the dining room, now more than half full. Flowering jasmine plants clambered up the pale ochre walls; the tablecloths were stiff and crisp. A blonde woman in a pink and white Chanel suit sat at a corner table waiting for her friends. She was wreathed in large, fake pearls. Obviously a Lady Who Lunches.
I discreetly consulted the 'Cream of London' list. 'Who's Lady White of Hull?' I asked Tim Satchell, between mouthfuls of deep-fried zucchini flowers. 'She's very important,' said Mr Satchell seriously. 'She's married to Lord (Gordon) White who runs Lord Hanson's American operation.'
''What about Susan Sangster?'
'Robert Sangster's wife,' he said. 'He owned Vernons Pools, but sold it. He's her second husband. She's terribly pretty.' I glanced at the photograph of her in the Evening Standard. 'Hardly surprising that Susan Sangster ended up with a highly successful husband', said the caption beneath.
Suddenly a slight but perceptible ripple passed round the dining room. Framed in the doorway was a glamorous bouffed-up blonde in a peacock blue power suit. 'It's Ivana Trump,' I expostulated as she went up to the woman in the pink Chanel suit and air-kissed her on both cheeks. 'For God's sake don't stare,' said Tim, refusing to turn round.
'She looks marvellous for 44,' I said. 'That's because she's got the money and time to look good,' he said firmly. 'That's her boyfriend Riccardo Mazzucchelli with her,' Tim added. 'He's given her a huge yellow diamond ring but they don't seem to be making it permanent.'
I returned, somewhat reluctantly, to the list. 'Tell me about Lady Kenilworth.' 'She's the ex-wife of Lord Kenilworth - he's a landscape gardener.'
'And Mrs Johnny Gold?' 'Johnny Gold owns the nightclub, Tramp,' said Tim. 'He also runs the Belvedere restaurant.'
'What about Mrs Galen Weston?' 'Her hubbie (Fortnum and Mason vice chairman) used to own a big biscuit company. They had a big hit with 'Wagon Wheels'. '
'I think this list's a bit mixed,' I observed, as our main courses arrived. 'I mean Princess Michael of Kent and Marie Helvin are OK but I'd have thought that Patricia Kluge was a bit, you know, iffy. She was a sort of page 3 girl wasn't she?'
'Well, she was married to John Kluge, who owned a huge American company called Metromedia,' said Tim as he tackled his spaghetti. 'He's a multi-billionaire.'
After lunch we were joined by Dai Llewellyn, Old Etonian baronet-in-waiting, brother of Princess Margaret's friend Roddy.
'I don't think much of this list,' he said. It's not what I'd call the cream of London.'
'One man's A list is another man's B list,' said Tim, judiciously. 'Anyway, all lists are tacky.'
I asked Dai Llewellyn about the the European Salon Woman, the ones whom Hillary Clinton had declined to meet. How influential were they? 'Well in Paris, the Salon Women run the whole show,' he guffawed. 'Even a socialist president like Mitterrand couldn't have been elected without Les Dames qui Dejeunent - women like the Rochefoucaults. In Rome, it's different. There they tend to be Salon Women when they're young; then they get married and disappear.'
He glanced around the restaurant. 'This is a nice place,' he said, 'very razzmatazzy; but in my view the really serious Salon Women go to Harry's Bar. They like sitting next to captains of industry. The conversation's all about money.'
By this stage I was seriously interested in becoming a Salon Woman myself. No more work. Just lots of shopping and parties. The Cream of London list proved that a lack of an aristocratic background was no bar to becoming a Lady Who Lunches. All that was required was a very wealthy and powerful man.
'Thanks for lunch,' said Tim as we walked down Sloane Avenue. 'Are you going back to work?'
'No I'm not,' I said, heading towards Belgravia. 'I might check out Harry's Bar.'
Identified as the 'cream of London': Isobel Goldsmith, Princess Ira Von Furstenberg, Lady White of Hull, Mrs Robert Sangster, Patricia Kluge, Christina Goulandris, the Hon Mrs Michael Pearson, Marie Helvin, Lady Kenilworth, Lady Carina Frost, Lady Sonia Melchett, Princess Dora Loewenstein, Mrs Johnny Gold, Mrs Galen Weston, Carla Powell, Vivien Duffield, Lucy Ferry, Princess Michael of Kent, Shakira Caine.
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