The quintessential Lady who Lunched, Nan Kempner was one of the women who inspired Tom Wolfe's description "social X-ray". An English size eight, incredibly elegant and a party animal par excellence, Kempner personified the particular brand of wealthy Manhattan female who eats, sleeps and breathes fashion. She could chart her life by what she wore and when.
Kempner crossed continents like other people hail taxis. Her annual jaunts to London, Paris, Gstaad, Venice, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Vail and Nassau invariably involved invitations to the inner sanctum of the socially significant and a contingent of the best couture labels - Yves Saint Laurent in Paris, Ungaro in Venice, Valentino in Gstaad.
She was born Nan Field Schlesinger in San Francisco in 1930. Her father, Albert (known as "Speed"), owned one of California's largest Ford dealerships and her mother, Irma, whom Nan once described as "an extraordinary fashion plate" instigated Nan's lifelong love of couture. It was her mother who first put Nan on a diet, aged 12.
After graduating from Hamlin School in San Francisco, Nan Schlesinger studied at Connecticut College for Women, but left before graduation. During a junior year abroad, in which she had studied at the Sorbonne, she decided to opt out after being told by artist Fernand Léger that she was "a disgrace", had "no talent" and should stop wasting her parents' money. She declared later, "It wasn't exactly endearing, but it was true."
After briefly working as a volunteer at the San Francisco Museum of Art, in 1952 she met and married the fabulously wealthy Thomas L. Kempner, chairman of the bankers Loeb Partners and grandson of Carl M. Loeb, the founder of the firm. Although her husband could keep Nan in the manner to which she was already accustomed (she sometimes referred to him as "the Exchequer"), it didn't stop her working. In the 1960s she was special editor at Harper's Bazaar magazine. In the early 1970s she became a consultant for Tiffany and Company and in the 1980s she was a correspondent for French Vogue. By the late 1990s Nan Kempner had become an international representative for Christie's, the perfect position for someone with the biggest address book in the business.
In 2000 Nan Kempner published R.S.V.P.: menus for entertaining from people who really know how, with proceeds going to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. She caused controversy during the round of promotional interviews for the book, by claiming that "I loathe fat people" although she later said, "It was an unfortunate remark which I regret", and claimed to "crave hot dogs and hamburgers and peanut butter sandwiches". A passionate supporter of cancer research, she served on a number of charitable boards and benefit committees, and gave occasional lectures in couture at the prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
In contrast to the stereotypical front-row fixture, Kempner didn't take herself too seriously. She delighted in telling everyone that the name of her favourite dish, pet-de-nonne, a fritter-like Escoffier creation, meant "nun's fart" in French. She once described wearing a designer dalmatian coat: "Boy, did I look like a dog." She was painted by Andy Warhol in the Seventies, and in his diary entry for 31 October 1977 Warhol recalled a New York magazine article which slated Kempner:
In it, Stevie called Nan Kempner a "pisser", and Joe Armstrong, the editor, told me that she's already called up the magazine to ask "What's a pisser?"
Kempner's 16-room New York apartment on Park Avenue was an oasis where guests were encouraged to curl up and sink into the sofas. Hamish Bowles, American Vogue's European Editor at Large, was a frequent visitor. "She had a ravishing apartment which was also incredibly convivial and cosy," he says:
Her library, in exotic citrus colours, was absolutely the essence of chic and style. I would put her on a par with those legendary ladies - the ultimate life-enhancers like Babe Paley and C.Z. Guest.
Kempner was one of the diminishing fashion breed otherwise known as the Couture Customer. She was a devotee of Yves Saint Laurent ("I'm probably his oldest living client, When we were young, we were shaped the same: long and skinny") and attended nearly every one of his couture shows from 1962. According to Anna Harvey, the Editorial Director of Condé Nast New Markets,
She was unmistakable. So chic and slender. In fact, she was one of the very few who could fit into the samples. Ultimately, Nan Kempner managed to do what a lot of older women can't, which is to wear contemporary clothes with elegance and dignity. She never looked absurd - ever.
And groomed? "Polished I think is the word." Pause. "Very polished."
An unstoppable figure who once attended the couture shows sporting a cleverly disguised black eye and bruised knees (the Manolos had a tussle with the pavement), Kempner knew how to live. Bowles spotted her recently at Swifty's - a Truman Capote-esque eaterie on the Upper East Side:
Nan was wearing this incredible Lacroix black-and-white striped couture jacket with black pants - a kind of homage to Toulouse-Lautrec. So chic. It was only later that I realised she was trundling along with her oxygen machine.
Despite her lifelong obsession with fashion, Nan Kempner was adamant the final decision would be left to the Almighty. "I tell people all the time I want to be buried naked," she once told The New York Times. "I know there will be a store where I'm going."
- More about: