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Tinz & Topp in Tears

Of course, there was at least one other party to the Mortimer split, and that party’s name is … Tinsley. Tinsley—increasingly, no “Mortimer” was appended—is a brand, an institution. Topper had always put up with Tinsley’s avid pursuit of publicity, even if he ever so faintly disapproved (his parents’ disapproval was more than faint). He never quite grew out of being a love-struck schoolboy. He’d put up with anything to be with her.

Her career has a life of its own, and in this life, lit by photographers’ flashes, nourished by hors d’oeuvre and free cocktails, a husband, even a very rich one, is often an encumbrance.

The story of Tinsley Randolph Mercer begins in Richmond, Virginia, in a big white house on a hill. “That was Graymont,” she told me recently. “I grew up there. My mom perfectly managed the house, and she had a great sense of style and such a perfection about her that I definitely adopted that, and it reflected a lot into my life today, just by watching her growing up.”

Her mother, Dale, worked as an interior designer, while her father, George, was a successful real-estate developer. The Mercers have a background as illustrious as the Mortimers, tracing their roots back to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Patrick Henry, Virginia’s original boldface names.

Tinsley’s Waspish life was not a life of ease, precisely. She was happiest with difficulties, complications, obstacles to overcome. “That’s why I was always very sporty,” she said. The first challenge was dancing: Six years of the Nutcracker for the Richmond Ballet. It wasn’t only movement. She learned how every detail—the curl of your hair, the width of your smile—had a role to play. There was also ice-skating, swimming, and diving. She was a nationally ranked tennis player. She was also, of course, a debutante and the hottest girl at Lawrenceville.

She met Robert Livingston Mortimer in the winter of her senior year; he was a junior. He grew up on the Upper East Side, never stepping on the cracks in the sidewalk. His great-grandfather was Henry Morgan Tilford, a president of the Standard Oil Company. The snowbank seduction followed in due course. Topper played Ultimate Frisbee behind the girls’ dorm. “I would sit at the window and watch him play,” she said, choking up. “It’s hard to talk about him.”

“They were obsessed with each other,” a Lawrenceville classmate of Mr. Mortimer’s told me. “It was a little strange.” “You’re talking about two pretty weird people,” said another Lawrenceville alum. “They’re both extremely obsessive,” he said, adding that Topper to this day is fanatical about keeping his collection of antique Japanese action figures displayed in a precise order.

The summer after Tinsley graduated, the couple eloped and were married by a justice of the peace in Bradenton, Florida. They were both 18. When their parents found out, Topper’s father dispatched him to the Dominican Republic to have it annulled. Tinsley went to the University of North Carolina, while Topper finished up at Lawrenceville. When he decided on New York University, she transferred to Columbia.

After college, he ended up at Guggenheim Partners, a wealth-management firm; she was working at Vogue, where she helped select beauty products and, later, when the magazine moved headquarters, was tasked with organizing the beauty closet. In 2000, she left Vogue to pursue a master’s in decorative arts at the Cooper-Hewitt museum uptown. At this point, the expected path for a future society wife would have been to graduate to the junior committee and the country club. But Tinsley was not that woman. After a year, she rejoined the workforce as a publicist for Harrison & Shriftman, at the epicenter of the city’s commercial social life.

They were heading toward a more age-appropriate marriage when Tinsley discovered that Topper had a dalliance with a fellow old-money scion. Tinsley forgave him, and the two were married in May 2002, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond. Dale and George Mercer, by then divorced, hosted the perfect party.

Tinsley had another romance: the business of being Tinsley. New York society would become a launching pad. Paris did it! And Tinsley didn’t waste time. She picked a look and stuck to it at every party and benefit she could get into—curls, colorful girlie dresses, Mary Janes. Eloise was her muse. By the summer of 2005, Tinsley was a 10021 household name.

She was a Hamptons fashion correspondent for Plum TV, doing a segment every Saturday morning. “I had someone come and do my hair and makeup the night before,” she says, “because it was way too early for anyone to come out from the city—it sounds ridiculous, I know—and then I would sleep there, obviously trying not to move.”