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The Grande Dame

They make it look easy, but the social life is equal parts dazzle and denial.

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One night about ten years ago, when I didn’t know a Pat Buckley from a Judy Peabody but had to learn fast since I had a gig reporting on society parties for the New York Times, I found myself seated next to Nan Kempner. We were at a dinner at the Italian consulate after the opening of Gianfranco Ferre’s store, and the couture-loving socialite was wearing a pleated and preposterously puffy white blouse by the designer.

“When I sit next to you with this blouse on,” Kempner told me in her flirtatiously girly smoker’s rasp, “you know about it.”

I giggled and started writing. She gave my hand a little smack.

“Put that notepad away,” she muttered.

“But you’re funny,” I said. “I want to get the words down correctly.”

“Well,” she said, “you just have to develop a memory, my dear.”

Was she being a little stuffy? What did it matter that I took a note or two at the table as long as my nails were clean and my suit well-pressed? A whole hell of a lot, actually. Because for Nan Kempner and the other socialites in New York now in their grande dame phase, being out to dinner is not unlike being on a stage. On their stage, brightly lit for comedy, impeccable manners and costumes, along with fluidity and wit, are always required.

In her book Great Dames: What I Learned From Older Women, Marie Brenner refers to “the theater of self” to describe these tenacious, ambitious fun-loving pre-feminists with flair who maintain a glossy public life, propelling themselves along with buoyancy while suffering in silence. “I believe in denial,” Kitty Carlisle Hart tells Brenner. “Denial is a marvelous thing!”

Every city has its grandes dames. But we’ve always had more of them. Elsa Maxwell. Clare Boothe Luce. Babe Paley. Marietta Tree, who talked Mayor John Lindsay into lighting all the bridges around the city. Well-mannered but unshockable, convivial but not trivial, they know how to be interesting at lunch (and never talk about yoga classes or nutritional habits) because they’re interested in things other than themselves.

Judy Peabody, who has served on the boards of Dance Theatre of Harlem and Gay Men’s Health Crisis, likes to talk about the night the door fell off the livery car she flagged down after she had been doing some counseling for a Puerto Rican gang. Robin Chandler Duke recalls a childhood cook who almost died from a botched abortion as the inspiration for her championship of reproductive rights. Hart recalls visiting Albany as chairman of the New York State Council on the Arts in the eighties, to shame legislators about censorship. “Now, listen,” she told them. “There’s an opera done all over the world, and it’s full of rape and murder, and it’s called Rigoletto!”

In a city where private funding has to pay for almost everything, they take their charity work seriously. Pat Buckley, on the board of the Society of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, sends handwritten notes with benefit invitations to friends. Then, “after giving them time to simmer down,” she says, she follows up with a phone call. “I make an ass out of myself, but it’s for the right reasons.”

They may not be a dying breed the way some say they are. But even if the new generation of glamorous New York women with social chops are happily shedding feminism and putting on fur and pearls again, they’re far too cool to carry on in such bold, broad strokes. And for such a bold, broad city, that’s too bad. “Everything is underdone these days,” says Kempner, who believes the reason she tries so hard to dazzle and amuse is that she was an unattractive child.

As vivid as saints or pop divas, or Yankees, they could be their own trading cards. Brooke Astor in a hat. C. Z. Guest in her garden. Anne Slater in blue sunglasses. Nancy Kissinger with that little husband of hers. Louise Grunwald. Jayne Wrightsman. Even Barbara Walters, who the Times short-listed not long ago as the next Brooke Astor.

How many can you name? Who’s married to whom? Who’s worth more? Who shills for which charity? Look for them in the society pages! Collect them all! Develop your memories, my dears!


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