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How to Be a Park Avenue Princess

Where better to learn the rules of New York society than in Nan Kempner’s apartment?



A few years ago, the famously thin and rich Nan Kempner remarked that she was confident her generation’s legacy was falling into good hands. “They all look so beautiful,” she said of the new guard coming up behind her. “I’m sure we can turn over the reins of the benefits to these bright young things. It’s called evolution.” Who better to teach today’s B.Y.T.’s how to negotiate New York society? Kempner has lived in the same sixteen-room duplex at 79th and Park for over 45 years, and an invitation to Nan’s famous Sunday-night spaghetti dinners has always been unturndownable, partly because you never know who might turn up. Princess Di? Nancy Reagan? Well, hello, my darling.

Her father once told her, “You’ll never make it on your face, so you’d better be interesting.” And so she made herself into a character through fashion. Not long after buying her first couture gown in the early fifties—a white Dior sheath—she joined the Junior Council at the Museum of Modern Art, a perfect springboard to the city’s social circuit, where she soon became a fixture and, says a friend, “an instant celebrity.” After a stint as a fashion editor in the sixties, she became a muse to Yves Saint Laurent: “He taught me a very important thing: All a woman needs is a good trench coat, a pair of black pants, a long black skirt, a short black skirt, and lots of tops.” Kempner, now battling severe emphysema, has long been considered the most loyal customer of couturiers, faithfully making the trip to Paris twice a year for nearly four decades, regularly dropping $10,000 on a gown. “My husband, Tommy, thinks it’s hysterical, because he used to think it was extravagance, and it now turns out that I was an art collector! Museums come and ask me for clothes all the time. Can you imagine?

“I’ve always liked being noticed, and I work hard at it.” Her advice to the new “It” girls: Get “tons” of sleep, entertain “constantly,” and “be yourself.” Oh, and this: “When you’re trying on clothes, look at yourself sitting down and look at your reflection from the back side.” But above all, never call yourself a socialite, a problem that arises mostly when one is on one’s way to some far-flung paradise and required to fill out dreary travel documents. “I’m not rich enough to be a real philanthropist. And I loathe being called a socialite. So I write ‘housewife.’ ”


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