"London's not a true metropolis," says Rufus. "It's like territories. In New York, we're much happier. You build your own class, and that's very refreshing."
A busy, nondescript block in the flower district might not be the first place you'd expect to be hit with a flurry of glamorous invitations. But there's a pile of them in the sunny, tenth-floor loft of the tenth earl and countess of Albemarle. "We live in Chelsea Clinton," says Rufus, the earl, reclining on a sofa while his wife, the fine-boned Sally Tadayon, a regular on international best-dressed lists, smiles her wide, easy smile -- front teeth gapped so slightly -- at him. "It has a sort of Third World quality that we love," she agrees. An iPod pipes pop tunes -- Shakira, Britney, the occasional Eminem -- softly through vintage speakers.
It's a far cry from the posh socialite domains of the Upper East Side (or lower Fifth Avenue, for that matter). Nevertheless, these two elegant bohemians -- Sally a sculptor, Rufus a product designer -- have managed, over the past year, to become darlings of the Manhattan social set. They've graced the party pages of Vogue and W, appeared at various tony affairs (a trip to L.A. for an intime dinner hosted by designer Tom Ford, and the Vanity Fair Oscar party), even been profiled by British society bible Tatler (which breathlessly declared them "Manhattan's Most Wanted"). "They're so in-demand," says socialite financier Peter Bacanovic. "They have carte blanche everywhere."
Rufus and Sally Albemarle were married last May in Old Havana (the third earl of Albemarle, after all, freed Cuba from Spanish rule in 1762) in what was the social event of the season, if not the decade. Cubans treated the couple like, well, royalty, lining the cobblestone streets and cheering. "The best wedding I've ever been to," exclaims Heather Cohane, the founder of Quest magazine. Kristina Stewart, the society editor of Vanity Fair (the international version of which dedicated ten pages to the blessed event), compared the couple to the legendarily chic Paul and Talitha Getty. "You can just imagine the drama of 280 people swishing around Havana in current-season couture," says Stewart. There were princesses, counts, ladies and lords, and Bryan Ferry; Tom Ford gave Sally a custom dress for her wedding present; and the couple raised $30,000 to build a school for Cuban children with Down syndrome.
Then Sally and Rufus returned home to more invitations than they could handle. "Since that wedding," says uptown socialite Kalliope Karella, an old friend, "I think they are the favorite sweethearts of every single host and hostess in New York." Americans, after all, are suckers for a title, and these two, with their hard-to-place accents, ooze gentility. "They really have good breeding and good manners," Versailles Foundation vice-president Barbara de Portago says with a sigh. "They have a distinction about them. They're like old New York. And boy, it's always nice to see someone who knows how to eat at the table." Plus, according to nightclub owner Amy Sacco, "Rufus is a stunning dancer."
Although the Albemarles had been circling one another for years -- "all of our friends were the same," Rufus explains, "and there were even some Belgians who told me I'd marry her long before we'd met" -- they were finally officially introduced at a wedding in Mexico in 1999. "He had too many admirers," she remembers. But! "I pinched her bottom," Rufus says. And his playboy days were over.
Sally, who spent the eighties in New York, first as a student at Parsons and then a fashion assistant at Elle, was living in London at the time but began commuting to New York to spend time with Rufus. Her stays grew longer and longer. "I give a tiny little dinner at the Carlyle every year," says De Portago, "and then one year, Rufus asked me if he could bring a woman. I always wanted him there as a bachelor, but the day he said to me 'Can I bring this mademoiselle?,' I was shocked. But she was a sensation in pink satin. I knew many women who were totally heartbroken."
"Rufus definitely brings a little bit of the Old World," says German publicist and countess Vanessa von Bismarck. "He's extremely well educated. He's very much a gentleman. If you look at the way he treats his wife, you can tell. He never sits down before her. He's never a slob around her. That's something you learn at home."
But there were things other than charm that seemed destined to bring this couple together. "We have intrinsic similarities in the ways in which we were raised," Rufus explains. Although Rufus, who's 36, is English through and through, his parents moved to Italy to escape British income tax. Rufus's father died when he was 4, and Rufus inherited the first two of his official titles: baron of Ashford and viscount Bury. And then, when his grandfather died ten years later, Rufus became the earl of Albemarle. "I was really like Little Lord Fauntleroy," he says. "I had been living far away, and then, there I was in Westminster Cathedral with all these people looking at me, this Italian kid." Though his mother, viscountess Bury, now resides on an estate in Sussex, Rufus lived for a time in Milan and still keeps a summer house in Tuscany. He has described his family as "land rich and cash poor," and though he was, at 21, the youngest member of the House of Lords, he has always had a job.
Sally, 38, is, she says, "half-Danish and half-Persian," but she was raised, really, everywhere, and was married in her twenties to an Italian (she gingerly declines to name either her parents or her ex-husband). Her Danish mother, whom she describes as "a lady of leisure," is a legendary beauty. Her father, now retired, is something of a renaissance man: a Ph.D. in chemistry who manufactured spectrometers and then sold his company, General Instruments, and became a currency trader in Geneva. "I definitely get my artistic genes from him," Sally says. "He's also an accomplished painter." "Her father is so handsome," says Karella, "like he's from a Merchant Ivory film."
But perhaps the biggest connector for the Albemarles is that they are both artists. Rufus runs his own industrial-design firm and has created everything from modems to perfume bottles for companies like Unilever, Avon, and Asprey & Garrard. His office is down the hall from the apartment; these days he's at work on a vodka bottle. Sally is a sculptor who rides her bike to a studio in TriBeCa every day. She works in wax, which is then cast into bronze at a Brooklyn foundry, shaping vinelike figures with an almost Gothic touch. She's currently completing a series of sculptures that feature delicately rendered, semi-abstract saints as superheroes; when it's done, she hopes to show them in a gallery. It doesn't seem like she'll have any trouble finding one.
At an informal show she and Rufus mounted in their apartment two years ago, hundreds of glamorous friends -- everyone from Tiffany Dubin to Princess Michael of Kent -- lined up, and her work sold out. She's also working on commission to sculpt candelabras, lamps, and table legs (clients include London "It" couple Manfredi and Dora della Gherardesca).
The couple is also collaborating on My Happy Toes, rubber flip-flop toe dividers ("pedividers," they're called, and Sally's already gotten the patent) for women to wear after pedicures. "A side project," Sally says with a laugh, holding the rubber sandal that, with its simple, basic construction, is the exact opposite of her intricate work.
"I think that's what makes them so appealing," says Bacanovic. "Rufus is descended from a family of great intellectuals, and now he's taking this more bohemian route in New York, and Sally is so delicate, and yet there she is at the steel foundry. They're enchanting!"
For their part, the Albemarles are having a ball. Not only are they coveted guests, they are inspired hosts as well. "They're lightning rods for compelling people and culture," says Stewart. "Their dinner parties are these raucous events where the guests are always equal parts titled Euros, preppy socialites, and East Village writers and artists. It's a dazzling collision." The Albemarles love the freedom that New York provides. "In London, everyone I met was through my family," Rufus says. "Everything is so closed." Sally agrees: "Here, we know fashion people, art people, uptown, downtown. We don't have one set."
"And you can just go eat in a cheap restaurant!" Rufus exclaims. "You can find somewhere new."
the albermarle city guide
playing host: "We used to live down the hall, and we didn't have a kitchen," says Sally. "But now that we've got one, we've had dinners for four, we've had dinners for 28. Not seated, of course! We're very relaxed down here." Sally's specialty is Persian rice; Rufus's is seafood risotto.
eating out: "We love Les Halles 411 Park Ave. So., near 28th St.; 212-679-4111 and L'Acajou 53 W. 19th St.; 212-645-1706. We go to brunch after the flea market at French Roast 78 W. 11th St.; 212-533-2233 or sometimes at Tomato 676 Sixth Ave., at 21st St.; 212-645-6525," says Rufus, though "we recently read a review that described it as having neither grace nor charm," he adds with a laugh.
at the bar: "Bungalow 8 515 W. 27th St. is like our second living room," says Rufus. "We like to go early, around six o'clock."
personal styling: "Luckily, in this neighborhood, I'm not tempted," says Sally. "We only have the three F's: flowers, furs, and the flea. If I had fashion, too, I'd really get into trouble." Nevertheless, she has her designer fetishes. "I love Tom Ford for Yves Saint Laurent 855 Madison Ave., at 71st St.; 212-517-7400, Jean Paul Gaultier 759 Madison Ave., near 65th St.; 212-249-0235 and shoes by Christian Louboutin 941 Madison Ave., near 74th St.; 212-369-1884." Rufus is less of a shopper, but no less chic. "I have my clothes tailored in Milan at Vinci Uomo. I buy all my shirts and shoes on holiday in Italy. I have two pairs of Levi's jeans, and sometimes I go to Barneys Co-op 236 W. 18th St.; 212-826-8900, where I've gotten nice summer trousers."
for relaxation: "We love the Russian Turkish Baths 268 E. 10th St.; 212-473-8806," says Sally. "Sure, it's not a luxury spa, but we're hooked. Today it was so crowded it seemed like a cocktail party!"
Left: The living room melds rich details with finds from the flea. The Castiglione lamp is from Filaments (34 W. 13th St.; 212-924-3575). The blinds are by designer and friend Lulu de Kwiatkowski (whose line, Lulu DK Fabrics, is available via 212-223-4234). The photos between the windows are by Rufus; the red-leather-upholstered chairs were found at the Chelsea Flea Market -- "from a Greek restaurant!" Sally exclaims. The faux Saarinen dining chairs, while chic, are hard on Rufus's height. "They look great," he says, "but if you're tall . . ."
Below: The sectional sofa comes from ABC Carpet & Home (888 Broadway, at 19th St.; 212-473-3000). Instead of having an ordinary TV, the Albemarles project their DVDs onto a blank white wall -- after they've removed Nan Goldin's self-portrait, of course. The large painting behind Rufus is by Walton Ford. The fire-extinguisher lamps were another discovery from the flea market. The couple prizes their white coffee table by K Studio not simply for its modern look but because you can draw on it with dry-erase markers.