On the morning of Friday, April 17, Topper Mortimer flew to Palm Beach. One of his oldest friends, Ware Sykes, was getting married that weekend on Jupiter Island, and Mr. Mortimer, a 33-year-old rainmaker at a wealth-management firm with a boyish smile and thinning red hair, was hoping the wedding revels might put some much-needed fizz back into his marriage. His wife, Tinsley, 34, blond and delicate, a Virginia-born debutante turned New York fashion and society fixture, would be arriving later that afternoon to accompany him to the rehearsal dinner. He was also counting on her to bring his shoes.
Romance had always been something the couple could fall back on—it was part of their tradition. Tinsley had won his heart in the hothouse Wasp enclave of Lawrenceville prep school in New Jersey; in a much-told story, a fairy tale that happened to be true, Topper had seduced young Tinsley Mercer by throwing her onto a snowbank, and soon thereafter planting a kiss. And the kissing continued, up until just recently. “At night [at Lawrenceville],” Tinsley told me earlier this month, “when we both had to go back to our dorms, we did this little thing where we’d kiss each other on the eyes, and then on the cheek, and it became something. It became like our protection: If he’d go on a plane without me, or I would—and it started at Lawrenceville, underneath this one tree.”
Topp and Tinz embodied an haute-Wasp dream, as if they’d just walked out of a Slim Aarons photograph—and they were truly in love. Tinsley had his initials (well, they’re also her initials) tattooed in a place most often covered by fabric. But by the summer of 2008, the fairy tale was fracturing. Their friends had long known that, for all the conspicuous romance, they were not constantly at each other’s sides. Between Topper’s long nights at Dorrian’s with the old boys, and sometimes girls, and Tinsley’s constant—and solo—presence on the circuit, rumors inevitably began to circulate. And then, Tinsley confirmed them. Last Christmas, she told a mutual friend that she’d become involved with Prince Casimir “Cassi” Wittgenstein-Sayn, a 32-year-old London-based banker whose family reportedly has a castle in the Rhine Valley.
The dalliance, and subsequent all-too-public squall, would have mortified their ancestors, with the ancient, inviolable rule: In the newspaper three times—at birth, marriage, and death. “They are separated, but they haven’t filed for divorce,” Women’s Wear Daily hissed in January, citing an anonymous source. “Splitsville?” gloated “Page Six,” quoting a source close to the couple and suggesting that Tinsley had gone awol because she’d been tired of Topper’s violations of their don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy. Tinsley maintained that no such policy was ever in place, and would only allow that in recent years they’d been leading increasingly separate lives.
The couple fired back in their favorite venue: the society press. “We have felt our way through some difficult times and transitions, but we love each other very much,” Tinsley told Avenue magazine. “We look forward to being together and having a wonderful, exciting, yet, at times, challenging life together, and want to start a family,” Tinsley told the magazine. Topper added that Tinsley was “the love of my life.”
So Topper had cause for optimism as he boarded the plane for Palm Beach. Indeed, the guest list at the wedding was sure to bear a strong resemblance to his and Tinsley’s own nuptials seven years prior. But before the rehearsal dinner, Tinsley texted Topper to say she couldn’t come. Mr. Mortimer was devastated.
“The guy was emotionally bottomed-out,” said a lifelong friend who was at the wedding. He had to borrow shoes. He kept luring people away from the party, off to side rooms and corridors at the Jupiter Island Club, to ask their opinion on the situation. People he hardly knew. “I guess at one point he called Tinsley and he got the weird European delayed-ring sound—so he knew she was with this other guy. Then up on the altar he was gazing off into who the hell knows where. It was ridiculous.”
The friend was so concerned, he sent out an e-mail to Topper’s closest friends after the weekend: “We’ve got to have an intervention. He needs our help.”
A week later, Tinsley was back. Topper e-mailed his friends to explain: “I know I have involved you guys in our problems and that was wrong. Tinsley is at fault of course but Casi [sic] never gave her a chance to breathe even when I asked him to give us space. He was manipulative and overbearing. I love my wife and we are going to do what we can to salvage this marriage.”
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.”
One afternoon that summer, while sunbathing around the pool—the couple had a share in East Hampton with the photographer Patrick McMullan and the socialite Bettina Zilkha—the designer Douglas Hannant asked Tinsley to model for him, a gig that had previously belonged to socialite Debbie Bancroft. “Everyone raised an eyebrow when that happened,” McMullan recalled. “Tinsley was on the rise.”
That fall, she was seated in the front row at the Bryant Park fashion shows, taking a turn on the runway at the Heatherette show alongside Bijou and Nicky. “It’s as if she was already in the NBA, while the other girls were still playing college basketball,” said Valentine Uhovski, an editor at Fashion Week Daily and co-founder of socialiterank .com, a website that, in the spring of 2006, filled the gaping void in “It”-girl analytics. Tinsley was the site’s first number-one. “She stood out at those countless cocktails with signature poses, hair, and smiles,” Uhovski says. “She was always camera-ready.”
As a socialite, she was a pioneer, looking to monetize her social-register glamour. Samantha Thavasa, a Japan-based leather-accessories company, plastered her face on billboards in Tokyo and gave her her own line of bags. At the flagship-store opening on Madison Avenue, they dressed up a bunch of Tinsley look-alikes. In May 2007, Dior anointed her beauty ambassador.
Tinsley the brand had arrived, but the marriage was teetering. In June 2008, she announced that she would be collecting her thoughts while traveling to Europe with her sister.
Garfield, a Jamaican man who has been Topper’s chauffeur since 2003, was a close observer of the couple’s romance and subsequent troubles. Early on, he would overhear them giggling, playfully teasing. Over the years, Tinsley became “more of a person of the limelight,” going out alone. But, Garfield vouched, “if you wanted to get on Topper’s wrong side, all you had to do was be late picking up his wife.”
“Tinz and Topp,” as their friends called them, always bickered. It was a sport, played for fun, but as the years wore on, the needling took on a bitter tone. Topper’s nighttime escapades were part of the trouble. But increasingly, Tinsley’s career seemed to crowd out the life they’d had. In the fall of 2007, an MTV pilot Tinsley was developing (it wasn’t picked up) became the focus of a bitter dispute. At a dinner party downtown, Tinsley silenced the room when she blurted, “That’s the only reason you want me to have a kid, Topper! So that I won’t be able to be on the show ’cause I’ll be fat with a baby,” a friend recalled.
After the Jupiter Island drama, the couple tried to make a go of it—and no sooner had she returned than she brought a seven-person camera crew to their co-op on East 79th Street. Topper made himself scarce. “He basically avoided the cameras as much as he could,” said Peter Davis, Topper’s half-brother.
She was gone for good a week later.
This past July, Tinsley went public with her relationship with Prince “Cassi,” when the couple posed for photographs at a Cartier-sponsored polo match in Windsor, England. She wore a tangerine-orange cocktail dress and had a new, punky hairdo.“I didn’t have any idea how big of a deal the Cartier polo thing was,” she added. “But no, we’re not hiding. I have filed for divorce. I am allowed to date other people.”
For the most part, the prince has eluded the gossip mill, though there’s speculation that his fortune may not be that princely.
For Tinsley, who just finished designing the packaging for a new line of Dior-by-Tinsley facial blotting papers, it seems a diversion. “When you’re with someone for seventeen years,” she said, “pretty much half your lifetime, you just kind of want to get away a little bit and really try to relax and just have a nice time.”
Where Tinsley is blithe and carefree, Topper is tormented. He’s become a full-time smoker. He’s lost weight. He wakes up at precisely 3:25 every morning and plays over and over the reality show his life became. Still, he hasn’t entirely abandoned the idea that she’ll come back. “I love my wife” is all he’ll tell me.
Meanwhile, somewhere in Palm Beach, a southern belle is weeping. “Every mother wants her daughter to marry a man who she KNOWS will love her forever and … who will be an amazing father to their children,” says Dale Mercer in an e-mail to me. “This IS Topper so, of course, as a mother who adores and wants the best happiness for her daughter, I am crushed by what has happened. I have not given up hope.”
European titles mean nothing to Ms. Mercer: “I am more concerned with one’s character,” she says. “Casimir is a handsome, charming, urbane, and glib man. Topper asked him to step aside and give him (Topper) a chance to reclaim his marriage. Though he told Topper he would do this, he has NOT. I believe that Tinsley is confused, and she needs time by herself to sort things out.”
But Tinsley has other things to think about. “Just because my marriage didn’t work out doesn’t mean that you can’t be successful. I’m happy. I want to get there. I’m used to wanting to achieve and do bigger and better things and to constantly be working. I was built that way for my whole life, and it’s natural for me now.”
For better or for worse, she’s left the fairy tale behind. She’s something new, her own confectionary creation. No longer attached to Topper, her slightly stolid anchor, how far she’ll rise is anyone’s guess. He seemed to be the great love of her life, but now that’s over. One can only be truly in love with one person at a time.