Swan Song: Nan Kempner Dead at 74

One of Truman Capote’s Society Swans, arguably the first “social X-ray.” This may not mean anything to those outside NY, but it’s like the death of Mrs. Astor or Mrs. Vanderbilt 100 years ago. The Old Guard are dying off. “Good riddance!” I hear you say. Well, true, they’re not doctors or teachers or firemen: but the Society Doyennes do provide a certain sprinkle atop the cupcake of life. They tend to do yoeman work for charities, and the best of them (Nan included) were great wits. I spent a lot of time with these ladies while researching Kay Kendall (her sister Kim was—and is—one of the Swans) and found them to be kind and sweet and funny.

Was she the one who as a child, cried upon realizing that she wouldn’t be able to buy one of Mr. Dior’s coats, only to have Mr. Dior himself make an appearance in the salon to see what was the ruckus? Or am I mixing up my Swans? (And oh, for Babe Paley’s cheekbones!)

I’m sorry to hear of her passing.

Dammit, Eve - you beat me to it. I just saw the news on a CNN crawl. She is without a doubt my favorite socialite.

Here’s a link to a picture of her - social x-ray indeed!


And my fave Kempner story - http://www.salon.com/people/bc/2002/01/22/saint_laurent/index1.html

“In 1966 he revealed le smoking, which is easiest to explain as a softened version of a tuxedo, although that doesn’t come near to describing its supple elegance. The most famous story about Saint Laurent’s trousers and the stir they caused is the one about the evening sometime in the late '60s when socialite Nan Kempner (who has been a vocally enthusiastic Saint Laurent client for nearly all the 40 years of his career) stepped into a tony Manhattan restaurant wearing one of Saint Laurent’s remarkable trouser suits, only to be told that women in trousers (I’ll bet anything the hostess actually used the word “slacks”) were not allowed. Kempner stepped out of the pants and strode into the restaurant wearing only the jacket.”

God bless her little size 2 couture heart.


I remember Susie Dillon calling me and apologizing, “I’m sorry it took me so long to call, but we’ve just shut up the Florida house and opened the Fifth Avenue house and we’re breaking in a new cook, and well, you know what that’s like.”

And Kim Kendall asking where we should meet for lunch. I was about to suggest a neartby coffee shop, when she shrugged, “Well, there’s always 21,” and indeed that’s where we went.

Good lord! I didn’t know Nan died, but obviously Vanity Fair knew it was coming, as they did a timely piece on her a few months back. A famous Nan story: she once removed the bottom half of her YSL trouser suit after a NY restaurant (this was in the early 70s, imagine!) told her they forbade women wearing pants!

Vanity Fair did a long profile of her about 3 months ago. A good read.

“Always 21” seems to be/have been a philosophy of life for some of these ladies as well – and good for them, says the King of Soup, who will probably never approach an understanding of high society. It’s nice to know that “kind and sweet and funny” survives even the disadvantages that wealth and position, in my snobbish imagination, puts upon it.

But who will guard the old?