Socialite Obsession: Susan Strasberg

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True socialites believe in discretion. They believe in being written up only twice; their birth, death, and if they make the cut, their wedding announcement. It was easy to live by his maxim before the Internet. Blogs and social media provide freeways of information that didn’t exist in the days of the Vanderbuilts.

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Thankfully, socialites get written up for career accolades these days. University isn’t used for sharpening cocktail banter and finding husbands, but to practice law and run fashion houses. Actresses however, aren’t allowed into the fold. Susan Strasberg was an exception. Perhaps she was accepted into the upper echelons for being the youngest theatre actress to score a Tony award, for The Diary of Anne Frank. It also helped that her father was the famous acting coach Lee Strasberg, noted for his “method” acting style. Al Pacino, Daniel Day Lewis and Jack Nicholson are noted method actors, following her father’s lead and moving on to win Academy Awards.

Ironically, Susan’s father never trained her, which was well-known among his devotees. Her critical achievements were a thorny subject for their already-complicated relationship.

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Strasberg and Monroe

Marilyn Monroe was  a devotee of Strasberg’s, and became part of the family. So much so, that she and Susan had a sibling rivalry of sorts, as described in Susan’s book,  Marilyn and Me: Sisters, Rivals, Friends. It was a bestseller, as was her second book, Bittersweet. 

Former suitors include Richard Burton, Warren Beatty and Cary Grant. Her natural talent ushered her from theatre to the film world in the blink of an eye.  The camera loved her incredibly delicate bone structure, which was an amalgamation of Lee Bouvier and Natalie Wood.

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With her much-older beau, Richard Burton

Like many socialites who needn’t follow the rules in order to be accepted, she indulged eccentric passions that social climbers would be afraid to touch. One of which, was new age spiritualism. She meditated, practiced yoga, worked with spiritual healers and sought alternative treatment for her breast cancer. Unfortunately, the cancer consumed her before she could complete her last book, Confessions of a New Age Heretic. 

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Strasberg in the 1950s

The Countess Who Flew From Her Gilded Cage

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The famous photo of her, taken by Avedon

Countess Jacqueline de Ribes didn’t wear outfits. She wore costumes. She made these fantasies by hand and drew audible gasps when entering a room. It wasn’t because she was classically beautiful, but because she was creative. She made parties famous simply by attending them, even if only for a few minutes.

Her fashions are currently being showcased at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art until February 21st at the Anna Wintour Costume Center.

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Wintour isn’t the only Vogue editor that had fallen under her spell. Diana Vreeland spotted the countess at a party and scrambled to have her photographed the very next day by Avedon. Thinking that she needed to dress up, de Ribes went to a salon for false eyelashes and to have her hair curled, only to have Vreeland (then editor of Harper’s Bazaar) insist  she change back to the more natural creature she saw the day before. The eyelashes came off, her hair was put into a braid and the photo became famous.

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Though already a countess at birth and accustomed to some formalities, Jacqueline felt caged in my her titled but conservative husband and in-laws. Living with this extended family on a lavish estate, the stern and emotionally distant extended family were oppressive figures for Jacqueline, who longed for a creative outlet. She lived her adult life going against the tide, carefully choosing where and when to steal small freedoms. She refused to be a well-dressed wife and mother in a gilded cage. These always made the most boring of socialites.

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Once when trying to hold her husband’s hand as they were strolling Champs-Elyssses, he shook her off and told her to stop acting so “common.” Since divorce was out of the question, she weathered the cold in her marriage. Perhaps her difficult childhood helped to manage her expectations for future happiness. Jacqueline had a harrowing childhood. Her mother kissed her but once and often admonished her for her large nose and giraffe-like physique. He grandfather raised her, but died of cancer when she was but a small girl. Desperate to keep her grandfather alive, she even dressed as a nurse, a child pretending to work alongside the team of medical professionals who tended to him.

After he passed away, WWII broke out. She grew up parentless with a nanny on a remote property in France. They holed up in the cramped concierge’s quarters when the Gestapo took over the main house. They bricked in Jacqueline’s bedroom window to construct a torture chamber, and the young girl spent years hearing prisoners’ screams of agony. Not to mention seeing truck beds filled with prostitutes arrive every weekend for the Nazi soldiers.

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One of her most famous handmade costumes, from Le Bal Oriental

She was married soon after, fulfilling the role of loyal wife and loving mother. And not without providing disappointments to her in-laws with small acts of independence. Her dramatic creations for costume balls got her invited to all les grand bals, pulling her into the stratosphere of the European jet set. But perhaps the most upsetting news to her in-laws was the fact that she liked to work.

She collaborated with Pucci, was a ghost designer for Oleg Cassini and even hired a very young and penniless Italian to sketch her designs. That Italian was Valentino. She produced TV segments and created UNICEF variety shows that featured the likes of Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. She even took over the International Ballet of the Marquis de Cuevas – fulfilling her life-long love for the ballet (something her mother wanted her to take no part of).

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We can tell which one is the Countess by her air of regality

Once Jacqueline’s father-in-law passed away, she took advantage of it. There was a lift in the old-fashioned and oppressive atmosphere at the de Ribes estate. The Countess sat her family down and told them she was going to do something that was long overdue. At 53 years old, she was striking out on her own as a fashion designer, and no one would talk her out of it. Her debut fashion show was a resounding success, Women’s Wear Daily adored her. Saks Fifth Avenue immediately signed up for her collections. Dignitaries, celebrities and then-First Lady Nancy Reagan wore her designs. Joan Collins of Dynasty fame was instructed to fashion her persona after the Countess de Ribes.

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Wearing one of her own designs, in the 1980s

Vanity Fair has described her as the Last Queen of Paris. But her reign is still current. If it weren’t for the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Countess de Ribes would have made the opening at the Met. This show is not to be missed, and will be gone in less than a month.

Before I die: The Grand Bal

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Marlene Deitrich at the Waldorf-Astoria’s annual “April in Paris” ball in 1951 – Paris’ 2000-year birthday

Much ado has been made of the world’s response to our dear City of Light being terrorized. Support has poured in worldwide, but some question why our response to Paris being attacked is so emotional, when things like that happen in other parts of the world all the time. These critics are right, but one must acknowledge that the world has always had a love affair with Paris.

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The Imperial Grand Bal in St. Petersburg, 1903

The French brought us lingerie, croissants, Coco Chanel, the ballet and much more. Even in Paris’ darkest hour since World War II, nothing can vanquish the City of Light. I’d like to bring attention to one of the many things that makes Paris so brilliant – Le Grand Bal.

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An Asian-inspired theme – the food and costumes must have been to die for

What is a Grand Bal?

It’s the party of a lifetime. It’s an event you tell your grandchildren about. While it’s always black tie, the best ones are costumed or masquerade balls. It started centuries ago when Louis XIV held a Grand Bal at Versailles to demonstrate his power. Noblemen and dignitaries far and wide gathered to pass messages and spread influence.

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Louis XIV’s Grand Bal costume

Czars in Russia did it, and during the gilded age in New York, Caroline Astor hosted them. The tradition may have jumped from royalty to socialites hosting charities, but the goal is the same: establishing social and political power. Truman Capote held a black and white ball and these were so influential, that uninvited couples left New York for the weekend, so to appear unavailable for the invite. Famous hostess Elsa Maxwell (who lived in the Waldof-Astoria for free) hosted the annual April in Paris Grand Bal on-site. It was the place to see and be seen.

One day I’ll throw one as well. Costumes, Champagne fountain and other Gatsby-esque frivolities. My theme will be the roaring 20s.

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Truman Capote’s famous Black and White Ball

Socialite Scandal: Wallis Franken

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This fashion muse was an American, but Parisians claimed her as their own. It’s highly unusal for anyone to be considered an honorary Parisian, especially U.S. citizens. But Wallis Franken was an irresistable bon vivant. And she loved Paris right back. Right up to the day she plunged to her death from her kitchen window at Rue de Lille.  Was it murder?

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perhaps a very fitting photo

Wallis Franken didn’t just generate headlines from her death, which rocked the Paris couture world. The public was shocked when she married the openly gay and hard-partying Claude Montana. Though friends begged her not to do it, nothing could derail her. As a high-fashion model, she had been his muse since the 1970s and considered him to be her alter ego.

What Parisians found remarkable about Wallis, aside from her androgynous beauty, was her ability to always be carefree, light and “up for anything.” It couldn’t have been easy, considering she endured years of her husband’s jealousy, public trysts with other men and the verbal abuse she received, with him referring to her as a “weight.” He called her “old and ugly,” while she was still in fact young and beautiful.

She was an accomplished cook, a graceful dancer, had excellent taste and was adored by fashion designers, who turned her into an International figure. They felt her special breed of elegance always made their clothes look impeccable.

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her early modeling days

Wallis and Claude’s neighbors were used to hearing fights and loud music emanating from their Paris apartment, but no one heard the thump of her body when she swan-dived 25 feet onto the cobblestones below her kitchen window. An autopsy revealed she had alcohol and cocaine in her system. She had no signs of self-defense on her body but her shirt had been torn, which police found alarming.

Whether or not her abusive husband had pushed her out of the window remains unknown, though members of her family have no doubt that years of his abusive treatment was the cause of her death regardless. Claude Montana didn’t show up to Wallis’ wake and dinner, but did show up to the official memorial, wearing lip gloss, make-up and sporting dyed orange-yellow hair. He mumbled an inaudible poem that people even in the front row couldn’t her, and exited the service speaking to no one.

Many protested the memorial altogether, refusing to go to “Claude’s apologia.” They hadn’t missed much. The condemning priest simply scolded the attendees about the travails of their lifestyle, which he blamed for her death. Her daughters brought a Khalil Gibran poem to read, but couldn’t find an opportunity to recite it.

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Wallis was a jet-setting model before she became Claude Montana’s muse

One thing that many people found so shocking about her death was her strong sense of self, and lust for life. Regardless of the pain she was hiding, she always had a carefree exuberance. She was a true bon vivant.

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Photoshoot of Wallis Franken posing as Wallis Duchess of Windsor

 

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In Madonna’s “Justify My Love” video

 

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Uncovering a Jackie O. Hideaway

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Growing up outside of Washington D.C., I’d pass the mysterious iron gates guarding Dumbarton Oaks, but the ornate black and gold facade hadn’t yet piqued my curiosity.

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Then, like many people around the world, I became fascinated by the Kennedy family and discovered that Jackie O. and many other Washington socialites liked to relax at Dumbarton Oaks. Just a few blocks north of bustling Georgetown, it features 53 acres of serenity and was but walking distance from the Georgetown home Jackie moved into after JFK’s assassination, pictured below:

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The home was purchased in 1920 by Milded and Robert Bliss, and found the grounds rather neglected. They hired progressive landscape gardener Beatrix Farrand to design the various terraces, gardens and more.

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I spent a summer day alone on the grounds, exploring and taking note of inspiring techniques which I will use on my own property. Every home needs a cutting garden as does mine. But this estate goes far beyond flowers. I’ve since installed fruit-bearing trees, a grapevine, ornamental trees and am on the hunt for a spooky, romantic weeping willow.

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Dumbarton Oaks was a place that provided much solace for a grieving Jackie O., and it most certainly gifted me with an exhilarating Sunday, free from the stress of daily life. It’s a must-see for all nature-lovers, gardeners and would-be Bunny Mellons!

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Socialite Obsession: Isabella Blow

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You know you’re someone when Anna Wintour speaks at your memorial service. Or when Joan Collins speaks at your funeral. Joan would never waste her time on mere mortals.

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Isabella Blow didn’t need to die to get such reverential treatment. She chose to end her life in spite of it, after battling depression and being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. But let’s not have her death and much-publicized disappointments overshadow her  brilliant  life.

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When one thinks of Isabella Blow, they think of her outrageous hats. This post will feature a few of these, and highlight some creative achievements that get overshadowed by her personal tragedies in the media.

  • She began as an assistant to Vogue’s Anna Wintour. Did not freak out.
  • She was a muse for designer Phillip Treacy, with whom she shared a lifelong collaboration after he created a wedding headdress for her.
  • She was the Fashion Director for Tatler.
  • She discovered the fashion world’s enfant terrible Alexander McQueen and model/actress Sophie Dahl.
  • She consulted for DuPont Lycra, Swarovski and Lacoste.
  • She made a cameo in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic

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And these accomplishments are just the icing. She was a socialite, but when out and about in the fashion scene, she didn’t merely get tipsy with friends. She made deals and enjoyed creative collaborations. She was more interesting than she was beautiful. More business-minded than she was bubbly. And more sensitive than many of us. She left us too soon.

Simon Blow

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Socialite Obsession: Millicent Rogers

Millicent Rogers Muse 1The word “socialite” is thrown around too loosely, just like the term “genius.” I have a slight obsession with socialites – the classic ones. I don’t favor the nouveaux riche girls – gold-digging, ostentatious and all too willing to use a sex tape to bolster them to very temporary tabloid fame.

At least socialites back inRV-AE203_ROGERS_G_20110909030651 the day had a tougher time breaking into a man’s world. And those glass ceilings gave a lot of them gumption; one of the reasons why so many gay men adore them.

Take Millicent Rogers. An heiress to the Standard Oil fortune, she’s regarded as a fashion icon and art collector. All of these things are true. But she was also a pioneer. With art, she didn’t collect just the standard European classics. She was an early champion of Southwestern-style art and jewelry. In fact, she’s credited for bringing international attention to this style.

Most New Yorkers retreated to Palm Beach or Italy to get away from the city, but Millicent retired to Taos, New Mexico. Back in the 1940’s, Taos was but a small artist colony. It wasn’t yet the spiritual stomping ground for Julia Roberts and Dennis Hopper. She was ahead of her time. So ahead of her time, that she was one of the first celebrity activists for Native American civil rights.

But the thing I am most impressed by, is that she wasn’t a whiner. Her heart was bigger than the average heart. I’m 03-18-12-dogs-in-vogue-book-05not talking about kindness. At her autopsy, her heart was discovered to be four times the size of a regular human heart. She had rheumatic fever as a child, and doctors said she wouldn’t live past ten. While they were wrong, she suffered poor health the rest of her life. This included heart attacks, bouts of double pneumonia and by the time she was 40, she was mostly crippled in her left arm. She died following surgery for an aneurism.

That didn’t stop her from marrying three times, and having romantic trysts with the likes of Clark Gable and the Prince of Wales. She raised three children. She lobbied for civil rights in Washington. She was a hot item on the New York social scene and photographs of her were often featured in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

She never dwelled on her ill heath, failed marriages and she certainly never tried blending in with the pack. Every time she veered off the reservation, she did something great she was remembered for.