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.

Prom Night in No Man’s Land

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What happens when the band plays Freebird

If one wants an edge when navigating fashion, they need to learn how to mix the high and low. If one wants to eat well, they’ll appreciate a white truffle pate as much as a street taco. And if one wants to live a good life, an appreciation of the high and low is also necessary.

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This isn’t the ballet. This is a true tale of a commune in the California desert. Off the grid with no electricity and running water, it’s a refuge for those fleeing regular society. Not even the police monitor the activities in Slab City, which got its name from the giant slabs of concrete on the ground. It is the site of a former military base. Barbed wire still blocks off the edge of town, which is said to have been a bomb test site.

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Chris McCandless, the young man who inspired the true story Into the Wild, lived in Slab City for a spell. Sean Penn even visited this collective of trailers and man-made dwellings to direct the film version of the book, using the real location and residents for authenticity.

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On Saturday nights, Bill the Builder flicks on a generator, and residents begin to shuffle into the center of “town.” As the desert heat gives way to cool air, they gather at The Range, built by Bill the Builder. He’s the unofficial father to everyone there. There’s a stage, and seats torn from Greyhound buses.  A string of lights hangs above the live band, diffused by plastic paint buckets. Residents drink hooch and sing prion songs.

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Inventive seating at The Range

Retired “snow birds” from cold climates drive down in their RVs to ride out the winter in California, and they often pull in to enjoy Saturday nights with the locals. But the year-round residents can seem menacing on paper. They’re often ex-convicts and people suffering from mental illness. But most are kind, scratching out a living off the refuse of others. Fences are made from mattress springs, and they all bathe in the nearby sulfur-tinged hot springs.

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“Slab City Carol” reigns as prom queen!

How I found this place is another story. I’m here to share prom photos. Once a year, people come far and wide to dance to the live band’s rendition of Freebird with reckless abandon. They dress up and take prom photos. They drink Wild Turkey and wait for the king and queen to be announced at the end of the night. It’s a bucket list event for adventurers, road trippers and of course, les bon vivants!

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Kim Burke-Connors (pictured left) and myself pose under the prom arch.

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Laissez les bon temps roulé!

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As the night goes on, more clothing is lost.p

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Never leave yourself vulnerable in Slab City!

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Residents pull out their hidden daggers, just in time for the photo!

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The local lothario, who invites girls to his “temple”; an upturned septic tank from the military base, which is shaped like a temple.

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It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

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If you’re throwing a holiday party, rest assured yours will be one of many during the season. What can you do to make your party stand out? Everyone will have cocktails and a nice spread, but I’m all for an activity that keeps people engaged, whether they’re laughing or crafting. A cookie decorating area with to-go bags add more to do and an instant party favor.

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The Spiked Peppermint Cocoa was adorned with a candy cane in each cup.

This year, I put together a photo booth at my Christmas party. Holiday-themed props are easy to come by; Santa hats, reindeer andlers, red nose etc. I threw in a couple of converation pieces, such as a plastic butcher knife from Halloween. It guarantees funnier photos.

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And along with my friend Jules, we hosted a Yankee Swap (or, a White Elephant Exchange). All guests were encouraged to bring a wrapped present, unmarked. All presents were piled under the tree, and people drew numbers. Guests took turns picking out a gift, and the following players had the opportunity to steal a gift they coveted.

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Grinch santa hats

From stacks of lottery tickets to a box full of DVDs, guests laughed, lamented and stole items from one another – multiple times. From the next room, it almost sounded as if I had a movie theater in-house, as all the reactions were loud and silumtaneous. As the exchange got more heated, I passed out slices of pumpkin pie and refilled drinks, such as Jules’ spiced mulled wine and my spiked peppermint hot cocoa.

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Happy holidays to all!

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Hamilton helping with the set-up

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Part of the fun is destroying him

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Canapes: Mexican polenta bars and artichoke parmesan spread over toasted baguette slices

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Yes, someone brought a case of beer to the Yankee Swap

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The Yankee Swap gets heated!

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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

Bringing the party back to Atlantic City

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With DC chef Christina Berrios (pictured left)

I’ll never forget that episode of Sex and the City, were Charlotte goes trashy to appeal to the blue-collar patrons of Atlantic City. That show is iconic, but poking fun at Jersey is like grabbing low-hanging fruit. Not as low-hanging as Florida, but still.

If East Coasters don’t feel like springing for Vegas (or even better, Monaco) we do Atlantic City. Is the place a bit declasse? Just ask the guy selling No Fat Chicks tees on the boardwalk. Is it fading? Absolutely.

But if Atlantic City is dying, why not infuse some life into it? If it’s tacky, embrace it! Our family does it in a big way. My uncle George and Aunt Nancy, with the help of their kids Rammy, Christina and Kelly, throw an amazing party. They have been hosting day trips to AC with a party bus you wouldn’t believe.

Here’s how to do it like a boss:

Get a party bus, send out invites, and fill it with people who like to party!

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They start you off at the bus site with  fresh Dunkin’ Doughnuts coffee and snacks, and homemade sandwiches for close friends and family. Then, they get the gambling started early, by passing out lotto cards, playing bingo, and giving fast cash prizes. They’ll offer $5 to the first person to pull out a bottled water, iPod, etc. They encourage folks to grab the mic in front of the bus and tell jokes.  The crowd is pumped by the time we arrive in Atlantic City!

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Bring a flask and pass it around.

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Bring CASH!

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Get a thematic Jersey manicure!

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Only a fool would pass up a Dolly Parton slot machine!

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Go on the boardwalk and be silly! Avoid the vulgar beach tees but keep on the lookout for sundresses, cheap sunglasses and quirky toys.

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Go on the beach. Yes, there are gangsters and perms out there, but so is the fresh salt air and warm sun!

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Get away from the din below in a cool penthouse, where you can wash the sand from your toes and the cigarette smoke from your hair (yes you can still smoke indoors in Atlantic City). Enjoy a nice scotch before descending.

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For the adventurous, visit that sacred floor between the casino and hotel rooms. Giant party rooms await you, hosting events. See were the party is, and go for the trifecta: open bar, buffet and loud music. Sneak in on the fun, Wedding Crashers-style!

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There was some kind of disco here!

Margaritaville may be a chain, but the menu is excellent and so is Jimmy Buffet. Get ridiculous drinks with fruits in them. Props to any establishment who tries to make the Northeast look tropical.

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And maybe, juuuuust maybe, you’ll get LUCKY!

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My husband scored this on the PENNY slots!

Carpe Autumn.

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Autumn was a little dramatic this year. There was no “jacket weather.” A frosty night jumped out at us after a summer’s day. Acorns and walnuts are falling from trees four stories tall, pelting our cars with a metallic ting. Every time you look up, leaves are spinning in mid-air.

A year ago, I blogged about how autumn had snuck up on me. It was halfway over before I stopped to smell the pumpkin spice everything. I had just had a baby, and autumn is a very short-lived party.

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playing in a giant pit of corn kernels

Last year I was determined to enjoy autumn despite having a kid. Now I’m enjoying it because I have a kid.

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I started last weekend. We hosted a bonfire in our backyard. Like us adults, Hamilton was mesmerized by the fire, clutching his Curious George doll with eyes as wide as saucers. We sipped sarsaparilla whiskey and shared old stories.

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Other things you can do:

It may be tempting to pick up a pumpkin at the grocery store while shopping, but take a day to slow down and visit an old-fashioned pumpkin patch. Enjoy the hayride, sip on some cider and let the child run free in the fields.

Even if your toddler is too young to go trick-or-treating, it doesn’t mean you can’t dress up! Put together a clever costume (extra points if it’s not store-bought) get a great shot and share it on social media.  Get into the spirit!

Jump into leaf piles.

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at a pumpkin-carving party with fellow Pinterest-obsessed girlfriends

Toddlers are just beginning to learn color, but you can make it fun by taking walks and hunting for special leaves. Especially beautiful ones can be used to decorate their rooms or be tacked onto their mobile.

Carve a pumpkin and toast the seeds with different spices. It teaches the child to be industrious, and less wasteful. You and the family can enjoy the treat while doing an official lighting ceremony for your new jack-0-lantern.

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comfort foods like imported Danish kringles, quiche and cookies helped us stay in “the zone” while crafting

Succumb to the shameless marketing and grab a pumpkin spice latte. A sip or two won’t hurt your little one.

Carpe Autumn!

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Party tip: A dash of spicy ginger beer takes apple cider to a whole other level

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Road Trip to Monticello

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The house was stately, but overshadowed by the wild things in his garden.

When it comes to road trips, I get worked up Elle Woods’ sorority sisters in Legally Blonde. Minus the screeching. Well, a bit of the screeching. Sometimes a road trip can be better than a faraway vacation; zero airports and quality time with your dogs.

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View of the vineyards at Monticello (Italian for “little mountain”)

Tucked away in the mountains of Charlottesville, overlooking apple orchards and a vineyard owned by Dave Matthews lies this historic home, which is Italian for “little mountain.” Indeed, Thomas Jefferson’s home sat on the plateau of a small mountaintop, and you could walk from one opposite slope to the other in a couple of minutes. Much can be said about the interior of Monticello, which is smaller than I had anticipated, much like Graceland. I blame tacky McMansions for this distortion.

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cock’s comb

I would be remiss if I described the grandeur of a place without mentioning it was built with slave labor. Monticello truly is an homage to the hard work the slaves put in; they created a haven. Even Monticello itself is trying to reconcile it’s darker past. They discuss Sally Hemings on a specialized slave tour, and it’s about time.

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A cool underground tunnel ran beneath the house, featuring all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into an estate. An ice cooler, wine storage, a kitchen; even Jefferson’s personal toilet.

What intrigued me about Monticello were the gardens. Jefferson enjoyed the beauty of unusual plants and delicious heirloom vegetables – many of which aren’t sold in grocery stores due to their shorter shelf life. He liked variety and appreciated the abnormal. I was thrilled to find that I could buy seeds that came directly from Thomas Jefferson’s garden. Here in Richmond, I’m continuing this line of ancient seeds.

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Strolling the grounds, I could see why Jefferson often wrote about how he would rather be home at Monticello. The tour inspired me to make my home even more of a haven, more of a gathering pace. And I thought nothing could work me up more than Pinterest!

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In the distance, you can see one little mountain on the range that was taller than Jefferson’s.

We’re currently planting a weeping willow in the yard, for a romantic backdrop. I’m painting a few interior doors Tiffany blue, with white trim. We’ve hung Moroccan lamps from wooden posts surrounding our brick patio. This patio will of course be accented by the heirloom plants we’ve grown from Monticello.
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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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cover girl

SLUMBER PARTY!

IMG_1278Childhood slumber parties were pure magic. It was the freedom of being together after the adult world had fallen asleep. It was in the thrill of the ghost stories, the unchecked amount of sugar in our candy stashes. Growing up doesn’t mean that slumber parties should be a thing of the past. In fact, we need them more than ever! Between our careers and growing families, there’s an ever-increasing need for quality time with friends and pampering.

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Whatever sense of wonder that’s missing from adult sleepovers, we make up for in luxury! Forget sleeping bags on the floor. We loaded down our sofa bed with linens and pillows.

Instead of frozen pizza, we opted for pan-seared sesame salmon, homemade pesto on spaghetti squash and new potatoes, and a summer salad with peaches and feta.

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Our movie popcorn was dusted with truffle salt we brought home from an unforgettable trip to Monaco.

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We had fun doing a 60s-style slumber party photoshoot – pure camp!

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We watched movies, then capped it off doing what girls do best at slumber parties.  We talked! Until the wee hours of the morning, we dished about boys, our careers, movie stars, and everything in between. Even if the giggles were fueled by my spiked watermelon & mint slushies, we still laughed all night. Just like old times.

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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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