Archiver > WORLD-OBITS > 2005-07 > 1120753846

From: "Peter_McCrae" <>
Subject: SCHLESINGER; Nan Field Kempner-2005-USA
Date: Thu, 7 Jul 2005 17:30:46 +0100

Nan Kempner
(Filed: 06/07/2005)
The Daily Telegraph & the

Nan Kempner, the New York society hostess who has died aged 74, inspired the
novelist Tom Wolfe to coin the term "social X-ray" when describing the
skeletal ladies-who-lunch on the Upper East Side in Bonfire of the Vanities;
addicted to haute couture, she entertained on a grand scale, whilst fitting
in regular trips to London, Paris, Gstaadt, Venice and the Caribbean for
fashion shows, parties, skiing and sun-bathing.

An insatiable shopper - for nearly four decades she never missed the couture
shows in Paris - Nan Kempner's love of fashion had begun at an early age.
Her mother, she would say, dressed "divinely", while her grandmother "was
unbelievable. I come from a long line of clotheshorses". She bought her
first couture gown - a white satin sheath dress with a white satin
mink-trimmed coat - in 1958, from the first collection by the young Yves
Saint Laurent, who was designing for Dior.

Her mother refused to pay for the dress so, as she later recalled, "I cried
and cried until I got them down to a price I could afford". Saint Laurent,
keen to meet such a tenacious potential customer, asked to see her, and the
two became lifelong friends. She went on to attend every one of his couture
shows, missing only one, when her father died.

It was her love affair with couture that fuelled Nan Kempner's desire to
stay so thin, as she was then able to fit into the samples worn by the
models, which were usually half-price. But money was no object and her
husband, an investment banker, "was very generous and understanding". Over
the years she built up a collection of gowns that was worthy of a museum.

"My husband, Tommy, thinks it's hysterical," she said recently, "because he
used to think it was an extravagance, and it now turns out that I was an art
collector!" When her collection outgrew their 16-room apartment in
Manhattan, she converted their children's former bedrooms into walk-in

Somewhat surprisingly for someone who looked as if she survived on a diet of
celery sticks, in 2001 Nan Kempner published RSVP: Menus for Entertaining
from People Who Really Know How. With advice on how to serve foie gras in "a
compact penthouse on the Left Bank", and feeding your guests after a boar
hunt in the Loire Valley, it was more like Hello! magazine than a recipe
book, illustrated by glossy photographs of Nan Kempner's friends in their
luxurious houses.

But the life of a glittering clotheshorse was not without its hazards. The
Kempners lost millions of dollars worth of jewellery in a burglary during
the 1970s; Nan Kempner had only just replaced it when she was held up at
gunpoint in her apartment and robbed again. She also had to undergo several
operations after she broke her hip, having tripped in her bedroom whilst
wearing a pair of 8-inch John Galliano heels.

But she faced every tribulation with equanimity and when emphysema, brought
on by years of heavy smoking, rendered her unable to move without a portable
oxygen tank, she was typically upbeat. "My dear," she said in an interview
in Vanity Fair earlier this year: "Wait till you discover the wheelchair.
You go to the front of every single line. They push you right through. I
tell you, it's First Class Plus."

Nan Field Schlesinger was born in San Francisco on July 24 1930. Her father,
Albert "Speed" Schlesinger, was a successful car dealer, while her mother,
Irma, was a "self-feeder, meaning she had her own dough". Nan was an only
child, as were both her parents, and she grew up in splendour at Pacific
Heights, one of San Francisco's richest neighbourhoods. Nevertheless, the
house was regularly burgled; on one occasion her mother lost two mink coats,
a mink jacket, a sealskin coat and a baby lamb coat.

Young Nan's lonely childhood was relieved by playing with her vast
collection of dolls and attending fashion shows with her mother. But at the
age of 12 she was sent to a diet specialist after she was deemed to have put
on too much weight. Ordered to eat "sandwiches" where the bread had been
replaced by iceberg lettuce leaves, she consoled herself by poring over
recipe books containing descriptions of forbidden rich food.

After the Sarah Dix Hamlin School for Girls and Connecticut College for
Women, Nan spent a year at the Sorbonne before meeting Thomas Lenox Kempner,
a member of the German-Jewish aristocracy of Manhattan. They married in 1952
and their relationship thrived on the understanding that she travelled to
all the fashion shows and bought extravagantly, while turning a blind eye to
his occasional infidelities. She claimed not to mind, she said in a recent
interview in Vanity Fair, "as long as they're attractive". They did separate
briefly after he had a seven-year relationship with a fellow socialite whom
she described as "that disgusting woman".

Never one for political correctness, on one occasion Nan Kempner caused a
furore after saying in print that she loathed fat people. But on the whole
she was refreshingly self-deprecating; her father told her "you'll never
make it on your face, so you'd better be interesting", and she tried her
best to do so.

Nan Kempner served on the boards of several charities and benefit committees
and gave occasional lectures on couture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in
New York. She had spells as a special editor of Harper's Bazaar magazine, a
design consultant for Tiffany & Co and as an "international representative"
for Christie's. But she admitted that she never knew what to write when she
was filling in travel documents. "I'm not rich enough to be a real
philanthropist," she explained. "And I loathe being called a socialite. So I
write 'housewife'."

Shopping remained her greatest passion. At the age of 72 she still bought
mini-skirts (but only for the beach) and revealed that her recent purchases
had included an Etro bikini with a matching poncho. "I tell people all the
time I want to be buried naked," she once said. "I know there will be a
store where I'm going."

Nan Kempner, who died on Sunday, is survived by her husband, two sons and a

© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2005.

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