Hourglass Figures: Outspoken Queen Bees Nan Kempner And Tinsley Mortimer

by SUSANNAH LONG · March 10, 2010

It's not all fun and games being a socialite. Oh sure, there’s the occasional gold-plated squash court or urn full of caviar, but New York’s cultural history is marked by the contributions of many society dames (and gentlemen) who knew how to get things done. Here we celebrate the ladies who lunch – and then rebuild the kitchen.

Naturally we’ll also throw in some hot messes for good measure. First up: Nan Kempner and Tinsley Mortimer!





Nan Kempner and Tinsley Mortimer

Nan Kempner July 24, 1930 – July 3, 2005 Aliase: The Social X Ray

Nan Kempner on her wedding day, 1952 [Photo from San Francisco Brides magazine]

The difference a daddy makes. Nan Kempner’s father reportedly told her, “You’ll never make it on your face, so you’d better be interesting.” She took it to heart, cultivating a biting wit, a brash persona, and a laser eye for couture.

That last quality is perhaps what Nan is best remembered for: She amassed huge numbers of designer garments, and in forty years missed only one of the shows given by her friend Yves St. Laurent. The socialite with “a body like a hanger” (so said Valentino) easily fit into designer sample sizes, and snapped up every gown she could. Nan didn’t borrow; Nan owned. At the time of her death, she possessed the largest private collection of couture in the world, key pieces from which now reside at the Met.

[Photos courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Our heroine's Dorothy Parker-esque way with words also made her one of the more imminently quotable socialites in history:

On courtship: "He [husband Thomas Kempner] looked at me and said, 'Your skirt's too tight. It was Dior. I was filled with dislike for the man."

On her love of events: “I wouldn’t miss the opening of a door.”

On the afterlife: “I want to be buried naked. I know there’s a store where I’m going.”

On aesthetics: “There really is no excuse for anyone to be ugly.”

Yet she was also, according to her friends, self-deprecating, genuine, and always capable of acknowledging her own shallow aspects. Looking for more reasons to like the lady? Over thirty years, she raised 75 million dollars for Memorial Sloan-Kettering.

Elegant and lively to the end, Nan Kempner continued to hold court and prowl the fashion beat until her final bout with emphysema in 2005. In fact, the cause of a broken hip a few years before her death was a sky-high Galliano heel.

And now?

Who’s Nan Kempner’s current equivalent? Sigh. No one works it like Nan did. However, we’ve gotta go with Tinsley Mortimer as the closest match; while perhaps neither as sharp nor as fashion-obsessed as Nan, Tinzers is still at the top of the society food-chain these days, and she has a deep, sincere love for clothes. She may not drive fashion trends, but she's a constant presence at fashion shows and she wears her impressive wardrobe well. Start hoarding now, Tinsley, and you may have your own Met-bound collection some day.

In the words of Lady Gaga, "Just dance. Gonna be okay, da da doo doo mmm."

Bonus! Tinsley’s almost as quotable as Nan, though not always for the same reasons:

On Japanese culture: “I love Sailor Moon. She, like, spins and glows light or something.”

On the possibility of her own anime double: “I'd definitely like to have some superpower. Maybe I could snap my fingers and be instantly dressed in a pink poofy dress, and my hair would be automatically curled, since it's naturally straight. Snap my fingers and my hair would be curled. That's a great superpower. It might not change the world, but it would help me a lot. The hair takes some time.”

(Please note that here Tinz is essentially describing the closing credits sequence of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.)

Working a red carpet or a reception line is a shared skill. So is looking pretty:

We’ve also got to assume that Nan Kempner would love High Society like a fat kid loves cake . . . although she would stare down that simile, since she famously told W magazine in 2000, “I loathe fat people.” Given that distaste for political correctness and her affinity for plain speaking, she'd be right at home on reality tv.

There's some saying about tigers of the same stripe, right? No? Crap.

Some have drubbed Tinsley for exposing her personal life via a CW show, but is her candidness when sobbing on her bed about her separation from Topper all that different from Nan’s blunt words about “that disgusting woman” that her husband, Tommy, had an affair with in the 80's? We don’t think so. We do suggest that Tinsley (if the CW lets her write her own script), try to get in some Nan-ish zingers, however. When asked about the affair that almost ended her marriage, Nan cheerfully responded, “I said, 'Out of here - I don't want you if that's your taste.’ Yuck! I got him to see a shrink. He's much warmer than he used to be.” TinTin, go for tongue-lashings! They make for better teaser trailers anyway. Now if Tinsley would just build up the same philanthropic pull that Nan Kempner did . . .