by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
January 25, 2007
SATIN AND SILK: THE GLORY OF NAN KEMPNER
DUMMERSTON, Vt. - The Broadway musical "Silk Stockings" tells the story of Ninotchka, a Communist-era Russian apparatchik who is sent to Paris and becomes seduced by sensuality.
This is how Cole Porter puts it in a song from the show, "Satin and Silk," sung on Broadway by Gretchen Wyler:
You cannot expect a debutante
I felt exactly like Ninotchka this past weekend in New York, when I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute show called "Nan Kempner: American Chic" (through March 4, 2007).
I'm more or less a socialist at heart. I hate class distinctions and long for a redistribution of wealth (or even, once again, a strong middle class). I believe in unions. I'm against poverty, racism and homophobia. I identify with the underdog on almost every occasion. Put put me in a room full of French couture and I drool.
The show takes viewers into the closets of Nan Kempner, who died in 2005, just before her 75th birthday, of emphysema from a lifetime of smoking.
The daughter of a beautiful woman, her father told her, "You'll never make it on your face," he told her, "so you'd better be interesting." He must have been a lovely man.
Born at a time when there were few career choices available to women, she became a power broker in the mode of her good friend, Nancy Reagan. In other words, she became a "socialite." And to support this life, she amassed an enormous wardrobe of Yves St. Laurent, Chanel, Mme. Gres, Bill Blass and other originals.
The daugher of a beautiful French mother and a father who told her that she would never make it on her looks (so she had better become "interesting"), Kempner ended up rail-thin, blonde, elegant and large-mouthed. She was 5'9" in her stocking feet but usually added four or five-inch heels. She weighed 110 pounds and spent her life on a diet.
She looked marvelous in clothes, and her image was constantly in the magazines and society pages when I was growing up. Clothing was so important to her that she once said, "I want to buried naked. I know there's a store where I'm going." It will come as no surprise that she was a member of the Best Dressed List Hall of Fame.
She became the wife of Thomas Kempner, an investment banker, and although there were a few separations, the marriage lasted for over 50 years. She was the mother of three and a grandmother. Capote and Warhol were close friends.
She was also a leader in the use of plastic surgery.
It would be easy to dismiss Nan Kempner as a silly woman leading a shallow life, but as I wandered through the show in an advanced state of clothing lust, I ended up being grateful. Not because I could find any redeeming value in obscene wealth - obscene is... well, obscene. But as a realist, I know there has always been obscene wealth in the world.
Art depends on obscene wealth. We wouldn't have Velasquez and Fragonard without the courts of Spain and France. We wouldn't have Michelangelo without the Medicis, or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel without Pope Julius II. We wouldn't have most of the major museums in the world without robber barons of various shapes and sizes.
And we wouldn't have the world of high fashion. From the women who know how to lay out delicate silk chiffon and cut it into whole circles, to "les petites mains," Chanel's "little hands" - the seamstresses who sew by hand the fragile circles into the waistband of ball gowns and hem them without pulling or tearing - to the embroiderers, fabric designers, jewelry and shoe designers, to the photographers and too-thin models and magazine editors and writers, fashion is a billion-dollar industry that is keeping alive a great deal of rare beauty and skill.
"My husband, Tommy, used to think ... it was extravagance, and now it turns out that I was an art collector," Kempner used to say. "Can you imagine?"
And while a woman does not need 400 chic jackets or a pile of cashmere sweaters that reaches to the sky, and while whole South American villages could be fed for a year on what it costs for just two or three pairs of high leather boots (with ostrich feathers at the ankle - "You have to have very thin ankles to get away with those," the docent said) it's somehow wonderful that these artifacts exist and that we can see them.
Otherwise, how would we know to line a red velvet skirt with a brighter red to catch the light?
As the docent explained, "The media needed people like Nan to write about, the designers needed the publicity from the media, and the socialites needed the attention to make them feel important." This is not such a shabby thing. To wear a ball gown you need a ball, and fund-raising is what socializing is all about. Kempner is credited with raising more than $75 million for cancer during her career.
Kempner had great style, and this is also not a shabby thing. Today we are used to couture-wearing actresses, but they are dressed by stylists. They're just walking clothes hangers, and after a while, they all look the same.
So call me Ninotchka, at heart just a Silk Stocking Socialist. And naked or dressed, rest in peace Nan Kempner, and thanks for sharing.