Aileen Mehle, a witty, ebullient beauty best known as the columnist Suzy — whose stories on Nouvelle Society and the frenzied celebrity culture that succeeded it, appeared in WWD and W between 1991 and 2005 — died Friday at age 98, according to friends.
She was born Aileen Elder in El Paso, Tex., married Rear Admiral Roger W. Mehle Sr. on June 20, 1939, and had one son, Roger W. Mehle Jr., born Dec. 28, 1941. The union foundered after only a few years, as the writer later intimated, because taking orders wasn’t her strong suit.
The gossip columnist was first brought to the attention of New York society by Truman Capote, who started talking her up when she was writing a society column covering Florida’s Palm Beach and Miami for the Miami Daily News. When Mehle’s second marriage, to Mark Kenneth Frank Jr., fell apart in the late Fifties, she moved to New York.
When she got to Gotham, the city had seven daily newspapers, each with a gossip column. The most important columns were those of Walter Winchell (read by an estimated 30 million people) and Igor Cassini, brother of designer Oleg Cassini, who wrote under the pseudonym Cholly Knickerbocker. Igor’s right hand was another young woman from Texas, Liz Smith, who would develop quite a reputation as a columnist in her own right. Mehle borrowed the last part of her byline from Cholly: Suzy Knickerbocker.
A titian-haired temptress whose personal style echoed that of Elizabeth Taylor in the Sixties and Seventies (think caftans, massive jewelry and sky-high hair), Mehle was very attractive to men and was linked with shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis, film producer Walter Wanger and Frank Sinatra, among others. But, after her second stab at matrimony, she never married again. She appeared as a panelist on the CBS TV show “What’s My Line?” in the mid-Sixties and in an episode of the ABC TV show “Batman” in 1967.
Former Tiffany chairman John Loring, writing about Mehle in Harper’s Bazaar in 2012, quotes her as saying that, in her gossip reporting, she didn’t believe in the “jackhammer approach.” He also cited Sinatra’s remarks about her: “I adore Aileen Mehle. She brings an ingredient to her reporting rarely found in a gossip column — humor. It’s important to remember that a lady writer in her position has a great deal of power. Aileen wields that power with a feather duster.’”
Loring also noted Mehle’s remarks to Life magazine in 1966: “What I do is somewhere between ditch-digging and galley-slaving. It is a neck-swiveling, don’t-miss-anything job. When I walk into a party, while I’m saying, ‘Hello darling, hello dear, how are you?’ to everyone I haven’t seen since yesterday, I case the place. I have a fast eye. I also listen, listen, listen. When I come home dog-tired at 1 a.m., I often haven’t a line to go on. I’ve even put my little head down on the typewriter and cried a few rusty tears. But then I snap out of it and get to work.”
The leading characters in her columns, she added, were “the glamour groups — the terribly rich, terribly important, terribly powerful celebrities and social figures….Everything they do is covered with a lovely, glistening patina….No matter what I say about them, it can’t begin to compare with what they say about each other.”
Although she referred to Truman Capote as the Tiny Terror and called Zsa-Zsa Gabor “Miss Chicken Paprika of 1914,” Mehle was usually quite gentle with her highly placed subjects, who made her one of them.
Mehle began covering social events in the days when Ladies used to Lunch, and the group she wrote about included Babe Paley, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Slim Keith, Gloria Guinness, the Duchess of Windsor and C.Z. Guest, who frequented such restaurants as The Colony, Quo Vadis, La Côte Basque, Le Pavillon and La Grenouille.
Later, Mehle often traveled with her great friends Pat and William F. Buckley, he the editor of The National Review and she a fund-raiser extraordinaire. In a December 2008 Vanity Fair article, she recalled Pat, who raised tens of millions of dollars for hospitals and cultural institutions, and put the Met’s Costume Institute ball on the social map. “I don’t know how Bill could have picked any woman in the world to be his wife other than Pat, because she could match him — even intellectually, and certainly as far as humor was concerned,” Mehle said. “Most women would have felt challenged by Bill, but she held her own. She blurted out anything she felt like blurting out. If she loved you, she loved you madly. If she hated you, look out. Don’t forget, she was six feet tall. But she always wore flats so she wouldn’t be taller than Bill.”
Mehle also remembered the pair arriving at a Bahamian airport with 42 duffel bags. “You know how many times she counted those bags?” Mehle asked. “Not Bill. He never counted bags.”
In her Suzy columns she also covered the social and fashion doings of Valentino, Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Carolina Herrera, Donna Karan, Arnold Scaasi and many other designers.
In October 1987, in the wake of the Black Friday stock market crash, Mehle, who had written enthusiastically about what WWD dubbed Nouvelle Society, told the newspaper, “Do I think this will put an end to party-going? Heavens, I think if you lined up these people against a wall and shot them, they’d still come to life and throw another party. It’s not making me happy. It’s depressing to lose money, but I think it will take a few weeks to see what is going to happen. Maybe they’ll think twice about spending money on a certain charity. But there are far too many charities in New York anyway. New York has turned into one big charity ball.”
In May 1991, Mehle received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Marymount Manhattan College. A party in her honor, WWD reported, raised more than $250,000 for the Aileen Mehle Scholarship Fund for Journalism at the school.
In July of that year, it was announced that Mehle would be joining WWD and its then-sister publication W that October.
The late John B. Fairchild, then chairman and editorial director of Fairchild Publications, said, “Suzy is the best there is, and we’re thrilled to have her. She’s always been number one, and now she’ll have the kind of visual material to make her even more than number one.”
Ed Nardoza, editor in chief of WWD, said: “I was Aileen’s editor during her years at WWD, but that’s a misnomer. She didn’t really need an editor. Her Suzy column was an absolute pleasure to process. She was a wonderful reporter and particularly skilled at making an arch observation without clobbering her subjects. As Mr. Fairchild would say, ‘Always the scalpel, never the hammer.’ She was a brilliant, shrewd, entertaining and occasionally wicked chronicler of an elite world before social reporting turned brutal and unforgiving. Her columns were perfectly written windows into a world of power, glamour and privilege.
“We’d laugh all the time, especially over my editing questions, usually along the lines of whether people were really named Oatsie or Muffy,” Nardoza said. “But one of the best benefits of being Aileen’s colleague was occasionally sitting next to her at a social function. It was quite a thing to behold how every power player in the room was drawn to her, seeking her affection, her approval and, of course, a mention in her column. At one gala, she introduced me to William F. Buckley Jr. as ‘my dear editor,’ and Buckley leaned over and whispered in my ear in that unmistakable, blue-blooded voice, ‘You’d better be good to her or I’ll give you a damn good thrashing.’”
In February 1992, in her Suzy column, Mehle wrote bluntly about the CFDA’s big award show at Lincoln Center: “I hope they made a lot of money. Certainly, it was well-produced, and parts of it were great fun, but lo-o-o-o-ng. Too damn long. Men particularly hate that. (Has anyone ever complained about any show’s being too short?) At least a half-hour could have been cut without sacrificing anything at all vital or anybody’s fragile ego — who really needs those film flashes at the beginning of the show? Besides being old hat — they’ve done it every year for years — they flash on and off so fast no one knows who or what is in them.” The columnist’s suggestion for change: “Forget the gimmicks and get the first presenter on at 7:31.”
A July 1995 column on the wedding of Marie-Chantal Miller to Crown Prince Pavlos of Greece, though, had Mehle in full gushing flower: “Marie-Chantal Miller, fair-haired, fine-boned, exquisite as a Florentine bella of the Quattrocento…on July 1 in London glided down the aisle of the sumptuous Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Aghia Sophia to become a Royal Highness. Dressed in shimmering white satin of surpassing elegance with a tulle headdress held in place by a blazing diamond tiara (was it ‘something borrowed’ from the Queen of Denmark?) and trailing an endless tulle veil embroidered with appliquéd flowers and butterflies of fine lace, Marie-Chantal was the stuff of dreams. It is just as well that her father, Robert Warren Miller, master of all the duty-free shops he surveys, is a billionaire. It took the house of Valentino two months to make the veil alone.”
In October 1999, Mehle wrote, “I am just back from four heavenly days in the heart of beautiful Scotland, where the weather, always dicey, was perfect — sunny blue skies, pale silvery clouds, no umbrellas or raincoats necessary. It was just a simple little visit in the countryside with not much going on. Let’s see, I dined with the Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles, the two of them together, at the palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, where once upon a time Mary Queen of Scots had a tough time of it and so did her retinue.”
In a column that ran in WWD in February 2005, the writer recalled, “I first met Camilla Parker Bowles about 20 years ago. At that time, Prince Charles had been married to Princess Diana for several years. Camilla was a guest at a small private party in the house where I was staying in the Cotswolds, directly across from Highgrove, the Prince of Wales’ beautiful country house. Then, even though it was not exactly common knowledge, it was certainly known by the British cognoscenti and in royal circles that Camilla was the Prince’s mistress. No sooner had she walked in the door than the polite whispering began.
“Several friends couldn’t wait to tell me that this luminous lady, despite his marriage, was the love of his life and that they were very much together, Princess Diana or not. After that, you can imagine how I looked her over. There were those who thought she couldn’t hold a candle to the young and beautiful Diana. But there were others, especially me, who thought her fascinating, charming and certainly sexually appealing, cool and confident. No affectation there. I liked her at once….
“With the Charles-Diana marriage, I thought even then that Camilla would somehow prevail and that Diana would never be a match for her. After Diana’s death, I had seen Camilla and Charles together on many different occasions. I believed one day that she and Charles would marry and that this was more or less predestined.”
In December, 2011, Mehle wrote in Architectural Digest of her 2008 move from the ornate Upper East Side townhouse she had lived in for 25 years — but which was being sold — into a building by Gilded Age architect Horace Trumbauer. “‘Do you know, Mrs. Mehle, that you have just moved from one ballroom into another?’” she writes that her new doorman enquired. Here’s how she described working with decorator Mario Buatta to change its unusual decor, most of which had been put in by Fiat heiress and cabinet minister Suni Agnelli, which included what Mehle called “a crazy fan-shaped staircase leading to the second-floor gallery”:
“In short order, we ripped out the offending staircase by its roots and built a lovely curved one in its place,” Mehle wrote. “We covered the fabric outrageousness with yards and yards of Indian silk the color of moonlight. We tented the dining area. We used tassels everywhere….At the center of the dining room, we positioned my beloved antique secretary, a piece I’m so crazy about that I practically carry it on my back whenever I move…And we dusted off the crown moldings, acres of them.
“When I say ‘we,’ of course I mean Mario. He has an incredible eye. When he’s around, the mirrors glitter, the silver shines, and the birds sing. Dear Mario. He almost built me a new apartment.
“Oh, but I nearly forgot, it was Suni Agnelli who covered my bedroom walls in beautiful Chinese fabric — all magnolias, birds and butterflies. And she put a marble bathtub right in the middle of the room (we moved it). Dear, dear Suni.”
Friends remembered Mehle on Friday afternoon, with Cornelia Guest calling her “a mix of my sister, my mother and my grandmother in one.”
“It really is the end of an era,” Guest said. “She knew where all the bodies were buried — but never told.”
“The first thing that comes to mind is that she was an exquisite writer,” said William Norwich. “People will focus on society and her hair and her Avedon picture, and all of that is true, but I’d like to talk about the writer. We may remember her for her items in W, but back in the day, she used to write about 1,200 words a day, six times a week in the Daily News, and it had a beginning, middle and an end and it was basically what she had done the night before. She was such a natural writer and such a stylist. She was a woman, single mother finding her way in a very tricky world and doing it with great humor and great delicacy.”
He said there was a period of time that she wrote pieces for Vogue that were not gossip. One was “The Cost of An Affair.” It was a two-page spread of a chart of how much it would cost to have an affair. “It was hysterical,” he said. She also wrote an essay about “beware of the little brown wren.” That was the person who could really steal your husband, opposed to the va-va boom person. “She was a great stylist in her own way and she was a wonderful writer.” He recalled she would go to parties in the Eighties and write, “My God, these parties are like going to see a bunch of crows on the telephone line. Everyone in black and everyone is skinny,” or she wrote a whole thing about ‘Ladies, please eat the cookies.”
When he was a student at boarding school, they would get several copies of The New York Times and one copy of The Daily News for the drama teacher. “I would take the Daily News and I would read Mrs. Mehle’s column every day. The teacher would say, ‘what are you reading?’ and I would say, ‘I just love this column.’ And he told Norwich that she writes in the genre of social vanities and he recommended several writers. “I was 15, 16 reading all of that, and that’s how I became a writer,” he said.
Blaine Trump said she met Mehle at a friend’s apartment for dinner and they just connected. “She was a lot like my mother, very glamorous, very smart, incredibly intelligent, and my mother adored her. We would spend holidays together in Millbrook, and Aileen would come up all the time. We travelled to Greece. We travelled a lot together. She was a lot of fun. There was no one like her. After I lost my mother, she just became my surrogate mother.”
Trump described her as a “glamour puss.”
“I always said she was allergic to anything unattractive. She had the best sense of humor and she was so beautiful, inside and out. Those big blue eyes and that big smile. When she walked in a room, you knew she was there. I just loved her. She was a wonderful friend.”
Trump said Mehle gave her something that she carries with her, a little anecdote that says, “Darling, it’s either them, or me, and it’s got to be me.” Trump said there were all these people pulling at you in New York to go to this and to go to that, and you just can’t do it all. “That was her philosophy. She’d go to all these parties, and she just put her pen down one day and said, ‘I’m not writing anymore. I don’t want any more deadlines. I’m done.’ She was really the social historian.
“I gave her a 97th birthday dinner [in June 2015] at my apartment in New York. She said, ‘Well darling, if I’m still here this time next year, I want the same dinner, the same menu and the same friends.’ Her e-mail was Aileen100@live.com. I said, ‘if you could make it to 100, I’ll give the dinner.’ Trump said Mehle wasn’t up for a party for her 98th birthday last June, but she said, “I might be ready for the 99th.”
Mehle is survived by her son, Roger. There will be a small family service for her in Los Angeles and friends said she will be buried near her mother. Friends hope to organize a memorial for Mehle in New York next spring.