Obituary: Socialite Nan Kempner, 74

Socialite Nan Kempner dies at 74.

NEW YORK — According to the old adage, you can never be too rich or too thin. Nan Kempner was never excessively rich (although she was well-off enough to live in a 16-room apartment on Park Avenue for almost 50 years and to buy couture clothes, as she said herself, she wasn’t wealthy enough to be a philanthropist). But she was skinny enough to wear clothes beautifully and become the prototype for the social X-ray. Kempner, who died at home here Sunday of emphysema at the age of 74, divided her time between her Manhattan duplex and her country house in Purchase, N.Y.

Kempner said that her father once told her, “You’ll never make it on your face, so you’d better be interesting.” She found her way into the city’s social whirl originally through the Junior Council of the Museum of Modern Art. Soon, she was noticed for her style.

In the late Fifties, she was part of a group of young socialites that included Babe Paley and Jacqueline Kennedy who became known for their relatively understated look — softly shaped hair and geometrically cut clothes — that Jackie popularized when she got to the White House.

Last fall, New York Magazine did a feature on Kempner called “How to Be a Park Avenue Princess,” photographed in her apartment and featuring her rules for living in style: “Spend the money,” “Always wear fur,” “Never forget your gloves,” “Dress for lunch” and “Make the effort.”

Kempner grew up Nan Field Schlesinger in San Francisco, studied art history at Connecticut College, then married banker Thomas L. Kempner, now chairman of the firm Loeb Partners, which, as Loeb Rhodes & Co., was cofounded by his maternal grandfather.

In 2002, the Kempners celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with a lavish dinner dance for 476 guests at the Bronx Botanical Garden, which many said resembled the great balls of earlier decades. Nan and Tommy had three children, Thomas Jr., James and Lina. Both her sons went to Yale like their father, and each gave her three grandchildren. Her daughter attended the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, and is an artist living in the East Village.

This story first appeared in the July 5, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Kempner was a fashion editor at Vogue, a representative of Christie’s, did public relations for the Olympic Towers apartments and was always a famously good host and guest. In 2000, she published “R.S.V.P.: Menus for Entertaining From People Who Really Know How.” There she detailed everything from cocktails with Larry Lovett on Venice’s Grand Canal to Lynn Wyatt’s lively, over-the-top Texas barbecue. She had a reputation for effervescent charm with an undertone of self-deprecation. She liked to say such things as intellectuals are attracted to her because she is so stupid and has so much to learn from them, or that she would go to the opening of an envelope. “I tell people all the time that I want to be buried naked, because there must be a store where I’m going,” she told WWD in 1978.

In 1977, she said to W, “At first, clothes were a facade, but as my personality evolved, there was a merger. I’m a plain-looking female, so it’s comfortable for me to dress well and present my best side. That doesn’t mean being competitive. I love looking at beautiful, well-dressed women.

“Fashion is an art. When you look at paintings in museums, you see a reflection of how women dressed in certain eras. A designer is as much of an artist as an author, painter or architect. Fashion design is, after all, architecture for the body. Look at the work of Grès, Chanel, Poiret, Balenciaga, Saint Laurent.”

Kempner’s own look, which she said was strongly influenced by her stylish mother and grandmother, had always been about understatement. Five-feet nine-inches tall, with great legs, she favored pants, cashmere sweaters, flat shoes and a smashing fur coat for day and the simple luxe of goddess or column dresses for evening. Her husband, she noted, always preferred her in ski clothes.

Her charity work included efforts for the Lighthouse for the Blind, The Society of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the American Ballet Theater. Charity organizers say that if she promised to take a table, she always followed through — and she was also famously loyal to her friends, whom she valued enormously.

Kempner was one of the French couture’s most steadfast clients, starting with her first Dior sheath in the early Fifties, and at one point was a muse for Yves Saint Laurent. She said that “probably” her favorite dress — among many treasures divided between her closets and various museums — was a stunning Saint Laurent velvet evening gown, which she liked to wear with its accompanying vivid yellow wrap coat with billowing sleeves. Other designers she liked included Emanuel Ungaro, Valentino and Oscar de la Renta, along with Tom Ford in his Gucci days and Jean Paul Gaultier; she describes the latter two as disciples of Saint Laurent.

Pierre Bergé, Yves Saint Laurent’s business partner, said Monday, “She was a true friend and very faithful.” He remembered that Kempner had attended all of Saint Laurent’s post-show dinners since 1962, his first collection. “She was very elegant and generous. She belonged to an era that no longer exists. An era of the cafe society and women who went back and forth from St. Moritz to Nassau. She had a free spirit. And she was always a great champion of creativity. Yves and I are both very sad.”

Valentino said, “We lost not just an amazing figure in the fashion world but we personally lost a great friend with a great sense of humor, also about herself. She was a courageous woman and had a great generosity. We have spent so many winters and summers together. It’s like losing a part of our family.”

Emanuel Ungaro praised Kempner’s enthusiasm, energy and free-spirited manner that was rare and refreshing in her level of society. And of course there’s her formidable taste. Ungaro said Kempner lived her life “like a masterpiece” and all of her choices of couture garments were “significant.”

“There are few women like that anymore,” he added.

“She was the most stylish woman in New York, and certainly the most elegant one,” said Diane von Furstenberg Monday. “New York will miss her, and so will I.”

Kempner was a regular at Studio 54 in its heyday, and for decades would fly to Europe as often as 10 times a year for the show season, parties and weddings, hanging out with members of what WWD dubbed the “Cat Pack” such as Gloria Vanderbilt, Mica and Ahmet Ertegun, Isabel and Freddy Eberstadt, Jerry Zipkin, Billy and Chessy Rayner and Diane and Egon von Furstenberg. Kempner was in the gossip columns constantly.

There are two particularly good stories about her. In one, she was robbed for the second time in a year, losing $1 million worth of jewels. She was said to be on the phone to Kenneth Jay Lane the next morning saying, “I’ll take three of everything.” Then, in the Seventies, when rules about women wearing pants in elegant restaurants were common, she was once headed into one, but was stopped by the maître d’ because they didn’t permit trousers, which she was wearing. Kempner didn’t have time to go home and change, so she simply took off her pants and went to lunch in her short tunic.

As a young girl, Kempner and her friends all wanted to look like Lauren Bacall, who was the “It” girl of the Forties. Kempner was arguably the most successful.

Throughout her life, Kempner was renowned for her cheerfulness. “If life was always wonderful, we’d be placid and bored with it,” she told Town & Country in 1999. “But the fact that there are ups and downs keeps you on your toes, and teaches you to get out of the slump and into the good times. Out of adversity usually comes something quite wonderful.”

Adversity may not have played a particularly big part in her life, but Kempner has usually come up with something quite wonderful anyway.

A memorial service will be held at a yet-to-be-determined date.