She found Lauren Bacall for her first husband, director Howard Hawks, and he borrowed her nickname for the actress’ character in her first film. Slim Keith was a legendarily stylish woman who married well three times and who set a high bar for fashion and interior decoration in her private life. She saw Bacall, then a young model who had recently been discovered by Diana Vreeland, on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, and pointed her out to Hawks. He brought her from New York to Los Angeles and gave her a contract. He also appropriated Slim’s straight-talking manner and her cool, tailored way of dressing for the actress in his 1944 film, “To Have and Have Not.”
Keith, born Mary Raye Gross, grew up in California in a Monterey Peninsula town, went to a convent school and left one semester short of graduation. She drove to a resort in Death Valley, where she met William Powell, who spotted her diving into a pool and gave her her nickname. Then she began going to the legendary parties William Randolph Hearst gave with his longtime mistress, Marion Davies.
According to Keith’s 1991 autobiography, “Memories of a Rich and Imperfect Life,” Howard Hawks said, “You’re the most remarkable thing I’ve ever seen. You’re going to marry me.” One of the things that he and Powell liked about her was that, although she was a great beauty, she had no interest in becoming an actress and thus was not trying to hustle them to get parts. She was also funny and witty and original in her observations. She wrote in “Memories” of Hawks, “He was not only handsome, charming and successful, he was exactly the package that I wanted. The career, the house, the four cars, the yacht — this was the life for me.” She learned to decorate and entertain. Hawks had reason to be pleased with his choice; she had less. The director was seemingly incapable of intimacy and was frequently — and flagrantly — unfaithful.
She eventually left him to be with the man she was later to consider the great love of her life, the powerful agent Leland Hayward, whom she stayed with for 12 years until he was stolen from her by Pamela Harriman, whom she unwisely had asked to “look after” him when she went on a trip to Europe. Her next husband was a wealthy and titled British merchant banker, Kenneth Keith.
The key to Slim Keith’s style was a very streamlined American look. Tall and blonde, she was considered the original California girl and frequently wore sports clothes or sportswear, such as riding jackets and pants or sweaters and skirts, and pulled her hair back like an equestrian, parted in the middle, all of which suited her slender, long-limbed frame. She was also an excellent natural athlete. She would wear gray flannel pants or a slim, floor-length pinstriped wool skirt with a white silk blouse or a knitted shell with a taffeta ball skirt. Turtlenecks and sunglasses were also key. When she was given a fashion award by a group of editors in 1946, she said, “I have a tall, skinny frame that clothes look well on. Seriously, just say that I’m a great believer in simplicity in clothes.’’
Keith was one of the society swans whom Truman Capote caricatured in his book, “Answered Prayers,” in her case, as Lady Ina Coolbrith. She had been close friends with him and he called her “Big Mama;” after excerpts of the book were published in Esquire, she broke with him and never saw him again. Sally Bedell Smith later maintained that Lady Ina, described as “a lot of woman in every way” — Slim was not so slim in later life — was supposed to be a portrait of Pamela Harriman, but Keith didn’t buy it. As she wrote in her memoir, “God blessed me with a happy spirit and many other gifts. What I was not blessed with, I went out and got. Sometimes the price was too high, but I’ve never been much of a bargain hunter.”