NEW YORK — Since her coming-out ball in 1937, C.Z. Guest set the tone for every aspiring socialite in America with her easy elegance and witty approach to the good life.
A staunch advocate of the old guard, who made no excuses for her luxe lifestyle, Guest died on Saturday at her home in Old Westbury, N.Y., at the age of 83, said her daughter, Cornelia Guest. With a look that was simple, sporty and offhand, yet always polished, C.Z. Guest became an icon of American style, inspiring designers from Mainbocher to Bill Blass, from Michael Kors to Ralph Lauren.
“Laziness is one of our biggest faults,” she told WWD in 1971. “Some women think it takes too much trouble to make the effort to look pulled-together or attractive.”
She was known for wearing ladylike suits while lunching at La Caravalle, classic jodhpurs when riding her many beloved horses and elegant eveningwear at parties, where her appearance would make or break an event. A well-bread native of Boston’s North Shore, Guest was born Lucy Douglas Cochrane, the second of five children to Alexander Lynde Cochrane, an investment banker, and Vivien Wessell, a onetime actress. At 17, she made a portentous debut at the family’s home on Commonwealth Avenue, a party that was described as the major social event of the year in Boston, where guests danced until dawn in a ballroom decorated to look like the streets of Paris.
Her penchant for making her own rules showed at an early age, as Guest briefly joined the Ziegfeld Follies and then headed to Hollywood to pursue an acting career. “All young people want to be something they aren’t supposed to be,” she once recalled. “I never made any films. I went out to parties with Victor Mature, Bruce Cabot and Errol Flynn. I played tennis every day and I loved every minute of it.”
Still, she soon returned to the life into which she was born, that of the East Coast social circuit, winters in Palm Beach, horseback riding in Middleburg, Va., and Long Island’s North Shore, fashion shows and parties at El Morocco. In 1947, she married Winston Frederick Churchill Guest, a polo player whose pedigree was even more illustrious than her own, and set off on a glamorous adventure of entertaining royalty, traveling the world and leading the way in modern high society. At their 150-acre estate in Roslyn, N.Y., called Templeton, the Guests commonly hosted a varied cast of well-known names, including Babe Paley, Jackie Kennedy and Lee Radziwell, Elsa Maxwell, Madame de Gaulle, Noel Coward and dear friends like Truman Capote. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor became the godparents to the Guests’ children, Cornelia and Alexander.
While Guest was hardly pretentious, she loved the Beautiful Life and disliked people “knocking it,” as WWD noted in 1971. “This is what I feel is right for me and my family,” she said at the time. “What’s wrong with living well and having high standards?”
Even in the Seventies, she maintained a household staff of 10 at Templeton, excluding the gardening staff, and made the fine art of living a career in itself. Her fondness of gardening dated from her childhood in Boston and she began horseback riding at the age of six. Both were pursuits at which she excelled throughout her life. She published numerous books on gardening and also wrote a syndicated column on the subject, never tiring of the simplest pleasures.
“People in my world become so jaded,” she said in 1976. “Everything in life amuses me. Fortunately, I’m not addicted to hard liquor, drugs or pills. The only things I’m addicted to are horses and dogs.”
Guest was never one to shy away from the world’s interest in those of her wealth and status, openly discussing her experience at a rowdy Rolling Stones concert or how she once posed naked for Diego Rivera in her youth, and how her husband’s family bought the painting prior to their marriage, removing it from the public arena.
Unlike many of her contemporaries who wore European fashions exclusively, she used her position to promote American designers and quickly became a muse to them. One of her first favorites was Mainbocher — “I like to wear very good suits and his fit so well,” she said in 1967. “Besides, everyone doesn’t have them, and that’s important.”
Over the years, she befriended many of New York’s designers, including Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, Bill Blass and Adolfo. In the mid-Eighties, Guest designed her own collection of what she called “country clothes” based on her own favorites like cashmere sweaters, which were shown on models at Adolfo’s millinery presentations. She was named a fashion icon by the Council of Fashion Designers of America at its annual awards night in 2002.
Her nonchalant chic was closely studied and imitated by her peers as well as by professionals. When Estée Lauder told her that blondes should darken their complexions, and that she should learn how to “make herself up,” Guest replied, “Well, I still don’t know how to make myself up. I just slap on lipstick and throw on something.”
Guest was among the most outspoken women of her generation, appearing on the cover of Time magazine in 1962 as a representative of modern society: “If she wasn’t there, it doesn’t exist,” the magazine said of her mandatory attendance at social events.
Guest was often quoted about her role as a style leader.
“What’s wrong with women inspiring others to higher standards?” she said in a 1976 interview. “Think of all the beautiful works that Marie Antoinette and Madame Pompadour inspired from artists and artisans.”
Besides her two children, Guest is survived by three grandchildren, Gregory, Winston and Ivor.
If anyone knew just how good living the good life could be, it was Guest. As she said in 1967, “I’m lucky as hell.”