“I’m a fashion victim,” Nan Kempner admitted from the back seat of a black sedan headed down Fifth Avenue on June 18. “Really,” she said. A few months ago, Mrs. Kempner bought an elaborate concoction: a pair of stockings with heels attached from John Galliano’s couture collection for Christian Dior.
“Those marvelous, black, cotton lace stockings I call my Sharon Stones,” Mrs. Kempner said. “Elastic at the waist, plastic shoes inside, all you see is the black stocking and about an eight-inch red crocodile heel. I wore them to a very swinging party downtown. Tommy Kempner opted out of the evening, so when I got home I leaned over to give him a big kiss,” Mrs. Kempner’s narrative included a huge, smacking-kiss sound, “and when I straightened up the heel of my left leg, it caught the lace of my right stocking. Like an albatross, I teetered over most awkwardly. My right hip smashed to smithereens.”
It’s been three months since the hip was replaced, and what pain she has, Mrs. Kempner said, she pretends isn’t there. She even intended to take a try at horseback riding in the country. “It’s fine,” she deadpanned, “if I don’t fall off.”
The car was headed for the Thomas Healy Gallery at 530 West 22nd Street in Chelsea for the opening of Bathroom , a summer exhibition curated by author Wayne Koestenbaum. Mrs. Kempner was curious. As the driver slowed near Bergdorf’s, Mrs. Kempner craned her neck, but couldn’t quite see the windows for a raging Fifth Avenue bus.
“I told them the story at Dior,” Mrs. Kempner said, laughing. “I expected a bunch of flowers, but didn’t get it.”
As the car stopped just in front of the Prada boutique, which is being put together on the site of the Doubleday bookshop at Fifth Avenue south of 57th Street. Mrs. Kempner volunteered that she is in the planning stages of writing a book.
“Oh, I went to this marvelous tea party in London some time ago and met this adorable man, Ed Victor, a literary agent. He said, ‘You’ve got to write a book and I’m your agent.’ He’s arranged everything the way he thinks it should be arranged.”
“It’s a name-dropper’s cookbook,” she explained. “I’m capitalizing on all my friendships.” She and a photographer and a stylist will spend the greater part of the summer chronicling parties given by her friends. Hopefully, they will include Marguerite Littman in London, Ann Getty in San Francisco, Betsy Bloomingdale in Los Angeles, Jackie de Ravenal in Nassau and the McAlpines in Venice, among others. “We’ll include a copy of the invitation. The hostess will write out his or her menu, and we’ll photograph the house and party.” It will be called R.S.V.P. , a cookbook and party planning guide; all profits will go to the Society of Memorial Sloan-Kettering. Sort of Mrs. Dalloway meets Martha Stewart. Clarkson Potter is interested in publishing the book.
Right up her alley, Mrs. Kempner said. “I’m never bored. If I ever am, I just start planning menus.”
She remembered when she and Mr. Kempner were first married after World War II. They lived in a London flat so small, they couldn’t get out of bed at the same time, there wasn’t room. But it was in London she began giving dinner parties nonetheless. “There was still some rationing around, but we had great food, I think. Our parents used to vie with each other to see who could send the best food packages.”
For today’s outing, Mrs. Kempner wore a black linen Yves Saint Laurent safari-style shirt and a beige skirt by Oliver, “Valentino’s cheap line.” No stockings. “My great economy is, when the weather gets hot, I give up tights.” Despite the slip with her hip, she wore four-inch Christian Dior pumps. “I don’t know how to walk in flats,” she said.
The press release about Bathroom said the show would focus “not on fluids and solids but on the furniture of hygiene: It will be, perversely, a clean show, evoking the melancholia and silence of the Cold War American bathroom, in which the ruling dichotomies were control and release, shame and pleasure, privacy and community.”
“I don’t know what they’re talking about,” Mrs. Kempner said on hearing this. “I love my bathroom. I painted it pink, so it isn’t such a shock to look at oneself in the morning.”
The car turned west on 23rd Street, and Chelsea’s citizens were revealed. Crossing the street, a muscular young man with the face of a choirboy except he was dressed thusly: tucked into tight jeans and a black leather harness. What an odd tan line this outfit will beget in broad daylight, Mrs. Kempner imagined.
“Look, there’s a Beetle!” I pointed across the street to a shiny new Volkswagen.
“A bug in the car?” she responded.
At the gallery, the first image Mrs. Kempner came upon was Neil Winokur’s photograph of a toilet. Then John Waters’ installation, 12 Assholes and a Dirty Foot . Tom Healy and Wayne Koestenbaum, dressed in suits and ties–the height of postmodernist subversion or simply new clothes?–greeted her. The opening of Bathroom wasn’t running quite on time, it was still being installed, they apologized.
“You can hear the paper being ripped away,” Mr. Koestenbaum said.
“Around here,” Mrs. Kempner responded, recognizing one of Andy Warhol’s “piss” paintings, “I’m not sure what’s being ripped away.”
Mr. Koestenbaum said the idea for Bathroom was inspired by “a lifelong interest in the subject which I share with all of humanity.”
Mrs. Kempner asked for clarification about his description of the Cold War American bathroom.
“Private life was very bordered during the Cold War,” Mr. Koestenbaum said.
“Very private,” Mrs. Kempner said. “I still like separate bathrooms.”
“I insist,” said Mr. Koestenbaum.
Admiring George Stoll’s cotton flannel and silk toilet paper rolls with dainty floral motif, Mrs. Kempner shared that she almost got kicked out of school one Halloween. “We’d found some old toilet and left it on the lawn of a very grand house.”
“It was art,” Mr. Koestenbaum enthused. “You were anarchist dadaists.”
Back in the car, heading north on the West Side Highway, Mrs. Kempner said, “What the hell. One likes to stay, as they say, abreast.”
Billy’s List: Quiz Time!
1. Nelson Mandela is many things, including a snappy dresser. Who tailors his suits?
a. Giorgio Armani.
c. Paul Smith.
2. What chic summer rental has model Kate Moss reportedly taken?
a. The Jasper Guinness place near Siena, Italy.
b. One of Ahmet and Mica Ertegun’s houses in Turkey.
c. Maxime de la Falaise’s farm in the south of France.
3. “Chefs and Champagne” is:
a. the new cookbook by Debbie Reynolds.
b. Anne Rosenzweig’s new Q.&A. column in W .
c. a party on July 11 in the Cashamptons to benefit the James Beard Foundation.
Answers: (1) b; (2) a; (3) c.
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