When people talk about Chessy Rayner, who died on the evening of Feb. 26 at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center after a long battle with cancer, they talk about her accomplishments as a fashion figure, an interior decorator, a hostess, an enthusiastic friend. But don’t be fooled. It’s rather like characters in a play talking about the weather. It’s not really weather they are describing.
“Willpower. Optimism. To move on. Go on. To travel. To see. To do as much as she could. That was Chessy till the end,” former New York Times fashion editor Carrie Donovan told The Observer.
“Chessy was an engaging spirit. An enhancer of life,” recalled John Galliher, the international social gentleman who had known Rayner since she was a child. “‘Is there anything you need?’ I asked Chessy the last time we spoke. ‘Oh, no. I’m fine,’ she said. ‘Mica [Ertegun] has me covered with affection.'”
“It hits very hard,” said Nan Kempner. “Very hard. Chessy is really the first of our gang to go.” The funeral service on March 3 at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue was overflowing.
“I knew she was ill. We all knew,” said Bill Blass, a friend and client of Rayner. “Sometimes when I picked her up to go someplace, I knew she was uncomfortable. But it was never discussed. Only very recently did Chessy refer to it.”
“Chessy was not someone in a vitrine,” said Louise Grunwald, a friend since their days as fashion editors at Vogue.
“Chessy was one of the most fascinating people in our society,” said Albert Hadley, the grand seigneur of American interior designers. “There was a freshness and youthfulness about her and her work that radiated. In decorating, she mixed the high with the low, all for charming effect: passion, sensitivity, suitability. She moved with the times.”
Chessy Rayner symbolized the new breeze in fashion. For New Yorkers who regularly spotted her walking to work on the Upper East Side, she was a symbol not only of fashion in action but of society willing to mix. For younger people who covet the 1970’s as the rage in fashion now, Rayner is emblematic.
Early on in life, Rayner-born Chesbrough Lewis Hall in 1931 in Perrysburgh, Ohio, married to William P. Rayner, a retired Condé Nast executive, in 1952 and divorced in 1989-decided she would rebel against the edicts of her formidable mother, Chesbrough Patcevitch, now of Palm Beach, Fla.
“It shows great strength on her part that she had a very beautiful mother people raved about, but Chessy was able to go off and survive on her own,” Mr. Blass said.
In 1972, when a mania for pantsuits swept the country and prompted national debate, fashion magazines turned to stylish women who worked, Chessy Rayner foremost among them, to document that emancipation in their pages. It’s hard perhaps to imagine that in those days, some New York restaurants were still refusing women if they wore trousers.
“We’ve all changed,” Rayner told The New York Times ‘ Charlotte Curtis in the early 1970’s. “That giddy racing-around is gone.”
Rayner’s style evolved from Madame Grès couture at the height of the New Look to Bill Blass sportswear to trousers, a sweater and, prompted by her illness, chic turbans. She could make anything look good. A couple of years ago, one periodical even devoted a page to the return of the turban to fashion, crediting the trend to Rayner, unaware of her reasons. A few years ago, one of Steven Meisel’s photographs of her became an ad for Iceberg, the hip-thinking Italian fashion company.
Rayner co-founded the MAC II decorating company with Mica Ertegun in 1967, prior to which she was an editor at Ladies Home Journal, Glamour and Vogue from 1956 to 1964. In decorating, she was one of the first of the breed to discover Pier One, Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn. New York: Trends and Traditions , a collection of shots of New York interiors of varying styles, was published recently. She was planning a second book at the time of her death.
“Mica and Chessy are modern women,” Vogue declared. “They work hard and seriously at something they love-and they accomplish anything they take on with skill and enormous style.”
“Don’t you suppose there’s a current generation that relates to her not belonging to the fashion establishment?” Mr. Blass asked. “Because she doesn’t. She did her own thing. She always did,” Mr. Blass pointed out. “In my opinion, she’s one of the last women with any real personal style. The other gals, as adorable as they are, don’t have it,” Mr. Blass said. “Chessy had this great perception of how she should present herself and, boy, could she do it.”
Mr. Blass has written the text that accompanies a photo story of Rayner’s house on St. Martin, which will appear in the May issue of Elle Décor . “Her favorite house,” said Elle Décor editor Marion McEvoy, “because it was the simplest.”
“Americans of Chessy Rayner’s ilk,” offered Meredith Etherington-Smith, group marketing director of Christie’s in London, “can be summed up by what Cecil Beaton once described as ‘the American quality of freshness.’ They shine like the inside of a polished shell. It means something more, darling, than Demi Moore sitting in the front row of a fashion show nowadays. And Chessy always got it right, even for Diana Vreeland’s funeral, when everyone fussed about whether to wear black or red. Chessy wore black with black shoes with red heels.”
Ever since Diana Vreeland’s death-or perhaps even earlier-it has become popular to say that society is over, but there still seems to be plenty of interest left. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The Princess of Wales. The Windsors. The sorts who attract millions at auction. And now playing at the movies is Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway , the story of an elegant socialite. “This late age of the world’s experience had bred in them all, all men and women, a well of tears. Tears and sorrows; courage and endurance; a perfectly upright and stoical bearing,” Woolf wrote.
In an era when the philosophy of the day is complaint, Rayner’s humor and restraint inspire.