There is a heavily promoted new exhibit at the deYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park called "Nan Kempner: American Chic" that is grotesque on so many levels I'm not sure where to begin.
Nan Kempner was born into San Francisco royalty, with father Al owning the local S&C Ford dealerships and her mother Irma descending from the Social Register set. When Nan went to the Connecticut College for Women, she was introduced by San Franciscan Clarence Heller to Tommy Kempner, who was from serious New York royalty, being the grandson of the Loeb investment banking dynasty. After a brief stint in London working for the family firm, the couple returned to New York, had three children and installed themselves in a lavish 14-room apartment on Park Avenue, where Nan became the Queen of Society and an addict to Haute Couture.
Ms. Kempner died in 2005 from emphysema, brought on by her pathalogical dieting, part of which included smoking Parliament cigarettes incessantly from the age of 14 onwards. Not long before her death, she granted an interview to San Francisco Chronicle society writer Carolyn Zinko (click here for the whole thing) which is a fascinating document if you can read between the lines, including the bizarre story of getting out of the hospital and making a 4AM drive (with a chauffeur, of course) so she could be present at Nancy's side during the recent President Reagan funeral. Zinko writes:
"There wasn't a thing wrong about the ceremony, and I loved the rapport between Nancy and Patti (Davis),'' she told her friend Muffy Brandon Cabot over the phone, the day after the funeral. "And you know me -- I wouldn't miss the opening of a door.''...Later, she and [de la Renta executive Boaz] Mazor deconstructed the funeral, down to the outfits, demeanor of the guests and details of the pageantry. They dished mercilessly about New York acquaintances, none of whose names were allowed to leave the table. "Aren't you glad you came?" Tommy Kempner asked, shooting a sardonic look across the table.
In fact, reading between the lines of a number of accounts, the woman comes across as a true monster of acquisition and social power, the template for San Francisco's own nightmare socialite Dede Wilsey, though Ms. Kempner was in a much more rarified sphere.
Lynn Yaeger at the New York Village Voice (click here for the whole article) wrote about Kempner's dresses when they were shown at the Metropolitan Museum last year:
"Harold Koda, the Met show's curator, details the attributes Kempner possessed that made her the ideal couture client (see how many you have!): (1) A tall, rangy figure distinguished by extraordinarily long tibiae. She was roughly the same size and shape as the mannequins at the Met, possessing what Koda calls "the ideal contemporary fashion silhouette," and she was proud of it. "I loathe fat people," Kempner notoriously told W magazine in December 2000, setting off a fury. (2) Deep pockets. Though Yves Saint Laurent, her favorite designer by far, sometimes gave her a discount, her hobby still cost her investment banker husband Tommy plenty. (3) A 14-room Park Avenue apartment in which to store her purchases. As each of her three children moved out, she colonized their bedrooms, filling the space up with more and more garments; she even had the bathtubs covered so she could pile clothes on top. (4) Places to wear this stuff. Kempner still followed the old social calendar that you probably last encountered reading an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel in college—Gstaad for skiing, the Riviera for sunning, Scotland for shooting, etc. The locales may change—St. Barts is the new Biarritz—but the crowd remains the same."
"Still, gazing at these lavish garments, it's hard, no matter how much you love clothes, to vanquish your nagging thoughts: Isn't the haute couture a useless indulgence of the super-rich, as dated and offensive as serfdom or indentured servitude? Isn't there something revolting about catering to the imagined needs of a tiny group of spoiled ladies, a Marie Antoinette–ish situation that reached its apotheosis when John Galliano showed his infamous clochard collection—the word means bum or hobo in French, and the tattered gowns, hand-stenciled to look filthy, trailed pots, pans, and other refuse—at the 1997 Dior haute couture show? Didn't couture long ago stop functioning as a laboratory for fashion ideas, the hackneyed justification for keeping it alive that its defenders invariably trot out? These days, new ideas in fashion come almost exclusively from the street or the mass media; a bicycle messenger or a schoolboy or a movie about a 1960s girl group has far more influence on what people actually end up wearing than whatever is on display at the loftiest couture salon."
Another interesting story about Ms. Kempner is from Roger Friedman:
"The story I wrote a decade ago was about a brilliant, fascinating and accomplished businesswoman named Iris Sawyer. A Bard graduate and co-developer of a major public-relations business, Sawyer also had the misfortune to have an eight-year affair with Nan's husband, Tom. Sawyer was also married at the time. Toward the end of the affair, the lovers even lived together in a Park Avenue townhouse, a residence into which Sawyer had sunk all her life savings without benefit of a deed. She let her heart lead her head, and lost.
When Nan Kempner summoned her husband home, Sawyer was destroyed financially lest Tom Kempner lose everything in a nasty public divorce. The Byzantine details of how the Kempners proceeded to wreck Sawyer's life with a vengeance were all included in my New York story, "The Woman Who Would Not Get Lost."
"Suffice it to say that the Kempners' damage to Sawyer has not abated in the 11 years since. Now nearly 75, Sawyer — who was immediately shunned by all her former friends under threat of being dropped by Kempner — is New York society's self-created tragedy. Interestingly, Sawyer has survived mostly due to the goodwill of members of Kempner's extended family. Two such individuals, quite prominent citizens, have expressed to me their outrage over the vendetta against Sawyer. One of them has consistently helped her financially, even when he himself is short of funds.
In Colacello's story, Nan Kempner blithely dismisses all her husband's affairs and refers to Sawyer as "disgusting." Frankly, all the people who bow to Nan Kempner's manicured, well-shod feet should find what she's done "disgusting" and unforgivable as well. Every one of her friends who lunch at Swifty's should give long and hard thought to who became a pariah in that episode and what their conscience tells them now."
The Met show has been installed very poorly at the deYoung on the top floor, with dim lighting and claustrophobic spaces that feel like a feng shui disaster. Still, who can complain when there's an opportunity to look at larger-than-life-size photos of this monstrous woman's closets?
The Black Rock Arts Foundation scrambles for small donations to install public art throughout San Francisco while the Fine Arts Museums receives over $12 million in taxpayer money annually to install exhibits like "Nan Kempner: American Shit." Happy Fourth of July, everyone.