Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Art in the Parks 3: Nan Kempner's Clothing

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."

Yaeger continues:
"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.


momo said...

What a contrast between the contents of this rich woman's closet in the museum and the public art in your two previous posts. How about an auction of her cast-offs, with the money going to benefit the Black Arts Foundation? Anything that didn't see could be turned over to somebody creative with a pair of scissors and turned into art.

Matthew Hubbard said...

Nice stuff, mike. I think that hawk you saw might have told you (at least subconsciously), "Do more posts about art. You're good at politics, love the politics, but the art stuff, what can I say? It's really good."

See? I can put words in the beaks of birds as well!

sfwillie said...

"ideal couture client"

What an accomplishment!

Sal said...

"a lavish 14-room apartment on Park Avenue" not "a lavish 14-bedroom apartment on Park Avenue"

Heavens. Fourteen rooms is lavish enough.

Civic Center said...

Dear sal: Thanks for the correction. I went back and fixed it in the text because the distinction between a 14-room and a 14-bedroom apartment on Park Avenue is important. The first is outrageously glamorous while the second sounds like a chic hotel.

Anonymous said...

"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..."

Yeah - well, duh! What a disgusting display of money sans class and how appropriate that our temples to the SF Mega rich should display these clothes. Another great post - but probably not so great for my blood pressure. So, she died from her excessive smoking and dieting. How appropriate.

sf nancy (namaste nancy)

Anonymous said...

Who cares? How boring.

Anonymous said...

It's certainly disgusting that public funds and facilities are wasted aggrandizing the already obscenely self-aggrandized. But it's also unfortunate that you felt the need to call out the subjects' ethnic background, which you would not have done had their ancient ancestors come from anywhere northeast of the Bosporus. There are billionaires in every country, from Botswana to Bangladesh, some on balance evil, some on balance good, each more or less decadent than Greedy Nan. Progress won't come from gossip about them, especially if it's tinged with racism, but simply from the gradually evolving political will to tax them more, and spend the common wealth on education and a billion other public amenities. Sorry to be so boring.

Civic Center said...

Dear anonymous: If you're going to accuse me of racism, at least stop doing so anonymously. You're not being boring so much as irritating. And by the way, if everybody involved in the story had been say, Filipino, I probably would have mentioned that fact too.

Delphine said...

I was about to leave a naughty comment about being about to buy St Laurent and having absolutely no taste. About buying boring beige and black when couture can delightfully colorful...

And then I read the comments from Mr Anonymous, and really, if you feel like being agressive in your comments, Mr Anonymous,please at least put a name or a nickname. You will look more like a musketeer and less like a stalker.

Civic Center said...

Dear delphine: Thanks for the spirited defense, and please do leave a naughty comment about YSL's awful legacy.

By the way, I have gone back and "de-ethnicized" the post since it's obviously very upsetting for some people, and that wasn't what was supposed to be getting people upset. It was the fact that we're supposed to worship this awful rich woman's bad taste at a taxpayer-supported art museum in Golden Gate Park.

Beth Spotswood said...

Oh my, you were racist and I missed it! Bummer.
You know me, I'm a society whore. And if I could one day have an exhibit of my Old Navy rejects and bargin bin knock-offs called, "Beth Spotswood, American Chic" well then hell. Emphaysema, here I come. That being said, what a bitch with bad taste. Except for that devine orange cape thing, which admit it, is kinda fabulous, I hate everything. Although, Dede's closet is probably an ode to lesser Dynasty episodes, so everything's relative.
This post reminded me of the Vanity Fair article I read on the plane last night on Anne Bass' April home invasion. It's FANTASTIC!
Great post...

sfwillie said...

I thought the Jew-Gentile thing was a big deal in "society" when Nan was ascending. For instance, Jews were excluded from the Olympic Club.

Mike--your original post was just fine.

Anon sounds like an apologist for Zionism. Accusing people of anti-semitism is one of Zionism's standard tactics. If your article had been laudatory of Nan, anon wouldn't have commented. I wish you had ignored him.

(Don't you love Namaste Nancy!)

MattyMatt said...

Ugh, I had just assumed that the woman was actually responsible for designing the clothes or something. But all she did was buy them? Pfff.

Hey, I buy a lot of videogames, why doesn't the deYoung Museum For Rich People do a show about me?

Patrick J. Vaz said...

I was thinking about going to the deYoung while I'm closer (in SF rather than the East Bay) and then realized that this was the show I'd be paying to see. Ugh, no way. But thanks to you, I now feel I can dismiss it based on solid knowledge. I wonder how long it took them to air the stench of those Parliaments out of the glad rags. What a contrast in artistry and social history to the Gee's Bend quilts, which I did see.

Civic Center said...

Dear Beth: If you have not published "Dede's closet is probably an ode to lesser Dynasty episodes" before, please re-use the phrase because it's an instant classic and pretty much nails our fair Dede.

And Patrick, I'm glad to spare you some pain and save you some money. Give me a ring or send me an email tomorrow (that's Saturday) and I'll waltz you around the Asian Art Museum with my membership cards instead. It's more fun anyway.

Delphine said...

I wouldn't say anything about le Grand Yves having an awful legacy...He's one of the greatest couturier ever, and brought so much to women with so much love and intelligence.I just don't understand how it's possible to buy YSL with bad taste. Any piece from him would bring light to a wardrobe usually.

I used to enjoy the simple pleasure of the contrast of his shop's windows with the religious shops in the Saint Sulpice quarter, it was so deliciously non agressively provocative. Same colors, but cleavage!
Being provocative with chic is the ultimate way to be sexy.

Thinking that his art is part of this awful collection bugs me, really.

Now I ache for a lazy promenade in the fith arrondisement of Paris. The chesnut trees must be very green on the grey sky and Pierre Herme is not closed yet, I could have salted chocolate cake and macarons.


Civic Center said...

Dear Delphine: Merci.

AlbGlinka said...

I'm so superficial. I love exhibits of Haute Couture fashions, no matter who owned them.

These same society ladies help support the Opera and Symphony too.

Anyway, interesting to read all these comments Mike.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Thanks for the mention of the "New York" piece. Sounds fascinating. I haven't been able to find it yet, but I'll keep looking.

Anonymous said...

As Jesus said, "The rich will always be with us," or something like that. The rest of us can eat cake and get on with our lives.

Great post. Thanks for reminding me of the City that will always be home, maddeningly enough.

Miss SF. Miss SF Opera. Miss U.


PS: The LA Opera (if you can stomach the mention of the megalopalis to the south) is magnificent. Oddly enough, I spend most of my frequent visits eyeing the crowds onstage, sussing the supers from the chorus. Occupational hazard. Love to Tony.

Anonymous said...

I'm late to this discussion, but regarding YSL (at least the creative director), racist comments from a Washington Post interview recently circulated on the web, forever tainting that design house:

Anonymous said...

I take it this reviewer has also had an affair, and feels hes not to be looked down upon, or even punished for it.

Anonymous said...

Great Post. The Nan Kemper exhibiton was one of the most disturbing and disappointing exhibitions I've ever seen.