"BEAUTY IS truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know," wrote the poet John Keats. (I always think of Keats in Rome because he died in 1821 at the age of 25 in a room adjoining the Spanish Steps.)
There was so much pain, sorrow and violence commanding our hearts and minds last week that it was a relief to be delivered a beautiful book about someone long gone from us, who left a fantastic legacy of glamour and style in her wake. When C.Z. Guest died in November of 2003, she took along her own social, fashion and good-living legend and also what remained of New York "society." (This was a field in which I toiled from 1959 to 1964, reporting on the rich and famous. I had arrived in Manhattan earlier with no association whatsoever of the "high born.")
NYC? Did they actually matter? Well, many of them were the descendants of robber barons and no better than they should be! Most of them were inheritors whose money allowed them to live lives of great privilege and pleasure. But in a manner, their world, which died totally when Brooke Astor finally left us in 2007, has been replaced by the sheer vain glory, spending habits and behavior of the "Mostly Money Crowd." (Cleveland Amory had written a book in 1960 titled "Who Killed Society?" and he had pronounced so-called Society dead as a doornail way back then. He cited the Hearst's Cholly Knickerbocker column, on which I was a sub reporter for Igor Cassini, as being one of the murderers of the upper class. We were the kind of fan magazine-type admirers of the rich and where they ate, shopped, dressed, danced and their multi-divorces, quarrels and feuds, which became fascinating on their own terms.
America was a big sprawling country that loved its celebrities. We still love them but now almost none of them can hold a candle to the lives we doted on from movies, sports and the ways of the rich, from the late 1800s through the '20s.
But we have now seen that in the United States, bastion of democracy and equal rights, the monied class still retains power and influence. In fact, money power is greater now than it was in the days of private railroad cars, the "400" -- now the 400,000! And the world adores capitalism and wants to emulate it. Socialism and communism are still being tried here and there but Russia taught us that, ultimately, these fail.
All this is prelude to Susanna Salk's new coffee table beauty from Rizzoli about the late C.Z. Guest. Full of gorgeous photographs of a woman whose lack of pretense, guile and natural good nature and charm set her apart from the "hoity-toity" of her time, C.Z. Guest was the greatest charmer of all the socialites I met in my early days of reporting. She was, as the pink book cover says a "style icon ... a tastemaker known for her classic, understated American look who continues to influence fashion today. Celebrated for her beauty and personal style, C.Z. Guest transcended eras to become an enduring figure of good taste, appearing on the cover of Time magazine in 1962." I thought, personally, at that time, that C.Z. represented the best of the best.
My pal Billy Norwich has written an intro to this book, recalling a movie screening of "Gandhi" in 1982, to which I had invited C.Z. He writes, "C.Z. talked through the 191-minute film, a running commentary to daughter, Cornelia, in the seat next to her, about this and that and just about anything that came to her mind -- tiger-hunting with Cornelia's father in India with the Maharajah of Jaipur or didn't she think, wasn't it a shame, that the camera put at least 10 pounds up down and all around one of the young actresses in the film. The Hollywood people at the screening were annoyed with Mrs. Guest, but the Park Avenue set was highly amused ... it was real personal style from the inside out, not outside in ... yes, her clothes like her houses, her gardens and her food were wonderful, but I can't recall C.Z. ever talking about 'fashion' except for those occasions when she was wearing an umpteen-year -old Mainbocher or Adolfo number because she thought it would be good for your game to know that she still fit these confections ... she liked to win and she liked for you to win. To win, you stayed in shape mentally and physically, and if and when you lost, you never let a tear drop. You congratulated your opponent ... C.Z. loved to work..."
In fact, it was her personal gardening column, which she wrote for the New York Post that gave her the most pleasure in her later years. She embraced the Murdoch-owned newspaper with no prejudices. The most memorable of her turns as a reporter? She covered the funeral of mob boss Paul "Big Paul" Castellano, gunned down at Sparks Steak House on East 54th Street, going to the Brooklyn funeral home with a photographer, describing the flowers!
You may not be buying coffee-table books right now but somebody is, so I might as well tell you about this one. It is classic and contains photos by the late great Slim Aarons of C.Z. at her Palm Beach "Villa Artemis" in a pose with her son and her dogs.
These are high art in my opinion -- the final classics of a great American age and its beauty.
P.S. My own story is in this book, "American Style Icon," and it tells of how C.Z. helped to establish me as a reporter in her world. I was being thoroughly excluded from this playground at the time and C.Z. changed all that with one stroke.
So, no wonder I am a big C.Z. Guest fan!
NOWADAYS, FASHION, whatever we may think of it, has changed (maybe not for the better) but there are a few left who still count!
I ran into Fern Mallis, a name to conjure with from the '70s, at Michael's the other day. I've known Fern since she wasn't old enough to vote. Now she is the former senior vice president of IMG Fashion and executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. She deserves her rare lasting fame! She hosts "Fashion Insiders with Fern Mallis" on SiriusXM Stars channel 107. She is the creator of "FERN FINDS," a globally inspired line of jewelry. And on June 6, Fern will interview none other than fashion king Oscar de la Renta on her 92nd Street Y ongoing hit series, which is invariably sold out. Try for a ticket at 212-415-5500.
Fern also talks to the legend Suzy Menkes on May 7 and she has interviewed in the past Calvin Klein, Norma Kamali, Donna Karan, Tom Ford, Tommy Hilfiger and Michael Kors. This is just about the most successful series the famous Y has ever offered.
(E-mail Liz Smith at MES3838@aol.com.)