Byline: Bob Colacello
"My dear, wait till you discover the wheelchair. You go to the front of every single line. They push you right through. They push you right on the plane while everybody else helps you. I tell you, it's First Class Plus. Of course, I'm of an age where I'm too old to fly anything but first class, thank you."
Nan Kempner, the world's most famous clotheshorse, was telling me about the latest developments in her battle with emphysema, a disease of the lungs that would have any other 74-year-old home in bed, not hopping jets to Europe and the Caribbean. In the past two years, she has been hospitalized for weeks at a time in Switzerland, London, and New York, and she now carries a portable oxygen tank-"my air," she calls it-wherever she goes, which is still pretty much everywhere. Always notoriously thin-she is said to be the model for Tom Wolfe's "social X rays" in The Bonfire of the Vanities-she is down to 92 pounds from her usual 110 on a five-foot-nine frame. Nonetheless, she was unwaveringly cheerful during a two-hour interview over lunch at her Park Avenue apartment, and as nonchalantly stylish as ever, in a baby-blue cashmere fisherman's sweater, Levi's 501 jeans, and red moccasins. She devoured every morsel of her three-course lunch: steamed artichoke, cheese souffle with green salad, vanilla ice cream and butter cookies, all whipped up by her Portuguese cook of 44 years, Silvina Barroso, and impeccably served by her butler, Barroso's husband, Bernardo. "Oh, I just love this sauce," she gushed, dipping an artichoke leaf into homemade curried mayonnaise. "Isn't that good? I could eat mayonnaise on my breakfast cereal. If anybody asked me what my favorite food is, it would be mayonnaise. Second is Skippy's chunky peanut butter. God, I eat it with strawberry jam on a croissant or an English muffin for breakfast every day of my life. I eat a breakfast that a trencherman would be proud of.
"I wake up every morning knowing something wonderful is going to happen," she continued. "Either I see a marvelous painting or I hear a marvelous piece of music, or I meet somebody new whom I fall in love with immediately-very one-sided, needless to say. My life is a constant joy. That sounds disgusting, I know. People call me Pollyanna Kempner. There's always a silver lining-oh God, ding-ding-ding, strum on the strings of my heart for a while. Isn't it awful? But a positive attitude is the only thing that pulls you through all sorts of adversity-which I refuse to admit. If you don't admit it, it doesn't exist, right?"
Nan is like the Energizer Bunny. She just keeps flipping along, no matter what happens," says her best friend, Pat Buckley, the wife of the conservative thinker William F. Buckley Jr. "Guts she has plenty of. She pushes herself. She makes herself do everything." Aside from her life-threatening emphysema, Kempner went through a difficult hip- replacement operation a few years ago, after tripping on her John Galliano stocking-shoes in her bedroom. Her habit of finishing off whatever is left on the plates of her dinner partners has led many to suspect that she has an eating disorder, an idea she dismisses by saying, "I'm a miracle of nature." Her most painful ordeal, however, was the near breakup of her marriage to Thomas Kempner, a Wall Street investment banker, in the late 1980s, when an affair of his became a local scandal.
Buckley grants that Nan is "probably the best-dressed woman I've ever seen in my life, and I've known many." But, she adds, "there are many facets of Nan that people don't quite understand. She's not the frivolous person that the press writes her up as being." In 1998 the Society of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center honored Kempner and Buckley for raising $75 million during the 30 years they had co-chaired annual galas for the hospital. "Nan has never shirked any community responsibility," says Jill Carter, who has known her since the 1940s and puts her up at her house when she visits Los Angeles. "If Nan says she'll take a table, you can count on her."
"She's terribly friendly and interested in everyone she meets," notes Samuel Peabody, the Fifth Avenue philanthropist. "She's always reaching out to people, even those who may not cotton to her." Indeed, Kempner's range of friends is surprising. "I adore Nan," declared Joan Didion when I ran into her at a book party. "Of all those uptown ladies," says artist Ross Bleckner, "Nan is probably the most interesting. She's ballsy, she cuts through things, and she appreciates the different cultures of New York."
"She's never boring to be with," adds Vogue writer Marina Rust, part of a group of bright young things, including Rufus and Sally Albemarle and Coca-Cola heir Alex Hitz, whom Kempner has added to her ever evolving party list. "And it's never boring at her house. Maybe she doesn't ask boring people. But she has those great big wonderful sofas that you just sort of sink into, and nobody ever wants to leave. She'll say, 'Come by for a casual spaghetti dinner on Sunday night,' and casual is Saint Laurent and the spaghetti has caviar on top. The food is always really good. I've had lunch, just the two of us, and it's always perfect lamb chops or something like that, and there are always chocolates on the table, and she doesn't mind if you take one before dessert is served.
"What makes her really special is that she can say anything to anyone," Rust points out, "which sometimes can be very helpful. For example, …