|Slim Hawkes with Jimmy Stewart|
Fred made a point of cultivating friendships with interesting, well-heeled, and well-connected people. He gravitated to people in the arts, and his California connections ran deep. One of his pals was a man named Gep Durenberger, a renowned antiquarian based at the time in San Juan Capistrano, California, who was famous for his exquisite taste and a clientele comprised of the grandest gals of the West Coast and those who aspired to join their ranks. Whenever Fred went to visit his parents, who had retired to a house overlooking the ocean in Newport Beach, he always looked up Gep. I once went with him on one of those trips and I’ll never forget spending an evening in Gep’s magical bougainvillea-covered house in the hills with rooms filled with the most astonishing assortment of antiques and decorative arts I’d ever seen outside of a museum. The centerpiece of the livingroom was a fantastical, 18th-century, red-lacquered, Chinoiserie-decorated English secretary-bookcase full of Derby porcelain flowers. Blew me away. Nothing like it in the straight-laced, serious world I grew up in.
Gep was a great friend of John Saladino, the decorator, who lived in New York at the time, and who threw a cocktail party in Gep’s honor during one of his whirlwind visits to the City. Fred invited me to join him at the party, and so I went. Held in Saladino’s decorated-to-the-nines apartment on the Upper East Side, the place was crammed with guests and friends of Gep, a veritable crush. At one point I found myself sitting next to an old woman with pulled back gray hair, big, oversized-glasses, and a slash of red lipstick. She was obviously not all that well, and supported herself with a cane. But she was a character, and I enjoyed speaking with her, even though I can’t remember what we spoke about all these years later. I do remember, though, that at one point she turned to me and patted me on my knee and said “Well, you are a nice young man but I must leave you now as I am having dinner with Princess Alexandra, and I don’t want to keep her waiting,” to which I replied, “My, but ain’t you grand!” She laughed at that and responded “You are an amusing, impertinent boy, why don’t you come to my apartment for tea tomorrow, with your friends?”
|Slim Hawkes with Diana and Reed Vreeland|
After she left, Gep’s nephew, also a friend of Fred’s and someone whom I had come to know and like, came up to me and asked me if I had enjoyed speaking with Lady Keith? I responded “Lady Who?” He looked at me as if he were speaking with an idiot. “Lady Keith, that’s who – don’t tell me you don’t know who she is! That was Slim Keith you were speaking to!” I had no idea who Slim Keith was and said as much, to which he responded, exasperatedly, that she was one of the greatest swans of the 20th century, and that he couldn’t believe I’d never heard of her. I said that she seemed nice enough and that she had invited me to tea at her apartment the next day. He then told me that a group of us had already been invited and that I should do some homework beforehand because she was the “real deal.”
|Lady Keith, as photographed by Horst|
Like the nephew, Fred was surprised that I had never heard of her, but he was perfectly nice about it and filled me in over dinner on exactly who she was. Married at one time to Howard Hawks, she was a perennial on the best-dressed list, the inspiration for Lauren Bacall’s Hollywood style, cuckolded by Pamela Digby Churchill while married to Leland Hayward, and the source for Lady Ina Coolbirth in Truman Capote’s unfinished “Answered Prayers”, among other things. Quite the resume.
|Slim Keith, around the time I met her|
So it was with a new-found appreciation of my hostess that I found myself the next afternoon sitting in her apartment in the East 60s across the street from the Plaza Athenee. The place was beautifully decorated in high California English style, with comfortable chintz sofas and a profusion of handsome furnishings. It was published on the cover of House & Garden the next month.
She was not feeling particularly well, and spent the better part of the visit sitting in a chair. The conversation was light, and largely focused on recalling memories with Gep, an old friend of hers. While tea was offered, no-one chose to drink it preferring instead to help themselves to the more potent brews also on hand. I remember thinking at the time that I was in the presence of someone who had at one point been one of the brightly burning stars of a very rarified world, and that this was something that I should take in, and remember.
And so I did.