Sunday, December 20, 2009

My Slim Keith Story

Shortly after I graduated from college I met and started dating an older man, named Fred.  Well, he was 40.  He was an old-money California republican, prematurely gray with steely blue eyes.  Handsome.  Fred grew up in Los Angeles, went to the Harvard School and Stanford, and wound up on the East Coast after a stint in the Navy where he made enough investing in real estate that he didn’t have to work that much, if at all.  He was a lot of fun.  He loved the good life, was always up on what was what, and he taught me a lot about the pleasures of stylish, grownup living.

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.


  1. Fabulous story, Reggie, and I enjoyed it enormously.
    That apartment shown in HG went straight to my scrapbook of
    loved places.
    Thanks for sharing this little slice of your past....

  2. Reggie Darling! I enjoyed EVERY WORD of this. Fascinating. I would have loved to meet Slim Keith. A swan, and a most stylish one at that, is what she was. An 'impertinent boy' - what a compliment!

  3. Her bio SLIM is a great read, Ive always thought her daughter Kitty had the most wonderful taste and looks without the public persona of her mother. As an impertinent youth isn't it interesting how we might miss someone who is the real deal-thank the gods we have those older and wiser to set us straight so we can appreciate the moment and take it all in. One of the most naturally beautiful of all the swans. G

  4. Thank you, indeed what a pleasure it was to meet her. Stay tuned for the next chapter...

  5. Thats so amazing and very well written indeed! How lucky -i've read both those books. It's probably best that you didn't know who she was -otherwise you might have been silenced by your awe!

  6. What a story! So glad I came across your blog. I have this wonderful book called "The Power of Style" and it profiles Keith as well as Vreeland, Chanel, Jackie O., Pauline de Rothschild... I think you would love it. Thanks for sharing the story---you're a truly fantastic writer. I think you ought to write a memoir someday and indulge us even more!
    XX Kate

  7. Hello Kate,
    Nice of you to stop by. "The Power of Style" was written by the same author as "Slim" and is in my library. It owes a great debt to Cecil Beaton's "The Glass of Fashion" which I urge you to read if you haven't already. I took a gander at your blog, which I enjoyed, and I look forward to stopping in and reading regularly. I too recently bought a Canon Rebel digital SLR and am enjoying learning its many incredible capabilities. Thanks, Reggie

  8. It is mazing, but I took Answered Prayers (but in French, helas,Prieres exaucees) to re-read it, as a joy of holiday. I know the characters are real, but never knew whom they were. Thank you.

  9. Reggie....Came across your blog today, and I
    was tickled to read your blog about Slim Keith
    and her friend, Gep Durenberger....who I value
    as my friend, also. Gep, now into his 80's
    is as fantastic as he was in those days, albeit
    a bit older, wiser, as ever fabulously funny,
    and jets about the world with his gaggle of friends. I hope you have kept in contact
    over these years, and if you have not, please
    contact me and I will update you as to his
    whereabouts. He is gorgeous, of course, and
    loves his life. Bonnie

  10. Reggie,

    I was sent over by Mrs. B and I am so glad to have arrived! This post about Slim was just fantastic, her autobiography is one of my top favorite reads of all time. I can't believe you got to meet her, let alone go to her apartment! Great blog, I just love it. I'm looking forward to many more visits. Best, Serena

  11. Thank you Serena,
    Do come back and visit from time to time...

  12. i've really enjoyed your recollection of lady keith.
    if you can't tell,
    i'm quite the fan.

    she did indeed have quite the resume;
    she was even mentioned in "rear window:"
    "then i had to have drinks with leland and slim hayward..."

  13. Great post. What a ion of the 20th century!

  14. I worked at Parish-Hadley in the 80s and met Slim Keith as she was a close friend of Mrs Parish, sometimes coming to the office for lunch. An interesting Lady, to be sure.

  15. One was taken in by senior mentors in much the same way, apart from the dating aspect. Father seemed to have attended a boy's school in California which was wonderfully prescient about bachelors, and these schoolmates were tremendously sympathetic and generous. Plato expected this, but I didn't.

  16. Hi,
    Read the bio years ago and think of her often as a style icon and googled her and stumbled across this piece. Your bio is awesome. I just discovered which you may love is a new store in Atlanta and a blog called Unabashedly Prep, the store is Ann Mashburn, her husband Sid Mashburn also own an amazing mens retail store that GQ loves. I grew up in the Hudson/Harlem Valley area and my family continues to reside in Rhinebeck. The houses in the area are amazing. I hope you are enjoying your Federal.

  17. What a great story! Just stumbled across it now and made for some lovely Saturday morning reading.

  18. Reggie, I beg to differ with you: Lady Ina Coolbirth was modeled after Pam Churchill (two sources for this, one from Tru himself and another from a bio. on Pam). You know Miss Pam was always a bit loosey goosey with the men folks. Babe Paley and her sisters always kept an eye on her when she was single and swanning about in their company. However, kudos to meet the real deal. I wish I had!

  19. Dear RD,
    I so enjoyed this story! I had similar experieces in NYC, and my department chair at FIT, Stanley Barrows (deceased) was a friend of Gep Durenbergers. When I went out to San Juan Cap with my dear boyfriend, Billy, we went to Geps old shop, which he had sold,(to retire) but his old Mercedes was still there, covered in dust! He left samples too, it was eery and fabulous. Thanks for sharing!

  20. I had totally forgotten about this great post, Reggie. Thanks for bringing it back up to the surface. Have a great weekend.


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