Alex Hitz remembers his friend Nan Kemper.
Sometime during the early fall of 1998, when I was new in town and still living in the Carlyle Hotel, my telephone rang. An unfamiliar but booming voice came through the receiver:
- “Hello Darling. It’s Nan Kempner.”
- “Well, uh, hello, Nan,” I replied meekly through my shock.
“How are you?” Certainly, I knew who she was, although we had never met.
- “Very well, darling. Listen, I’ve got some people coming in for lunch on Friday, about 1 or 1:15. Will you join us?" I was thrilled and surprised be the invitation, and accepted readily.
-“Great!” she said, “I’m at 895 Park, the corner of 79th. Just ask anybody. See you then darling. Big Kiss. Bye.”
I had fallen in love with a stranger.
When I arrived at Nan’s duplex apartment—about which I had read articles with titles like “Chic Chinoiserie” and “Nan’s Park Avenue”—I was ushered into a beautiful red-patterned library with a remarkable Magritte painting and several Picasso drawings. It was full of strangers. They were all boldfaced names to be sure, but I didn’t know any of them…except Johnny Galliher. Johnny, a charming octogenarian leprechaun with a 1930s continental accent and a silver pompadour, was a new friend of mine, and I immediately understood how I had gotten there. “Nan,” said Johnny, “this is Alex Hitz.” She gave me a large kiss on the cheek and seated me next to her at lunch. We cemented our friendship over Silvina’s Soufflé Suisse.
It would be nearly impossible not to have seen Nan’s photograph published somewhere over the last 50 years. For any resident of New York City, London, Paris, San Francisco, Palm Beach or Los Angeles, if you missed her obituaries, you certainly should have your eyes checked.
“Never has someone done so much with so little,” Nan would say disingenuously about herself. Admittedly, statesmen rarely get such a send-off, and she would have loved it all. Although wonderfully attractive in person, she was accused of being “photogenic,” for rarely did someone look as good in photographs as she. “Well maybe the camera does love me,” she’d allow. “But I love the camera!”
Nan once told me that she “was a fat only child.” She paused. “Now, don’t you understand everything?” She loved to laugh at herself. She never tired of the discussion of bodily functions, especially her own, and adored asparagus because it “worked so fast!” She was thrilled when a famous designer referred to her razor-thin body as a “clothes hanger,” and admitted that past 70 she probably looked like a “cooked chicken in a bikini.” But it didn’t stop her from wearing them, often a la Francaise.
She possessed a rapier wit, and like a rapier, it could cut both ways. A member of her husband’s family had recently, and quite publicly, embarrassed himself, and Nan was questioned as to his current whereabouts. Without a pause she replied, offhandedly, and quite quickly, “He’s out promoting Anti-Semitism!” Few people get away with that kind of talk.
A globetrotting indefatigable solider, Nan was a veritable Calamity Jane of exotic diseases, hospital stays and food-borne illness long before she got the one that finally took her life. I often heard her announce to a new audience, “You know, darlings, I’ve broken everything I have, at least twice!” One day, when we were walking home from a restaurant near her house, several ambulances with manifold sirens came crashing through the street. With her right hand waving she announced, “Ohhh, there’s my car!”
So much has been written about her sense of fashion that I can’t add anything. It sells magazines, I guess, but with Nan it was so much more than just the clothes. Her intrinsic manners, and sense of theatre, dictated her fashion consciousness. As Tommy Kempner, Nan’s husband of 53 years, said in his most moving tribute to her at a memorial service in September, “For Nan, all the world was a stage…and she was the STAR!” She played it to the hilt—no one ever doubted that. But what I think most of all governed her clothing choices, and her impeccable menu maneuvering (she was a master of the low/high thing in all disciplines), was her sense of occasion. She never missed an opportunity to shine. A mundane occurrence for others was an event for Nan. Her friends glowed in her reflection.
Nan had so many gifts. Unerringly generous, she gave all of those gifts gladly to her wonderful family and to her friends. She was very proud of her three children, and she had an uncanny knack of making each of her seven zillion friends feel as if he or she was the only one. Originally, she started out wanting to meet everybody. That, it seems, she did. She and Tommy opened their house constantly and even when she was ill, was there one week that passed she and Tommy didn’t host terrific lunches or dinners? Never. In fact, it almost seemed that there was never a day—no matter how poorly she felt, and God knows, with and illness like emphysema, those days weren’t rare—when she wouldn’t be able to belly laugh about something. On her deathbed, she was better company than most people. I saw her several days before she died, and she whispered a really juicy piece of gossip about a prominent New York couple that finally appeared in the newspapers several weeks later.
Nan had courage. She counted her blessings every day. She was possessed of a truly indomitable spirit. In Nassau this past spring, I was lucky enough to spend 10 days with Nan and her family. One day after lunch, I dropped her at a friend’s house to play cards for the afternoon. The driveway was gravel, and, in Nassau, it’s customary not to wear shoes too often. She wasn’t wearing hers, and I wasn’t either. “Don’t get out,” she warned. “You’ll cut your feet.” “Don’t worry Nan, I’m brave,” I replied, not about to let her and her oxygen tank go it alone. “Hmmm. Brave,” she said quizzically. “You know, I’m brave, too. Because everyday, it’s mind over matter. Big kiss darling! See you for dinner!” And she was off.
I’m told that the Metropolitan Museum is mount and exhibition of Nan’s clothes this spring because she possessed one of the largest collections of couture in the world. Beautiful as they may be, and no doubt hers are, clothes are still just clothes. What a shame she won’t be in them.