I first heard of Nan Kempner through Vogue magazine in the 1970s. (This was about the time that Joke was cooking his first meatloaf.) Vogue ran an article about Nan with picture after picture of her posing in her favorite outfits--a lot of Halston and even more Yves St. Laurent, if I remember correctly.
I thought she was the coolest thing ever.
It wasn't because she was beautiful, because even 30 years ago, she wasn't a pretty woman. Her face was long and angular, and her eyes and lips were bit too narrow for beauty. She wasn't photogenic, either, and she was certainly no model; in their range of expression, the poses in that article ran the gamut from A to B.
Still, I was fascinated. I guess she was the first "belle-laide" I'd ever encountered. At the time I don't think I'd ever seen a picture of Wallis Simpson, probably the pre-eminent belle-laide, because although neither beautiful nor young, a king renounced his throne to marry her. Since then I've collected a few more belle-laides: Elsie de Wolfe being another favorite. None of these women was particularly attractive, but they stayed model slim, groomed themselves impeccably, and lived with incredible style.
Nan Kempner kept all of her old clothes, so she could wear "vintage" by pulling something out of her own closet. She also wore great jeans, often combining them with couture jackets. Like a 20-year-old Yves St. Laurent piece. And she was doing it 30 years ago, before Lucky magazine had made jeans-plus-dressier-clothes into a clichÃ©.
On top of that, when the Vogue article came out, Nan was already middle-aged. Back then, how many 45 year old ladies were running around in jeans? For that matter, how many women are declared style icons when they're 45?
Nan Kempner also had a terrific sense of humor. And it appears that as she got older, she took more risks and had more fun. She certainly appeared to enjoy herself more and more as she aged; the careful, mummified mannequin look I saw in Vogue magazine was replaced with what appears to be her trademark cat-who-swallowed-the-canary grin.
The last article I read about her said her emphysema had gotten so bad that she was pretty much attached to an oxygen tank. But she was still having fun.
Way to go, Nan.