The interesting thing about “C.Z. Guest: American Style Icon” (Rizzoli) is that it’s about a woman who was important not so much for what she did as for what she was.
“I wanted to do an elegant and reverential celebration,” says author Susanna Salk of her new book, whose subject remains synonymous with Palm Beach living.
“And I think it does her justice. What I always felt but couldn’t articulate was that she was an incredibly modern woman no matter the decade, without being a chameleon. She didn’t disappear into the 70s, for instance, as so many people did. She went to Studio 54, but she went as C.Z. Guest. And she branded herself, she worked.”
C.Z. Guest did all that and more. She embodied cool beauty, but with a sense of fun; her particular combination of qualities meant that she could wear decades old Mainbocher or Adolfo outfits and not only get away with it, but shine.
Guest was born Lucy Cochrane in Boston, the daughter of an investment banker. “C.Z.” was a variation of “Sissy,” a childhood nickname. Her heavy flirtation with the arts resulted in appearances in “The Ziegfeld Follies of 1944,” a brief tour of Hollywood, and a nude painting by Diego Rivera.
“My ambition,” Guest once confided, “was to be a successful enough actress to get myself thrown out of the Social Register. I had no talent at all but I enjoyed every minute of the experience.”
Guest’s flirtation with show business lasted only a couple of years, then she married Winston Guest in 1947 and moved to Palm Beach. That should have been that - welcome to another Lady who Lunches.
Guest was a polo champion, a Churchill cousin and had his own roster of famous friends - Ernest Hemingway was best man at their wedding. The couple had two children and divided their time between Templeton, their estate on Long Island, and Villa Artemis, their estate on Palm Beach. C.Z. was painted by Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol, and frequently appeared in “Town and Country,” flourishing her Grace Kelly-style looks. She was a close friend of Truman Capote. In 1962, she made it to the cover of “Life.”
After her husband died in 1982, Guest became something of a career woman; she had a gardening line she touted on QVC, and a small fashion line. “She called herself the Estee Lauder of the garden world” says Salk.
“People thought she was a WASP behind the beautiful stone walls of the Villa Artemis. But she met everybody, and everybody interested her; one of her best friends was Joan Rivers. She wasn’t about drinking tea.”
Before the book completely sets her image in amber, it’s wise to point out that Guest was not entirely a barely modulated madcap a la Auntie Mame. David Patrick Columbia, the most assiduous modern chronicler of New York society, tells a story about Guest getting her Boston up. It seems that she once saw saw a woman carrying groceries through the lobby of Guest’s Park Avenue pied a terre.
“Groceries are delivered only through the service entrance,” Guest sternly admonished her. “Rules are rules.”
All that’s missing from this particular scene is a lorgnette and Maggie Smith’s intonation.
Salk never met Guest - she died in 2003 at the age of 83 - and there is a sense that her subject is a kind of role model for her.
“There are a lot of people that rebel against their upbringing, but she had fun with it. She went to LA, felt it wouldn’t work for her, and came back and married Winston. She became what she had been groomed to be. And then she broke out. I got kicked out of the Social Register. I know that world and it would be unheard of to pose for Diego Rivera in Mexico. That group didn’t trot on over to Mexico. Palm Beach, sure, but Mexico? And I’m sure she looked dignified and wonderful doing it.
“There’s a wonderful tension between being completely of her world always and still being completely open to new experiences. She was the person at the fancy ball talking to the policeman in charge of security, but at the same time the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were two of her closest friends.”
Salk’s book is heavy on photos - Guest was shot by everybody from Slim Aarons to Irving Penn, while Cecil Beaton illustrated one of the gardening books she wrote. The text is largely made up of reminiscences from the likes of Billy Norwich, Peter Duchin and Liz Smith.
The blossoming outward after the death of her husband implies a marriage that might have been stifling, but Salk rejects that idea. “She was loving and reverential toward him. It was a good marriage. What happened to her happens to a lot of widows - it was her chance to have a second life. She didn’t fold up into the good night. She went out and loved it. It would have been harder to do all that with him there.”
Besides her gardening line, Guest also wrote a gardening column that began after she was laid up by a 1978 horseriding accident and was eventually syndicated in 350 newspapers. “I love how she shared. She had been privileged to learn about gardening when she was a little girl from the head gardener at her estate. And she educated herself. She was down and dirty in those gardens, doing a lot of it herself, and she wanted to share it with people.
“I always felt that she celebrated life, and the book reflects everything she loved - her houses, her garden, her family, her dogs, her horses - chapter by chapter, everything that was important to her.
“I thought she needed her just due.”