Oleg Cassini seduced me. It wasn’t his thatch of thick white hair, trim frame or silky continental drawl that sent my imagination into overdrive, but his outsize gift for spinning tales.
Cassini was 91 when we spoke in 2005: best known then as Jacqueline Kennedy’s designer, the silver-tongued bon vivant who helped shape her image during her White House years.
Leaning forward in a club chair at his Beaux-Arts townhouse and business headquarters on East 63rd Street, the designer reminisced unsentimentally about his conquests, splicing his narrative with dry asides that conjured a lost world of polo grounds, martinis at Musso & Frank, and winter holidays at Chamonix.
Already a formidable Hollywood presence when he met Mrs. Kennedy, Cassini, who had carved a reputation of “designer to the stars,” boasted of liaisons with some of the women he dressed, those he liked to call the “top, top girls,” a gallery that included Grace Kelly, to whom he was briefly engaged, Ursula Andress and Marilyn Monroe. Then there was Gene Tierney, the 1950s movie star and famous beauty, who became his wife.
A year after we spoke he was dead. To the scores of collectors and curiosity seekers happy to look past the more pedestrian aspects of his business life (his name is attached to a mi-price bridal-wear label and a number of licensees, including housewares and colognes) his mystique remains intact.
Or so Doyle, the New York auction house, is betting. On June 27 the house will place a sizable portion of the Cassini estate, estimated to be worth $50 million to $60 million, under the gavel: mementos of a life lived on an epic scale reduced to some 750 lots.
There will be contents from two of his properties — a neo-Gothic townhouse in Gramercy Park and a Renaissance-style mansion surrounded by 43 acres in Oyster Bay Cove, on Long Island. The items include seven suits of armor and such oddly assorted items as a Sino-Mongolian dagger, heraldic plaques, a Louis XVI ormolu-mounted writing table, a 1987 Silver Spur Rolls-Royce and a cache of letters and memorabilia documenting Cassini’s relationships with Kelly and Mrs. Kennedy.
A highlight is lot No. 10, a nine-page letter Mrs. Kennedy wrote in the months between election and inauguration. “It’s the kickoff piece, the piece I go to,” said Peter Costanzo, a senior vice president and executive director at Doyle. “It has such an intimate and unguarded tone.”
In that letter, a vulnerable first lady-to-be pleads with the designer, “Protect me. I feel so personally exposed and I don’t know how to cope with it.”
As titillating as the sale itself is the whiff of scandal that attends it. A 13-year litigation over the estate remained active even as the sale was announced earlier this spring.
Though Cassini rarely mentioned it, there was another woman in his life, Marianne Nestor, who with her sister Peggy has led the New York company Cassini Inc. and a fragrance business, Oleg Cassini Parfums, for more than three decades. Known to all but the designer’s inner circle only as his business manager, Ms. Nestor was in fact Cassini’s wife.
Ms. Nestor Cassini, who has referred to herself in court documents as the Countess Cassini, was jailed for six months last year for failing to comply with court orders issued in Nassau County. The court orders concerned how to distribute his estate to his four grandchildren, who maintain they are entitled to one half of it.
She was jailed a second time, in January, for resisting a court order to turn over financial statements and business records to a court-appointed receiver assigned to collect the assets of the designer’s two companies. She was released in March, having spent two months behind bars for civil contempt.
Vincent Reppert, her lawyer, did not respond to my messages but told WWD, as reported on May 3, “The entire matter is being vigorously disputed.
Also in dispute is a decision by the Supreme Court of the State of New York in Nassau County that called for the sale at public auction of the Gramercy Park townhouse.
Mr. Costanzo declined to say how Doyle came into possession of the contents of the estate it is auctioning, referring elliptically to a note in the auction catalog. Lots from the New York townhouse are being sold “pursuant to a New York City sheriff’s office property execution seizure,” it states, while those from Oyster Bay Cove are being sold by a court-appointed receiver on behalf of Oleg Cassini Inc. and Cassini Parfums.
The note is accurate, according to John Barnosky, a lawyer for the four Cassini grandchildren.
The sale will encompass objects of varying worth, their value reflected, somewhat conservatively, in estimates that range from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars.
“There are lots of things collectors would be hungry for, and others you could buy at any Long Island estate sale,” said Corbin Horn, the head of furniture and decorative arts sales at Leslie Hindman, an auction house based in Chicago.
A breath of scandal may not boost their worth, Mr. Horn suggested, but will likely build anticipation for the sale.
It may also cast shade on the image Cassini worked a lifetime to burnish.
The son of an Italian Countess and a Russian diplomat of noble descent, Cassini grew up with advantages, learning to sketch, studying under the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico and taking up riding in his native Florence.
He left Italy in the mid-1930s with Igor, his brother, the two bent on chasing their fortunes in the New World. Igor, known as Ghighi (himself a Lothario once heard to brag that he had slept with every woman at a lavish party he attended), was swift to make a name. Writing as the powerful Hearst gossip columnist Cholly Knickerbocker, he is credited with having coined the term “jet set.”
Oleg set his sights on Hollywood, working during the 1940s as a costume designer — a career, as it happened, with benefits. Ever the rogue, he made no secret of dating the starlets of the day, Betty Grable and Lana Turner among them. “He was a true playboy, in the Hollywood sense,” recalled Diane von Furstenberg, the fashion designer and a friend. “Even in his 90s he was a flirt.”
But not a cad. “I needed affection, and I did it the old-fashioned way; I earned it,” he wrote in his 1987 autobiography. A man with a heroic imagination, Cassini became a United States citizen in the 1940s and served as an army cavalry officer. Besotted with glamour, he once tested his skills as an actor with a cameo as a dress designer in the movie “Where the Sidewalk Ends.” Tierney, his wife, played a model in the film.
Cassini went on to design her screen wardrobe during much of their rocky 12-year union. The couple had two daughters, the first of whom, Daria, had significant developmental and physical disabilities and was eventually institutionalized. Stunned, Tierney sank into a depression. Cassini, too, was crushed, telling The New York Times in 1995, “This is a continuous torment to me.”
He rebounded professionally, opening a salon in Midtown Manhattan and later licensing his name to products including crystal tableware, a men’s cologne and a Chrysler car interior.
Cassini, whose wardrobe sketches for the first lady will be on view at Doyle in Manhattan, was often dismissed as an imitator, owing a creative debt to Hubert de Givenchy, Mrs. Kennedy’s Parisian couturier.
“He was not the most highly respected designer,” Frank Mori, a former fashion executive and once the licensing guru behind Donna Karan, told the writer Maureen Orth in 2010, “but Jackie Kennedy made him a star.”
That seemed to be enough for Cassini. “What is more important, the reality or the perception?” he famously said. “I am perceived to be an important designer. It’s enough for me.”
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