This story was originally published in the 2002 Home Design issue of New York Magazine.
Costume jeweler Kenneth Jay Lane made his fortune with faux pearls and paste, but his Stanford White lair is the real thing: stocked with pedigreed antiques, eclectic finds, and very happy high-society luncheon guests.
“I don’t really buy anything anymore. Everything I own I’ve had for so many years, including my clothes. I just wear them out!”
On a sun-dappled weekday in a leopard-skin chair in the posh living room of his duplex apartment, Kenneth Jay Lane is smoking and drinking a Campari and soda from a silver cocktail glass. His housekeeper is preparing lunch for eight. In the kitchen, an old-fashioned phone rings, suggesting the good old days of, if not Edith Wharton, then at least Truman Capote. “Hello? Yes?” purrs the famous costume jeweler, natty as always in a Gosford Park–ish tweed sport jacket. A guest is late. Her driver has gone right past Lane’s home on lower Park Avenue. “Yes, you’re beyond me, darling, as usual,” he says. The doorbell rings and two young, titled beauties are ushered into the vaulted living room. They’re Countess Vanessa von Bismarck and Princess Arriana von Hohenlohe-Langenburg — publicist-aristocrats living in New York. They trill hello and peck cheeks.
“You are so beautiful,” says Lane as he strokes under the chin of Princess Arriana, who married Dixon Boardman last June in Marbella.
“This place is so beautiful,” she replies.
Monumentally so. But then, they are in a Stanford White building – one of the few surviving mansions on Park Avenue. Completed in 1892 as the residence for J. Hampden Robb, the New York City parks commissioner, and his wife, Cornelia Van Rensselaer Robb, the Renaissance Revival building housed the Advertising Club from 1923 to 1977. It was then converted to a cooperative apartment house with fifteen units. When it was built, one architecture critic called it “the most dignified structure … not a palace, but a fit dwelling house for a first-rate citizen.”
Today, as Lane’s abode, it is one of the most favored places for lunch among a certain stripe of first-rate citizen. Lavish, exotic, but comfortably appointed, the apartment has history in the air; photos and memories of Diana Vreeland, Sister Parish, Nina Hyde, Babe Paley, and the duchess of Windsor, who, legend has it, is buried in a diamond belt made by Lane. The settees, ottomans, and sofas in his grand parlor invite gossiping. It is, in fact, a space that demands its guests be a little naughty and a little larger-than-life.
“The main thing is, it’s fun,” says Aileen Mehle, the society columnist. “You just feel totally at ease there and free to gossip.”
So never mind the Grill Room at The Four Seasons. This is the place to be.
“Kenny, yours is the only invitation I ever accept for lunch,” says the princess.
“It’s so intimate here,” adds the countess. “So European. Can we smoke?”
Of course they can.
Even in these days of renewed lip service to the comforts of home and cocooning, very few social engines in New York give lunches. “I know women who are out to lunch every day,” says Mario Buatta, the society decorator. “But it’s just too much work to give a lunch at home, there’s too much to organize, and then people fly off at 2:15 sharp to leave you alone.”
But imagine, if you will, Lane’s situation. With his office in a gritty zone of fabric retailers just east of the garment district, he can walk from showroom to home in ten minutes. While he’s at the office, running his costume-jewelry empire (which includes bi-monthly appearances on QVC that bring in $200,000 an hour, he says), lunch is prepared by his faithful housekeeper, Isabel. All he has to do is appear a few minutes in advance to receive his guests.
Here come the rest of them now: The countess of Salm, whose husband, Peter, is the son of Millicent Rogers; the earl and countess of Albemarle, otherwise known as Rufus and Sally. The guest of honor is the duchess of Ratibor, who is visiting from Vienna. She’s married to a duke, Lane can tell you, but she’s also a descendant of Metternichs, Hohenlohes, and Salms.
“I keep up with all this silliness,” he says. For help, he owns a copy of the Almanach De Gotha, Europe’s equivalent of our Social Register for tracing the titled.
Within five minutes, everyone is chattering away as if they’ve known each other for years. Lane, who loves to hold court and is famous for doing so, talks about being stuck on a home-shopping TV show in Austria for three hours, with nothing in his stomach but vodka.
“I was told not to be funny because Austrians have no sense of humor,” he says.
Then he talks about how Jane Wrightsman once told him she didn’t know what a BLT was. “She used to work at the gift shop of the Beverly Hills Hotel, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” says Lane, known for his quips, “but that gift shop is right next to the world-famous Fountain Coffee Shop, so she really should know a BLT.”
In a small dining area in the adjoining gallery next to the kitchen, the housekeeper, in classic maid’s uniform, moves around the William the Fourth period table silently, proffering silver platters of crab Isabel, the house speciality, and stuffed tomatoes. White wine is poured from festive striped overlay glass bottles from Bohemia. Under Lane’s permanently raised eyebrow, this luncheon is both formal and off-center enough to demand more naughtiness.
When, for instance, large silver soup bowls are placed before each guest for a baked-apple dessert, the earl of Albermarle, who is a bit of a wag, remarks, “Kenny saw some circumcision bowls somewhere and had them enlarged.”
The older ladies blanch, then everyone laughs.
Although he was born to a middle-class family in Detroit (he pronounces his hometown as if it were French), Lane had no trouble getting in with the jet set just a few years after he hit New York in the mid-fifties. He had a degree from the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, some very well-made suits, excellent table manners, raven-smooth hair, and, as Diana Vreeland said, “the straightest part in New York.”
She promptly put him on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar with Halston, who was a milliner back then, in 1961, dressing an imperious-looking Sophia Loren.
In those days, Lane was designing shoes. He adapted Roger Vivier’s chic pumps for Christian Dior. He made rhinestone heels and toes on shoes for Arnold Scaasi’s dress collections. By the early sixties, he had begun to make his name in costume jewelry. And as his reputation soared, so did his social stature, and, one might add, his view of himself. But then, what woman could resist a man who could throw bon mots and extravagant baubles at them as if he were society’s Santa Claus?
In his 1996 memoir, Faking It, he calls Babe Paley a great friend, and recounts how Jackie Kennedy used to tell him she’d seen a necklace of hers — one that Lane had duplicated for her and then put into his collection — on Dynasty. He made Barbara Bush’s fake pearls (she sent him a note saying people were disappointed when she wasn’t wearing them) and a Bill Clinton–inspired saxophone pin for Pamela Harriman. He’s chummy with all the potentates and doesn’t mind letting you know about it, even when what he says isn’t so nice.
And really, who wouldn’t want to hear?
“Baba Metcalfe was a pain in the ass,” he says about Lady Alexandra Metcalfe, daughter of Lady Curzon. “She once told me that a tiara I made to go with her mother’s famous peacock gown wouldn’t do at all!”
Some find the heights from which he surveys life a bit hard to take, and hear in his dulcet voice more than a trace of disdain for all the little people scrambling outside his rarified circle. Those deemed worthy, however, receive only charm and devotion from Lane, who has the stamina of a socialite and is often seen on their arms. Okay, he’s not Julio Iglesias, or even Noël Coward for that matter, but the ladies do love seeing him out and about.
“He’s always cheerful, and a he’s just such a character, in the greatest sense of the word,” says Mehle. “He’s dapper, delightful, and a gadfly about town who knows how to be up when he goes out,” adds Candy Pratts Price, executive fashion director at Style.com. “And he’s always going someplace complicated, like a coronation or India. It’s never simple like the Hamptons or Fire Island. He’s like a jet-setter from the fifties and sixties.”
“His living room is made for lounging,” says Buatta. “It has the feeling of the Mark’s Club in Mayfair in London and a Turkish tent, and I love that it has such an enduring quality and the feeling of history, as if it’s been that way forever. It’s an exotic room, a costume-party room, not a room for a plain Jane. It’s his kind of room.”
“His home is like a repository for his travels and his social life,” adds Mehle.
In fact, there are engraved invitations from around the world in his bedroom, along with snapshots of glamorous friends; there are opera pumps on the floor. The bedroom’s languid atmosphere is Proustian, although the inspiration is actually Federal. On the walls there are vanitas paintings – still-lifes with skulls — creating a surprisingly academic air, even for a well-read costume jeweler. There’s also a sensual painting of a reclining Endymion, the beautiful naked young man who wanted eternal youth and was put to sleep by the goddess Selene, who loved him.
“Not a bad arrangement for a marriage,” says Lane, who was once married.
The bathroom is green marble (verde antique) with chrome fixtures, and spectacularly regal. “Why be depressed when you get up in the morning?” Lane asks.
Downstairs, in the living room, or “parlor,” as Lane calls it, under the elaborately molded soapstone ceilings, there’s a double banquette, which invites reclining as if in a sultan’s tent. Coffee is served in demitasse cups.
The guests, who seem like a human collection of the baubles he uses to make his jewelry (although one could argue that they’re the real thing, not fakes), admire his variety of Bedouin paintings and Orientalia. There’s the leopard-fabric chairs from a flea market in Palermo, a tiger-velvet ottoman, a steer-horned chair, portraits of Berber boys, harem girls, rajas, sultans, and, of course, Diana Vreeland, who once told him, he recalls, “In the whole city of New York, you can’t find a rhinoceros horn!”
On his regal, richly ornamented balcony overlooking Park Avenue, with its glorious view of Grand Central Terminal and the Empire State Building, he surveys the city as if it were his personal fiefdom.
“This is where the revolution will start,” he tells his guests. “Except instead of you people, I’ll get the Hispanic workers from my office and some of my black friends, maybe Bobby Short, and we’ll wave down to the public from this balcony.”
“Fantastic,” says the duchess of Ratibor as she smokes a slim cigarette.
At 2:30 sharp, the countess of Bismarck declares that she must get back to the office. “Maybe we should play the Bismarck marching song for your exit,” says Lane, who grew up Jewish, “although I’d hate to think what that would be.”
Bismarck puts out her cigarette and straightens her pleated skirt.
“Very naughty, Kenny,” she says. “Very naughty.”
The décor made him do it.