Friday, April 19, 2024

RIP Iris Sawyer, 83, Nearly Done in by NY Society Scandal of the 80s, Revived as a Jewelry Designer


iris photoMy friend, Iris Michaels Sawyer, whom I wrote about in a New York magazine story in 1994 that caused a lot of trouble in New York society, died on Sunday. She was a month shy of her 84th birthday and had been living in a nursing home uptown for the last year.

It’s hard to describe my anger about how Iris was treated by New York society in the 1980s. A series of bad decisions led her from a 25 year marriage to the late David Sawyer– he was a PR consultant and image maker in politics– to an affair with Thomas Kempner, member of the wealthy Loeb family and husband of infamous “social X-ray” (as dubbed by Tom Wolfe) Nan Kempner.

The short version: when the eight year affair went wrong, the Kempners conspired — Iris felt — to ruin her financially. She was almost 60, and had invested all of her money in a real estate deal with her lover. But Kempner’s wife called him home, and the society couple sold off the investment at the lowest price possible. The result bankrupted Iris, who had no family, no resources, and no savings.

When I met Iris in 1994 she was living on a pull out sofa on the Upper East Side in a rental with another woman whose husband had taken all their money and had fled to South Africa. (That’s another story.) This was the spillover from the go-go 80s in New York, where rich people played Monopoly with real houses on the Upper East Side. Tom Wolfe figured it all out for “The Bonfire of the Vanities.”

Iris and David Sawyer produced no children during their quarter century together. But they’d created a very successful business- D. H. Sawyer & Associates, which eventually became Sawyer Miller Group. They were the original spin doctors. But the Sawyers’ marriage suffered. They each cheated, a lot. Iris met Tom Kempner on a plane in 1981. His wife, Nan, was the bitterly thin jet setter who cared more for status than passion. Iris was witty, playful, smart– and attentive. (Kempner, whom I met years later, is no prize. Dull as dishwater is the best way to describe him.)

Iris, born in the Bronx, had graduated from Barnard, worked for Leo Lerman at Conde Nast, ran with international politicians.  In her early years with David, she even co-produced one of the first long music videos that presaged MTV. She and David divorced in 1982 (his story I’ve told elsewhere). She trusted Kempner fully, and planned on marrying him. But when push came to shove, Kempner was a coward. After eight years of heady promises, he returned to Nan with his tail between his legs. The social X-ray didn’t care, which was worse. As I wrote in 1994, Iris and Kempner used to romp in the couples’ bedroom. Nan just wrote it off.

But Nan also set her sights on hobbling her husband’s mistress financially by souring the real estate deal. Iris was living hand to mouth. She borrowed money and started a jewelry design company under the name Susan Lennox. It was very clever. Greta Garbo had starred in a 1931 drama called “Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise.” Lennox– with two n’s — was Tom Kempner’s middle name.

Iris had a keen sense of design. She had a brilliant mind. Women loved her pieces. She spotted trends in luxury shops, then made her own versions of necklaces, bracelets, rings that looked better and cost less. She attracted devoted private clients in London who didn’t know the Kempners, and in Richmond, Virginia where a local upscale shop featured her. For a while things seemed to even out.

But then the London business started mysteriously drying up. And the Richmond shop closed after the owner died. Iris’s precarious financial situation teetered. Upscale Upper East Side stores would take orders from her, then suddenly rescind them. Iris felt Nan Kempner had bad mouthed her. She wasn’t paranoid without good reason.

Some former friends stood up for her quietly. But Iris was living in places like the Martha Washington Hotel, where the cockroaches were as big as Nan Kempner’s diamonds. The deleterious effect of this was mind blowing. She had no doctor, dentist, no credit.

To make matters worse, David Sawyer had died suddenly in 1995 at age 59. Iris discovered he had done her dirty in death. Her pension from Sawyer Miller had disappeared. Iris sued– she was constantly suing people if she could find a lawyer who’d take the case. In desperation she made some short sighted settlements with Sawyer’s estate. But the money she was due had been purposely diverted from her by her vindictive ex. (It also didn’t help that Iris had allowed David to pay for their divorce, and use one lawyer. That man, who shall go unnamed for now, was complicit in her demise.)

“They want to kill me, they want me to go away,” Iris would say to me at least once a week. She was right, of course. She’d become, as Dominick Dunne once wrote of another society mistress, “an inconvenient woman.” My 1994 story was titled “The Woman Who Would Not Get Lost.” She wouldn’t, and this drove Kempner, Sawyer, and the whole clique of theirs, crazy.

The Kempners, so wealthy, could have settled with Iris and everyone could have gone their separate ways. But they made Iris pay dearly for her affair with Tom. Nan once twisted the knife when she told another journalist Iris was the “embittered refugee of a one night stand.” That hurt more than anything. She’d been with Tom Kempner for eight years. They might as well have stoned her in the town square. Nan acted in public as if her husband’s dalliance was a blip in a perfect marriage. But when she died in 2006, Tom married his secretary seven months later.

I’m so glad Iris did not go away. Our 23 year friendship was marked by her panic over survival, but I admired her genuine intellect and her delicious sense of humor. She was always surprising, and always making new friends at high levels. In London, for example, she flourished without the heavy weight of the Kempner story. She’d return from selling jewelry re-charged and rededicated to making a go of it. Her resilience was extraordinary, and we all pulled for her.

Last year things collapsed when Iris was evicted from an Upper East Side sublet after 12 years. The owner of the apartment was cruel, for no apparent reason. Iris went to live at a Marriott, and then a hotel on York Avenue. By now she had few belongings, and was getting handouts from friends. She became disoriented in the hotel. One day in June 2016 I received a call that she was in New York Hospital after a bad fall. That fall instigated a year of straight decline. There were some bad moments. We were lucky to find graciousness at the Amsterdam Nursing Home on the Upper West Side, where she was cared for with great attention. That is where she died yesterday.

Rest in peace, Iris. You deserve it.




Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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