Thirty years ago in New York, the world was a different place. There was something called Society. Aileen Mehle aka Suzy wrote about it, so did Billy Norwich. Occasionally it seeped into Page Six, and into Liz Smith’s column.
The women who ran New York Society then were Pat Buckley, the wife of writer William F. Buckley, and Nan Kempner, married to banker Thomas Kempner. They jetted around the world on a schedule that included galas, balls, charity functions. They were old Mean Girls. They were thin and wore millions of dollars worth of clothes. Their husbands, rather than become eunuchs, had affairs.
Tom Wolfe dubbed these women “social X rays” in “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” He wrote: “The skinny middle-aged women, the “social X-rays,” wear puffy dresses to disguise their juiceless bodies, while the “Lemon Tarts,” sexy young blondes, hang on the arms of rich financiers.”
And now they are all dead: the husbands, the wives, and Wolfe.
Revealed now is the death of the last of them, Thomas Kempner, 91, a grandson in the extended Loeb banking and realty family. He was Nan’s husband and in the 80s he embarrassed her by cheating with a woman named Iris Sawyer. They had a seven year affair that ended very badly. I wrote about in New York magazine in 1994. When the affair was over, the Kempners weren’t satisfied that Tom had lied to Iris about his intentions. They bankrupted her, too. She died in August 2017 at age 83, penniless destroyed.
So let this be the legacy of Thomas Kempner. That’s the only way I knew of him. But his life is telling. After Nan died he married his secretary. She’s listed as his beloved widow in the paid Legacy obit from his family. There is no mention of Nan Kempner. She once struck fear in the hearts of Upper East Side women. Now she’s been erased.
Iris, who became my friend, will never be erased. She was a warm, smart, gentle lady who had everything taken away from her, as she said, thanks to trusting Tom Kempner. Iris’s lawyer, Jackie Bukowski, and I, sat with Iris during her last days as she lay dying in a not so great nursing home provided by Medicaid. She’d been a filmmaker, a PR whiz, a political adviser, and a very good jewelry designer. But meeting Kempner did her in. She can’t speak now. But she will never be forgotten.