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Born Nan Field Schlesinger in San Francisco, Kempner was the only child in a wealthy family. Her father, Albert "Speed" Schlesinger, who owned the largest car dealership in California, reportedly told his daughter, "You'll never make it on your face, so you'd better be interesting."
Kempner attended Connecticut College where she met Thomas Lenox Kempner, a banker and grandson of Carl M. Loeb. They married in the early 1950s and had three children. After living in London for a short time, the Kempners moved to New York City, where Nan took the initiative to become a leader in society. Over a thirty-year period, she helped raise over $75,000,000 (USD) for the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
Kempner started collecting couture clothing when she was a young woman living in San Francisco. Over the course of her life, she owned one of the foremost private couture collections in the country, featuring classic designers such as Mainbocher and her favorite designers Yves Saint Laurent and Bill Blass. Kempner, who missed only one runway season in fifty-five years, was widely considered to be among the most highly informed authorities in fashion. Her knowledge stemmed from her respect for couture craftsmanship and was fueled by her unbridled passion for clothes. Her collection preserved some of the iconic outfits of mid-20th century couture.
At various times in her life Kempner worked as a contributing editor for French Vogue, a fashion editor for Harper's Bazaar, a design consultant for Tiffany & Co., and an international representative of the auction house Christie's. In 1973 she was painted by Andy Warhol.
In Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, two society matrons discuss the creation of a society wax museum, concerned that future generations might not otherwise know what Nan Kempner looked like. Kempner authored a book about how to be a great hostess entitled R.S.V.P. (2000, ISBN 0-609-60430-9); the proceeds of the book benefited several charities.
Diana Vreeland, former editor of Vogue, once said, "There are no chic women in America. The one exception is Nan Kempner." Valentino said, "Nan always looks so wonderful in my clothes, because she had a body like a hanger."
Joan Juliet Buck wrote in W that in the 1960s, at a time when women in pants were challenging social mores, Kempner defied the dress code at La Côte Basque, which declined to seat women wearing pants, by removing her trousers.
The thin, elegant blonde was said to be the inspiration for the term “social X-ray” in Tom Wolfe’s novel Bonfire of the Vanities.
Death and legacy
Kempner died on July 3, 2005, aged 74, from emphysema. Two months later. her family held a memorial service in her honor at the auction house Christie's. Five hundred of her friends were in attendance.
In December 2006, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute opened an exhibition of Kempner's extensive couture collection. The exhibition later traveled to San Francisco, where it was shown at the de Young Museum from June 16, 2007 to November 11, 2007. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco received much of Kempner's clothing collection after her passing, including remarkable designs by Valentino, Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, and the house of Christian Dior.
- I wouldn't miss the opening of a door.
- Some people say the camera loves me, the truth is, I love the camera.
- The only plastic I want is plastic surgery!
- I want to be buried naked, I know there's a store where I'm going.
- I spend way more than I should ... and way less than I want.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on June 8, 2009. Retrieved April 18, 2009.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
- "Nan Kempner: American Chic". FAMSF. Retrieved 2016-04-02.
- "Katheryn Clews Patterson Wed To Thomas Lenox Kempner Jr". The New York Times. May 27, 1979.
Katheryn Clews Patterson, an associate with the New York law firm of Coudert Brothers, was married yesterday in Southampton, L.I., to Thomas Lenox Kempner Jr., a trader in the government‐bond department of Goldman Sachs & Company. The Rev. Malcolm L. Foster performed the ceremony at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in the Dunes
- "Chic Society Ladies: Nan Kempner on Pinterest | Bill Blass, Yves Saint Laurent and Icons". Pinterest.com. Retrieved 2016-04-02.
- "No Guts, No Glamour: A dangerous woman doesn't break the rules—she makes them". W magazine. March 11, 2015.