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Rebel in Velvet Gloves by Claudia Steinberg | 27th August, 2015 | Personalities

In the Eighties, blue-blood convention-challenger Cornelia Guest was a regular in the gossip columns. The show jumper with an entourage of artists became an icon of the party-loving decade. In recent years, she has reinvented herself as an animal rights activist. Armed with a vegan cookbook and fashions made of synthetic fibers, she campaigns against cruelty to animals with innate charm and impeccable manners.

Be polite, meet everybody and have a wonderful time” – it was with this advice that the legendary socialite C. Z. Guest dispatched her teenage daughter Cornelia to American high society. Her wise words came with an eight-hectare country estate in Old Westbury on Long Island’s Gold Coast, home to the mansions of aristocrats and plutocrats like the Vanderbilts, the Roosevelts and the Woolworths since the turn of the last century. With its stables, show-jumping course, greenhouses, tennis courts, a shimmering pale blue swimming pool and a topiary garden by British landscape architect Russell Page, the 1920s palace is every bit the equal of its noble neighbors when it comes to old English style.

Its 28 rooms exude an air of nonchalantly faded grandeur, their walls adorned by portraits of illustrious forebears. Cornelia’s father was polo champion Winston Frederick Churchill Guest, cousin of Sir Winston Churchill, grandson of the 7th Duke of Marlborough and heir to the immense Phipps steel and real estate fortune. Her mother, born Lucy Douglas Cochrane, came from a prominent banker’s family.

The ancestral portraits rub shoulders with just as many oil paintings of beloved dogs and horses, the latter often with passionate rider Cornelia in the saddle. The animal theme continues elsewhere: the fur-covered armchairs and leopard-patterned carpets are joined by a pair of impressive elephant tusks – a trophy that Cornelia’s father brought home from one of his big game hunting expeditions to Africa. But Cornelia was different: as a child of nine who preferred to sleep in the stables with her pony rather than in her bed, she protested against the consumption of meat and fish by refusing to eat anything at all. Only when the family doctor warned her she was heading for an early death did she abandon her hunger strike after several days.

Even so, almost forty years were to pass before Cornelia Guest decided to adopt a vegan lifestyle. She had never had much of an appetite for animal protein, but when her mother became ill with cancer in the Nineties she started looking into the health benefits of a vegan diet. The realisation of “what animals have to go through before they end up on my plate” influenced her decision just as much as her insight into the life-extending promise of abstaining from meat and dairy products. Ever since, she has been starting her day with a garish green juice, taking her own snacks along whenever she flies and even teaching her dogs to love fruit and vegetables. For the daughter of renowned hostess C. Z. Guest, however, being able to put an elegant banquet together out of strictly vegan ingredients was also an important consideration. To begin with, back in 2009, she made her first forays into the gourmet world with a catering service and cookie recipes, eventually publishing her vegan bible Simple Pleasures three years ago. The cookbook is illustrated with photographs by Bruce Weber, an old family friend who had known Cornelia in her “wild child” days.

But Cornelia Guest’s cookbook isn’t her first publication. In 1986, at the tender age of 18, she brought out her first memoir, a guide for debutantes written with co-author Carol McD. Wallace. A few months previously, her debut at the Waldorf Astoria in a spectacular Carolina Herrera gown had not only officially made her part of the social elite but also led to the creation of the word “celebutante” – a title later claimed by girls like Paris Hilton and the Courtin-Clarins cousins. “If you have money and a good name, you could do anything,” she advised her readers – and abided by this concept herself. Having dropped out of genteel Foxcroft Boarding School in Virginia at 15 to become a show jumper, Cornelia became a regular at nightclubs like Studio 54 and Xenon and was soon the most famous party girl of the Eighties – her glamorous but disciplined mother would turn the garden hose on her to get her out of bed in the mornings. Eventually, however, Cornelia’s ambitions took her to Hollywood. Although she was not destined for a movie career, she did have an affair with Sylvester Stallone and various other adventures that she prefers to keep to herself. Tempelton, her parents’ country estate, was always there for her. When she returned home, the 14-strong pack of Chihuahuas, Westies and Newfoundlands followed their alpha female faithfully around the house, the horses were impatient to be ridden and the tame donkey was waiting for its carrot; only Socrates the giant tortoise remained stoic.

Cornelia spent the last two years before her mother’s death in 2003 almost entirely on Long Island. She had never settled down with a man and preferred her menagerie to children. C. Z. played a key role in her life and it was from her that Cornelia inherited her penchant for the unconventional: her mother had not only chosen the frivolous profession of actress but had even briefly taken to the stage as a Ziegfeld showgirl. She was painted by Warhol and Dali, scandalously took her clothes off for a portrait by Diego Rivera and, much to the horror of her peers, wrote a column for House & Garden magazine and designed clothes. For C. Z, it was perfectly natural to take her daughter along to Warhol’s Factory (he later painted Cornelia too – topless), because what could possibly happen to a girl who had the Duke and Duchess of Windsor as godparents and dined at home not just with Nureyev and Yves St. Laurent but with people like the Reagans too? C. Z. never doubted that she would bring her daughter up to be one of society’s “swans,” as she herself was called by her best friend Truman Capote. And it was Halston, another of her good friends, who taught Cornelia the art of walking graciously in evening wear.

But forceful mothers cast long shadows, and it wasn’t until after C.Z.’s death that Cornelia found her new identity as an animal rights activist, author and designer of cruelty-free clothes and accessories. There is a 1956 portrait by photographer Stephen Colhoun showing C.Z. in a tight-waisted sable jacket, but for Cornelia fur is “a thing of the past” and “kindness is stylish.” She had no qualms about taking her clothes off for the “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” campaign launched by animal rights organisation PETA. And although for a long time she herself wore lizard leather shoes and carried crocodile handbags, her latest project is a fashion collection made of innovative synthetic fibers that she tracks down in China. Within a week, Bloomingdale’s had sold out of her faux leather handbags, the design of which she tested on her friends by having them serve as a kind of focus group. It’s definitely high time for a second installment of her memoirs. cs

IssueGG Magazine 04/15
City/CountryLong Island/ U.S.
PhotographyDouglas Friedman/Trunk Archive