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She was born as Nan Field Schlesinger in San Francisco, an only child from a wealthy family. Her father, Albert "Speed" Schlesinger, owned the largest car dealership in California and reportedly told his daughter "You'll never make it on your face, so you'd better be interesting."
She attended Connecticut College and met Thomas Lenox Kempner, a banker. In the early 1950s they married 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. She also amassed the largest private collection of haute couture clothing featuring classic designers like Mainbocher and her favorite designers Yves Saint Laurent and Bill Blass.
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 series, two society matrons discuss the creation of a society wax museum, emphasizing that future generations might not otherwise know what Nan Kempner looked like. Kempner herself authored a book about how to be a truly great host entitled R.S.V.P. (2000, ISBN 0-609-60430-9). The proceeds of the book benefited several charities.
She died on July 3, 2005, aged 74, from emphysema. Two months later her family held a memorial service in her honour at the esteemed auction house of Christie's. 500 of Kempner's friends were in attendance.
In December 2006 the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute opened an exhibition of Kempner's extensive couture collection.
- 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.
- Nan Kempner's obituary in The Daily Telegraph (Online)