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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.
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 like Mainbocher and her favorite designers Yves Saint Laurent and Bill Blass. Kempner, who missed only one runway season in 55 years, was widely considered to be among the most highly informed authorities in fashion. Her knowledge stemmed from her respect of couture craftsmanship and was fueled by her unbridled passion for clothes. Her collection preserved some of the most 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 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.
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." 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.
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 the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, where it was shown at the de Young Museum from June 16, 2007—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.
- "I’d go to the opening of a door."
- Nan Kempner's obituary in The Daily Telegraph (Online)