Cassini Royale

By the time he died, in 2006, designer Oleg Cassini had seduced the “top top girls” of his day, from Grace Kelly to Marilyn Monroe to Anita Ekberg, married Hollywood stunner Gene Tierney, and shaped the look of the absolutely toppest girl of all, Jacqueline Kennedy. But, for all Cassini’s success with women, the battle over his estate, between his daughter Tina and his last (and secret) wife, Marianne Nestor, suggests a chilling calculation behind the dashing image.

OVER THE TITLES Oleg Cassini and Grace Kelly at the premiere of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, 1954—two years before she married Prince Rainier. Cassini later said, “Grace told me she would rather be a princess than a countess.” From Bettmann/Corbis; dig
OVER THE TITLES Oleg Cassini and Grace Kelly at the premiere of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, 1954—two years before she married Prince Rainier. Cassini later said, “Grace told me she would rather be a princess than a countess.” From Bettmann/Corbis; dig

Six weeks before his death, on March 17, 2006, at age 92, the designer Oleg Cassini made his final public appearance, at a design-awards show at New York’s Whitney Museum. Cassini had always flaunted his advantages. In the 1940s he married Gene Tierney, one of Hollywood’s most beautiful actresses; in the 50s he was engaged to Grace Kelly; and in the 60s he dressed First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. That night at the Whitney, he was with the former supermodel Carol Alt, 46 years his junior, who was swathed in white fur and spilling out of her dress. For one last time, Cassini was playing the suave, Continental bon vivant sportsman and design innovator who had conquered every woman he ever wanted, from Anita Ekberg to Marilyn Monroe. The grandson of a Russian-Italian count who was the last Russian czar’s minister to China and ambassador to the U.S., and the son of a titled but impoverished diplomat, Oleg Cassini was effortlessly charming, whether on the tennis court, the ski slopes, or the dance floor. Deeply conscious of his romantic image, he wanted to be seen only with “top top girls.” (Grace Kelly, who fell madly in love with him, was a top top girl, but Marilyn Monroe, he confided to the journalist Joe Klein, who ghostwrote his autobiography, was just “a little polo pony.”)

Women are still fighting over Cassini. Four years after his death, there has been no detailed accounting of his estate, and his daughter Christina is in a bitter court dispute with his longtime companion and secret wife, Marianne Nestor, about his will.

 

Oleg and his younger brother, Igor, known as Ghighi, came out of a world of playboys, heiresses, top-drawer brawls, and café society that no longer exists. The Cassinis were prone to histrionics. Oleg and Ghighi were known to have screaming matches on the tennis court, and Ghighi was once literally tarred and feathered by members of two southern families whom he’d insulted in a newspaper article. Ghighi later wrote under the byline Cholly Knickerbocker and was the Hearst newspaper chain’s most powerful gossip columnist in the 40s and 50s; he could make or break careers, and he coined the term “jet set.” Like his brother a natural Lothario, he married five times. Ghighi took a great fall in 1964, however; indicted for being an unregistered agent of the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, he had to give up his column. Syndicated columnist Liz Smith, who for a time was his assistant, observed the brothers at close range. “They were like pirates with a gloss of education and culture,” she says. “They slept with everybody. Ghighi would walk into the office and say, ‘Last night I went to dinner at Mrs. [Babe] Paley’s. I had slept with every woman at the table.’”

 

In 1936, Oleg left Europe for New York. His first, brief marriage, to Merry Fahrney, the heiress to a patent-medicine fortune who he claimed had married him for his title, ended in divorce. He went to Hollywood in 1940, to work as a sketch designer in wardrobe departments. In 1941 he captured the breathtaking, 20-year-old Gene Tierney. During their tempestuous 12-year marriage, Cassini designed the clothes she wore on-screen and fought off rivals for her affection, including Howard Hughes. In 1947, during a period of separation, Tierney told him she was deeply in love with a naval officer named John F. Kennedy, whom he had met. Cassini said that a divorced actress would never be allowed into such a prominent and political Catholic family. His marriage to Tierney had begun to crumble by 1943, when their first daughter, Daria, was born severely retarded and nearly blind. (During Tierney’s first trimester of pregnancy, a fan with German measles had broken her quarantine to shake hands with her favorite star, and Tierney unknowingly contracted the disease.) The shock of Daria’s condition propelled Tierney into spells of mental illness that would recur over time. Her divorce from Cassini was to be finalized in March 1948, but several months before that, as he would write in his autobiography, they had started “going steady” again, and in April they announced that they had reconciled. Their second daughter, Christina, was born in November 1948. They divorced for good in 1953.

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Magazine Septiember 2010
Magazine Septiember 2010