Diminutive, perfectly coiffed, with alabaster skin, Lauren reminded me of a little puffed up brown bird wearing a French designer-label suit. She lived in an elegant understated London townhouse and whenever I paid my respects at cocktail time, her butler ushered me upstairs to the sitting room decorated with antiques and priceless old master paintings. I’d find her sitting in her favorite Louis XV chair, a cigarette holder in her right hand, a Waterford crystal glass filled with Bourbon in the other. The slight scent of Joy, the world’s most expensive perfume, filled the air. Like a middle-aged queen surrounded by her loyal courtiers, she smiled and bade me enter. I approached. She gave me a peck on both cheeks. She exuded an air of sophistication and cultured refinement that in our hectic and casual times is extremely rare.
The butler, who only spoke Spanish, had arranged delicious, wafer-thin cheese crackers from Fortnum's, London’s most exclusive grocers, on a dish and placed it on the cocktail table. I sipped dry sherry and listened to the lively conversation of those already assembled but, due to my own shyness and less daunting intellect, contributed little.
Her distinguished international guests, mostly from the art world, hotly debated a serious topic of the day. Talk at Lauren’s salon was eclectic, ranging from the highbrow to the intricacies of cricket. Lauren, a born and bred New Yorker, had immersed herself in this most British of British pastimes. However, one visit I remember well. She tossed her audience a controversial musical question and, turning to a fellow musician seated by her side, asked: “Who do you think is the greater composer Mozart or Beethoven?”
Taken aback, he replied: “Well, mia cara, that’s like comparing apples and oranges, don’t you think?” Then an intense exchange of views followed, much to my delight.
But mostly they directed their attention to Italian or Dutch paintings or the skyrocketing auction prices at a recent Sotheby's sale.
On occasion, however, they loved to gossip about prominent people they knew. I’ll never forget the heated monologue a lawyer once delivered about some infamous client of his decades before. As we sat spellbound, he recounted the court case in minute detail. Lauren nodded approvingly. “Morton, tell us the part when the scoundrel absconded with that Tiepolo print wrapped up in a towel he had placed at the bottom of his suitcase. Wasn’t he caught red-handed going through customs at Heathrow airport?”
Smiling, he continued the story. She loved his formidable recollection of all the legal facts. She couldn’t have given a better performance herself.
In her youth, Lauren had been an accomplished world-class violinist, mesmerizing audiences at Carnegie Hall. She still practiced five hours a day despite a painful back problem, but never complained in public.
The aura surrounding her was one of wealth and privilege yet it was hard work, rigorous discipline and boundless energy that had brought her international acclaim. Her critics, few in number, I might add, murmured that she owed much to her cigar smoking, gruff, Brooklyn-born workaholic husband. But they ignored her immense talents, her self-confidence, her iron will.
Looking back, I realize my feelings about Lauren are the same – awe, respect, fascination and genuine affection. I’ll always remember her exquisite taste, her mild but outgoing manner, her wide range of knowledge, her humanity.
She may not have been a beauty, her exclusively-designed French outfits may not have enhanced her appearance, but, for me, she towers like a giant over other women I have met.
Vera Saunders copyright 2002