Remembering Vernon’s baron of fashion – NorthJersey.com
Glenwood Cemetery saw a small funeral in the spring of 1981. The deceased had been a summer resident of Highland Lakes for some 20 years. The modest affair was attended by only a handful of people. But among that handful were Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, and Calvin Klein.
These three titans of the fashion world had come to Glenwood Cemetery to say farewell to a man they all called mentor and friend — who had, in effect, discovered them.
Niki de Gunzburg.
His full name was Baron Nicolas Louis Alexandre de Gunzburg, and he was certainly one of the most remarkable people to ever call Vernon home. I’ve written a lot about the Baron over the years, but if you want his whole story, told far better than I can tell it, you’re in luck: Vanity Fair has just published a feature on the Baron by author and fashion doyenne Amy Fine Collins.
“A Taste for Living,” Amy’s superb piece on the Baron, his life, and his role in 20th century American fashion, was published in the September 2014 of Vanity Fair’s U.K. edition. You can read it online at http://www.vanityfair.com/style/2014/09/niki-de-gunzburg-profile (or just Google “Vanity Fair Gunzburg,” and you’ll find it.)
The Baron’s life reads like a work of fiction, except it was fact. He was born in Paris in 1904. His father, Jacques, was descended of a family of Russian Jews who, with extensive interests in banking and business, had been closely associated with the Czars of Russia, and had received the title “Baron” from the Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt. Nicolas de Gunzburg, however, lived the life of a Parisian playboy–except that unlike, say, Charles Boyer, he was gay.
He dabbled in film early in his career. He funded and starred in (under the name Julian West) a horror film by famed Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer. The movie was “Vampyr,” released in 1932. It was not a popular success upon release, but has since become regarded as an early masterpiece of the genre (one of its biggest fans is writer and director Guillermo del Toro).
The young Baron also became famous for his costume balls in Paris. Once, in 1934, he rented an entire island in one of Paris’s largest parks, the Bois de Boulogne, and threw a party, “The Ball of the Waltzes,” whose theme was the Imperial Habsburg Court. Guest came dressed as historical figures.
These endeavors left the young Baron’s bank account bare, and he soon thereafter set off to find his fortune in America. A brief attempt to make a name for himself in Hollywood failed, and by 1936 he had settled in New York City, where he found the field that made his name: fashion. By 1937, he was an editor at Harper’s Bazaar, where he worked with Diana Vreeland.
The Baron soon developed a reputation as the man with an impeccable eye not just for fashion, but for talent as well. In the early 40s, he spotted a young model that intrigued him, and in no time she was on the cover of Harper’s. Her photo was spotted by Hollywood, and before she knew it she was in the movies. Her name was Lauren Bacall.
His career in New York fashion advanced in 1947, when he became editor of Town & Country, and again in 1949, when he joined the magazine where he would spend the rest of his career: Vogue.
At Vogue, the Baron was the man whose eye for style and taste was never questioned, and in his career he spotted a variety of young talent that he mentored on to greatness — Blass, de la Renta (who himself just passed away) and Klein foremost among them. Of the Baron, Calvin Klein says, “He was truly the great inspiration of my life from the moment we met.”
These three protégés were just a handful of the Baron’s famous friends, who included designers Christian Dior, Coco Chanel, and Karl Lagerfeld, playwright Noel Coward, author Ian Fleming, composer Cole Porter, and fellow fashion editors Grace Mirabella and Carrie Donovan.
In the late 1950s, the Baron went looking for a place to build a summer home, and chose Highland Lakes, an easy drive from the city. He was able to acquire an entire two-acre island of his own, and motorboats were not permitted on the lake, which was a condition for the tranquility-loving baron.
On his new lake property the Baron built a Tyrolean-inspired summer house with antique Austrian doors and cedar siding. He shared it with Paul Sherman, an artist whom he had met around the same time. The house was featured in an article in Vogue.
The Baron retired from Conde Nast publications in 1974. Though 70 years old, he was not ready to stop working entirely (and his impecunious ways didn’t really give him the luxury of doing so). He took on fashion consulting positions — one with his protégé, the now-famous Calvin Klein, and another with Maximilian Furs.
He died in 1981, and the fact that he chose our pretty little Glenwood Cemetery to be buried in is quite a compliment. Paul Sherman died in 1986 and was buried beside him, and the house on the island was sold. And the story of Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg started slowly fading away, despite the efforts of local scribblers like yours truly to remember him in print.
Then, a few years ago, I got a call. I did not know the name on the caller I.D.: “Amy Fine Collins.” Little did I know she was one of America’s top fashion gurus, helping compile Vanity Fair’s annual best-dressed list. On top of that, she’s an accomplished fashion historian and author. She had found some of my pieces on the Baron online, and in a few minutes, we were chatting like old friends — as happens when you and a complete stranger find you have a unique interest in common.
She was starting the Vanity Fair article on the Baron, and I shared with her what information I had, and acted as de-facto tour guide when she visited Vernon to see his house, talk to people that knew the Baron, and visit his grave. To assist in the endeavor was not simply a privilege, but also a pleasure.
I recommend you check out the results for yourself: Amy Fine Collins’s “A Taste for Living” in Vanity Fair is a splendid telling of the Baron’s life, and the role he played in the 20th Century fashion industry.