Part of the interview was conducted in public, all the better to see and be seen, over a 1 p.m. lunch at Swifty's, a hangout for the Upper East Side social set. At Lexington and 73rd, it's a small place with British pub charm, tasteful floral arrangements and American-style food at relatively moderate prices, because the owners know that wealthy people don't like to spend money. It isn't directly named for the late literary agent Irving "Swifty" Lazar, said co-owner Robert Caravaggi, but for a dog once owned by a close friend and restaurateur (now deceased) who in turn had named his dog after Lazar.
Kempner arrived with her husband and her frequent companion and partner in gossip crime, Boaz Mazor, the bon vivant and Oscar de la Renta executive. The picture of casual chic, Kempner wore a taupe jacket and pants, a fist-size brooch on her right lapel and purposely mismatched Kenneth Jay Lane sea star earrings, one coral and one red, to offset her blonder-than-blond hair. Her most important accessory, though, was a bag containing a portable oxygen tank. She ordered a cranberry juice and soda, a salad and a cheeseburger, rare, no bun: eschewing starch is one reason that, at 5 feet 9, she wears a size 2 or 4, depending.
She and Mazor deconstructed the funeral, down to the outfits, demeanor of the guests and details of the pageantry. They dished mercilessly about New York acquaintances, none of whose names were allowed to leave the table. "Aren't you glad you came?" Tommy Kempner asked, shooting a sardonic look across the table.
His patience lasted through a Cobb salad and an espresso, after which he took his leave and headed home to spend the afternoon reading, just missing the double-cheek kisses bestowed by Paris Hilton's parents, Rick and Kathy, who dropped in for lunch after a casting session for Kathy's new reality show, "The Good Life.''
Back at the Kempners' apartment on Park Avenue at 79th, there was more of the good life -- done up by California designer Michael Taylor, renowned for his rusticity and glamour.
Kempner showed off the living room, a study in wheat tones with teal and leopard print accents with a dark Asian folding screen lining a wall. Potted ferns on pedestals anchored each side of the fireplace; a Picasso drawing and other artworks hung here and there. The bedroom, an airy nest, featured pale, apple-green wallpaper with a bird motif, inspiring calm. The bed was blanketed with the day's International Herald Tribune, New York Daily News, New York Post (for the gossip columns, of course) and New York Times. A moss velvet couch contained needlepoint pillows, declaring her "The Queen of Everything." Gilt-edged dressers shouldered photos of her family. Potted blue hydrangeas added color. Over a fireplace, a mirror with an Asian scene painted behind the glass added a regal touch.
Downstairs, in a study with lacquer red walls, overstuffed couches and chairs, camel-and-red-striped curtains, books and a Magritte or two, she settled in for the interview.
Kempner grew up in San Francisco as Nan Schlesinger, the only child of S&C Auto dealership owner Albert Schlesinger and his socialite wife, Irma. She attended Grant and Hamlin schools, and went to Connecticut College for Women. It was in New York, on her way home from a junior year abroad, that she bumped into San Francisco friend Clarence Heller, who had Tommy Kempner in tow. Clarence said "hi." Tommy noticed her Dior skirt was "too short.'' Later that night, they all went out in New York City to the Monkey Bar, where "Tommy and I traded insults all night,'' Kempner recalled. "Dislike at first sight grew into great, passionate, sexy love."
They married a year later and settled eventually in New York, where they raised three children (Tommy Jr., Lina and James). Kempner joined the Junior Council at the Museum of Modern Art and soon became a fixture on the social circuit. She also worked as a fashion feature editor at Harper's Bazaar in the late 1960s and into the '70s, a design consultant to Harry Platt at Tiffany, the American resident editor at French Vogue and is now an "international representative" for Christie's.
Kempner, an early devotee of Yves Saint Laurent, credits her interest in style and detail to her mother and grandmother. Her grandmother, she said, wore "classy silk jackets to bed, with sheets to match.''
Her eye for detail was honed early. She was once picked up at summer camp because she contracted poison ivy on her stomach and throat. "I was sick, but not too sick to notice my mother and grandmother had coats whose lining was the same as the dress,'' she said.
Her mother wore only red, black or gray. "She said there were no other colors,'' Kempner recalled.
Her mother was also a great beauty, but Kempner took after her father. "You'll never make it on your face,'' he told her, "so you'd better be interesting.''
Kempner recalled that her perfectionist mother decided early on that her daughter was fat, and put her on a diet. The lonely girl leafed through cookbooks, reading about that which she could not have, and took up smoking at 14. She chose Parliaments, her mother's favorite, because of the recessed filter. "You didn't get a mouthful of tar like other cigarettes,'' she said.
Kempner, who looks as if she doesn't eat at all, has been quoted recommending thick slices of lettuce as a substitute for bread when making a sandwich.
In fact, she eats -- a lot. Breakfast consists of coffee, fruit, yogurt and a hot jelly doughnut (or toast) smeared with peanut butter.
She took it up after the captain of a boat she was sailing on in Newport, R.I., once gave her peanut butter sandwich to settle her queasy stomach.
"My day doesn't start without peanut butter,'' she said, smiling. "There's no accounting for taste.''
She'll have a bunless burger -- or sometimes, a BLT with bread (gasp!) -- at lunch, and eats dinner, too. She walks, does yoga and weighs herself every day, eating less if the scale tips upward.
Being slender means she can buy sample sizes, which translates into steep discounts on designer clothes retailing for $10,000 or more.
She lives in high heels, preferring shoes by Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin, even though they've caused serious injury. A few years ago, as she was dressing for a night out, she pulled on an unusual pair of spiked heels --
the shoe and stocking were attached to each other -- leaned over to give her husband a kiss, and then tripped, breaking her hip.
The definition of style, she said, is "expressing your individuality and having a knack for throwing things together,'' such as an Yves Saint Laurent jacket with jeans (she wears boys' Levi's.) "You have to think about what suits the occasion, whether it's becoming and whether it's comfortable.''
Derring-do doesn't hurt, either. In the 1960s, she wore a new style -- a pantsuit -- to dinner at La Cote Basque restaurant, where the dress code forbade women in pants. Stopped at the door by Madame Henriette, Kempner yanked off the pants, handed them to her husband and told Madame, "I hope you like this better.'' She wore the tunic top as a dress, placed lots of napkins in her lap and "didn't dare bend over,'' she recalled. Last year, she flashed the crowd -- inadvertently -- at a gala at the Metropolitan Museum when someone stepped on the train of her Valentino ball gown and tore a buttoned fabric "trapdoor," exposing her behind.
She loves the way Nicole Kidman looks ("only she can wear John Galliano and look good in it"); the way her friend the Countess Isabelle D'Ornano, a Sisley cosmetics executive, pulls herself together ("everything looks like a Polish ethnic look") and thinks her San Francisco friends Frances Bowes, an art collector, and Gretchen Leach, the wife of the American Ambassador to France, look "marvelous,'' too.
In power elite circles, clothes are nothing without someplace to wear them. Kempner's closet gets a workout -- lunches at Swifty's, La Grenouille and Cafe Boulud, black tie galas for American Ballet Theatre, cocktail parties for Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, vacations and even business trips to Marrakesh (for Harper's Bazaar) and to the homes of her globe-trotting friends for her coffee table book, "R.S.V.P.: Menus for Entertaining From People Who Really Know How."
At home, she's famous for lowbrow Sunday night spaghetti buffets for friends coming home from a weekend in the country, and for grand dinners for grand causes, such as the dinner for Princess Diana in 1997, when Di's clothes were auctioned for charity by Christie's in New York.
The secret to a great party, said Kempner, who has been to thousands, is not lavish menus, place settings and flowers, but "imagination and great friends."
"Some of the best parties are done in (Greenwich) Village with spaghetti, '' she said. "Nervous hostesses ruin a party."
Her favorite party (naturally) was her 50th wedding anniversary (their marriage survived a separation and other ups and downs). The intimate evening for 476 was held two years ago at New York's Botanical Gardens. Tables were set with votives and ivy, a reported 40,000 lights twinkled overhead, Sammy Goz and his orchestra flew in from Paris and friends such as floral designer Carolyne Roehm wore a gown with sleeves made of gardenias, because the invitation asked guests to wear flowers.
Kempner seems cool, sophisticated and confident. Why then does she (though hardly alone in this regard) require continued validation in print?
"It's ego-boosting,'' Kempner said. "It's fun to be talked about. Why not be a character?" And yet, she freely concedes, "I've hardly done anything extraordinary -- I haven't discovered the moon, or a new drug. Never has anyone done so much with so little. The problem is, once you've had a taste of it, it's wonderful.''
Still, she draws attention wherever she goes. Lunches and dinners already are being scheduled for the Kempners in the event they come, as planned, to California this summer. She is heartened by the increasingly cosmopolitan air of San Francisco, which was a small town when she left. "When I lived there, you were born and died and knew the same 60 people,'' she said. "There are lots of new people. It's a little more elastic now. "I love the beauty when I get there,'' she said. "When I open the window and look out. My heart stops.'' It's only momentary. "All things considered, I'd rather live in New York, '' she said. "But I still consider myself a San Franciscan.''