Whilst waiting under a dryer at the salon last weekend, I became engrossed in a Vanity Fair article chronicling the last interview of famed society columnist Aileen Mehle. She passed away this past November, aged 98, leaving behind 5 decades worth of gossip columns and a fascinating life story. Aileen, best known by her nom-de-plume “Suzy,” was the type of bon vivant that would wear gold sequin hot pants to a formal dinner at the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s home (in the early 1970s, mind you) and have even the stuffiest of guests applauding her bold sartorial choice. She had an infectious disposition, garnering invites to many a glitzy event and just about every guest would want Aileen sitting at their table. Intrigued yet?
Little Miss Suzy
Aileen Mehle came from an El Paso, Texas oil family and grew up in California. Shortly after attending UC Santa Barbara, she toyed with the idea of becoming a movie star but moved to Florida for love instead. Once in Miami, she joined the most fabulous party circuit and was rubbing elbows with the beau monde from Coral Gables to Palm Beach. Aileen counted C.Z. Guest and Lorelle Hearst as girlfriends and flourished as the ultimate social butterfly. One night at a soirée her friend and publisher of The Miami Herald, Dan Mahoney, was lamenting the lack of a great gossip columnist for his paper. Aileen thought she might be fit for the job, Dan chuckled and said he couldn’t imagine her staying home long enough to write a couple of sentences. The next day, she authored three sample columns, mailed them to The Miami Herald and became their very own gossip columnist under the alias of “Suzy.”
She migrated up the East Coast from Miami to D.C. and eventually settled in New York City after her second divorce, always keeping her ear to the ground for interesting tidbits. Aileen wrote at the Daily News for 17 years covering the chicest galas, international events and saucy scandals that rocked the social scene. At the time there were 7 society columnists belonging to the major daily newspapers in the city. Her competition were the likes of Walter Winchell, a legend in his own right, and “Cholly Knickerbocker,” written by designer Oleg Cassini’s brother Igor. She would inherit the Journal-American column upon landing at the paper in 1963 and became “Suzy Knickerbocker.” In 1967, she moved to her longest assignment at The Daily News, in 1984 to the New York Post and finally, in 1991 to her last post at Women’s Wear Daily and W magazine. She penned her farewell column in 2005 at the age of 87. Aileen was published in 90 papers worldwide and reached 30 million readers, making Suzy a household name.
A Fine Romance
“I’ve had a couple of husbands, which is one too many for anyone,” Aileen Mehle to Life magazine.
A charmer she was, dating and marrying some of her generation’s biggest heart throbs and eligible bachelors. After her first marriage and divorce to a handsome U.S. Navy ensign, she found love with one of what would be a few fancy suitors. Enter Wooly Donahue, heir to the Woolworth fortune, a globetrotter and life of the party.
Next came a successful real estate developer, Mark Kenneth Frank Jr, whom she married in 1953 in Palm Beach. To keep things exciting, Aileen went on a date with Wooly the night before her nuptials to Mark. Talk about a rehearsal dinner! This marriage wouldn’t last either. She rebounded with her new post at the New York Daily Mirror and revived “Suzy” after a brief hiatus playing the role of wife and mother. Fun fact, Mark’s little daughter Suzy was the inspiration for Aileen’s nom-de-plume! To keep her busy in the relationship department, she began to date Walter Wanger, Hollywood mega-producer of Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and Joan of Arc starring Ingrid Bergman. Wanger, as it turns out, had a colorful past. He shot talent agent Jennings Lang (not fatally!) in 1951 after finding out he was having an affair with Wanger’s actress wife Joan Bennett. Aileen found that his jealous streak had softened a bit with age and was on his arm from 1963-68 until he passed away.
Her most famous beau of all? Frank Sinatra. After his divorce from Mia Farrow, Ol’ Blue Eyes was looking for someone he could take his toupee off in front of to go swimming in his Palm Springs pool. Aileen’s words, not mine! They would enjoy a fun-filled couple of years together until he had a meltdown on a royal’s yacht off the coast of Monte Carlo over a dinner he hosted for the Queen of England’s cousin Princess Alexandra of Kent that did not go as he had planned (tasteless canapes? unpolished silver?). Sinatra would prove to be a great friend even after they parted ways, giving her one of the biggest scoops of her career; Suzy’s column was the first to announce his retirement.
If you’ll recall the scene in Steel Magnolias where Annelle can’t bring herself to disclose her personal turmoil and, in unison, Clarie and Truvy exclaim “of course you can!” that’s exactly how I picture Aileen getting her headlines. Funnily enough, her socialite friends like Nan Kempner and Truman Capote were happily her best sources. Because Aileen never hit too hard, her peers trusted her and delighted in seeing their names in Suzy’s column. Someone who wasn’t too flattered to be written about? Jack Kennedy, then a young senator. Aileen would very often be on the same flight as Kennedy from Palm Beach to D.C. and observed what most wouldn’t dare divulge.
Aileen recounted her infamous column highlight to Vanity Fair “Jack Kennedy looked like hell. His shoes were scuffed. His socks were down. His pants were rumpled. His jacket was rumpled. His hair was all higgledy-piggledy. So little Miss Suzy wrote, ‘Jack Kennedy has got to straighten up and fly right, because he doesn’t know how to dress. He is a mess.’” This sent the Kennedy clan into a tailspin over who this Suzy was as her identity had not yet been revealed. Aileen would have many Kennedy encounters over her career but none more personal than when she alerted Jacqueline Onassis at a San Francisco brunch gathering in 1979 that her sister Lee Radziwill had left her groom, hotelier Newton Cope, at the altar.
In today’s celebrity obsessed culture (Brangelina! Bennifer!), it’s hard to remember that there was ever any interest in the beau monde, the world’s most glittering set who didn’t necessarily appear on your television or at the cinema. We’re still just as fixated on famous figures, but perhaps more so on Real Housewives than royal subjects. But fear not, as Aileen told Vogue in 1973 “Real glamour will never die. It is the whipped cream on top of everything. It’s the fun and spice of life that everyone wants to read about. Gossip—that’s all anyone ever does anyhow, morning, noon, and night. I got a letter from some nuns who read me because I provide them with a slice of life every day!”
P.S. Later this week, I”ll be sharing one of her exquisite NYC apartments done up to the nines, you won’t want to miss it!