Paths crossed in a scene from my life: Frances Stein

I crossed paths with Frances Patiky Stein a week or so after and on the same turf as I did with Eva Sereny.

My reaction was rather different.

I was sitting on the parapet of Rosecliff’s terrace gazing out at the long lawn which fell into the sea when Frances appeared. I’d heard about her. She was considered a Power in the world of fashion, although it wasn’t clear why.

Years before, I’d worked for a big-time fashion photographer so had had some interactions with Powers in fashion. I’ve never accepted that fashion was a world in which one could climb to power. I know in a sense I’m wrong about this and could name a number of highly influential women (mostly) who are considered big time somethings.

What I mean, I guess, is that fashion itself, while certainly — at least then — one pre-determined career path for ambitious women, was to me peripheral to any meaningful center of the universe. Maybe it dressed some people who were at the center of the universe, but that’s it. I never could take fashion seriously. It was much ado about tying scarves perfectly.

The fashion doyennes I had crossed previous paths with were creatures from another planet. Divas with strange haute accents. And Frances displayed all of those same alien characteristics. Her aura was cold and predatory. Her large toothy smile as she greeted me seemed menacing, as well as phony. Why was she paying attention to me? There was something she wanted, an intimacy which would benefit her in some way.

I don’t know that. I just sensed it and this at a time when I was really pretty naive about the possibility that people could use other people. And I suppose it was modesty but I had no suspicion that I could be of potential use to anyone.

And why was Frances, her sunglasses creatively hooked into the neckline of her cashmere sweater (first time I’d seen this so I’ll give Frances credit for the style) stalking The Great Gastby? What role was she aiming at?

We had a brilliant costume designer, Theoni Aldredge, whose temperament was excellent in the best of times but Gatsby was not the best of times. During our shoot at Rosecliff, a rumor arose that Mia Farrow, our Daisy, was pregnant. Rumor was reality. And since the 20’s costumes were straight little frocks, Theoni eventually had to figure out how to disguise Mia’s expanding belly. Theoni had what she herself theatrically termed a “nervous breakdown.”

No way would Theoni accept a Frances Stein anywhere near her costumes. So what was Frances doing there?

On big films there is big money. Around the edges of big films scurry outsiders, nibbling, probing for entree. I suppose she was one of them. I don’t believe she got anything from it.

After Frances introduced herself to me, she used the word “beau.” She was probing whether I had a “beau.” I did. I wasn’t going to admit it to her. I thought she was making aggressive moves toward my “beau.” I was not happy about that. In fact, I was jealous.

I have a dim memory that she invited me to her country house one weekend, and a dim memory that I went. A dim memory of wondering why she seemed to be pushing me at her husband. A dim memory of not going in that direction.

I don’t know why I was there. I wish I hadn’t been. I never encountered Frances again.

You’ve noticed I didn’t like her, right? So I read the Times obituary with curiosity. We are now nearly 50 years — could that be? that long ago? — from my impressions of Frances. Had I missed anything? Was she a warm-hearted woman underneath her presentation?

No. Indeed, I’ve rarely read an obit without one loving comment about the character of the deceased. The closest the obit comes to saying nice things about Frances:

“Frances was one of those iconic fashion editors,” said André Leon Talley, the longtime Vogue editor, “with impeccable style and a certain mystique and as intimidating as polished granite. One of the sacred monsters of that time. She wore cashmere as if it were sable.”

She also had a temper. As a young editor, she was known to throw things — including coffee and scissors — if displeased.

I guess I was lucky. The only thing she threw at me was her husband. I ducked.

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