“The Queen is my heroine. She’s Wonder Woman,” says Cornelia Guest, the socialite, author, actress, cookie baker and handbag designer, oft described as the ‘80s “Debutante of the Decade.”
“She’s the most brilliant woman in the world,” she adds.
Guest’s thoughts turn to Queen Elizabeth II after musing about today’s celebrity types, from Paris Hilton to the Kardashians. But she doesn’t usually pay them too much attention.
“We were just doing what we loved,” she says of her own rise to fame. “No one today seems to fly by the seat of their pants. Nothing feels natural or authentic. I wish them well but I’ve got my plate full.”
She is busy writing an autobiography and recently returned from New York City for the premiere of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks revival, where she plays a supporting role.
But even if Guest had the time, why would she follow the shenanigans of the Hiltons when she may have helped inspire an entire cultural shift that gave birth to such curious creatures?
I find myself asking if it’s possible that she paved the way for the wave of celebrity “It Girls” that have followed in her footsteps.
She chuckles at the suggestion.
The daughter of the famous Polo player, Winston Guest (a cousin of Winston Churchill), and the socialite C.Z. Guest (who once joined the Zeigfeld Follies), no less than The New York Times dubbed Guest the original “celebutante.”
By celebutante the paper meant the first celebrity debutante.
Guest’s “coming out” ball was at the Waldorf Astoria. Her Godparents were King Edward VIII and Wallace Simpson. Her parents got married in Havana in Ernest Hemingway’s home. Their friends included Andy Warhol, the fashion designer Halston, and Truman Capote, all of whom attended her 18th birthday party.
“Cornelia has a No. 1 name. The Guests are from real patrician stock, unlike the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, who are descended from crooks,” Capote told People magazine.
Perhaps it is not surprising that she has lived such a colorful life, and merged aristocracy with fame. Guest eschewed the traditional “under the radar” life of a top Deb, and went on to stand in the spotlight, alongside some of these famous family friends.
“It was a very different experience,” she says modestly of her life, which will be the subject of the autobiography due out next year.
“To have Warhol comment on my drawings, or Halston’s ethos in mind when I went on to design my own handbag line influenced me, of course,” she muses.
Is it possible that this coterie also helped propel Guest from Deb next door to full-blown celebrity?
Debs, at that time, usually married quietly. But Guest, instead, occupied a unique niche: the melding of worlds old and new, of the aristocracy and eccentric, boundary-pushing artists.
A People magazine article about Guest in the early 1980s illustrated the preparation for a demure, posh life, by her mother and Fixcroft School for girls. It spoke of $6,000 beaded dresses as being among her favorites. The article also helped propel her into the spotlight.
“I don’t think any of was intentional,” she says. “Jon Gould suggested doing a book. He escorted debutantes. It wasn’t my goal to become famous. It just happened. But a few people got pissed off along the way.”
But she was also something to celebrate.
“She serves as an ornament and excuse for glitterati parties,” People magazine said in a profile on her in the ‘80s.
The memoir does not sound like it will be a kiss and tell.
“It is more of a fun memoir with a bit of everything in it,” she says. “It is like a scrapbook. I don’t really believe in speaking ill of the dead. So much can get misconstrued.”
It is bound to be colorful. Guest had an exotic experience, growing up around the A-Z of cool creatives. She had lot of fun in the 1980s and 1990s, from her Studio 54 days to Warhol’s Factory, which she first visited with her mother.
Would any of this be possible today? “I don’t think it would with social media,” she says. “People were not streaming Studio 54. Then you could make mistakes and get back up. Now the kids can’t. There are cameras everywhere.”
Were people naughtier then than now?
“Everything has become much more corporate,” she says. “The way people dressed and entertained. You had to dress the part to get into Studio 54.”
She was never part of the Donald Trump coke-filled scene. “I was never part of that. I was riding and showing horses,” she offers.
Still, she grew up burning the candle at both ends, going from Studio 54 straight to the stables, where she worked as a professional rider. She gave up riding when her mother died but remains devoted to animals.
She now lives in Upstate New York where she runs an animal rescue operation.
Despite her glitzy past, she seems down to earth—both unpretentious and unassuming. And while her mother was famed for her wardrobe, Guest is famously casual. At dinner parties she reportedly loves to go barefoot and throw on an apron over a designer gown.
She likes her home comforts.
After the New York premiere of Lynch’s Twin Peaks, she took the 6 p.m. train home the next day.
“I was so happy to be back,” she says.
It was an experience.
Lynch is known to be really secretive about his projects. So Guest had only seen her part of the script beforehand, playing the role of Phyllis Hastings, the wife of school principal William Hastings (Matthew Lillard), who’s been arrested for murder. Therefore, the premiere was as much of a surprise to her as it was the audience.
“It was a dream come true,” she says. “I didn’t know who else would be in it.”
There is more in the pipeline when it comes to film. She has acted before, with bit parts opposite Lindsay Lohan in I Know Who Killed Me and Nathan Lane in Carrie Pilby, and in her ‘80s heyday, was rumored to have had trysts with Sylvester Stallone, Rob Lowe, and Mick Jagger.
She is launching a production company, Cornelia Guest Productions. Her first project has been lined up, producing and starring in a period piece about a polo player. A second project is in the works about pilots, she says.
Then there are the animals, house renovations, her handbag line and books to think about.
The New York Times once reported that there was no room for laziness in her life and that her mother would be forced to use a hose to get her out of bed after partying all night.
The habit seems to have stuck.
She no longer has the energy she had when she was 18, she says, but she’s still up at the crack of dawn to tame her animal pals.
“It is funny to look back at what you did,” she says.