Six weeks before his death, on March 17, 2006, at age 92, the designer Oleg Cassini made his final public appearance, at a design-awards show at New York’s Whitney Museum. Cassini had always flaunted his advantages. In the 1940s he married Gene Tierney, one of Hollywood’s most beautiful actresses; in the 50s he was engaged to Grace Kelly; and in the 60s he dressed First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. That night at the Whitney, he was with the former supermodel Carol Alt, 46 years his junior, who was swathed in white fur and spilling out of her dress. For one last time, Cassini was playing the suave, Continental bon vivant sportsman and design innovator who had conquered every woman he ever wanted, from Anita Ekberg to Marilyn Monroe. The grandson of a Russian-Italian count who was the last Russian czar’s minister to China and ambassador to the U.S., and the son of a titled but impoverished diplomat, Oleg Cassini was effortlessly charming, whether on the tennis court, the ski slopes, or the dance floor. Deeply conscious of his romantic image, he wanted to be seen only with “top top girls.” (Grace Kelly, who fell madly in love with him, was a top top girl, but Marilyn Monroe, he confided to the journalist Joe Klein, who ghostwrote his autobiography, was just “a little polo pony.”)
Women are still fighting over Cassini. Four years after his death, there has been no detailed accounting of his estate, and his daughter Christina is in a bitter court dispute with his longtime companion and secret wife, Marianne Nestor, about his will.
Oleg and his younger brother, Igor, known as Ghighi, came out of a world of playboys, heiresses, top-drawer brawls, and café society that no longer exists. The Cassinis were prone to histrionics. Oleg and Ghighi were known to have screaming matches on the tennis court, and Ghighi was once literally tarred and feathered by members of two southern families whom he’d insulted in a newspaper article. Ghighi later wrote under the byline Cholly Knickerbocker and was the Hearst newspaper chain’s most powerful gossip columnist in the 40s and 50s; he could make or break careers, and he coined the term “jet set.” Like his brother a natural Lothario, he married five times. Ghighi took a great fall in 1964, however; indicted for being an unregistered agent of the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, he had to give up his column. Syndicated columnist Liz Smith, who for a time was his assistant, observed the brothers at close range. “They were like pirates with a gloss of education and culture,” she says. “They slept with everybody. Ghighi would walk into the office and say, ‘Last night I went to dinner at Mrs. [Babe] Paley’s. I had slept with every woman at the table.’”
In 1936, Oleg left Europe for New York. His first, brief marriage, to Merry Fahrney, the heiress to a patent-medicine fortune who he claimed had married him for his title, ended in divorce. He went to Hollywood in 1940, to work as a sketch designer in wardrobe departments. In 1941 he captured the breathtaking, 20-year-old Gene Tierney. During their tempestuous 12-year marriage, Cassini designed the clothes she wore on-screen and fought off rivals for her affection, including Howard Hughes. In 1947, during a period of separation, Tierney told him she was deeply in love with a naval officer named John F. Kennedy, whom he had met. Cassini said that a divorced actress would never be allowed into such a prominent and political Catholic family. His marriage to Tierney had begun to crumble by 1943, when their first daughter, Daria, was born severely retarded and nearly blind. (During Tierney’s first trimester of pregnancy, a fan with German measles had broken her quarantine to shake hands with her favorite star, and Tierney unknowingly contracted the disease.) The shock of Daria’s condition propelled Tierney into spells of mental illness that would recur over time. Her divorce from Cassini was to be finalized in March 1948, but several months before that, as he would write in his autobiography, they had started “going steady” again, and in April they announced that they had reconciled. Their second daughter, Christina, was born in November 1948. They divorced for good in 1953.
Today, Christina, known as Tina, lives in Paris with few resources, the divorced mother of four grown children, two daughters and two sons. In 2009 she nearly died of ovarian cancer. Although her father supported her financially throughout her adult life, she always longed for a closer relationship with him. Instead, she says, she felt like Cinderella at the hands of the woman who helped run his design-and-licensing business, his longtime companion, Marianne Nestor, who is only a few years older than Tina. In 2006, Tina heard from a friend in New York, who had read in the New York Post that Cassini had suffered a stroke and was in a Long Island hospital. Tina was in Kenya at the time, visiting one of her daughters, but she flew to New York, where she was joined by her elder son, Alexandre. They drove out to Long Island, where her father had a country house, and went from hospital to hospital trying to find him. According to Tina, Nestor had refused to tell her where he was. (Marianne Nestor did not respond to repeated requests from Vanity Fair for an interview.) After discovering which hospital Cassini was in, Tina and her son arrived there late in the afternoon.
There is no conflict nastier than a blood feud.
“When I got to the hospital, they put me in a quiet room full of candles burning,” Tina told me. Soon a woman entered and introduced herself as Cassini’s doctor. “She said she was very sorry, but my father had passed away that morning. I had been looking for him for 48 hours! I said, ‘Why didn’t you contact me? I’m next of kin.’ She said, ‘Because we contacted his wife.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, his wife? How do you know it’s his wife? I suppose you are speaking about Marianne Nestor.’” The doctor explained that Nestor had shown a marriage certificate issued in London in 1971. She and Oleg Cassini had been married for 34 years.
As Tina was digesting this startling news, the doctor’s cell phone rang. It was Nestor, who, according to Tina, did not want the doctor to tell Tina where her father’s body was going to be taken. “But she’s his daughter,” the doctor said. Then, Tina claims, Marianne told the doctor she did not want a funeral service. Tina says she protested to the doctor, who relayed to Nestor that the Cassini family had all had Russian Orthodox funerals, and that that is what Oleg would have wanted. After the doctor hung up, Tina contacted the Manhattan funeral home where her father’s body was, and in the end Cassini’s funeral service was in the same church where his parents’ and his brother’s had been. (Igor Cassini died in 2002.) No pews were set aside in front for Tina and her family, and at the lunch after the burial, in one of her father’s favorite Italian restaurants, she was not asked to sit at the main table, although three of Nestor’s siblings were. “There were no provisions made for us,” says Tina’s son Alexandre. “My mother was treated like a ghost—not there.” Cassini’s will took months to be probated, and Tina had no idea what it contained. When she found out, the real conflict began.
Oleg Cassini and Gene Tierney’s divorce settlement stipulated that at Oleg’s death half of his wealth would go to their daughters. Tina, following her mother’s instructions, found the document in Tierney’s bank vault after her death, in 1991. Tina claims that throughout her life both parents assured her that she would be taken care of: “It came up several times; he told me not to worry, and my mother said the same thing.” Cassini’s will, however, signed and dated in 1992, left the bulk of his estate to Marianne Nestor, whom he named as executor but who he did not indicate was his wife. The will is more detailed regarding the care and maintenance of his horses and pets than it is regarding his daughters. Daria, who remains institutionalized in New Jersey, was left $500,000, and Tina $1 million, which she has yet to collect. When the will was admitted to probate in Nassau County, on Long Island, where Oleg’s country house is, his estate was valued at approximately $52 million. For more than four years there has been no accounting as to what the estate contains; Nestor must provide an accounting by October. Two properties are already owned by or deeded to Nestor—the House of Cassini, on East 63rd Street, and the designer’s neo-Gothic residence, near Gramercy Park. The country house, in Oyster Bay, has been described by Joe Klein as “Gatsby’s house.”
Armed with her parents’ 1952 California interlocutory divorce decree, Tina went to court in New York to have that agreement enforced. Nestor argued that the clause stating the terms of the property settlement—giving half of Cassini’s estate to his daughters—was not included in the final divorce decree in 1953 and therefore void. But last December, New York Surrogate Court judge John Riordan ruled for Tina, stating that the property settlement had indeed been merged into the divorce. While they were alive, Judge Riordan said, neither parent made any move to change the agreement. Both Tierney and Cassini had even waived the right to alimony.
Since 2006, Tina’s lawyers have been trying to obtain 25 percent of the Cassini estate and have petitioned for Tina to be paid the $1 million bequest. Furthermore, they want a bond posted to ensure her 25 percent claim. Tina’s lawyers do not yet have an accurate assessment of the estate’s value. “How can I negotiate without knowing what is in the estate?” asks Tina’s lawyer Eileen Stier.
The estate includes the Oleg Cassini business as well as his personal effects. He was said to have kept all of Jackie Kennedy’s and Grace Kelly’s letters, and he collected toy soldiers and Native American artifacts. Moreover, he was a pioneer when it came to licensing his name. There is a Cassini perfume business as well as a substantial bridal-gown business.
Last February, Nestor’s New York lawyers petitioned the court to let them remove themselves from representing her. One of them, William Pollack, filed a motion stating, “The Executor has lost confidence in us and refuses to accept our advice or provide us with information we believe is necessary for us to represent her.… Our efforts at accessing information from and communicating with our client have been unsuccessful.”
Nestor hired new lawyers and filed a lawsuit in California seeking to overturn the New York decision. The California complaint contains a bombshell: it alleges that Tina is not Oleg’s biological daughter, and that either a fraud was perpetrated on Cassini by Tierney or there was a mutual mistake about Christina’s paternity. The complaint also alleges that Tina has known this since about the time of Tierney’s death. New legal papers were recently filed by Marianne Nestor’s attorneys claiming that Tina knew that Oleg Cassini wasn’t her father even before her mother died. The papers allege that around the time of Tina’s conception Tierney had had affairs with Howard Hughes, Tyrone Power, J.F.K., and the Hollywood agent Charles Feldman.
Nestor may be fighting an uphill battle, according to legal sources, because Cassini always recognized Tina as his daughter. “As a general rule, the treatment and acknowledgment of someone as a child holds a great deal of weight, even if DNA proves otherwise,” says Robert Madden, an estates attorney in Washington, D.C. Madden adds that states will usually defer to the decisions made by a judge where the will was filed. “If you got a New York judge to interpret a California agreement as it applies to Cassini’s estate, domiciled in New York, that should trump everything,” he says. People who know Nestor well, however, say that she does not give up easily.
For example, she and her sister Peggy have been involved in one of the longest-running landlord-tenant battles in New York City history. The sisters, whose names appear on the deed of the five-story town house known as “the House of Cassini,” on East 63rd Street, claim that the building was not purchased to be used for Cassini’s business, and that they have the right to evict tenants, specifically Thomas Britt, a well-known interior designer. Since 1984, according to Todd Lamb, one of Britt’s attorneys, Marianne and Peggy Nestor have lost several actions and paid more than $600,000 in legal fees to their tenant adversary’s lawyers alone. Marianne is convinced that in battling Tina she is carrying out Oleg’s wishes, according to Richard Rowe, a longtime employee of Cassini’s, who serves as Daria’s guardian and who says he is neutral in the dispute. “I was physically with him at a meeting when he spoke to his attorney and instructed him on how his estate was to be arranged,” he says. “I don’t think anything happened subsequently [to change his mind].” Eileen Stier, however, thinks that Nestor is simply playing hardball. “She knows Tina’s sick,” Stier tells me. “She is wearing her down. That is my opinion.”
‘I began living in dad’s brownstone, 29 East 61st Street, on the very night of the day my mother tried to jump off the window ledge of her flat at 455 East 57th Street. I was in the fourth grade,” Tina wrote in an e-mail after I had interviewed her in Paris. “A few years later, the brownstone was sold, and we all moved to 525 Park and 61st.” Oleg’s apartment was on the 12th floor, and Tina’s paternal grandparents lived on the same floor on the other side of the building. Uncle Ghighi and his third wife, Charlene Wrightsman (who died from an overdose of sleeping pills), plus Ghighi’s children from various marriages, including Tina’s first cousin Marina, lived nearby, at Fifth Avenue and 75th Street. Oleg’s two-bedroom apartment was not large enough to house Tina and her governess; the adjacent bedrooms made it too easy, Tina says, “for me to witness the traffic of dad’s many girlfriends.” Tierney, who eventually spent time in two mental institutions—she received electroshock therapy in one—had insisted in the divorce settlement that the only people allowed to live in Oleg’s residence when Tina was with him were “his then spouse and their children.” Therefore, Tina and her governess lived in a small apartment across the hall, and “thus it was easy for me to see dad each day, sometimes at dinner, at breakfast, after school.” Tina remembers “very nice dinners with him every Thursday night when the maids would go out …but he was always on the go, playing tennis or riding.” Several years later, she says, “Dad bought the brownstone at 135 East 19th Street. I was in boarding school, but naturally this was home base until I got married, in 1968.”
When Tina was three, she went with her mother to Paris to live with Aly Khan, the rich international playboy prince, who was unhappily married to Rita Hayworth. “I remember he gave me a teddy bear, which I lost at Longchamp, at the races, and I had a tantrum.” When she was a bit older, her twice-divorced father was involved with Grace Kelly, much to the chagrin of Kelly’s wealthy Catholic family in Philadelphia. “He was a foreigner, and they didn’t like foreigners. He had an accent,” says socialite John Cahill, who knew Cassini. “Third, he had a mustache, and fourth, he was a Latin lover, so they would not have even spoken to him.” I learned from the son of a prominent Philadelphia psychiatrist that the Kellys had engaged his father for advice on how to pull Grace away from Cassini. Tina remembers Kelly in the bedroom with her father before a party. He was horrified that she had no bow for her ponytail. “‘You can’t go like that,’” Tina says he told her.“He went and got one of his bow ties and put it in her hair. I remember thinking, Oh, she’s so beautiful.”
After seeing Kelly in Mogambo one afternoon, Cassini had vowed to a friend, “That girl is going to be mine.” That very night she appeared in the flesh at Le Veau d’Or, a favorite restaurant of his, on East 60th Street, having dinner with the French actor Jean-Pierre Aumont, and Cassini was introduced. Every day for nearly two weeks he sent her roses anonymously, with a card that read, “The Friendly Florist.” Next he sent a stuffed animal, the Big Bad Wolf in “The Three Little Pigs,” with a card that said, “The Friendly Florist is approaching.” Only then did he call her. After they had fallen in love, Cassini enlisted Joe Kennedy, who had become a friend, to help persuade her to marry him. Instead of aiding his friend, however, Kennedy moved in himself and told her, in front of Oleg, “I know this donkey. He’s a pretty good boy, but you’d be making a terrible mistake to marry him.” That story never failed to delight John F. Kennedy, who also became a good friend. “Oleg would always go to the most wonderful parties that everybody wanted to be invited to,” says Letitia Baldrige, who was Jackie Kennedy’s social secretary, “and if you were a friend, you’d be invited to the same parties. He provided John Kennedy with many fun, great evenings.” They must have talked about girls, I commented. “Of course, heterosexual men always talk about girls and brag about how many they’ve had. Oleg considered himself a famous, wonderful lover.” A longtime Kennedy retainer told me that once, when John Kennedy was laid up with his bad back, Cassini had Kelly dress like a nurse and take him his medicine.
Tina was never taken to the White House when her father spent weekends there with the Kennedys. But she remembers “designs all over the dining-room table,” and she once received an autographed photo from Jackie with the inscription, “To Tina, whom I hope so much to meet one day.” When I was in Paris to interview Tina, Hubert de Givenchy told me that he believed very strongly that Cassini had copied his designs for Jackie, a sore point with Cassini, who maintained that all his designs were original. “Of course, he was copying all the time. Jackie would tell him what to do,” Baldrige said. “She’d give him the designer and have him make it in different colors and different fabrics. He did designs of his own also.”
“It’s unfair to Oleg for Mr. Givenchy to say that,” says Lee Radziwill, who credits Cassini with her sister’s look. Cassini once told the writer Sally Bedell Smith that he conceived of Jackie as “a movie star and designed a fashion script.” Radziwill insists, “It was really Oleg who did the majority of her clothes. I don’t think he was appreciated the way he should have been.”
Every summer, Tina’s father would take her to the South of France, usually with a girlfriend of his in tow. “I was sort of yanked along to nightclubs and things like that, because what do you do with this kid?” One year Tina invited her boarding-school chum Liz Berens, who recalled watching Princess Grace and Prince Rainier descend from the royal yacht in Monte Carlo. Berens said that Oleg confided to the girls, “Grace told me she would rather be a princess than a countess—that’s how she dropped me.” Glamorous as it seemed, Tina’s childhood was not emotionally secure. She and her cousins were often left to their own devices. “It’s amazing we made it through and grew up not to be drug addicts or something,” Tina’s cousin Marina, Ghighi’s daughter, said. “We were really kind of abandoned. Our fathers were clearly self-involved. So were the mothers.”
By the time Tina was in boarding school, Tierney had married a rich Houstonian named W. Howard Lee, who had been married to another movie star, Hedy Lamarr. One of Tina’s teenage beaux was George W. Bush, then at Andover. “I remember us sitting on the bed at boarding school,” says Berens, “and Tina saying, ‘I don’t know whether to marry a good ol’ boy like George Bush or a European.’” Bush was at her debut, in Houston, which Oleg paid for. Tina also came out at Houston’s Allegro Ball, where her escort was Shelby Bryan, who is now Vogue editor Anna Wintour’s partner. Lucia Brandt, Bryan’s former wife, remembers Tina as “sweet and shy.” Cassini did not believe his daughter needed to attend college; instead, he wanted her to go to Europe for “finishing” and proficiency in languages. “I lived with a family in Italy,” says Tina. “I was a paying guest.” It was not long before she was also pregnant.
Tierney insisted that her 18-year-old daughter get married. Cassini disagreed; he thought Tina should go to Switzerland and decide whether she wanted to get married and become a mother. Tina was distraught. She says that the baby’s father, a good-looking Italian about 10 years older than Tina, did not want to be married and did not want his devout, bourgeois mother to know about the pregnancy. But Tierney was adamant, and Oleg let her have her way. She made up a story that Tina had eloped in Italy, and she invited 30 people to a party in Houston to make the announcement. Actually, Tina was married in December 1967, in Houston’s city hall. Then, she says, her husband insisted that they get married again, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, so that he could invite his mother. He informed Tina of this only a week before the ceremony, and Oleg only two days before. As a result, the designer did not make a wedding dress for his own daughter, but he walked her down the aisle. According to Tina, he took his girlfriend, Marianne Nestor, to the wedding.
Tina’s marriage began disastrously and stayed unhappy for 26 years as she bore four children and became a classic victim of abuse. “No one would help me,” she says. “I didn’t have friends in Europe [initially]. My mother was not well, and my father did not believe me or didn’t want to know.” When Alexandre was born, in 1977, however, “my father asked me if I wanted him to adopt him.” Tina also blamed Marianne Nestor, who was still very much in the picture, administering Cassini’s day-to-day business along with her sister Peggy: “In the early stages, she laughed when I said I was unhappy.” According to Tina, one year when her children were small, she took them to camp in the States and then went alone to visit her father. Nestor would not allow her to take her suitcases into the house in Oyster Bay—she had to keep them in the garage. “She said they would ruin the
In 1981, Tina was on the verge of divorce when she got pregnant again. She soon complained to the police about her abusive marriage, but she felt trapped, because in France the concept of a domestic-violence shelter did not exist. “I basically lived for my children,” she told me. “That was my way of dealing with it.” She did not want anyone to know about her miserable life, and she did not want her children stigmatized. A close friend, the artist Catherine Fournier, remembers the first time she saw Tina, 30 years ago, in a park in Paris. She thought the well-dressed, beautifully behaved children were with their young nanny, who was dressed in tatters. “The children had everything—she had nothing,” Fournier says. “Nobody took care of her.”
Tina’s husband rarely worked, so she constantly had to ask her father for money, a practice that annoyed him and apparently infuriated Marianne Nestor, who once wrote telling her to grow up and face the fact that she was not her daddy’s little girl anymore. Oleg sent his daughter about $3,300 a month. In addition, he sometimes supported Ghighi and lent money to other family members. He and Ghighi did not speak for years over a money issue. His irritation with Tina went beyond money, Tina says, because her husband forced her to type or sign certain embarrassing letters. The one that apparently galled her father for years, and which she claims she had no knowledge of, was sent to then New York mayor John Lindsay in the early 70s; it condemned Cassini for not properly caring for his daughter. After her mother died, Tina found a handwritten letter from her husband in Tierney’s papers, stating that Tina had tried to commit suicide by putting her head in the gas oven—a story she totally denies. The letter also mentioned her father: “She feels betrayed by him since he has been with this Mary Ann. This girl supposedly hates Tina.” After her divorce, Tina worked for an oil-recycling company and clerked in a toyshop, but she always needed her father’s help. In a letter written in 2000, Marianne chided her for going back to her maiden name and advised her instead to use Tierney or her “natural” father’s name, not Cassini.
Marianne Nestor and two of her four sisters, Brenda and Peggy—all now in their 50s or 60s, all at one time aspiring models and actresses—are reminiscent of characters in a Danielle Steel novel. “The three Nestor sisters put the Gabor sisters to shame. Every one of them latched onto big guys,” says 70s music promoter Jerry Brandt, who lived with Peggy after she had had a baby with the flamboyant offshore-investment operator Bernie Cornfeld. (Peggy Nestor declined to comment for this story.) Cornfeld’s Investors Overseas Services corporation ran afoul of the law in several countries before finally collapsing in the 70s and landing its founder in jail. For a time, however, Oleg Cassini was so captivated by Cornfeld that, according to a Cornfeld biography, he sold him 25 percent of his company for shares in a medical-equipment business that soon became nearly worthless. Cornfeld, to whom Cassini devotes half a chapter in his autobiography, lavished money on a harem of less than top top girls, including the young Victoria Principal, who would later star in the TV series Dallas. In the early 70s, Cornfeld financed Brandt when he opened a psychedelic nightclub in L.A., the Paradise Ballroom, which a 1972 article in Billboard says Peggy Nestor managed before it abruptly closed. She later also ran a boutique financed by Cornfeld. Brandt says he and Peggy lived in both New York and Malibu courtesy of Cornfeld’s largesse, “because we never had to pay any rent.” By then, it seems, Marianne, who had gone to Europe after high school to become a model, was already secretly married to Oleg. In fact, their wedding certificate, issued in Westminster in 1971, gives as their address Bernie Cornfeld’s London town house.
The Nestor sisters grew up in Florida. At Coral Gables high school, Marianne was known as Dolly. A 1959 Life-magazine photo shows her and Peggy trying out to be chorus girls at one of the Miami high-rise hotels. In 2002 their sister Brenda (married name, Castellano), a Palm Beach social figure and onetime girlfriend of indicted corporate raider and real-estate mogul Victor Posner, struck it rich. Seven months before Posner died, at 83, he disinherited three of his four children (the fourth had previously settled with his father) and left everything to Brenda, including myriad acres of oceanfront property in Florida and 20,000 rental units in Maryland. Although she wasn’t implicated in any wrongdoing, Brenda had been running much of his business the way Marianne and Peggy had been running Oleg Cassini’s, though on a far smaller scale. “Very few people got to see Mr. Posner without Ms. Nestor’s consent,” Martin Rosen, who had been Posner’s attorney for 40 years, told the Florida Sun-Sentinel. “She took control of his everyday life.” The Posner children—one of them represented by Rosen—sued Brenda, and the suit was later settled. Jerry Brandt cracked, “She got so much she had to give some to the kids.”
Retired New York real-estate attorney Marvin Olshan, who once briefly dated Brenda, remembers parties the Nestor sisters threw in the 60s in a Fifth Avenue apartment where there were only a few other girls and “lots of older guys looking for action. The game the three Nestor sisters had was to hang out with rich guys, many of them if they could—the guys who could write the checks,” Olshan says. Olshan was a regular at Le Club, the first really hot private disco in New York, where the Cassini brothers held court at the front table every night and everyone from Aristotle Onassis to Ursula Andress (who was often Oleg’s date) got on the dance floor. “Oleg was one of the greatest ladies’ men who ever lived,” said one of his contemporaries, “better than Aly Khan or Porfirio Rubirosa. He could go up to any girl anywhere and have her laughing in a few minutes.” Herbert Fitzgibbon, an old pal, added, “No guy was more fun at night and no guy was better with women.” Melody Miller, Ted Kennedy’s longtime aide, described how Oleg would come on to a woman: “by telling you about yourself and what he would dress you as—every woman’s dream.”
The Cassini brothers attempted to expand Le Club to include a second location. They spent the club’s funds—more than half a million dollars—in getting it ready to open. One problem was staffing. “Oleg had a very high libido,” says Olshan, who helped put the deal together. “Every time we’d send a girl over there, he’d hit on her.” Furthermore, Oleg and Ghighi failed to secure a clause in the lease stipulating that the opening would be contingent on the new club’s getting a liquor license. When the license was denied, the project collapsed, and a subsequent investigation by the club’s board of directors revealed that the Cassinis had reportedly cut their mother in for a fee for taking the project to the developer who owned the building in Manhattan where the new club would be. The fee was a piece of a shopping mall he also owned. The developer admitted the secret deal and made a settlement with Le Club. No one was prosecuted, but the Cassinis were never seen around the club again. Olshan was on the investigation committee. “They didn’t know jack and they didn’t know quack about running a business,” he says. “Oleg was an 11 for charm, and Ghighi was a 10. But we felt the Cassinis screwed something we really liked.”
During those halcyon days, Cassini was busy expanding his fashion business. He was one of the first to license his name, starting in the mid-60s. He claimed that at one time the Oleg Cassini name was on hundreds of products, from men’s cologne to women’s sunglasses, to a Chrysler-car interior. “He basically rented his name, not unlike Michael Jordan and Nike shoes,” says Frank Mori, the licensing guru behind Donna Karan. “He was more a pioneer in creating a brand—he was not the most highly respected designer, but he latched onto Camelot. He would have had a modest and successful career, but Jackie Kennedy made him a star.”
The essence of the brand was Cassini himself, who introduced Nehru jackets and colorful shirts for men, as well as tuxedos worn with white silk turtlenecks, not to mention the military look and boots for women, and Native American and ethnic fabrics. “I think Oleg Cassini has a name in men’s wear not because he’s a designer but because he was that dashing man-about-town, a count,” says Mori. I ask him if publicizing his third marriage would have hurt Cassini’s business. He responds, “Would it potentially harm the brand to be married to a little nobody? I don’t think that’s a big deal. Part of his charm and allure was that he was this naughty boy.”
Increasingly, the job of minding the store fell to Marianne Nestor. Her sister Peggy had come into Cassini’s life first, functioning as his secretary until she joined Bernie Cornfeld’s caravan. “We used to call her for tickets,” Liz Berens remembers, and Tina says Peggy purchased Cassini’s graduation present for her—a ring from Tiffany with the family crest. Tina remembers Marianne sleeping at the Gramercy Park house before Tina graduated from high school, in 1966.
However, according to a Women’s Wear Daily interview with Marianne published shortly after Oleg’s death, she met the designer around 1970 in Paris, where she had gone to become a model, learn languages, and visit historical sites. Modeling, she said, was a way “to pay the bills.” Oleg was in his late 50s when they met; she was in her mid-20s. They had an argument about history, so Oleg proposed that they go out on 10 dates to see whether they would have “a great friendship or a great romance.” She attributed the secrecy of their marriage merely to their being “very private. I don’t think anyone would say he was shy, but he was terribly shy.”
“I thought she was the office manager,” Joe Klein told me of Marianne Nestor. Klein had spent hundreds of hours with Cassini beginning in 1983, ghostwriting his autobiography, In My Own Fashion. He had no idea that Oleg and Marianne were married, let alone for more than a decade. “There was never any intimation of intimacy between the two,” said Klein. “Marianne was not a top girl. She was good-looking. Laurie Lister [the book’s editor, to whom Oleg dedicated it] was a top girl, and Gene Tierney was the topmost of the top girls.” Marianne is never mentioned in the book. In fact, in interview after interview—from The New York Times to People—Cassini, then well into his 70s, gave the impression of being an available bachelor. “Oh my God!,” Lister exclaimed when I told her they were married, after she had recounted how difficult it was to get Cassini to stick to the truth in his book, and how she had to hole up with him in Oyster Bay to get it done. “A man in that position is used to everybody being a yes-man, everybody telling him what he wants to hear.” When they met, Lister said, “there was a full-court press to date me.” But she was able to turn that energy into a book. Marianne did not even figure into the equation, according to Lister. “If we needed pencils sharpened or something, Marianne was there,” she said.
Actually, there was a precedent in the Cassini family for hiding wives. Oleg’s flamboyant mother, Countess Marguerite Cassini, wrote in her autobiography, Never a Dull Moment, that, although her father was a count in the czar’s diplomatic corps, her mother was just a vaudeville singer. The Russian court was horrified to find that they were married, and when the count was posted to China as the Russian foreign minister, his wife had to go along as their daughter’s governess. When Marguerite was 16 and her father was Russia’s first ambassador to the United States, “President McKinley, it seemed, had expressed his strong desire that the Russian Embassy (which had previously been only a legation) should have a hostess.” Marguerite, not her mother, assumed the duties.
New York marketing executive Jill Lawrence has another startling story to tell about Cassini, whom she met at a dinner party. “He engaged me as a ghostwriter in 1980. I was 26. He was 67, and the most charming man I ever met, in an old-world way.” Considering the more serious marital problems his daughter Tina was having at the time, it is ironic that Cassini helped Lawrence get out of a bad relationship “that was destroying my self-confidence. He took me under his wing.” Soon, she says, “I moved in with him.” Their relationship was sexual and lasted more than a year, although by then he was no longer a great lover. “But he was romantic and smelled good. That made up for a lot.”
Lawrence says that Marianne, who called Cassini “Chief” or “Boss,” was around in the office, but she had her own apartment. “He relied on her very much in a business sense.” A member of their inner circle asked Lawrence if she knew that Oleg and Marianne were married. She says she dismissed it as “idle gossip. No one had any proof. I never asked him.” Lawrence discovered that in Oyster Bay, however, there was a secret passage in Cassini’s bedroom linking it to Marianne’s bedroom. Marianne would sometimes be with them in the house. “She knew about our relationship and seemed to encourage it.”
Jill Lawrence remembers a couple of phone calls from Tina at that time. In one, she was discussing a silver tea set. “I remember Oleg saying, ‘Tina, you are always calling me and asking me for something, and you know you are going to get it when I die.’ I remember that specifically: ‘She just can’t wait till I die.’”
In 2001, Tina was in Washington and had just returned to her hotel from George Bush’s inauguration when she got a phone call from her cousin Marina. Someone was claiming to be Tina’s father, Marina told her, and she urged her to take his call. Over time, Tina would come to suspect that Ghighi’s family might have designs on her father’s fortune, but Marina categorically denies this. She explains, “The man made a strong case to me.… It seemed like a plausible situation. Wasn’t it better for her to know than not know?”
Marina’s daughter was friendly with a daughter of the man who claimed to have had an affair with Gene Tierney the year Tina was born, and he believed he was Tina’s father. His name was James Philips. A former stockbroker, he had been convicted in 1975 of counterfeiting $5 million in Treasury bills. Married four times, he had four daughters and lived in East Hampton, New York. He and Tina began talking on the phone. “He started telling me that he was my father, he had eloped with my mother, and he had met her in a bar in New York.” Marina had given him Tina’s address, and he sent her some photos, purportedly of her as a small child. Tina felt the pictures had been doctored. He also sent a wedding ring. “It wasn’t even gold,” she said. “It was wacky—nothing made sense. This went on for about six months.” She hired a private investigator to check Philips out, and he advised her to have nothing to do with the unsavory character. “I have all my mother’s old address books,” Tina told me. “There is no sign of his name anywhere. He got dates wrong.” Tina says that when she told her father about Philips’s claim, he laughed. “Come on, am I a cuckold? Is he going to reimburse me for paying for your deb party?” Marina told me, “Oleg always behaved as Tina’s father and never said he was not.”
“I have been expecting your call,” James Philips told me. Marina had phoned to warn him that I would contact him. During our conversation, I asked him six different ways why he believed Tina was his daughter. He never answered directly: “If I knew for sure I’d tell you, but I don’t.… There is nothing that I can tell you to make it sure one way or another.” He said he was writing a book, and he admitted to having sent Tina the photographs, saying that at least one of the photos was doctored: “We were really kidding around.” He told me, incidentally, that he had met Tierney in a lawyer’s office in New York.
With his family, Marina says, “Oleg was not a very affectionate man. It was like trying to hug a sea urchin.” She described him as “sensitive and passionate” but also “kind of ruthless.” However, when Marina was going through her divorce, in 2003, her uncle was there for her and lent her money. She remembers going to visit him with her attorney at the house in Oyster Bay. When the attorney referred to Marianne Nestor as “your wife,” Marianne corrected him, saying, “I am not his wife.” Marina, who did not know then if they were really married, recalls, “Oleg said nothing.” She adds, “They kept it a secret—it’s very bizarre.”
Nor were they forthright about their marriage in testimony they gave in the Thomas Britt case. In fact, according to 1991 court transcripts, Marianne and Oleg both distinctly gave the impression under oath that they were nothing more than business associates and friends. When Britt’s lawyer Bruce Weiner asked Marianne, “Other than a business relationship with Mr. Cassini, do you have or had you had a personal relationship with Mr. Cassini?,” she answered, “We’re friends.” When Weiner asked her how she would describe her friendship with Cassini, she answered, “Amicable.” It’s illegal to evict a rent-stabilized tenant, such as Britt, in order to make way for a business, but the Nestor sisters have consistently maintained that the town house on East 63rd Street was to be used for their personal residences and nothing else. (A landlord can evict a rent-stabilized tenant if the landlord intends to take over the space as a personal residence.) Cassini was absolutely adamant that he had no designs on using the East 63rd Street building, or any other building in the surrounding neighborhood, for his business. “If you are inferring that I wanted to take that place for my headquarters, you are out of your mind.” (Nevertheless, a 2003 article in Women’s Wear Daily stated, “Cassini swaggered down a block of East 63rd Street, where he is renovating a five-story limestone town house to become a showcase for the various licensed collections that will likely carry his name into fashion perpetuity.”) Asked by Weiner, “Where do you know her [Nestor] to reside?,” Cassini answered, “She lives downtown someplace. I’ve never been there. You don’t seem to realize that I have a very solid business relationship. But that doesn’t mean that I have to sleep with her, if that’s what you’re inferring.”
Oleg did not like to cross Marianne, I was told. Four members of his family gave me similar stories: he would be talking on the phone to one of them and suddenly say, “I have to get off—Marianne is coming.” Or he would be going out to lunch with one of them and say, “Let’s get out of here before Marianne comes.” Marina suggests that “he was tired. He did not want to have fights.
At 92, Oleg was spending a goodly amount of time at his house in Oyster Bay. In 2005, Marina helped Tina arrange a lunch there so that she could speak with her father. Marina says Tina was destitute, as usual, not having received her check, and when she called, Marianne said her father was not available. When Tina arrived for the lunch, she found that it was to include Marianne and Peggy as well as Marina and others. The only time Oleg seemed to light up was when Tina told him that she had been to see Daria. She did not tell him how it had distressed her. Tina had discovered that the institution had not been paid in full for Daria’s care for some time, and that she had been moved from private care to state-supervised care. (Daria’s guardian, Richard Rowe, would not comment.) “Did you hear? Tina went to see Daria,” Oleg said to Marianne. According to both Tina and Marina, Marianne declared, “I’ve been to see her.” The atmosphere was strained. “There was a lot of jealousy between [Tina and Marianne],” says Marina. “Oleg didn’t want to help Tina, because he thought it was one of those family tragedies—any help he would give would be used by the husband.”
After lunch, Tina and her father went into the living room. Marina says she overheard Tina telling Oleg that she hadn’t been getting her checks on time. Marianne walked into the room. “He said to Marianne, ‘What is happening, Marianne?’” says Marina. “He didn’t really know what was going on.” She says Marianne was not at all pleased.
Tina says Marianne turned to her and said, “‘Did you come for the reading of the will?’ I didn’t answer, I was so flabbergasted. My father said, ‘It’s enough! One more word and it’s all over.’”
About six months later, in August in Paris, Tina received a priority-mail envelope from Oyster Bay, with Cassini on the return-address label. Inside were pictures of her as a child, torn out of an old family album. There was also a Vanity Fair article about Charles Feldman, a powerful Hollywood agent in the 30s and 40s. A pink Post-It was attached to Feldman’s picture, and on it was typewritten “Your real father.” Tina fainted when she saw this, and her daughter Delphina called a doctor, who put Tina on Prozac. Delphina was so upset that she called her grandfather and taped their conversation. I was able to hear the tape.
“That’s horrible,” Oleg Cassini says on it. “Who signed that letter?” Delphina explains about the pink note and says, “Suppose her father would be this Feldman guy, not you? Last time it was this Jimmy [Philips]. Feldman died, but this guy is not even dead.” Oleg says, “Mr. Feldman was a friend of mine, and he was an important man in Hollywood. It’s bizarre. He certainly was not your grandfather.”
The tape is about 10 minutes long. Oleg does not offer an opinion as to who might have sent the envelope, but he does say, “Someone is trying to torture your mother. I feel very bad for her. Tell your mother I don’t know anything about it.” Delphina tells him how hard it is on her mother to be harassed, and Oleg says, “If you want to think for a second, it’s even more ridiculous for me. It makes me look like a cornuto [cuckold], a poor jerk that kept the family going thinking he was the father. My role is even more ridiculous.” Referring to Gene Tierney, he says, “This could have been started years ago by her mother, in a moment of rage. She may have said something—I don’t know. But the fact is it’s a terribly gossipy thing, and he can’t go anywhere with it.” When Delphina says how distressing it is for her mother to have “everybody finding her different fathers,” Oleg says, “It seems to me this is a person with a particular dislike for your mother who is torturing her. It is not nice for me either.”
Yet there were more surprises in store for Tina. When one of her father’s oldest friends, Paris Match photographer Benno Graziani, published a book of his work called Collection Privée in 2008, it contained a photograph of Tina and her father, and the caption identified her as Tina Tierney. (Graziani declined to comment to Vanity Fair.) Tina also learned that Daria had been moved to a different institution, but Tina had not been notified. Richard Rowe explained to me that he had not heard from Tina in 15 years. Tina claims she corresponded with her father and volunteered to be Daria’s guardian.
Oleg Cassini was always cagey about his relationship with Marianne Nestor. In 1990, when he was 77, an article in The Boston Globe reported, “In his maturity, Cassini is brutally honest about living up to his womanizing image because it was good for business. His reputation of being able to ‘conquer’ beautiful women fanned international interest in his clothing collection.”
In 2002, Richard Turley, of Avenue magazine, and Richard Johnson, of the New York Post’s “Page Six,” went to pick Cassini up at 63rd Street and take him to dinner for an interview. He invited them to have a drink and introduced them to “Peggy and Marianne, from my office.” Apparently only twice in his final decades did Cassini ever come close to admitting to a romantic relationship with anyone. The first was in Women’s Wear Daily in 2003, when he said, “I have a relationship with one woman.” She was supposedly 32. In People magazine in March 2005, he was again coyly ambiguous: “Then there is his lady friend of 10 years (yes, she was in her 20’s, he in his 80’s, when they met) about whom he is terribly discreet.” In his autobiography, which was published in 1987, he makes no mention whatsoever of Marianne, though by then they had presumably been married 16 years.
Joe Klein, who broke with Cassini over the last four chapters of the autobiography, which Cassini decided to re-write himself, says, “He had a brand to protect, and I had a character to protect.” Klein’s wife, Victoria Kaunitz, adds, “He really needed to see himself as the ultimate jet-setter. You think Frank Sinatra and say, ‘Come Fly with Me,’ and Oleg is on the plane and Oleg designed the sheets.”
In the final chapter of the book, Cassini writes very sentimentally—if not exactly factually—about his daughters:
I have been luckier than most, and also unluckier: the continuing death-in-life of my daughter Daria—a pretty girl who cannot recognize me or her mother.… On the other hand, Daria’s sister, Christina, has had quite a different sort of life. She is happily married and living in Europe with her four children as if the tempestuous nature of her mother’s life and mine, and the tragedy of her sister’s, had led her to the very opposite conclusion about how to proceed from day to day in this world.
Marianne Nestor threw a memorial birthday party for Oleg at the St. Regis hotel, in New York, a month after he died. For many of his friends, it was also a coming-out party for Marianne. “I never heard of her or met her—none of my group had,” says Ann Slater, the Manhattan socialite. “A lot of us went because we didn’t know her and were anxious to see her.” Donald Trump and Regis Philbin spoke at the dinner. Tina says she was not invited, and no one else from the Cassini family was. Marianne is currently suing Marina for the money Oleg lent her. It is one of at least 15 lawsuits Marianne has been involved in, as plaintiff or defendant, in the last two decades. In one, the singer Neil Diamond, her neighbor, has brought suit against her to protest a structure on her roof that he says breaks the building code and obstructs his view (allegations Marianne has denied). Marianne has lately paid off $2.3 million in mortgages against the building known as the House of Cassini. That building has been in her and her sister Peggy’s name since 1984. In addition, according to Eileen Stier, she now claims she is cash-strapped and is backing away from the $52 million figure earlier stated to be the value of the estate. Recently, in the press, Marianne Nestor was referred to as Countess Cassini.
Browse by decade
Browse by publication
Browse by Tag