Style & Fashion

Feature interview

Cornelia Guest: New York’s party queen on Warhol, Studio 54, and her fashion week return

The Daily Beast

September 9, 2023

As iconic “celebutante” Cornelia Guest returns to New York for her friend Dennis Basso’s Fashion Week show, she talks Studio 54, Capote, acting, animals—and where the party is now.

It had been quite a morning, Cornelia Guest said, watching her beloved turkey Philip being set upon by one of his many offspring. (Philip’s partner is called Elizabeth, named after the former British monarch whom Guest very much admired, and her husband.)

Guest was speaking from the 450-acre property she owns in East Texas, housing a veritable menagerie of mini-horses, donkeys, Guinea hens, a tortoise, ducks, chickens, peacocks, cats, and dogs. “This is my Great Dane,” she told The Daily Beast, with a gesture towards a hound loping into view. “He always likes to sleep behind me. His name is Wolf. He’s a year and a half. He’s just a little baby.”

On Monday, Guest—famously the youthful queen of the New York 1980s party scene, living it up with her friends Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, and the fashion designer Halston—will be far from Texas, and instead making a triumphant return to Manhattan, taking center stage at her longtime friend Dennis Basso’s New York Fashion Week show.

Guest will parade the final, showstopper look at Basso’s show, before taking part in the finale alongside him. He revealed that she will be wearing an outfit made of double face pale blue satin, with embroidered black lace.

“I’ve put her in something that I would like to think is designed specifically for her—sophisticated, elegant, with just enough sexy, a little touch of over-the-top, but completely modern,” Basso told The Daily Beast. “You might think ‘She could have worn this in 1985,’ but it’s also made for today.”

The cover of Monday’s show program is a shot of Basso and Guest together; Monday’s appearance marks the 40th anniversary of their friendship. Basso called Guest two weeks ago, and said he was planning to theme his New York Fashion Week show about “Great American Families.”

“I immediately thought of Cornelia, called her up, and she said she’d love to do it,” Basso said.

“I went to his first show in 1983 with my mother,” Guest recalled. “We hit it off immediately. He was funny and a good dancer—and this was when New York nightlife was in its heyday. I love his beautiful clothes. When he asked me to do the show, I said, ‘Of course, I’d love to.’ I am very excited.”

Guest, daughter of socialite Lucy “C.Z.” Guest and Winston F. C. Guest—world-class polo player and Phipps steel heir—was named “Debutante of the Year” in 1982. Her godparents were former British King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, the woman he abdicated the throne for—later known as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. “He was lovely, she was very scary to me,” Guest recalled. “He would come to Long Island, and was always very interested and kind. My mother had fun with her.”

Capote once told People: “Cornelia has a No. 1 name. The Guests are from real patrician stock, unlike the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, who are descended from crooks.”

“I dressed Cornelia and her mother for many years,” Basso told The Daily Beast. “I first met Cornelia exactly 40 years ago at my first show at the Regency Hotel. We always had fun together. We were always at Studio 54 with Halston and Andy Warhol. There were serious dinners at 21, Le Cirque on 66th Street, and she had a great apartment at the Olympia Tower. Whether we were at (nightclub) Régine’s or Studio, the paparazzi would not leave her alone. Cornelia was young, pretty, and fun—a lot like her mother. Like Mrs. Guest, she was happy to step outside of the box to have a good time.”

“It was such a creative time,” Guest, once dubbed a “celebutante” by The New York Times, recalled of her much flash-bulbed party years. “I always laugh with my friends. Can you imagine that time if people had been on their cellphones? It never would have happened. I think it was a time when everyone was experimenting, and at Studio 54 at night you’d see people on roller-skates, and people painting. It was such an incredible cauldron of creativity.

“People weren’t looking at their watches saying, ‘Oh, I’ve got to be at the gym at 6 o’clock in the morning to do a spin class.’ It was a completely different mentality. It was incredible, the talent that came out of that—the people, the art. I wonder if we’ll ever see that again. People were happy—obviously some not so much, but generally people were happy. You’d go to Studio 54, and everyone was dancing and having fun, and communicating. No one was there, head down in their phones. Now you go out, and nobody’s talking. Nobody’s looking at anyone in the eye. It’s such a different can of worms now.”

“I understood the creative genius of all of them,” Guest said of Warhol (for whom she posed topless), Capote, and Halston. “Halston would drape clothes on me and sew them. His eye was incredible. I’d be like, ‘These high heels are hurting.’ He’d be like, ‘Deal with the pain!’ They were wonderful teachers. I think of Halston so often, and all they taught me; how they loved their lives and how they were such mavericks no one has done what Halston did even to this day. He was just unbelievable. He had such a huge view of everything. Andy was the same. Truman was so funny. They were magic people. We were always going out.”

Guest was aware of her celebrity, but also detached from it. “It was always very interesting, but I still don’t believe it,” she said. “I’ll be somewhere, and people will recognize me, and it always surprises me. I never really thought about the celebrity thing. It was always my life, and I have always marched to the beat of my own drum. I’ve always been my own person, and have always been strong that way. I always had my head about me. That’s what my mother gave me. She was tough that way. She was always her own person, and I watched her. It helped me a lot. She gave me a good model of survival to follow. How we behave in life is important. Being true to yourself means you’ll be true to somebody else. The buck stops here.”

When it came to drink and drugs—the two things that made the fun times not-so fun for so many in the longer term—Guest said, “I was very lucky. I tried some stuff, and never liked the feeling. I like a glass of champagne. I’m not a big drinker. I still don’t drink hard liquor. I’m lucky because I don’t have an addictive personality. So many of my friends had a really hard time with drugs and alcohol—and it’s heartbreaking, just awful.”

Back in the day, Guest lived with Boy George for six months, and was rumored to have dated Sylvester Stallone, Rob Lowe, and Princess Caroline of Monaco’s ex, Philippe Junot. Although she moved to Los Angeles to pursue her acting career, she was “always” back in New York visiting her mother.

“It’s a very special place, but such a different place now,” Guest said. “That world I grew up in doesn’t exist any more. I am thrilled to have grown up in a world without cellphones and the internet, because I think they mean you miss so much. They have their plus points, but before them you would talk to 50 different people in a night and not wonder if someone was texting you.” She laughed, recalling that bygone era of retrieving home messages by typing in a number code, calling friends from home, waiting for calls. “It was so heightened, there were so many emotions. I’m glad that’s how I grew up. I would not want what these kids have to go through today.”

Guest recalls being starstruck only once, when she “literally ran” into Michael Jordan on the steps of Grand Central Station.

Asked if she partied with the Trumps in the ’80s, she said, “I know them, their kids. The whole thing is very unfortunate.” Of what she thought of Trump as president, and now running again for office, Guest said, “I won’t talk about that. I won’t touch that. I don’t want to talk politics, because it doesn’t matter what you say. Some people will like it, some people will hate it, then people come screaming. I don’t want them screaming at me.”


“Being a debutante really wasn’t my cup of tea”

As a young girl, Guest loved nature, climbing trees, and playing with animals, “much to my parents’ chagrin.” En route with her mother to ride horses in Virginia, they would see dogs on the side of the road; the young Cornelia was told un-homed dogs would likely get scientifically tested on. “It stirred horrors in me.”

She convinced some of her parents’ staff to house the dogs in a barn in their grand Long Island home, Templeton. Her father discovered this canine safe house, the young Cornelia telling him, “Mommy said they were all going to be tested on in a lab and I can’t let that happen.’ ‘Oh god,’ he said.” Guest laughed. “It all started at a very young age.” Later she became an accomplished equestrian, before embarking on her acting career and animal-saving activities.

Was she aware of her wealth and privilege from the get-go? “That’s such a hard question,” Guest said after a pause. “When I was young I loved everyone. I love to talk to people. People ask me, ‘Did you know that Andy Warhol was a famous painter?’ Well, he wasn’t to me. He was my friend. We talked about boys. So, I think when I was young I knew I was in a different position and you don’t quite understand yet and as you grow up you understand more of how the world works.”

School (at the exclusive Foxcroft in Virginia) was merely “OK,” she told The Daily Beast. “My mother was not a big believer in school. She would take me out on a Thursday afternoon, and say to the teachers, ‘She’s going to learn a lot more by riding with me than here with you.’ Imagine how well that went down. School was not her favorite thing, and in a way she’s right. You learn a lot more being out in the world than you do in your school, where I guess you learn some stuff. I was never a student. I would stare out of the window thinking I could be doing this, this, and this.”

Guest would write to her friend Capote that she hated it there. Capote tried calling Guest at the school to offer his support, but the school thought it was a friend of Guest’s taking part in a prank; Guest maintained that it probably was him. “And so my mother marched into the headmaster’s office and said, ‘My daughter wouldn’t lie. If you ever accuse her of lying again, I’ll take her out of here.’” For good measure, her mother apparently added, “Cornelia informs me that the dorm mother is an English teacher, and if this woman is stupid enough to not know Truman Capote and his voice, she shouldn’t be here. I’m taking my daughter out of your school.” Guest left Foxcroft completely at 15.

C.Z. Guest—who had posed nude for Diego Rivera—was a strong maternal presence, “but she wasn’t a helicopter mom by any means. I was on my own a lot. I was very fiercely independent. My dad I loved. My father understood what could happen to a child more so than my mother. My mother was like, ‘She’s smart, she she’ll figure it out.’ I was driving, taking care of myself. My mother was always there when I fell on my ass, she was there to help me. Sometimes she helped me up, sometimes she didn’t. She was tough.”

C.Z. Guest, said Basso, was “the arbiter of good taste. She was always beautifully coiffed and dressed. It was something that was very natural to her. It wasn’t developed. Some people develop that style, but for Mrs. Guest it was very natural. She was a great American beauty. She could jump in the pool, and come out and be ready to go to a gala. She had that. Cornelia has that too. They both have a little bit of the tomboy in them, which for me personally is always so appealing. They could be in the garden, around animals, jump in the water, and then be ready to put on the most gorgeous ballgown and host an amazing dinner.

“That is the perfect formula, I think. Cornelia loves the outdoors. She is just as comfortable in a pair of jeans and work boots as she is a ballgown. She and her mother are their own women, but the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. They share a sense of style and responsibility.”

After her social “debut” in 1982, Guest began studying acting. She was also mourning her father, who died the same year. “He had just died, and my mother wanted me to come out,” Guest recalled. “Being a debutante really wasn’t my cup of tea, or what I wanted to do, but you pick your battles. Mom wanted me to do it, so I did it. I did it to please her. That wasn’t a world I was part of—lots of teas and parties. That wasn’t my world, or my New York. My New York was more Studio 54, a different group.” She laughed. “I loved my group much better.”

Losing her father when she was so young was “horrible, horrible. You don’t understand it. I mean I still don’t understand it. When you lose your parents it’s just awful, especially when you’re young because you don’t really get to know them till you’re 18. Before then you know them on a child’s terms. All of a sudden that person is gone, and you have so many questions. Today, if I could, I would ask my mom and dad about certain people, family, about how they grew up, their relationship, how they met—the little things, the fabric that makes them what they are in our memories.”

Guest stopped riding after mother’s death in 2003, but recently has contemplated getting back in the saddle, spurred by going to a horse show recently and seeing her old friends. “I might do a little bit of reining out here in Texas. I love horses. I stopped riding because the last time my mother was in public was at the National Horse Show, where I was riding. Two days later she was dead. At the time I could not comprehend riding again, and I love horses—they were my life. Also, you get to an age where if you fall off, it’s hard to get up!”


“I’m good in the city for a couple of days, then get me out”

Guest, who secured a recurring role in the 2017 Twin Peaks reboot Twin Peaks: The Return, is still focused on acting—declining to discuss an upcoming “big” birthday because of the ageism of the industry. She said she almost got married a couple of times, but neither relationship ultimately worked out. “Children are something I never yearned to have,” she said. “If it happened it happened, if it didn’t it didn’t.” Asked if she is single or in a relationship today, she laughed. “All is good in that department.”

“There’s nothing new about aging, she said. “We’re all going to get there. I figure: have fun, live every day. I have so many friends who have passed away, like that”—she snapped a finger—”so it makes you sit back and think, ‘There but for grace of God go I.’ If I make the world a better place, I’ll be happy. I feel great. I have a lot of things to do. I do get depressed and upset, but I try to see the glass as half-full.” She does Pilates, eats healthily, walks a lot. As you get older you have to keep moving.”

The 12,000-square-foot, 28-room Templeton was razed in 2016, having been bought by businessman and restaurateur Ray Sidhom. Guest is sanguine about this; it could only work as itself in the era it had been built for. In 2015 she moved to the 456-acre estate in Ancramdale, in upstate New York, to house her animal sanctuary.

But one particularly harsh upstate New York winter led her to move to Texas. “Negative 17, and five feet of snow. I’ll never forget it,” she told The Daily Beast. “I said, ‘This isn’t for me. I’m too cold.’ The dogs wouldn’t go out. All the little ponies were freezing. I had the baby donkey in the house. I had baby cheetahs. It got to be too much.” She laughed. “Now, because of the heat here, we get frozen watermelon, and misters.”

Guest, a longtime board member of the Humane Society of New York and a vegan, aims to use her immense wealth for good, “trying to make the world a better place from the bottom. You never know how something can change someone’s life. People have come up to me and said, ‘You taught me this, you taught me that.’ I never meant to.”

“I think that my social life in Dallas is probably better than it was in New York,” Guest said. “It is so easy. Dallas airport to me is the best airport in the world. You get there, walk five feet and there’s your plane. There are so many flights to New York. It’s easy. But my life is very different now. I have a lot of animals, a ranch. I’ve always been a country girl at heart. I’m good in the city for a couple of days, then get me out. I like to be near the trees. I have two baby goats. I love walking, having friends out. I’m happy out there. And y’know, I like to get social too. Being in the country has always been me. I have always been, ‘Give me my garden.’”

“I love living in Texas, I absolutely love it,” Guest said. “Everyone is so friendly, everyone is so nice. The people here are unbelievable, the kindest people. When I first moved in, so many people on the block came to introduce themselves. There’s something to do all the time here. I’m very happy.”

For Guest, a supporter of causes like marriage equality, it must also feel an exceedingly conservative state, led by a governor and Republican-led legislature relentlessly focused on legislating against LGBTQ people. “There are a lot of changes that need to be made everywhere,” she said. “I’m here, trying to do the best I can to change things because so much is terrible.”

Guest wants to carry on helping animals; seeing people dumping them “makes me crazy.” She would also “love” to act on Broadway, and wants more screen roles, though declines to discuss the subject more in light of the Hollywood strikes.


“Stick to your guns. Go out, have a glass of champagne”

“I don’t even know where you would go these days,” Guest said, when asked how she felt about New York nightlife now. “I don’t even know where you go if want a drink. I’m so far removed from it.” Her favorite lunch spot is Fred’s at Barney’s: “It’s a great place. The food is so good. You always know so many people.”

What would Guest say to New York’s young generation of partiers and creators today? “I would say stick to your guns, and that everything on social media isn’t what it seems. Don’t ever give up, and don’t ever let anyone tell you not to do something if you want to do it. Listen to your gut. There’s nothing worse than being young, and someone older saying ‘You shouldn’t do that,’ and later you looking back and regretting not doing it. Ignore those people.

“Stick to your guns, have fun. Go out, have a glass of champagne, dance, stay out late. But also remember you have stuff to do the next day. Sometimes it’s going to be a balance, sometimes it isn’t. We’ve all been there at 8 a.m., wondering how we’re going to get through the day. You’re going to learn from it. Don’t ever think there are mistakes. You learn from everything. I like to look at things positively because if you don’t, there’s so much negativity—and there are rabbit-holes you just go down.”

“Choose your friends carefully—close friends you can trust, and care about and who care about you,” Basso advised, then laughed. “Try to stay out of trouble. Don’t put yourself in a spot where you could be in trouble.”

So, will Guest party like it’s 1983 again on Monday? “I doubt that. I’ve got too much going on,” she said, smiling.

“Young people are still partying, and having a great time, but we’re in a different age group,” said Basso. “When I was young, I would be leaving the house at 11 p.m., just at my parents got home from dinner. It’s a generational thing. We should make way for the young. They’re enjoying life in a different way.”

Hmm, Monday’s revels after the fashion show may not end so early, this reporter ventured.

“Yeah, I don’t think so either,” Basso said, with a guttural roar of laughter.