Brooke de Ocampo is perfectly positioned to write the book on 21st century New York society. So she's done just that, with photographer Jonathan Becker, documenting the fabulous lives of her friends in Bright Young Things.
By Evgenia Peretz
Jonathan Becker, photographer and grudging member of the International Best-Dressed list, is trying to find out how Brooke de Ocampo got to her "position." He doesnít mean position- as in perched on a pristine white sofa in her 2,400-square-foot Upper East Side apartment, where she is taking shelter from a midsummer downpour. He means position, a place so beautiful the world looks marvelous from every angle; a place where the typical choice is between the divine and the genius; a place that has made de Ocampo so beloved that everybody- from Alexandre and Alexandra von Fürstenberg to Michael and Tara Rockefeller to the bald electronic musician Moby- recently threw their doors open for her and let her catalogue all their objects for Bright Young Things, her lush, spot-on book about 21st-century fabulousness, for which Becker took the pictures.
"Position?" de Ocampo says, as if it were the most absurd thing sheíd ever heard. "What do you mean, position?"
"I mean, how did you come to know all these people and have everybodyís confidence?" asks Becker, quite pleased with himself, as he makes one of several wobbly attempts to bring a lit match to a half-smoked cigar. "Youíre only 30 or something, right?"
"I donít know," she says curtly.
Usually de Ocampo, a native of Greenwich, Connecticut (whoís actually 34) can merrily chirp away on just about any topic, and she tends to do so in an inexplicable South American accent. But Becker, a dandyish sort who brings to mind a scamp-turned-Sherlock Holmes, is up to something- and she isnít going to give in.
"What have you been doing all these years?"
"I donít know."
"I mean, how did you meet these people? You didnít just go to school with them."
"I donít know!" she says, shooting a look at the little nuisance, who is now clouding up her living room with cigar smoke. "Look, Iím gregarious by nature."
"So are a lot of people out there- they donít know anybody," says Becker, flashing his whatever-gets-you-through-the-day grin.
Becker looks like he could go on teasing her for the rest of the afternoon. But the truth is, he knows very well what gave de Ocampo her position as cheerleader and mascot of young New York society, and when he speaks of her behind her back, itís clear how much he admires her. Unlike Becker, who at age 45 is the first to admit he could use some organizational skills, de Ocampo is every inch a force of will, from the blond streaks that start at her regal Greenwich crown to the open toes of her Jimmy Choo stilletos.
To be sure, her resume hasnít a whiff of anything scrappy. She is the daughter of Robert Douglass, a lawyer and right-hand-man to Nelson Rockefeller; she attended Taft boarding school and Duke University; she has worked at Vogue, Ralph Lauren, Sothebyís, and Harperís Bazaar; she married a really hot Argentinean investment banker named Emilio Ocampo.
Nevertheless, unlike many of the subjects in her book, de Ocampo has no department-store magnate, no horse-breeding dad. Instead she has a brain that tracks data with the efficiency of a Palm Pilot, and a turbo-charged determination that pulses through her birdlike limbs even when sheís performing tasks as dull as tidying up her living room- or as she puts it, "fluffing." Which is perhaps how she and Becker were able to deliver Bright Young Things just four months after Assouline agreed to publish it.
De Ocampo took on Bright Young Things after giving birth to twin girls (she already had a 15-month-old daughter). Her hope was that such a project would keep her from just becoming another Upper East Side mom.
"My husband was traveling a lot for business. I wanted to keep my life so that I felt that I was interesting," says de Ocampo. "I didnít give myself enough credit, because I didnít think being a mom was worthy in its own right. I needed an outlet of some sort."
As it happened, de Ocampo had a passion for prettythings, and the two coincided nicely with Bright Young Things, a title taken from a 1920s used to describe a group of London pleasure-seekers including Diana Cooper, Evelyn Waugh, and the Mitford sisters.
De Ocampo also drew inspiration from a classic in the genre of society reportage, Vogueís Book of Houses, Gardens, People. Written by Valentine Lawford with photographs by Horst and a foreword written by Diana Vreeland, that book brought to life the grand style of the 1960s elite- the Carter Burdens, the Cy Twomblys, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Doris Duke, Pauline de Rothschild, and Emilio Pucci. Now out of print, it remains the definitive document of postwar glamour. Vintage bookstores, which sell it for as much as $600, canít keep it on the shelf. Designers routinely use it for inspiration. As for de Ocampo, she has always found it "amusing."
Bright Young Things is amusing too- partly for the differences it reveals between todayís turn-of-the-century style and the blueblood charms of Vogueís Book of Houses, Gardens, People. For one, the people who make up Bright Young Things are mostly Friends of Brooke- and "donít call them aristocrats, theyíre meritocrats," she says.
This roll call includes Eliza Reed Bolen, who works for her stepfather Oscar de la Renta; Aerin Lauder, captain of the junior-varsity society team, and her sister Jane, both powerhouses at Estee Lauder, the family business; "Miller sister" Alexandra von Fürstenberg, the inspiration behind the return of her mother-in-law Dianeís wrap dress; and Conde Nast editors Plum Sykes, Marina Rust, and Patricia Herrera. Thrown into the mix are assorted artists and dabblers, such as Alessandro Twombly (Cy Twomblyís son), filmmaker Andrew Lauren (who knew?), that ubiquitous man of the brush (and Moby pal) Damian Loeb, and Kentucky heiress Lulu de Kwiatkowsi, doing what appears to be an imitation of a Druid in repose.
The rigidity of the era documented by Lawford and Horst just doesnít cut it with todayís B.Y.T.ís. "The generation of our mothers had to follow a tighter set of rules," de Ocampo says. "Our motto is like, ĎBe whatever or whoever you want to be. Just be it or do it well.í I feel thereís a much greater sense of confidence in peopleís individuality. The sense of the eclectic is much more prevalent."
As the book makes clear, the matchy-matchy is strictly for cheeseballs in the year 2000. De Ocampoís friends like to think of themselves as jet-set scavengers, picking up masks from Bali and arrowheads from Wyoming, and leaving no African antelope skull in peace.
To de Ocampo, one couple from Bright Young Things- Nancy and Andrew Jarecki- just might represent the height of this amalgamated chic fir the dot-com era. Andrew is the creator of Moviefone (777-FILM), which he sold to AOL for $400 million in stock- and still runs. Nancy, who hails from Kansas society, likes to paint when she is not minding her two sons or serving as the super-chilled-out guidance counselor to young society damsels. As de Ocampo puts it, "Sheís so earthy and normal." The Jareckisí Caribbean island, Guana, has been a haven for Hollywood speed-dialers, including the late CAA agent Jay Moloney. And they are best friends with fellow Manhattan parents Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman.
When not in Guana, the Jareckis are in their mock-Tudor apartment- shown off to good effect in Bright Young Things- which is nestled in an Upper East Side co-op designed in 1906 by the renowned Charles Platt Jr. After seven contractors and a year of chipping away at ugly green paint and scraping the linoleum floors, the Jareckis got to work imprinting it with a style that could rightly be called millenial, with its mishmash of the centuries. The 19th-century Hunsinger chairs in the living room are upholstered with silk dalmatics; the dining-room table, which seats 22, is in the style of Henry VIII; the banquette sofas are more de nos jours, designed by Nancy herself.
For Tara and Michael Rockefeller, another couple lovingly documented by de Ocampo and Becker, history casts a long shadow indeed. A modern Renaissance man who has recently gone dot-com himself with a company called Active Media, Michael was named after his uncle who went missing in 1961 with an excursion to New Guinea.
Their Gramercy Park building, incorporated in 1883 as part of the Gramercy Family Hotel, is part of the oldest surviving co-op in the city. Several of their pieces have been inherited from his grandfather Nelson Rockefellerís famous Fifth Avenue saleon, which was decorated by legendary 1930s designer Jean-Michel Frank. Tara, who did the whole Far East thing before getting married, accumulated many of the apartmentís odd finds.
"With the mix of periods and provenances in our apartment, my mother calls our decorating style ĎEarly Attic, Late Cellar,í" she tells de Ocampo. But as one might expect from the Rockefeller name, Deco pieces sit side by side with Oriental treasures- such as two terra-cotta horses from the Tang dynasty- with staid dignity.
Where the Rockefellersí apartment is more reserved, the SoHo pied-a-terre of Sebastian and Peggy Guinness is dizzyingly cosmopolitan. The furniture has been collected from Brazil, China, Bali, and Spain, and the place is chockablock with exotica- Tibetan religious totems, and Amazon Indian feather headpieces and masks. While this all sounds mildly pretentious, the stuff of their home is actually a reflection of the Guinnessesí worldly existence.
Peggy, de Ocampo tells us, is a Mellon and was born in America, raised in France, and she spent her 20s in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where she came upon the stones (tanzanite, citrine, tourmaline) that would inspire the jewelry she designs. Sebastian, a filmmaker, lives most of the year in a converted monastery on the top of a mountain in Northern Spain, and is in the midst of a five-year documentary on Indonesia. Which might explain the whimsical purple velvet dinner jacket and trousers heís wearing in the pages of Bright Young Things; they were cut from an Indonesian ikat, which basically means "piece of fabric."
But the nomadic-tribesman look doesnít do it for everybody. Alexandra von Fürstenberg, who lives with her husband Alexandre, and baby, Talita, on the 22nd floor of a modern high-rise, the old weird stuff is kind of gross.
"I canít stand wearing someone elseís old clothes," says the duty-free heiress. "I had a hard enough time sharing clothes with my sisters."
The apartment, which has been in the Miller family for 15 years, has been home to each of the Miller sisters at one time or another- and now itís Alexandraís turn. The art is strictly 20th-century American- Andy Warhol, Ross Bleckner, Peter Beard. The furniture is primarily Ralph Lauren. Each room is a spanking-clean white, and the Alexes insist they stay that way; guests must take off their shoes before entering. (Yes, even the Manolos).
What does all this mean to de Ocampo? That the here and now is where itís at. Sure, she can get a little nostalgic at times, but that wonít cloud her rosy view of the way people in her set live now.
"We look back on the 60s and we see how cool Pucci was and how cool the fashions were and their great hair and platform shoes, and Studio 54, and none of us see, because none of us knew, the drugs, you know, the problems," she says. "[Now] itís a calm, peaceful time. There has not been a war, and anytime you get a war you get, like, major social revolutions. So our generation is much more inward-focused, on their well-being, on the well-being of their families."
She could go on with the pep rally, but it seems she has touched a nerve with her co-author.
"I have to admit, I had a resentment about this," says Becker, who is of a slightly earlier generation than de Ocampo and her fellow Bright Young Things. "Naturally Iím going to get over it, but arenít they bothered by just concerned with well-being? We were always concerned with other things. It may have been bullshit, but there was always distraction."
"And causes to fight for," de Ocampo says somewhat facetiously.
"Or whatever," he says, defeated.
Becker may have the wisdom of experience behind him, but then again, he was struggling to do it for 20 years- and it wasnít until Brooke steamrollered into his life that he was able to pull it off. When asked why he didnít do it earlier- and by himself- he replies, "I donít know. But it has something to do with me. And my lack of what they used to call stick-to-itiveness. But Brooke has it in spades."
"Stick-to-itiveness," de Ocampo says. Suddenly her eyes light up. "Itís a great word! I donít care what they call it, but thatís the perfect word for it. And de Ocampo ends the day with one more thing to be happy about.