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Living the Lifestyle

Thursday, November 16, 2017
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Five years ago, when Carolyne Roehm turned 60, she asked herself, “Where am I going to grow old?”


An iconic 1980s hostess and fashion designer who started her career working for the late Oscar de la Renta, she has since become a lifestyle expert, authoring a dozen coffee-table books mostly on the decorative arts. Roehm loved Europe and kept a small apartment in Paris.


“I looked at three places in France but Mom was skeptical,” she says, during a break from gardening at Weatherstone, her stately 1765 stone estate in Sharon, Connecticut. She rebuilt after it was destroyed by a 1999 fire.


“I like a ruin, but it would have been too complicated to restore, and I love Italy, but didn’t even look there. After thinking about dealing with airplanes and issues in foreign countries, buying in Europe became too much.”


Over the years—both before and after her Nouvelle Society-era marriage (her second) to private equity billionaire Henry Kravis—she’d visited Charleston, South Carolina, often with friends like literary agent Lynn Nesbit and the late fashion designer Bill Blass. She especially liked Charleston’s architecture, history, preservation and Southern plantations. “I asked myself, ‘Where else can I go and be surrounded by visual beauty?’ ” she says.


Raised in Missouri, the former Carolyne Jane Smith, the statuesque brunette daughter of teachers, has always felt at home in the South. She has chowed down on grits and collard greens and still loves fried food. She read with passion the late novelist Pat Conroy’s riveting South Carolina plots. And during her frequent travels, she learned that Southern women actually care about the contents of her books. “I write about entertaining and gracious tables,” says Roehm. “Southern women are not ashamed of being pretty.”


In 2012, after speaking about her design book A Passion for Blue and White before a sold-out audience of 350 at Charleston’s Gibbes Museum of Art, Roehm took her mother and her partner, retired businessman Simon Pinniger, house hunting. “They both told me I was crazy to think about buying in Charleston because it was too much money,” says Roehm.


But the talented designer has always had a mind of her own, seeing the future with a respect for the past. So she bought a Greek Revival house in the city, then restored, furnished and decorated it, including a complete redesign of the kitchen. She collapsed the mud room and changed the entrance to add large windows, which offer the sense of being outdoors with her towering palms, delightful birds and the natural light of Charleston.


She also spent a great deal of time creating her new home’s surrounding gardens, ripping out 3,000 boxwood plants and adding Astroturf. “I worked hard on the garden after Hurricane Matthew caused such massive flooding last year,” she says. Of the storm, she observes, “I was impressed with how people in Charleston respond to adversity: they help each other and seem to have a sense of humor about everything. Even though things had shut down, a store owner displayed one of my books in the window and invited me in for a vodka!”


While Pinniger owns a home in Aspen, where they ski and enjoy the snow, much of Roehm’s time is divided among Weatherstone in spring and summer for gardening, a dramatic pied-à-terre on East 57th Street in Manhattan in February and March, and Charleston in autumn and December. “I try to go to Charleston six times a year and often take a couple of dogs along,” she says.


The talented tastemaker allows that her life is vastly different now than it was in the mid- to late 1980s, the era of multimillion-dollar bashes, extravagant charity events and marital tiffs of the rich and famous finding their way onto Page Six. While equally busy, Roehm doesn’t go to many charity events these days.


“Charleston is not driven by power and money,” says Roehm. “It’s more of a mixed city with baby boomers who want sun and warmth. It’s not as insular as it used to be. In the 1980s, I didn’t have a zillion girlfriends either.” A group of new girlfriends in Charleston has greatly enriched her life. Some were born and bred in the South, others come from New York, California and Chicago. “I have met wonderful professional women in Charleston, and we get together,” she says. “They are bright and fun-loving.”


One example is Texas-born Charlotte Beers, former undersecretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs reporting to General Colin Powell, as well as an advertising woman extraordinaire. Beers calls their Charleston girls group “the G6.”


“I was so serious in the 1980s,” admits Roehm. “I am more relaxed now, but I do help raise awareness for causes I believe in.”


For example, when Downton Abbey and Gosford Park creator Julian Fellowes came to Charleston last January to promote a new literary festival, the head of the Library Society (founded in 1748), the oldest cultural organization in town, turned to Roehm. Aware of her love for history, art, architecture and decor, Anne Cleveland, the group’s executive director, wanted her involved.


“Not only did Carolyne host a spectacular dinner party in her beautiful home for Lord and Lady Fellowes, within a mere six hours she had charmed and captivated them so profoundly that they left her home discussing whether or not to buy a pied-à-terre in Charleston,” says Cleveland. “She is one of the most talented and genuinely kind people I have ever encountered.”


Roehm used a classic Charleston theme for the decor, served traditional Southern fare divided between two elegantly appointed tables, and was happy to host in the city she believes is the most historically preserved in the United States. “Charleston has such an interesting and varied history,” says Roehm. “The home of Porgy and Bess, the birthplace of the Charleston, and one of the first American cities to have synagogues—an enviable example of religious tolerance in its colonial days.”


It’s no surprise that Roehm plans to write a book about Charleston after she completes her current one, a project due next year focusing on her life in style and design, which will reveal why she left her 1980s fashion career in New York. That could have had something to do with her divorce and concomitant loss of financing.


The Charleston book will delve into the restoration of her house complete with other personal, historic and cultural elements of her new Southern lifestyle.


It will likely also demonstrate that the bright lights of Nouvelle Society haven’t dimmed; they’ve just found different ways to shine. “I love to paint, have dinner parties and see my friends,” Roehm says. “I enjoy strolling through the streets of Charleston at night to gaze at the sunset, the gaslights and the lights in people’s windows. There are quirky people in Charleston, and I love that. New Yorkers are different from Southerners. I like to be around different kinds of people.” 





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