Goss Bros

Igor Cassini — Ghighi to his friends — was a Russian aristocrat with a bloodline to the Tsars who became America’s most influential gossip columnist with a hotline to the White House. Originally published in Issue 39 of The Rake, Nick Foulkes writes that together with his brother Oleg, the dashing immigrants (and playboys) were the forerunners of today’s celeb-centred high society — until, they fell foul of the Kennedys.
Oleg Cassini and Igor Cassini (Photo by Ron Galella/WireImage)

A couple of years ago I wrote a book about the jet set. As a term today it has lost much of its power, but in the middle years of the previous century they were the most evocative six letters in the world: shorthand for a life of plutocratic sophistication that had been liberated by the arrival of jet air travel. Of course, one of the first things I did was track down the etymology of the term, and with it stumbled across one of the most entertaining fraternal double acts, who had seduced and partied their way around the world as if they were characters in a jet-age Balzac novel.

Two world wars and sundry revolutions had thrown an entire generation of dethroned royalty and deracinated nobility on to the international social circuit, pushing the social centre of gravity across the Atlantic to the glittering grid-like streets and concrete canyons of New York City. “Not since the French revolution had so many talented, prosperous and well-educated refugees gathered in New York at the same moment in history,” observed the authors of On the Town in New York, a social history of New York nightlife. “Their presence contributed greatly to the status of New York, establishing the city once and for all as the cultural capital of a disjointed world.”

Born into a world that had ceased to exist, some of these refugees had treasures to sell and jewels to pawn, but those who did not would be forced to take drastic action and do something that would never have occurred to their parents or grandparents: they would have to work for a living. It was an interesting time — the world was modern, yet old-world lineage, manners and charm still mattered. An aristocrat could quite easily be a newspaper columnist, as was the case with the man who came up with a name for this new type of socialite.

He may have been the grandson of the Tsarist diplomat Arthur Paul Nicholas Cassini, Marquis of Capuzzuchi of Bologna, Count of Cassini, but Igor Cassini — Ghighi to his friends and ‘Cholly Knickerbocker’ to the millions who read his column — was the most influential gossip columnist in America. As is often the case with powerful gossip columnists, Ghighi soon became more important than the people he wrote about, and for a couple of decades he and his dress-designer brother Oleg were two of the biggest beasts of post-war New York society. Even by the standards of an age that excelled in producing ladies’ men, the lively, colourful and oh-so-charming Cassini brothers were exceptional.

Theirs was the era celebrated by the television show Mad Men, but while Don Draper and his ilk were wage slaves in Manhattan who drank and smoked their way through a working day enlivened by affairs with co-workers (before returning to their families in the suburbs to drink and smoke some more), the Cassinis were among the handful of men who lived the dream to which these men aspired. They were the ones eating at the best tables at Le Pavillon, La Caravelle and La Côte Basque in mid-century New York. They were the ones taking the most glamorous women of the day to the Stork Club or swapping bonmots with Greek shipping tycoons on the zebra-print banquettes of El Morocco.


February 2021


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