Today, Italy is an axiom of style, fashion and art de vivre. Its brands line the great luxury shopping
thoroughfares of the world; its jewels adorn beautiful women; its artists are trophies of the financial elite; and
its cooking has been elevated to the level of high gastronomy (you have to ask for butter instead of the saucer of
extra virgin olive oil mopped up with a bit of focaccia). Where romantic Americans once headed for gay
Paree, they now swoon at the sight of an umbrella pine or cypress and say ‘Milano’ and ‘Roma’ in exaggeratedly
Italian accents. Milan is regarded as a bona fide international capital of fashion and design, and as readers of
this magazine are well aware, the Negronis and Pitti fashion exhibitions of Florence are articles of religious faith
among new dandies. Yet 60 years ago, France was in cultural control: food, style, elegance, sophistication, art… it
was all French.
Then the Crespis happened.
I hyperbolise, of course, but not absurdly. Consuelo Crespi and her husband, Rodolfo, were to do for Italian fashion
and — dreaded word — lifestyle what Fellini’s La Dolce Vita had achieved for film in 1960, when it won the
Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival.
The irony was that Consuelo Crespi was not even remotely Italian. She embodied a new twist on the old story of an
American beauty marrying into European nobility; she was a Henry James or Edith Wharton heroine updated for the jet
Her father had emigrated from Ireland to the U.S. and had lived the American dream, starting off washing bottles at a
mineral water company and ending his career running the company. In 1947, Consuelo Pauline O’Brien O’Connor and her
twin sister, Gloria, were debutantes. “She was presented to society here,” recorded The New York Times, “at
the Debutante Cotillion.” By then they had been famous for four years. At the age of 15 she and Gloria were spotted
in the lift at the Hotel des Artistes in New York by Andre de Dienes, a European fashion photographer who was
sitting out the war in New York. Dienes had an eye for beauty: in 1945 he would discover Marilyn Monroe.
Soon the glamorous young twins were in demand. In November 1945 they made the cover of Look magazine, and in
1947 Life ran four pages of pictures of them. “Like spring flowers, the pretty twin faces shown above are
bursting out all over New York this season. They belong to Consuelo and Gloria O’Connor, a matched pair of
18-year-old debutantes whose Irish-born mother seems to have admired Vanderbilt first names,” trilled the text
alongside pictures of the girls helping out at a charity in Covid-like masks, modelling at a fashion show, learning
ballet for a stage show, and putting in an appearance at the Stork Club before returning home to learn script lines.
A final picture showed the girls kneeling at a bedside saying their prayers.
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