American Style Icon: C.Z. Guest (the real thing)

The Good Life

Photograph by Slim Aarons.

This month, Rizzoli releases a sumptuous tribute to the legendary social icon C.Z. Guest, who romped through the 20th-century beau monde with unending vivacity and style. From her birth in 1920 into an upper-crust Boston family to her 1947 marriage to Winston Guest (a Churchill relation) to her years ping-ponging between swank parties and rustic gardens, she was the epitome of a life well lived. Now, C.Z. Guest: American Style Icon captures her in all her multifaceted glory: debutante, horsewoman, muse for the greats (painted by Rivera and Dali, photographed by Beaton and Penn), author (her gardening columns became a late-in-life passion) and, ultimately, venerable symbol of a disappearing civilization. Susanna Salk—known for her books including Weekend RetreatsBe Your Own Decorator and A Privileged Life: Celebrating WASP Style—has pulled together an album of incredible images by the likes of Slim Aarons, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Irving Penn, alongside written tributes from Oscar de la Renta, Diane von Furstenberg, Billy Norwich (who penned the introduction) and many others. Perhaps Truman Capote—who counted her among his “swans”—explained her allure best in an essay written for her 1976 book, First Garden. Reminiscing about the night they met, he wrote: “Her hair, parted in the middle and paler than Dom Pérignon, was but a shade darker than the dress she was wearing, a Mainbocher column of white crêpe de Chine. No jewelry, not much makeup; just blanc de blanc perfection….[Cecil] Beaton introduced me to her, a gesture acknowledged with ice-cream reserve. Who could have imagined that lurking inside this cool vanilla lady was a madcap, laughing tomboy?”

Here, Salk speaks with In Season about her illustrious subject. For more information, visit

What sets C.Z. Guest apart from the other great 20th-century icons such as Babe Paley and Jackie Kennedy?

She was surprisingly modern, no matter the era, and was game for adventure. She liked to hang out with a diverse group of people, be they Truman Capote, Joan Rivers or Diane von Furstenberg. She was in no way isolated within a gilded cage.

Does the world she championed still exist today, and if so, in what form?

She championed being your best, soldiering on despite steep challenges, and never making too much of a fuss, so absolutely.

What is your favorite C.Z. persona: hostess, horsewoman, designer, gardener, art subject, socialite, survivor, etc.?

I couldn’t pick. She was always completely herself. All those passions were active and present no matter where she was or what she was doing, so it’s impossible to separate one out.


Photograph by Clifford Coffin, 1950. 


Photograph by Michael Mundy. From C.Z. Guest: American Style Icon (Rizzoli).


How was she a leader in taste?

She took that pragmatic WASP style and showed how elegant and enduring it can be.


What are your favorite images of her in the book and why?

I love the one where she’s dancing with the Duke of Windsor in Palm Beach. There she definitely looks like the ‘cool vanilla lady’ Truman Capote described. Also the one of her lounging outside with her dog beside her in tennis whites. She so rarely stood still. You can almost feel that she’s eager to get back out to the court, or on to her roses.

What rarities will the reader encounter?

An entire chapter shot by her ‘garden husband,’ Elvin McDonald. He spent years photographing her casually and intimately, while she was working in her gardens and greenhouses. Most of the shots have never been seen before. 

What most affected you when compiling the book?

How unique she was. How we’ll never see the likes of her again. 

How do C.Z.’s passions reflect your own?

Tennis, flowers, dogs, fabulous dinner parties and a strong work ethic: What’s not to love and embrace?


Cover of C.Z. Guest: American Style Icon, published this month by Rizzoli.

Photograph by Bruce Weber.

Scan 96

Drawing by Cecil Beaton


First edition of “First Garden” by C.Z. Guest, 1976.