Sympathy Card to a Wealthy Widow

Oscar de la Renta died on Monday at his place in Kent, Connecticut. He left behind three sisters, a son, and a wife, the former Annette Engelhard Reed. Here is where the faithful reader may wonder why the demise of a famous fashion designer has turned up in a horse racing blog, which is totally a fair question. And the short answer is, well, this is a blog. It’s personal.

The long answer starts with a chance encounter in an elevator at the old offices of The New York Times on West 43rd Street. I can’t recall the exact date, but, for reasons that will soon be apparent, it must have taken place sometime between late 2001 and early 2003.

It was at least eleven-and-a-half years ago because Howell Raines was still the Executive Editor of the paper, and Jayson Blair was still plagiarizing. And I know it was no more than thirteen years ago because I had cleared lobby security by flashing my company ID, which, post-9/11, we were required to have on continuous display via lanyards roped around our button-down collars. I stepped into an elevator, pressed six for Circulation, and was then joined by Raines and a handsome, elegant and impeccably-dressed couple. The husband looked familiar, as well he should have; he was Oscar de la Renta.

Howell Raines was a pretty sharp dresser, but, by comparison, these two made him look more like Lieutenant Columbo on a bad day (below, from a different time, via the Daily News).

CFDA latestpix linkcelebs americaYes, it was a long way back to me in fourth place. Which was why you could have knocked me over with an air kiss when Mrs. de la Renta not only turned to me as if I actually existed, but almost seemed to compliment me on the sweater I was wearing. “Ooh!” she cooed, gesturing to the white stitched logo over my heart, “the Breeders’ Cup!

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For this one time at least, I knew exactly what to say. I held out my orange-colored lanyard to show her the blue stitching that read “2001 Breeders’ Cup World Championship” and replied “AND the matching lanyard!” She smiled sweetly; I gave a gentlemanly nod; and exited as the door opened on six.

Time passed. Jayson Blair’s serial plagiarism was revealed, and Howell Raines got the axe. Lobby security got beefed up, so I was able to put away the souvenir lanyard from the day that Tiznow “won it for America”. I wear the sweater every once in a while, but hadn’t really thought much about Annette de la Renta since then, until yesterday.

People with money and great thoroughbreds tend to go together, so back then it had not struck me as odd that the wife of the famous designer was familiar with the Breeders’ Cup. Perhaps I should have realized then that her familiarity with racing preceded her marriage to de la Renta. Their 1989 wedding was a second act for both; with the designer’s first wife having died of cancer, while Annette Engelhard Reed had been divorced.

Mrs. de la Renta was born Anne France Mannheimer in 1939. Her father was a German Jewish banker who died mysteriously before she was born (his bank-financed art collection and the Nazis may have been involved). Her mother was an outcross of a Shanghai-based German Jewish industrialist and a woman named Ignatia Mary Valerie Murphy (of the San Francisco Murphys). After the war, mother and daughter moved to the United States, where mother remarried well and young Annette was adopted by her stepfather, the industrialist Charles W. Engelhard, Jr.

Horseplayers of a certain vintage might remember Engelhard as the man behind Cragwood Stable, which campaigned great horses like Halo (the sire of two Derby winners) in the states. Engelhard also had some success in England. His best horse was purchased at auction in Canada and sent across the pond to Vincent O’Brien for training. That horse’s name was Nijinsky (and I will not sully his great name by adding the “II” you often see when he is referenced stateside).

So now when I think about that elevator ride, my first thought won’t be of Oscar de la Renta or Howell Raines, but of that warm and stylish lady who noticed my Breeders’ Cup sweater, and whose father (the only one she ever knew, anyway) owned the last horse to win the British Triple Crown. Today, she has all my sympathy for what must be an inconsolable loss.

Nijinsky and Lester Piggott claiming a historic Triple Crown triumph in the 1970 St LegerNijinsky, Lester Piggott up, photo from The Guardian

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