In her striking red dress Cornelia Guest and her 140 pound Newfoundland rescue, Cash, are turning heads on New York’s Upper East Side. The only daughter of legendary socialite, horticulturist, and horsewoman C.Z. Guest, the refreshingly down-to-earth Cornelia has become just the sort of woman who would make her mother proud. Her upbringing may not have been the norm (she was named New York’s “debutante of the decade” in the 1980s and can count Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, and the Duchess of Windsor as dear family friends), but Cornelia certainly wasn’t fazed. The bubbly blonde who greets us (and served her own mouth-watering chocolate chip cookies) is every ounce humble, generous, and kind.
A highly praised hostess, handbag designer, and supporter of animal rights, Cornelia has established herself as a true 21st century style icon. Today she divides her time between Manhattan and Templeton, her family’s legendary Long Island estate, where the self proclaimed “country girl at heart” spends her weekends gardening, cooking, and entertaining. A Matchbook girl through and through, she lists Paris and Capri as two of her favorite travel destinations and grew up exploring “the beautiful American south” competing in horse shows. Read on to learn about Cornelia’s gorgeous handbags ever-expanding family of pets, and a clever social tip she learned from her mother.
What inspired you to launch your handbag collection?
I wanted to create something that was affordable, accessible, and beautiful. I’m a girl’s girl so I like a big bag, but I like a clutch inside - something I can pull out at night. Like most girls on the go, my bag is like a small suitcase. The bags are beautiful and everything is priced under $400. I have e-commerce on my site now which is exciting. There’s something for everyone.
How would you describe your personal style?
My personal style is classic with a twist. I’m happiest in a pair of jeans or shorts and a t-shirt with no shoes. I love being outside in the country. I’m a country girl at heart.
Are there any key pieces in your closet that you return to time and again?
I have some Badgley Mischka skirts that I can’t live without. I have a couple ultrasuede dresses that I’ll wear and some great pieces from Diane Von Furstenberg.
Did you inherit any pieces from your mother that you wear today?
Some sweaters. My foot is a little smaller than hers. And some of the bags... It was all great on her, but for me some of the bags and such were just a little dated. Though there is one that I’m going to bring back. I’m going to change a bit of the design. I can’t wait.
Speaking of handbags, we love that yours are cruelty-free. Just how many animals do you have?
I have nine dogs. I’m going to adopt another one I hope on Friday. She’s a shepherd. I hope it works! They are all out at Templeton except for Cash who is with me today. And then Olive who I adopted about a year and a half ago, is a Westie and travels with me. In Houston we go to Tootsies which is one of the greatest stores in the world, and everyone is like, “Hey Olive! How are ya?”
That’s too cute. And is it true you have a donkey?
I have a donkey named Madonna and I have a tortoise named Socrates. I’m working with Farm Sanctuary to try to adopt some pigs or lambs or goats. It’s a growing family. Animals bring so much love into the world and they’re so wonderful. Unfortunately, they’re not always treated very well.
I’m sure they’re happy to be adopted by you! Let’s chat a bit about entertaining. We just love your book. What is your favorite type of get together to throw?
I love dinner parties. Cocktails parties I never really like because everyone is all over the place, but dinner parties I love. You have all day to get ready which is great. I think people tend to relax more at night. Even if dinner is going to be formal and dressy I still think that there has to be a big feeling of simplicity and informality in the mix. Give them some good food and drinks and let them have fun.
What are some of your favorite things to serve?
We’re coming up on summer now so I’ve been waiting for stuff to pop up in the garden. I love quinoa - you can put it in salad, it’s also great on its own. I make quinoa fritters... In the summer I’ll make different salads. Peas are coming out, asparagus, sprouts... I also grow berries so I love to make sorbets.
Did you learn about cooking from your mother growing up?
My mother was not a cook. My mother grew up in a house where she had a lot of people do a lot of stuff for her. It was a different time and place. I was so lucky because everyone that worked for us was so good at what they did. I really watched closely and learned so much. If I wasn’t up at the barn I was in the kitchen and I learned as much as I could. To then take that cooking and try to not use animals - I’m still learning something new every day.
How long have you been vegan?
About six or seven years. I’m always learning. There is so much to learn about food. I love a green juice in the morning - to me it’s so vitalizing. With food, it’s all so personal. It’s trial and error. Eating food is an experiment. You have to try new things. It’s part of the fun.
What is the story behind your famous chocolate chip cookies?
I stopped eating animals, but there was one thing that I couldn’t live without - I love chocolate chip cookies. So I started to experiment, but I am not a baker. I never measure. Sometimes they would look like cow pies and other times they would work. I would sit there with nine ingredients and I kind of just slowly figured it out.
Nothing is easy. When you start your own business--be it handbags, be it cookies--no one tells you what to do. You learn so much from every mistake. That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned in business--every mistake is a gold mine.
Lastly, this month celebrates Mother’s Day. What lessons did you learn from your mom?
You know, it’s so funny because I was thinking about this the other night. We all think that we’re so easy and our mothers are always wrong, but you know, I really wasn’t easy. She wasn’t easy either. We both weren’t easy! But everything she said to me, like 99.9% of it, was right. As you get older you get incredible wisdom if you’re willing to open up and grow. She had great wisdom. It’s funny we would go to these parties and we would sneak out and she would say, “Never say good-bye, it breaks up a party.” And it’s so true.