She is San Francisco’s most famous truly glamorous jet setter.
A close friend of kings and queens and princes and princesses of royal blood, current and exiled, and best pal of social swans too numerous (and slender) to mention, Denise Hale glides effortlessly and glamorously from gala balls to private lunches. Quietly and anonymously philanthropic, she flies from palaces to palazzi, and to intime weekends with famous (and notorious) actors and dear friends.
An A-list guest (hello, Graydon Carter), she has friends at all levels of society, including longtime pal Betsey Bloomingdale, best-selling author Dominick Dunne, couturier Ralph Rucci, and old and young dukes and duchesses, plus leading dermatologists, city honchos, fashion designers, editors, priests, politicos, and the talented and witty around the world.
Denise Hale’s glamour—and longtime essence of cool—precede her. She’s greeted by name by maitres d' and dazzled readers of the social pages, from Paris to Palm Beach.
A long-time supporter of the San Francisco Symphony and Delancey Street Foundation, she is spotted far from home base—touring Angkor Wat, sipping Champagne at the maharajah’s palace in Udaipur, trekking through St. Petersburg, even slipping semi-incognito into the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Shanghai. “It’s Denise Minnelli Hale” (no explanation required).
At lunch with friends at Voltaire in Paris recently, the suave Prince Michael of Greece (can it be?) and his lovely wife, make a beeline to greet the silver-haired beauty. “She knows everyone, and everyone knows her,” whispered an admirer.
But the surprise is that she often prefers to be alone, escaping to her 8,000 cattle ranch in the hills beyond Cloverdale.
“I’m an enigma to many people,” said Hale. “I grew up in Europe, I fled certain death in Yugoslavia, so I think differently. I love to have a great social life, but I also value solitude, being with one or two super-close friends. I’m really quite shy. I love to be alone.”
Her life has been one of extremes.
“I am in some ways the little girl from Belgrade whose grandparents exposed me to an international life,” she said. “I went to Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball, and attended Baron Alexis de Rede’s Orientalist Ball in Paris, and I adore that glamour. Being alone in the country air with my new puppies is also a luxury.”
Hale has been a permanent fixture on the glittering international scene since the sixties. Seldom do her Emma Hope embroidered silk pumps stand still, as she’s been hopping over to London to dine with Charles and Camilla at Highgrove, attending a so-very-private wedding or quietly dining in a private club with girlfriends.
Hale has been, seemingly effortlessly, in the fashion style-leaders’ Hall of Fame since she was in her early twenties when she first hit New York’s social pages. (El Morocco, anyone?)
Today, her favorite designer is Ralph Rucci. Chicissima!
Photos show Denise Hale wearing a Ralph Rucci evening jacket and silk pants (and a superbly dramatic emerald Duchesse silk satin shawl custom made by Ralph Rucci for Denise) with Ralph Rucci, and with Pierre Berge (a gentlemanly kiss). Photographed by top San Francisco social photographer Drew Altizer at the opening gala evening for the Yves Saint Laurent exhibit at the de Young Museum, San Francisco, October 2008.
Even in the country she looks elegant, dressed in monogrammed petit-point Stubbs & Wootton loafers, white gabardine slacks, and a white Chanel t-shirt.
“I’ve led a privileged life,” she noted. “I’ve been incredibly fortunate.”
To add to the drama—and mystery, and perhaps her introspection—Hale, who grew up in Serbia, escaped from war-torn Yugoslavia as a teenager with her young cousin. A Royal Navy ship picked up the pair bobbing about in a rowboat in the Adriatic Sea. Hale kept in touch with the captain of the ship, who saved her life. She keeps his letters in an album at her apartment on Russian Hill in San Francisco.
"I photographed Warren Beatty at the height of his bachelor power playing the piano at one of Mrs Vincente Minnelli's parties. Denise Minnelli, who later became Mrs Prentis Cobb Hale of San Francisco, was a glamorous Serbian with a great jewelry collection. After the marriage in the sixties to the director Vincente Minnelli, at the Palm Springs home of Anne and Kirk Douglas, she livened things up in movie society by mixing her jet-set friends with the Hollywood elite. She was young, beautiful, wore great clothes, and had an attractive stammer. She gave great parties at the Bistro, which followed Romanoff's as the classiest restaurant in town, and she always said, "Bring your camera, d-d-d-Darling."
—From 'The Way We Lived Then', by Dominick Dunne (Crown Publishers, New York, 1999).
Later, more happily, there was the high life with sparkling diamonds in Rome with husband number one, and in the sixties the chic movie scene in Los Angeles with husband number two, director Vincente Minnelli. Her love-match with husband number three, Prentis Cobb Hale, lasted more than 27 years.
“Prentis was a man of great charisma, a big game hunter, president of the San Francisco Opera, an outdoorsman, involved in the cultural life of the city,” said Hale. “The H-E ranch, where I spend most of the summer was a great escape for him”
She has given the rooms at the ranch her European style with Frette sheets, antique Persian rugs, marble obelisks from Florence, stacks of books everywhere, contemporary paintings, silver candelabra, fresh roses from her garden.
“I’m running a working cattle ranch,” said Hale. “I’m learning on the job. It’s a lot of work. I meet with the foreman, and the cattleman, and work in the garden.”
It’s privacy Hale enjoys the most, beyond padlocked gates.
“I have complete silence here,” she said.
The shady terrace is decorated with Persian rugs, canvas curtains inspired by La Fiorentina, and masses of hydrangeas grown by her great friend, Jerry Bolduan of Green Valley Growers in Sebastapol.
“I found nirvana at the ranch,” said Hale. “Once I am up there, I never want to leave.”
All photos: private collection. Images include: Denise Hale aged nineteen on Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro; Denise Hale in a mink jacket in Rome, sixties; Denise Hale in her first season in New York, at El Morroco; Denise Hale wearing a Bulgari diamond bracelet and James Galanos kaftan in Los Angeles, sixties; Denise Hale meets Queen Elizabeth, with Ronald Reagan, at a state dinner; Denise Hale at the wedding of Don Johnson and Kelly Phleger, at the Getty residence, San Francisco, nineties.
Photographs of the H-E Ranch and interior's of Denise Hale's ranchhouse and pool are by David Duncan Livingston, from 'California Country Style' by Diane Dorrans Saeks (Chronicle Books, 2006).
A TETE-A-TETE WITH DENISE Diane Dorrans Saeks chatted with Denise Hale in her Russian Hill pied-a-terre. You may be surprised.
DDS: What is true luxury?
DH: To be financially independent, which I have been since my early twenties.
DDS: Favorite fashion designers?
DH: Gianfranco Ferre in Italy was my favorite and a very dear friend for many decades. I adore the designs of Ralph Rucci. I love their simplicity and elegance. When I find someone I love, I never change. Before Gianfranco, it was James Galanos.
DDS: Favorite jewelry designers?
DH: Giorgio Bulgari (founder of Bulgari), David Webb, and James de Givenchy.
And of course, the divine Boucheron. The company is now guided creatively by the wonderfully talented Jean-Christophe Bedos. I like the sense of enchantment, humor, and elegance in Boucheron's newest designs. I wear the Boucheron Chameleon ring ornamented with diamonds everywhere, and I've had more comments on it than almost any piece of jewelry I have ever worn.
DDS: Best dermatologist?
DH: Dr Seth Matarasso in San Francisco. Simply superb. He’s talented, has fantastic knowledge, and is always up to date.
DDS: Favorite charities and cultural jewels you support?
DH: I gave ambulances and medical instruments to two hospitals in Belgrade, where I grew up. I adore the San Francisco Symphony. Delancey Street Foundation, founded and directed by Mimi Silbert, has my attention.
DDS: Favorite restaurants?
DH: Farallon in San Francisco, for grilled fish, and Voltaire in Paris, for haricots verts and foie gras.
DDS: Favorite pleasure?
DH: Walking beneath a full moon at midnight in the garden in my country house. It’s completely silent.
DH: I was just in London. I stopped in Paris to stay at the George V, the most beautiful hotel in Europe. I’m now going to New York, and thinking about plans for Christmas.
DDS: Favorite hotel?
DH: The new Ritz-Carlton in Shanghai is to die for. The Ritz-Carlton in New York is beautiful. I love the Peninsula hotels in Hong Kong and Bangkok. I was in India earlier this year, and enjoyed Oberoi’s Udaivilas in Udaipur.
DDS: Favorite trip?
DH: Flying with Gianfranco Ferre, as the guest of Queen Rania, in the royal Jordanian helicopter to Petra. The Taj Mahal with Zubin and Nancy Mehta. Angkor Wat. Watching the first night spacecraft launch from Cape Kennedy.
DDS: Favorite Champagne?
DH: Perrier Jouet Fleur Blanc de Blanc.
DH: My real indulgence is to drink great French wine. That’s my vice. I adore white Burgundies.
DDS: Your obsession?
DH: Running my ranch east of Cloverdale. Now and forever.
DDS: Person you most admire?
DH: My grandmother, Ana Radosavljevic. She is responsible for who I am.
DDS: Favorite person to sit beside at a dinner?
DH: Among my favorite male friends are Zubin Mehta, the conductor, a dear friend for many decades, Paul Pelosi, investment executive, and Bernard Osher, the philanthropist. They’re all happily married. John Traina is great company. Among my single male friends: Michael Tilson Thomas, Dr Seth Matarasso, and Paul Price.
DDS: Style point every chic woman should know?
DH: Find your own style. Stick with it. Style is consistency. I don’t follow fashion. For me, the simpler, the better. I love understated, beautifully cut clothes.
DDS: The secret to wearing jewelry well?
DH: I wear it as a second skin, every day.
DH: Alex Chases, the one and only.
DDS: Secret of a great party?
DH: Don’t invite only people who know each other. Mix it up.
DDS: The great escape?
DH: The H-E ranch, 8,000 acres spread out across Sonoma county, Mendocino county and Lake county. I go there year-round.
DDS: If you weren’t living in San Francisco, where would you be?
DH: I’d travel around the world. I love San Francisco because I’ve been very happy here. If you’re curious, you’re married to the world. I’m curious.
DDS: Your motto?
DH: Live and let live.