Monday, July 18, 2011

Denise Hale: Society’s Superstar, Blog Darling

Denise Minnelli Hale is one of San Francisco’s most famous and enduring truly glamorous jet setters. (Ann Getty runs her design firm and keeps a lower profile these days.)

Diamond-studded decades on, Hale is a doted-upon delight of the international social set, invited to every dazzling event. She also runs her cattle ranch in a remote hilly outpost of Cloverdale, north of San Francisco.

Denise recently commissioned her brilliant portrait from the London illustrator, David Downton.
David is considered one of the top fashion illustrators and portraitists in the world, and his fashion clients include Oscar de la Renta, Chanel, Tom Ford, Net-a-Porter. His portraits of Amanda Harlech, and Catherine Deneuve are considered classics.

And now she’s one of the most-searched and Googled topics on THE STYLE SALONISTE blog, with Internet fans Googling her around the world. 

In the early days of my blog, I wrote a feature on Denise Hale, illustrated with never-before-seen images. 

Hale is one of the most popular topics on my blog, as well as Paris designer, Jean-Louis Deniot, plus the late, great interior designer John Dickinson, who, as it happens, was a dear friend of hers.

At all hours of the day and night on THE STYLE SALONISTE there is an admirer in Paris or Pasadena, Belgrade or Belgravia, or even Murmansk (I think it’s her secret lover, an oil baron, checking in).

For Denise’s fans, I’m updating the original story with my picks of her latest party photos by star social photographer Drew Altizer (

Oh, and hello up there in Murmansk!

Denise Hale at the recent gala ball for the opening of ‘Balenciaga and Spain’ at the de Young Museum, San Francisco. Denise was a guest of Hamish Bowles, curator of the exhibit. Here, Denise in Ralph Rucci chats with Anna Wintour and Gavin Newsom. 

Denise Hale glides effortlessly and glamorously from gala costume balls in Paris to Oscar celebrations, and from Balenciaga balls to private lunches. Quietly and anonymously philanthropic, she pulls the talent for intime weekends with famous (and notorious) actors, editors-in-chief, writers, legal bigwigs, orchestra conductors, chefs, a tech mogul or two, princes in exile, and dear ultra-private friends.

On best-dressed lists in Rome since the sixties (and wearing Bulgari diamond bracelets at age 19), she continues to dazzle regal pals at Wimbledon, at tables for twelve at insider restaurans in Manhattan, and at ultra-private events in the Napa Valley, a charity dinner in Chicago, openings in Miami, and tete-a-tetes in Palm Beach. 

At the recent Hale Storm ball all-nighter at Ken Fulk’s South of Market loft (guests were still dancing at 4am), host Ken Fulk, a favorite interior designer, and Denise in Ralph Rucci. 

An A-list guest (hello, Graydon Carter), Hale adores longtime pal Betsey Bloomingdale, couturier Ralph Rucci, and young dukes and duchesses, decorators, stylists, leading dermatologists, city honchos, fashion designers, heart specialists and cancer researchers, musicians, painters, chefs, editors, priests, politicos, and the talented and witty around the world. 

Above, photographed by Drew Altizer at the dazzling opening of the Chanel boutique in San Francisco: Denise Hale in Ralph Rucci with designer/architect Peter Marino. A longtime friend. Marino designs Christian Dior boutiques, Chanel stores, and boasts a worldwide roster of clients in the top echelons of the fashion world. 

Denise Hale surprised many friends at the recent Chanel party in San Francsico when Peter Marino flung his arms around her—and he then proceeded to peel of his leather jacket (Dior, of course) to show off his leather straps and tattoos. Hale, beloved among those of royal blood (sometimes just a drop), current and long-exiled, a favorite of major domos and animal welfare activits (she the mother of two handsome German Shepherds, Ming and Angel), and best pal of social swans too numerous (and slender) to mention. And then there are the subversive ones, the style setters of many worlds. 

At a recent private dinner at Boulette’s Larder in San Francisco. Denise joined pals like Alison Pincus and Vanessa Getty to honor fashion designer, Guillaume Henry, above, the star designer for Carven, Paris. She’s wearing Ralph Rucci. Her cashmere wrap is from Udaipur. 

A long-time supporter of the San Francisco Symphony and Delancey Street Foundation, friend to up-and-coming fashion designers, Hale is spotted far from home base—Macau, the fleshpots of Las Vegas (Wynn Encore resort, designed by pal Roger Thomas, is her favorite quick luxury getaway), and 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, 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 dogs is also a luxury.” 

When she heads back to the city, 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 very early twenties when she first hit New York’s social pages. (El Morocco, anyone?) 

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. 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.

Today, her favorite designer is Ralph Rucci. Chicissima!

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’ve read these typewritten signed missives.)

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. 

Denise Minnelli and her husband Vincente Minnelli in Los Angeles. From 'The Way We Lived Then' written and photographed by Dominick Dunne. "I think I took more photos of Denise Minnelli than of anyone except my wife and my daughter," said Dunne, now a beloved contributor to Vanity Fair.

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. 

The H-E Ranch

“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 more Persian rugs, Burma silver, 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 ‘m up there, I never want to leave.” 

Diane Dorrans Saeks chatted with Denise Hale in her Russian Hill pied-a-terre. You may be surprised.

DDS: What is true luxury?
To be financially independent, which I have been since my early twenties.

DDS: Favorite fashion designers?
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?
Giorgio Bulgari (founder of Bulgari), David Webb, and James de Givenchy. Boucheron makes sexy designs, very individual.

DDS: Best dermatologist?
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?
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?
Boulevard and Gary Danko in San Francisco, for grilled fish. Gary Danko and Nancy Oakes are fabulously talented. I’ve recently discovered Marlowe founded by Anna Weinberg in San Francisco’s South of Market. Voltaire in Paris, for haricots verts and foie gras.

DDS: Favorite pleasure?
Walking beneath a full moon at midnight in the garden in my country house. It’s completely silent.

DDS: Travel?
I was just in Bangkok. It was wonderful refreshing. I’m now heading to Dubrovnik, and thinking about plans for Christmas.

DDS: Favorite hotel?
I love Roger Thomas’s vision for the Wynn resorts in Las Vegas. They are pure escape, wonderful. I enjoy the Peninsula hotels in Hong Kong and Bangkok. In India I enjoyed Oberoi’s Udaivilas in Udaipur. George V in Paris is a favorite, especially for Jeff Leatham’s beautiful floral designs. 

DDS: Favorite trip?
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?
Perrier Jouet Fleur Blanc de Blanc.

DDS: Cocktail?
My real indulgence is to drink great French wine. That’s my vice. I adore white Burgundies.

DDS: Your obsession?
Running my ranch. Now and forever.

DDS: Person you most admire.
My grandmother, Ana Radosavljevic. She is responsible for who I am.

DDS: Favorite person to sit beside at a dinner?
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. Among my single male friends: Michael Tilson Thomas, Ken Fulk, Greg Lopez, Dr Seth Matarasso.

DDS: Style point every chic woman should know?
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?
I wear it as a second skin, every day.

DDS: Hairstylist?
Alex Chases, the one and only.

DDS: Secret of a great party?
Don’t invite only people who know each other. Mix it up.

DDS: The great escape?
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?
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?
Live and let live.

New social shots of Denise Hale at recent San Francisco parties by the great photographer, Drew Altizer. Used with express permission.

Photos of H-E Ranch by Lisa Romerien.

All other photos: private collection, used with express permission.

Images include Denise Hale aged nineteen on Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro; Denise Hale in a mink jacket in Rome, sixties; DH 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.


Anonymous said...

What an absolutely wonderful post and what a inspiring woman. said...

Wow, I love that she leaves her hair the natural color...
I agree find simple cloths made beautifully and live life.... There is a wonderful thing that happens after the age of 40.... More of an authentic way of dressing and living that one sinks into and expands from..

Amazing story of being found in the boat by the captain..

I am sure that was a defining moment of her life.....

I find your blog to be the best that is out there....

Melissa Lee

helen tilston said...

A wonderful post and a fitting tribute to a woman who is charming, stylish and is making a difference in this world.
Continued blessings on Denise Hale

Helen Tilston

Elizabeth@ Pine Cones and Acorns said...

This is my first visit and my first time reading this wonderful post! What a stylish, authentic, beautiful woman.

Have a wonderful day,

mary said...

She grows more beautiful with the years. A blessing to be friends with a woman of such depth. Thank you. Mary

Square With Flair said...

I enjoyed this post immensely. I find the biographical features of such chic and creative people the most interesting. Unlike so many of the rich, she remembers to take note of her luck and privilege so it isn’t wasted on her.

I am especially touched by her statement that true luxury is, “To be financially independent.” It is so true. It doesn’t mean luxury, it means peace of mind. North Americans who are addicted to plastic credit cards, and further in debt than they’ve ever been at any time in history should take heed.

Her current style of dress tends to be retiring a la Bunny Mellon, but her shawls and throws inject a good hit of colour to relieve the darkness. The Rucci designs are simple and pure like a modern Balenciaga, and one can understand that the bold and colourful jewellery of her Webb pieces would make a perfect pairing.

Women should take notice of her shawls, Rucci and otherwise. They are incredibly chic and simple to make—basically a tube of good material. One straight seam! Many vintage Christian Dior evening looks featured such simple shawls/ wraps. Heavy silks by Old World Weavers, Brunschwig, Scalamandre and other superb fabric houses can be picked up inexpensively on eBay or at clearances, and when made into a shawl look as wonderful as the best Paris couture. Alternately, I’ve seen the most elegant monochromatic paisley shawls in every wonderful hue, for under $20.00 each from Indian and Asian import shops.

Your interview questions are terrific, although I would like to have heard her opinions/ taste regarding interior design.

The format of your posts is terrific. I find so many blogs today lack any substance or interest, and yours has original and new material, and is of a length that makes it worthwhile following and reading. Don't change a thing!

Will definitely be back to revisit this post.

Cristin // Simplified Bee said...

Wearing Bulgari diamond bracelets at age 19! Denise has indeed lived a life of glamour and privilege, yet she is fully aware and seems humbled by it all. I love her generosity, amazing style sense and motto, "Live and let live."

Hmmm, I think you are right about a her secret lover checking in :)


peggy braswell said...

Denise Hale! what a delicious post. Love all the images + wonderful.

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Friends-

I'm delighted to hear from you.
All of your comments are so observant and insightful--and I like your sense of her style.
'Style is consistency' is a Diane Vreeland observation--and in Denise's case it is so true. Note that she wears variations on a theme, and sometimes it seems she has almost a 'uniform'. The jewelry is also consistent in tone and style, and she has many pieces (Bulgari necklaces, the Bulgari bracelets, earrings,) that date back to her twenties, and they still look relevant and classic today.
You are correct: she has never dyed her hair.
Note that wonderful new 'octopus' pin she is wearing in the shots with Guillaume Henry at Boulette's Larder dinner: it is a custom piece by Taffin/James de Givenchy. Love it.
thank you so much, and do stay in touch, DIANE

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


This feature on Denise has rec'd lots of unexpected attention, including on two recent blog: for the story on Denise Hale in file
It is a funny romp, a wildly ironic and tongue-in-cheek look at my frisky story. I think you would find it amusing.
best DIANE

Philip Bewley said...

Dear Diane,

This post is delicious, and as effervescent as I can imagine champagne would be at a maharajah’s palace! What an extraordinary inside story: from being rescued in a rowboat in the Adriatic by the Royal Navy to flying in the royal Jordanian helicopter to Petra with Gianfranco Ferre (no less) as the guest of a queen!
Throughout, like all your superb posts, is an exclusive interview and never before seen photos.
Enjoyed the two blogs that referenced this as well.

Warm regards,

Stephanie said...

I don't know what I enjoyed more, your writing or Denise Hale! Lovely, lovely...
Many thanks.

shiree segerstrom said...

I always feel I've had insider information when I read your blog Diane. Yours is a point of view I trust. Isn't Denise Jennifer Hales' mother? I thought I read that in one of the first issues of C Magazine or Santa Barbara Magazine. Shiree'

Grant K. Gibson said...

Always THE BEST of the insider interviews, Diane.
I feel like I was in an intimate interview in the same room with you and Denise Hale.
Love all of her favorite places photos. San Francisco is SO lucky to have her.

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Philip
Hello Stephanie
Hi Shiree
Good Morning Grant-

Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. I've had such a great response to this feature.
Shiree--no, Denise is not related in any way to Jennifer Smith Hale the founder/director of C and of Santa Barbara magazine. Hale is Jennifer's husband's name. However...Jennifer and Denise, who are great friends, greet each other with 'Hello, Cousin.' for fun.
Philip, you are right--an amazing life, well-lived and lived with gusto and verve and style.
A note: if you have not yet done so, you will find a spoof of this story on written by Brock Keeling. You will laugh out loud. He starts out by calling me 'Skullcap crushingly brilliant' (which I have extrapolated for my 'quotes' roll on the blog. He is very witty. Denise and I are going to have lunch with him soon. cheers, DIANE

Anonymous said...

She was the most elegant and stylish person at the 2012 SF Ballet Gala last night - San Francisco is fortunate to have someone like Mrs. Hale who sets high standards, and yet seems serene and nice, unlike most wealthy people.

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Cyclist Apparel Elaine said...

What an absolutely lovely woman!

Coulda shoulda woulda said...

There should be a BBC4 mini series on her life.

Unknown said...

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Yes, Great writing, as always. I love the ideas this brings up about what it is that we do here (especially now that OS seems to be back up and running!), who we really are.