Few women possessed the glamour of Nina Griscom (1954-2020). A platinum blonde with blue eyes who graced the covers of Elle and Town and Country, she soon attracted the attention of the fashion designer Bill Blass (1922-2002), and became his muse, epitomising the 1980s ‘It Girl’ in a cocktail dress with a dramatic shoulder detail.
Funny, intelligent and celebrated for her husky voice (she was an unrepentant smoker of Marlboro Reds), she made her name amid the hyper-decadence of Reagan-era New York, where German princesses and society hostesses rubbed shoulders with sharp-suited rockers and barefoot artists. No charity benefit or museum opening seemed complete without her. Even Nancy Reagan wanted her as a dinner guest at the White House.
‘One might expect a golden hauteur,’ says her close friend Marc Porter, Christie’s Chairman of the Americas, ‘but instead there was a wicked sense of humour, and kindness with people.’
She was born Nina Renshaw in 1954 in Manhattan. Her mother was the philanthropist Elizabeth Rohatyn, her stepfather the legendary banker Felix Rohatyn (1928-2019) — credited with saving New York from bankruptcy in the 1970s. He later served as American Ambassador to France during the Clinton years. Through her parents, Griscom developed a love of travel and a serious work ethic.
After graduating from Barnard College in 1977, she embarked on a career in modelling, a move, she explained in W Magazine, that was purely economic: ‘I should emphasise that I did not think of myself as a great beauty; nobody had ever told me, “You're fabulous; you photograph like a dream.” It was financial independence I was after.’ Griscom understood that ‘looks could get you a seat at the table’.
As the makeup artist Stan Place said to her, ‘You’re really not that beautiful, but you’re smart enough to convince everyone that you are.’
In her thirties she stopped modelling to become a TV presenter, co-hosting Entertainment News and quipping that she was hired not for her looks, but because she could memorise scripts quickly. She then spent six years reviewing restaurants on Dining Around for the Food Network, her engaging manner and extensive knowledge making her a kind but discerning critic.
‘I grew up in a family that loved food,’ she said. ‘Whenever we got together for a meal, we immediately began to plan the next one.’
At the same time, Griscom was developing an eye for art and antiquities. She was passionate about Old Master drawings, collecting works by François Boucher (1703-1770), Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805) and Ferdinando Galli Bibiena (1657-1743), and later became interested in African and Oceanic art.
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Offered online until 17 December, American Muse: The Collection of Nina Griscom encompasses fine and decorative art from her Manhattan apartment. The items range from a Dylan Lewis bronze and a Danish silver flatware service to a pair of Regency mahogany hall chairs. Also offered is a striking 2019 painting of shells by the Lebanese artist Nabil Nahas.
Her extensive jewellery collection, featuring Art Deco pieces and classic designs, will be offered in the Magnificent Jewels sale on 8 December at Christie’s in New York. Highlights include a 15.02-carat diamond ring and an Art Deco diamond bracelet.
Griscom died in January, at the age of 65, from the degenerative disease ALS. In the last few years of her life, she had spent time travelling between North Africa, Argentina and Southeast Asia with her husband Leo Piraino. These nomadic wanderings were reflected in the eclectic collection of artefacts and fabrics that adorned her homes in Manhattan and Millbrook, New York.
‘She was so beautiful and stylish,’ says Porter. ‘I think the surprise was her curiosity and intellect about all things. That made her an amazingly substantive and interesting person to be with. She was also just a great, generous friend.’