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About Oleg Cassini
French-born American fashion designer Oleg Cassini was noted for being chosen by Jacqueline Kennedy to design her state wardrobe in the 1960s. He also became the exclusive costume designer for his then-wife, American film and stage actress Gene Tierney. His designs appeared in eleven of Tierney’s films in the 1940s and 50s.
He was born on April 11, 1913 in Paris as Oleg Cassini Loiewski, the elder son of Countess Marguerite Cassini and her husband, Count Alexander Loiewski. His father was a Russian diplomat, and his maternal grandfather, Arthur Paul Nicholas Cassini, Marquis de Capuzzuchi di Bologna, Count Cassini, was the Russian ambassador to the United States during the administrations of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.
His father later adopted his wife's surname, which they deemed more distinguished, and when the family lost its status and fortune in the wake of the Russian Revolution (1917), the Cassinis moved to Italy, where Marguerite Cassini went to work as a fashion designer.
Oleg Cassini grew up in Florence and travelled to Paris twice a year with his mother to study current fashions. He studied fine art at the Accademia di Belle Arti Firenze, after which he won a number of international fashion competitions in Turin. He then moved to the United States in 1936, first to New York and then to Hollywood.
Cassini took American citizenship and became a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army during World War II at Fort Riley, Kansas. Initially, he joined the United States Coast Guard, but according to his The New York Times obituary, he later served in the U.S. Army as a cavalry officer because he found the idea of cavalry service a bit more glamorous.
He studied art under Giorgio de Chirico and eventually gravitated to his mother’s career, fashion, when he took a job sketching for the French couturier, Jean Patou. In the late 1930s, he worked as an assistant to the costume designer, Edith Head; and, in the early 1940s, he was hired by Paramount Pictures.
Among the films Cassini costumed was The Shanghai Gesture, a 1941 film by Josef von Sternberg, which starred Cassini’s second wife, the actress Gene Tierney who eventually would only wear Cassini designs onscreen. As a result, Cassini costumes appeared in Leave Her To Heaven (1945), The Razor’s Edge (1946), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), That Wonderful Urge (1948), Whirlpool (1949), Night and the City (1950), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), in which Cassini appeared as a fashion designer, as well as The Mating Season, Close to My Heart, and On the Riviera (all 1951).
After the war, Cassini designed ready-to-wear dresses while continuing to design for television, motion pictures, and Broadway theatre.
Cassini shot to international stardom, however, in the early 1960s, thanks to his association with Jacqueline Kennedy. “We are on the threshold of a new American elegance thanks to Mrs. Kennedy’s beauty, naturalness, understatement, exposure and symbolism,” Cassini said when his selection as the couturier to shape the entire look of the First Lady was announced.
The fashion industry elite, however, was shocked at Cassini’s selection by the White House. As Women’s Wear Daily journalist John Fairchild wrote in his 1965 book The Fashionable Savages, “Everyone was surprised. Oleg Cassini had been around for years. He was debonair, amusing, social, but none of the fashion intellectuals had considered him an important designer.”
The publicity that Cassini’s work for Jacqueline Kennedy received led women from 18 to 80 to copy the look of simple, geometric dresses in sumptuous fabrics and pillbox hats with an elegant coiffure. Meticulously tailored and featuring oversized buttons and boxy jackets, as well as occasionally dramatic décolletage, it was a style that was inspired by the work of Hubert de Givenchy. Cassini designed a reported 300 outfits for the First Lady, including a much-copied coat made of leopard pelts and a heavy satin gown for the inaugural ball in 1961; the Cassini outfits were paid for by her father-in-law, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr.
The name recognition that he gained during these years led him to be the second designer (after Jean Desses) to have licensing agreements, with his name adorning everything from luggage to nail polish, as well as a special luxurious trim package available on coupé versions of the 1974 and 1975 AMC Matador automobile. “All I remember about those days are nerves, and Jackie on the phone ‘Hurry, hurry, Oleg, I’ve got nothing to wear’,” he wrote in his 1995 book, A Thousand Days of Magic: Dressing Jacqueline Kennedy for the White House.
His designs were shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2001 in its exhibit Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years, which was curated by Vogue’s European editor-at-large, Hamish Bowles.
Cassini’s autobiography, In My Own Fashion, was published in 1987.
His partnership with David’s Bridal was formed in the 1990s, and they had a line of his wedding dresses at the time of his death.
- Mary “Merry” Fahrney - On September 2, 1938, in Elkton, Maryland — a Russian Orthodox ceremony took place in New York City on September 16 — Cassini became the fourth husband of Merry Fahrney, a daughter of Chicago industrialist Emory Homer Fahrney and his wife, the former Marion L. Hills. She was an heiress to the Dr. Peter Fahrney & Sons patent medicine fortune. In addition to having a small role in the 1934 motion picture Cleopatra, which was directed by Cecil B. DeMille and starred Claudette Colbert, Merry Fahrney was an aviator and parachutist frequently known in gossip columns as Madcap Merry. She had previously been married to and divorced from Hugh Parker Pickering, by whom she had a son, Peter, who was adopted at 15 months of age by his maternal grandparents and given the surname Fahrney; Frank Van Sands Eizsner; and Baron Arturo Berlingieri, to whom she was married from July 31, 1937 until February 3, 1938. Nearly two months after Fahrney and Cassini married, on October 26, her divorce from Berlingieri was reversed on appeal. The Illinois Appellate Court declared the divorce invalid on the grounds that the former Baroness Berlingieri’s claim of being beaten up four times on her honeymoon was unproven, that she had not established beyond doubt that the baron tried to extort US$200,000 from her, and that as she was an Italian citizen by marriage, the Chicago court had no jurisdiction. The divorce, however, was soon resolved in her favor. Fahrney’s divorce from Cassini, which was granted on February 5, 1940, was equally dramatic. She won her case by proving “marital misconduct” on her husband’s part, stemming from evidence presented that Cassini had been in the company of “a scantily clad young woman” in his apartment in the Hotel Lowell in New York City. Curiously, however, Fahrney and her first husband, Hugh Pickering, were reported to have been in an adjoining room with an automobile salesman, spying on the couple. Cassini, for his part, denied he had been unfaithful and attempted to prove that his wife had had extramarital affairs, presenting testimony from his cook and the couple’s former butler, who claimed that Merry Cassini had been caught in compromising circumstances on three occasions. Cassini also declared that his wife had bought clothes for another man, socialite La Grand Griswold. (Griswold, for his part, testified that he had asked Merry Cassini to be his wife, but that she had refused, saying that she already had a husband.) In handing down the divorce decree in Merry Cassini’s favor, the judge declared the defendant’s claims of wifely adultery were “unworthy of belief.”
- Gene Tierney - Cassini married the American film and stage actress Gene Tierney on June 1, 1941. They had two daughters, Antoinette Daria Cassini (born October 15, 1943), who was born mentally retarded, due to her mother’s bout during pregnancy with German measles, and Christina “Tina” Cassini (born November 19, 1948). Cassini, in interviews and his autobiography, felt that Agatha Christie used the real-life tragedy of his and Tierney’s as the basis of her plot for The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side. As related in Tierney's autobiography (Self-Portrait, New York: Wyden, 1979, but well publicized for years previously) in June 1943, while pregnant with her first child, Tierney came down with the German measles, contracted during her only appearance at the Hollywood Canteen. The baby, Daria, was born prematurely, weighing only 3 pounds and 2 ounces, and requiring a total blood transfusion. The infant was also deaf, was partially blind with cataracts, was severely retarded and ultimately had to be institutionalized. Fraught with problems that included Tierney’s serious depression after the birth of the couple's daughter with disabilities, Cassini’s marriage was short but volatile. Both husband and wife had extramarital relationships, with Tierney’s (while separated from Cassini) being a romance with John F. Kennedy. Tierney won an uncontested divorce in California that year; the action was withdrawn since the couple reconciled before the divorce was made final. However, another divorce action was filed in Los Angeles, California, on February 28, 1952, with Tierney declaring that her husband cared more about his tennis game than his wife; the final decree was granted on April 8, 1953. After his divorce from Tierney, Cassini dated and almost married Grace Kelly. He and Tierney remained lifelong friends until her death. Cassini was quoted as saying, “Gene is the luckiest, unlucky girl in the world, all of her dreams came true, at a cost.”
- Marianne Nestor - Cassini's secret third wife Marianne Nestor was left the bulk of his estate, and runs Oleg Cassini Inc. Christina Cassini, 61, sued on behalf of herself and disabled sister Daria Cassini in 2007 to get 25 percent each of the designer's $50 million estate. Nestor moved to block the suit, but Nassau County Surrogate Court Judge John B. Riordan denied the motion. Judge Riordan stated "Cassini promised in his 1952 divorce from Gene Tierney that he would write a will leaving both of his daughters half of his fortune".
Cassini died from complications of a stroke in Manhasset, New York, in 2006. He was survived by his then secret third wife Marianne Nestor, his two children, and four grandchildren. He was predeceased by his brother, Igor Cassini. At the time of his death, Cassini was renovating a five-story limestone town house on East 63rd Street in Manhattan that was decorated like a medieval redoubt as well as living in a house in the town of Oyster Bay, New York, whose property once had been part of the estate of Louis Comfort Tiffany. Cassini is buried in the Cemetery of the Holy Rood in Westbury, New York.