As childhoods go, it could hardly be more extraordinary. With a father who was heir to an American steel fortune and a cousin of Winston Churchill, Cornelia Cochrane Churchill Guest also had fairy-tale godparents in the shape of the Duke of Windsor and his wife Wallis Simpson.
Cornelia grew up on a lavish estate on Long Island, New York, with neighbours such as the Vanderbilts and Roosevelts, and first appeared in Vogue at the age of one, nestled in the arms of her fashion icon mother C. Z. Guest, in photographs taken by Cecil Beaton.
Her parents were close friends not only of Ernest Hemingway (he was best man at their wedding) but of members of the Kennedy clan, writer Truman Capote and Andy Warhol, who used to help little Cornelia colour in her picture books. Later in life, she would pose topless for Warhol and hang out with Mick Jagger.
With a high-society background straight out of a novel, it’s only a surprise that it’s taken until now for Cornelia to feature in a real one.
Today the 56-year-old society stalwart, who nowadays largely goes by the shortened name of Cornelia Guest, is finding new fame after becoming one of the characters in Sex And Vanity, the latest rom-com from Crazy Rich Asians author Kevin Kwan.
Sex And Vanity is a deliciously decadent romp through Manhattan, the Hamptons and the Italian idyll of Capri — all hideaways of the super-rich.
According to Kwan, it’s a modern update of E. M. Forster’s A Room With A View, a 21st century re-telling that includes an insanely lavish wedding, escapist shopaholic fantasies and a steamy public hook-up captured by drone camera.
The main character is Lucie Tang Churchill, a wealthy young Chinese-American socialite caught between two men and described as having ‘the blood of Ming emperors flowing through her veins mingling with the blood of New York and British aristocracy’.
Cornelia, meanwhile, appears as herself. In one notable scene, set at a glitzy gala to raise funds for an animal rights charity, Cornelia’s pet dogs wolf down the canapés meant for the jet-set guests.
‘I bring my dogs everywhere so it’s a true portrait,’ she giggles. ‘I was so excited to be in the book because Kevin is one of my dearest friends and he’s so smart and clever. People started calling me, saying: “You’re in Kevin Kwan’s book!” and I said: “I know!” I’d been sworn to secrecy.’
Cornelia — who is now an actress, caterer and animal rights activist — is speaking to me from her home in Dallas, Texas. She moved there in January to be nearer Los Angeles for her acting career, after putting her 456-acre farm and animal sanctuary in upstate New York up for sale for $ 4.75 million.
Three of her five dogs are staying with the socialite in a ‘sweet little house’ that she is renting —her housekeeper from New York moved with her — while she looks for a property big enough for her and her menagerie, among them rescued miniature horses, donkeys, peacocks, pot-bellied pigs and ducks.
‘The other animals are back in New York, but they’ll come here the minute I find a place to put them all,’ she says.
If Kwan has nailed Cornelia’s animal obsession, how accurate is his portrait of both the old money and nouveau riche characters who use helicopters like Ubers, wear diamonds ‘the size of a rhino’s testicle’ and are prone to all kinds of petty snobberies? Pretty accurate, it seems. ‘As eccentric as these families might be to us, it’s completely normal to them,’ says the former It-girl.
Her family, a society commentator once observed, was ‘rich but not super-rich, haute but not the haute-est’.
Cornelia’s 28-room childhood home had the feel of an English country house, with stables, a showjumping course, greenhouses, tennis courts, a swimming pool and a topiary garden designed by revered British landscape architect Russell Page.
She and her older brother Alexander were brought up by a governess. ‘Children need someone to discipline them. And, after all, Winston didn’t marry me to be a maid,’ her mother loftily told the Washington Post in 1977 (her husband shared a first name with his more famous cousin).
Home was where Cornelia’s parents entertained the former Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.
‘He was very sweet,’ Cornelia recalls of her royal godfather, who, when she was five or six, would visit the house ‘because he liked to see the ponies that I kept. I loved to ride bareback. We had an allée of trees and we put a jump in it and I would go flying over on my little white pony called Ivanhoe. He thought it was such fun.’ She remembers the Duke of Windsor giving her a child’s charm bracelet as a gift. ‘I hope I’ve still got it somewhere,’ she says.
What about the woman for whom the king gave up his throne? Cornelia pauses, diplomatically, on the other end of the line. ‘She was . . .’ she laughs ‘a little stricter and more formal. She would put out her hand and say: “Hello, how are you?” She wasn’t so child-friendly.’
I’m about to ask how much of an affinity Cornelia feels with Britain, since she carries the name Churchill even if she doesn’t use it, when she reveals some news. ‘I’ve just got a British passport,’ she exclaims. ‘I’m so pleased because hopefully it means I can work there as an actress.
‘My dad was born in the UK, he fostered my love of Britain and I still have family [there]. I love England — it’s such a beautiful country.’ She is a big fan of the Queen, too. ‘I think the Queen is magnificent. She’s a universal treasure. An amazing woman.’
And what of those two modern-day royal refuseniks? I ask if she thinks Meghan and Prince Harry will flourish in their new lives in the United States. ‘I have no idea,’ Cornelia sighs, ‘but I wish them all the success in the world.’
As a teenager, Cornelia became a symbol of the party-loving 1980s. She was crowned Debutante of the Decade (when debutantes were still a thing) but also frequented trendy New York nightclubs, such as Regine’s and Studio 54, till 4am.
At the age of 18 she claimed to have attended 365 parties in a single year, and at 19 posed topless for Andy Warhol’s pop art portrait of her, saying at the time she did it to shock her mother.
‘Yes, that’s true,’ she laughs now. ‘Young girls always want to shock their mothers.’
Cornelia is said to have had romances with Hollywood’s Sylvester Stallone and Rob Lowe as well as Princess Caroline of Monaco’s ex Philippe Junot. She was also pictured on a date with Mick Jagger, who was wearing a suit and tie for the occasion.
‘I was a bit of a wild child, sure,’ Cornelia says. ‘You’re 17, 18 years old and it was fabulous to get dressed up, go out and misbehave. I never took it seriously.’
She never did get married, however, nor have a family.
‘Getting married is something that’s never been important to me,’ she says. ‘I almost got married three times and at the last second I said no.
‘I’ve been in long relationships, so it’s been like being married — but without the piece of paper. Very few friends of mine who have been married are still married, so it’s been a lot easier not to have to hire a lawyer and go through hell. I’ve never regretted not having kids, either. It was never something I wanted to do.’
Though she has had some recent dates, she is currently single. ‘This Covid thing has put a damper on my love life!’ she complains, jokingly.
Her mother C. Z. Guest (her maiden name was Lucy Douglas Cochrane but she became C. Z. because her brother could not pronounce the word ‘sister’) was a cool and elegant blonde who regularly made the Best Dressed lists. But Cornelia claims fashion has never been easy for her.
‘I have a dear friend, Jane Ross, who’s a fantastic stylist and even today, I call her up and ask: “Should I put this with that?” ’
She still laughs at a fashion faux pas she made a couple of years ago when the designer Carolina Herrera was opening one of her boutiques.
‘She sent me a beautiful dress and I went to the party. I walked onto the red carpet and I saw Jane and Carolina’s faces — they were aghast. Carolina beckoned to me and said: “You have this dress on backwards.” ’ Cornelia scuttled off to the ladies room to put it on properly.
She remembers sitting as a child and watching her mother drape herself in couture designed by Givenchy or Mainbocher.
‘When I was older, I’d steal her clothes and she would get so mad at me. Once, I borrowed this beautiful red Valentino one-shoulder dress. I wore it to a party. She said: “Cornelia, did you wear my dress . . . where’s my dress?” I claimed I hadn’t seen it, but then a picture of me wearing the dress was published in the New York Times. She’d caught me red-handed!
‘Nowadays, I’m a casual dresser because it suits my lifestyle. My favourite outfit is a T-shirt, a pair of shorts and flip-flops.’
Her life now is certainly a far cry from the book she co-wrote in 1986, The Debutante’s Guide To Life, which was billed as a tongue-in-cheek guide but was mocked for its shallowness (‘If you have money and a good name, you can do anything,’ Cornelia wrote.)
‘The socialite label was such a long time ago,’ says the woman who paved the way for Paris Hilton and the current coterie of social media influencers. ‘Back then, no one had cellphones, so it was before selfies and things being staged and photographed. It felt more authentic.’
Her 2012 cookbook, Simple Pleasures: Healthy Seasonal Cooking & Easy Entertaining, with pictures by family friend Bruce Weber, was more successful. None of it, mind you, was learned at her mother’s knee. C. Z. didn’t cook — the family had the same chef for 21 years. ‘My mother couldn’t cook anything. She didn’t want to. She couldn’t boil water,’ says Cornelia, fondly.
When C. Z. became ill with cancer in the 1990s, her daughter started looking into the benefits of a vegan diet. ‘I read about factory farms, and what animals have to go through before they end up on our plates, and it blew my mind. I don’t want animals to suffer for me,’ she says.
Today, she is a committed vegan, yet her catering and events company serves meat. ‘We wouldn’t be in business if we didn’t,’ she comments. ‘But I won’t serve veal.’
At 56, she looks great for her age — a sexy and confident woman, glowing with good health. She says she stays in shape through dog walking and works out, via Zoom, with her trainer using resistance bands and Pilates exercises.
When she looks in the mirror, does she worry about encroaching wrinkles?
‘Yeah but there’s nothing you can do about it,’ she sighs. ‘Sometimes I’m like: “Ew! What happened?” I would love to have my 20-year-old face and body back, sure. What do they say? Youth is lost on the young. It’s true! What I can’t live without is a good soak in the bath. That’s an essential beauty treatment for me.’
When I speak to her, Cornelia is just back from Montana, where she made a film — socially distanced — called Zero Road, about a teen who turns to drug-running to save his mother and survive his last year of high school. ‘I play the matriarch of his girlfriend’s family and I’m the only one who helps him.’
The gritty subject matter certainly seems a far cry from her own glamorous life. ‘I love to dive into the characters of other people and live in their skin for a little bit,’ agrees Cornelia.
Rather than playing herself, she would dearly love to win the role of Charlotte if there is a film adaptation of Sex And Vanity. In the book, Charlotte is the heroine’s older, snobbier, uptight cousin who acts as chaperone to Lucie, trying to make sure she doesn’t tarnish the Churchill family name.
Cornelia herself is, she says, ‘happy in her own skin’.
‘I try to march to the beat of my own drum and, as I’ve got older, I worry less about things,’ she adds. ‘I can’t wait to come to the UK and make movies and TV shows. I think the future’s going to be exciting.’