Mary Raye Gross
July 15, 1917 (
Salinas, California, U.S.
Nancy, Lady KeithSlim HawksSlim Hayward
Leland Hayward (m. 1949–1960)
April 16, 1990 (aged 72) Manhattan, New York City, U.S.
Nancy "Slim" Keith, Lady Keith (July 15, 1917 – April 6, 1990) was an American New York socialite and fashion icon during the 1950s and 1960s, exemplifying the American jet set. She and her friend Babe Paley were the thinly veiled inspiration for characters in Truman Capote's novel Answered Prayers. She is also credited with bringing Lauren Bacall to Hollywood's attention by showing her then-husband, producer Howard Hawks, a magazine cover with Bacall's picture on it.
Born Mary Raye Gross in Salinas, California (her mother changed her name to Nancy), by age 22, she had appeared on the cover of Harper's Bazaar. She graced the Best Dressed list almost annually, and in 1946 won a Neiman Marcus Fashion Award (as Mrs. Leland Hayward). She was also dubbed the original "California Girl", for her golden looks and athletic ability. She considered a career in opera, before deciding it was too demanding.
When she was 16, Slim left school and traveled to Death Valley. While staying at the Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch Resort, she met William Powell. Through Powell, she met William Randolph Hearst and his mistress Marion Davies. She thus became a Hollywood socialite, and was frequently seen at parties with Gary Cooper and Cary Grant. She was pursued by Clark Gable, as well as Ernest Hemingway. In 1938 she met Howard Hawks, the noted film director, who was immediately smitten with her, and did everything he could to persuade her to marry him, despite his long-standing marriage. Three years later, in 1941, they were married; however, Hawks was unable to remain faithful, and shortly after the birth of their daughter, Kitty Hawks, she moved to Havana to stay with Ernest Hemingway, where she met her second husband, Leland Hayward. Slim and Hayward divorced their respective spouses in order to marry, and they stayed together for 12 years. She wrote that the one love of her life remained Hayward, who in turn left her for another socialite, Pamela Churchill. Her next and last husband was British banker Kenneth Keith, whom she left in 1972, after a 10-year marriage.
Keith banished Capote from her life when he used her as the unflattering model for the fictional Lady Coolbirth of his infamous and unfinished Answered Prayers. She never spoke to him again. This particular era is explored further in Melanie Benjamin's novel The Swans of Fifth Avenue. According to Sally Bedell Smith in Reflected Glory, the model for Lady Coolbirth was Pamela Harriman, not Slim Keith.
Slim was also known for her iconic sense of style. With exceptional taste, Slim pursued an elegant, crisp style in all that she wore.
The last years of her life were spent pursuing travel and quiet social activities in New York. An inveterate smoker, she died of lung cancer.
Slim Keith was portrayed in the film Infamous (2006) by Hope Davis. She was also depicted in Melanie Benjamin's The Swans of Fifth Avenue (2016). The novel explores elements of Slim's colorful life, as well as her friendships with Babe Paley and Truman Capote. Although her remarkable sense of style is not a focus of the novel, there's much to be said for her contributions to classic, Americana dress. In a particularly revealing scene, Benjamin imagines Keith raising a glass to Babe and Truman. She recalls, "A time before it was fashionable to tell the truth, and the world grew sordid from too much honesty."