Cornelia Guest Looks Back at Her Life in Parties

Written by Lauren Mechling

It Girl Cornelia Guest looking over her right shoulder in a yellow-black dress in the '80s
In 1985, Guest was the cochair of the April in Paris Ball, to which she wore a beaded dress by Fabrice, the Haitian-American artist and designer who was the unofficial courtier of the ’80s scene. “I danced the whole night, and there wasn’t a single bead left on the dress. I guess that’s the sign of a good party!” Courtesy of Ron Galella

If there’s one person who epitomizes New York’s Bright Lights, Big City era, it’s Cornelia Guest. By the time she was named 1982’s Debutante of the Year, at age 18, she was already a fixture on Manhattan's nightlife scene, a regular at society balls and at clubs like Xenon and the Palladium. “People were having fun—they were really having fun,” she recalls of New York in the ’80s. “They were more outrageous.” These days, the actor and animal-rights activist is occasionally in Los Angeles (she recently wrapped American Horror Story), but mostly she hangs out at her ranch outside Dallas, where she keeps company with her menagerie of six dogs, two cats, two donkeys, six miniature horses, one regular-size horse, eight hens, 12 chickens, and one tortoise. Which is not to say she has called it quits on partying: When she’s done feeding her chickens, she gets dressed up and heads out. “I love people, and I love to watch people,” she says. “A good party is just magical.”

Courtesy of Dave Hogan

Guest and her mother, the legendary “swan” CZ Guest, attended the Met Gala together in 1984. “She’s in Oscar de la Renta, and I’m in Carolina Herrera,” Guest recalls. “I’m probably wearing heels. My mother hated high heels, just hated them. So when you tell your teenage daughter that you hate something, what does she do? I was an inch taller than my mother, and I had a smaller foot, which also drove her crazy.”

Courtesy of Ron Galella

Guest and Halston (here at the 1986 premiere of The Color of Money, at the Ziegfeld Theatre) became pals when she was living in New York by herself and attending the Professional Children’s School. They met for the first time when Guest was walking her pet mastiff down the street. “He recognized me and stopped me and said hi,” she recalls. “We used to go to parties in the Olympic Tower. He really became like a big brother or an uncle, and took care of me. He didn’t think it was so great that my mother stayed out on Long Island and let me live in the city alone.”

Courtesy of Ron Galella

Mick Jagger was a longtime family friend, so Guest didn’t lose her cool when she ran into him at Xenon as a teenager. “My parents were great friends with Prince Rupert Loewenstein, who managed the Rolling Stones, so I’d known Mick for years by this point,” she says.

Courtesy of Ron Galella

Boy George would often stay with Guest when he was in town from London. “He’s so smart and funny,” she says. “We once took a vacation to Jamaica that was one of the funniest experiences of my life.” Andy Warhol, by Guest’s recollection, was a cooler customer, “but also brilliant.” Left: Boy George, Warhol, the English pop singer Marilyn, and Guest outside the Palladium.

Courtesy of Ron Galella

In her 20s, Guest moved to Los Angeles, where she was making a go of it as an actor, spending her days memorizing lines and auditioning. “It was a more sedate time than my New York years,” she says. But she still attended an AIDS benefit with (below, from left) Beverly Johnson, Billy Dee Williams, and Grace Jones. “I had met Beverly before, but not Grace. And Grace was just so beautiful. I always thought she was cool. I’m looking into the distance, probably at someone off camera who is doing something that’s catching my eye.”

Image Press

At the April in Paris Ball at the Waldorf-Astoria, with Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis. “Look at the jewelry she had on,” Guest says of her friend. “Gloria is so witty. She loves to have fun and always looks beautiful.”

Courtesy of Ron Galella

“Here I am with Fabrice [below, left] and [former Ford Models copresident] Joey Hunter. They’re taking my hair as a mustache,” she says of this photo from her birthday party in 1986. “Fabrice and I were great friends. I remember hanging out at his atelier. His sister, Brigitte, ran it, and he had all the seamstresses there. It was like a little magical factory, with tons of festive clothes everywhere.”

Paul Harris

In 1989, photographer Paul Harris captured Guest and her Westie, Lyle, in L.A. “I’d studied with Anna Strasberg for a couple of years before I went out to L.A.,” she says. “There was barely a fax machine in those days. And there was no Google Maps, so you had a Thomas Guide to help you get around town.”