Appreciation: In Her Own Inimitable Fashion / (c) The Washington Post [p. F1, May 6, 1990]
By Jura Koncius and Martha Sherrill / Washington Post Staff Writers
The Style of Nina Hyde. She didn’t own high heels. She wore a Swatch Watch for years that she’d picked up at the airport. She didn’t put on much makeup, and she taught a couple of us to bite our nails. When she found a favorite outfit, she’d often wear it three times a week. She kept a pair of silver earrings — cone-shaped snail shells — in the top drawer of her desk for TV interviews. Usually they were the only jewelry she wore besides her wedding ring.
She was a city girl. She was handsome, beautiful. She spoke with an old-line voice from the Upper East Side where she was raised. Nina, who died Friday night after a long battle with cancer, had style but taught us all about substance instead.
She would always drag us out, her assistants past and present, to lunches at the O’Mei Restaurant — around the corner from The Post — to celebrate anything. And before long, we’d become each other’s friends, each other’s bridesmaids. We’d throw baby showers for each other and we would laugh hard when we told The Nina Stories.
We would mythologize. Nina, The Fashion Editor With a Social Conscience. Nina, The Queen of the Cleveland Park Yard Sales. Nina, The Impossible. Several assistants hadn’t lasted long. One, more fragile than the rest — we always reminded Nina — had a nervous breakdown after a strenuous fashion shoot in New York and was never heard from again.
The shoots provided the most material. We’d go on about models wearing fur coats in 100-degree weather. About staying up half the night with Michael Borden — Nina’s New York stylist and The Funniest Man Alive — taping the soles of new shoes so they wouldn’t scuff. About how we’d put on cocktail hats with veils and gotten stuck in clothes sometimes two sizes too small. About hitting Studio 54, or Xenon or the Palladium, with Nina. About how she’d interview people there as though she were Margaret Mead on an expedition.
Nina never was as frivolous as the subject she covered. She lived like a Yankee. She cared nothing for china or linens, silver or decorating or status cars. She cared nothing, really, for things. If you admired something, she might give it to you. She’d lend anything she owned. She had a homemade black taffeta skirt at least 15 different women have worn, and which Patsy Rogers in the Home section still has in her closet because Nina told her to keep it. And when you gave Nina a present, she’d often give it away to somebody else. There was a polished antique leather box that her former assistant Kathleen Stanley gave her one year, and that Nina confessed months later that she’d handed over to Ralph Lauren as a house gift.
She shared her gossip, her thoughts, her contacts, her bran muffins. She smuggled us into parties. She showed us her mail. She bragged about us to her friends. She wanted us to meet Bill Blass, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein. When Diana Vreeland called, Nina would whisper: “You want to hear her voice? Pick up your extension — go ahead, listen in.”
And she shared her courage; watching her in action made us feel stronger. She could pull out a note pad even at the most awkward moments, and ask the tough questions. We watched her try on wigs when her hair fell out, and buy a cane when it got hard to walk. She even gave fashion tips to nurses while she got chemotherapy. She stood before hundreds of people and talked about her terminal cancer. Until several months ago, she was flying around giving speeches, appearing on television. She came into work just a few weeks ago and wrote her last Fashion Notes column.
Sunday Fashion Notes. It was like a running journal of Nina’s life. Since 1976, she wrote every week. She called in columns, when she was dog-tired and depressed, from the shows in Milan and London and Paris. She called in from Beijing when there weren’t supposed to be telephones there. She called from India, from Tibet, from Africa, from Australia, from Grenada and from a spa in Baja, Mexico.
She adored her job — both as fashion editor of The Washington Post, and as a freelancer on far-flung assignments for National Geographic. “I have the greatest job in the world,” she’d always say, which might be why she was never not working. This could drive you crazy. She got to work two hours before anyone else — and turned the lights on in the Style section every morning. At restaurants and shopping malls, you’d find her cornering somebody — like a woman in a yellow suede miniskirt — for a quote. An outfit she’d seen as she was walking to lunch would become something for her Wednesday shopper column, originally called Cheap Frills and Glad Rags, then just Cheap Frills, then Capital Assets and then Try It!
She knew fashion — the business, the trends, the designers, the dirt — but she didn’t always buy it. She’d say: “It isn’t fashion until somebody wears it.” And to Nina, her job wasn’t just reporting The Important Sweater that was chic in Paris, or where you could find a Chanel knockoff bag for under $25. She believed in what she saw around her. She believed in shopping discount stores. She believed in wearing what you had in your closet. Her favorite story she’d written for the paper was called “Black Style,” which ran in 1980. “To be brought up Black and clothes-conscious in urban America is virtually redundant” was Nina’s lead.
“Nina’s People.” That’s what Ben Bradlee used to call the hordes of wannabes who lined up on Wednesday mornings for 10 minutes of Nina’s frank fashion advice. They came with batik ties, leather ponchos, denim furs. The jewelry was usually hard to look at. But for those with a sign of talent, Nina was generous with encouragement.
There were other Nina People. You came to know them. You became one. She had a universe of loyal friends. And a galaxy of people she helped along the way. She loved them, they worshiped her. Some were la-di-da Washington cave dwellers and French aristocrats. There were good ol’ boys at National Geographic and international photographers. There were no-nonsense housewives she’d met along the road — parents of her daughters’ friends. There were gay men, fashion types, and old battle-ax garmentos from Seventh Avenue. Designer Issey Miyake would call from Tokyo. The Maharani of Jaipur from India. Bill Blass from his country house with a joke he’d heard — or his meatloaf recipe. For years, Geoffrey Beene sent postcards from around the world.
She was motherly without meddling. After she found out one assistant, who was new to town, lived down the street from Bob Woodward — then unattached — she wangled an invitation to the Metro section Christmas party because it was being held at his house. She later introduced them so many times that Woodward had to say, finally: “Nina, we’ve met.”
She seemed almost shy sometimes. She never wanted to talk about herself, she wanted to know about you. And, as she had with her daughters, Nina encouraged her assistants to be independent. To travel. To see new things. To rely on ourselves, not our husbands or boyfriends.
And she stood by us. She encouraged us to move on at the newspaper — to write or edit — even when it meant losing someone she valued and having to train a new assistant. She wrote us letters of recommendation. She helped us get jobs, then threw parties for us when we got them. She gave us rides home. She would have had us to dinner every night, if she could. And she believed in us, it seemed, when nobody else did.
Her friends would flock faithfully to every Nina Event — her lecture series at the Smithsonian, her fashion symposiums at Constitution Hall, the designer lectures at The Washington Post, and the many parties honoring her, which for the last 4 1/2 years that Nina struggled with breast cancer seemed almost like a monthly affair.
And they’d even turn up at her yard sales, an annual ritual. Her assistants and friends would gather at dawn with their wares, in her Cleveland Park back yard. First we’d eat doughnuts. Then we’d begin dealing with the people who showed up — sometimes before 7 a.m. Nina’s items never sold too well. And they were not what you’d expect from some glitzy fashion editor. A broken movie projector. Ugly vases from all the flowers she’d gotten. Dusty napkins and greeting cards from a party store that she and Lloyd, her husband, owned when they first came to Washington. Nina was famous for haggling with customers. There’d be old paperbacks she was selling for 25 cents each, and when one was finally purchased for 10 cents, she’d throw it into a glossy shopping bag from, say, Jean-Paul Gaultier in Paris.
We’d do anything for her. We’d bring guest towels to her parties. Our husbands mowed her lawn. When Nina needed her suede jacket cleaned, our job became finding the best leather cleaner in Washington, and then Nina would write a Fashion Note about it.
We transcribed totally incomprehensible interviews she’d had — half in French or Italian — with The Fashion Greats. We’d hear wine glasses clinking in the background. We heard Yves Saint Laurent’s bulldog, Mougique, breathing heavily under the table. Once, we even transcribed a reading of Nina’s tarot cards, a copy of which remained in her file drawer for 10 years under the heading: Spooky Tunes.
And we’d do anything to make her laugh. We fooled her with fake phone calls — “Would you hold for Halston, please?” asked an assistant calling from the Post cafeteria. We put on outrageous clothes. And in 1986, during the weekend of “The Nina Hyde Tribute” when hundreds of big-name designers and store presidents and celebrities flew in from around the world to honor her 25 years as a fashion editor … we roasted her. We Xeroxed pictures of Nina and stuck them around the walls: a young Nina in Paris sitting reverently at the bedside of Madame Vionnet. Nina in her “penguin dress.” Nina and Karl Lagerfeld’s ponytail. Nina joking around with Calvin.
We told The Nina Stories. We called it “A Tribute to Anita Heinz.” We gave her a cake with her portrait in chocolate frosting.
On her last birthday in September — her 57th — a few friends gathered at the home of Betty Ann Ottinger, one of her closest friends. Her daughters, Jennifer and Andrea, came, her brother, Howard, her husband, Lloyd. And there were several former assistants, and the current one, Julie Bresnick. The next day, Nina sent one of us this message in the computer:
“I know this sounds nuts, but last week was one of the worst weeks in my life, and my birthday was one of the best.”