Beginning in the 1950s, Igor Cassini was the world’s most powerful society columnist in a time when society mattered. Read by over 20 million people, Cassini not only coined the phrase “jet set,” but also embodied its glamour and mobility. He wasn’t some ink-stained outsider looking in; he was a titled European count looking down, and America ate up every word.
The grandson of the czar’s ambassador to Washington, Cassini’s own society credentials were impeccable. He married Charlene Wrightsman, one of the country’s most eligible heiresses, and his brother Oleg served as Jackie Kennedy’s couturier, earning the unofficial Cabinet rank of “secretary of style.” So, when Igor became ensnared in a scandal that spread from the Bay of Pigs to Pennsylvania Avenue, society schadenfreude enjoyed its finest hour.
It went down like this: Cassini was betrayed by the journalist Peter Maas, who revealed in The Saturday Evening Post that the count was not only on Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo’s payroll—El Jefe hired him for Washington influence-peddling—but was also whispering in President Kennedy’s ear about a Communist plot in Santo Domingo. Cassini was exposed as a double agent and was forced to go through a costly, publicly humiliating trial; not long after, the Hearst newspaper chain sent the once-formidable writer packing and his wife died of what has been called “a probable suicide.”
Using Cassini as the core of what would become my book about his dazzling crowd, I began trolling for witnesses. But while the scandal was already decades old, there was still a sense of omertà around it, as family members, including Igor and Charlene’s son Alexander, never responded to requests for interviews.
With doors closed on the West Coast, I went to Europe to see living legends like Lord Weidenfeld in London, Olivia de Havilland in Paris and Diana Vreeland’s son Freck in Rome. There were venerable concierges from Claridge’s, waiters from Annabel’s, doorkeepers from Castel. All these people remembered Igor Cassini and their mutually lost world. The story is highly complex—and fascinating. Part of it is how the mighty have fallen. But the best part is how far and how high characters like Cassini flew before the “friendly skies” became an oxymoron, the wings of man were clipped and the Icarus factor kicked in.
William Stadiem is the author of Jet Set: The People, the Planes, the Glamour, and the Romance in Aviation’s Glory Years (Ballantine), out June 3.