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My Weekend With Oscar de la Renta

Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

When I was in my late teens, I went to the Dominican Republic, but when I think of the places that I’ve travelled in the Caribbean, it doesn’t come to mind. Because, when I visited, it was as though I stayed on an island within an island. 

My parents are hardly Upper East Side socialites. My dad is a historian who also works in television, but as much of his work takes place in the archives as behind a camera; my mom's a geneticist who runs a lab at Columbia. But they had become friends with the de la Rentas in New York, and had fairly quickly been invited to their house in Punta Cana as though it was as simple as a dinner date. The next time they were invited, I did everything I could to see if I might be able to tag along. This was much more exciting than their typical social engagements. 

My memories of the visit are a little hazy because everything I encountered there was, well, dreamy. For someone who made his career creating some of the most formally stunning shapes to grace the red carpet, Oscar and his wife Annette lived in Punta Cana with a kind of understated, casual elegance (at least, for people who lived in a mansion). I remember framed antique maps, lots of white linen, wide terraced patios, lounge chairs, lemonade, cucumber sandwiches on white bread with the crusts cut off. I also remember paddling out from the beach that came right up to their lawn in a kayak, the water around me eye-burningly blue. In the morning, Annette would sit at a long breakfast table while her guests (several other people were being hosted at the same time—a tropical salon) filtered down from their rooms to join her. I’m sure she had many things she could have been doing but there was never any sense of haste.

In The New York Times obituary, Cathy Horyn and Enid Nemy write that Oscar “rarely shied from controversy or calling someone out,” and for all the relaxed nonchalance of his verandas and sloping lawns, I remember the way he could cut though any blather that bubbled up with a single biting phrase. He referred to a certain Hollywood actresss who had crossed him as “a fat cow.” But there was also an incredible sense of generosity and largesse, and it was this that pervaded the atmosphere of the house.

Several years later, when I got married, I asked my parents to invite the de la Rentas. I hadn’t seen them in years, and I was fairly sure that they wouldn’t remember me as much more than an awestruck teenage tagalong. They couldn’t make it, but they sent me a lovely note along with their gift. “Dear Chloe,” they had written, “we wanted to buy you an island, but this will have to do.”