Lives of style: Denise Hale

“Over 90 percent of the people who write or talk about me have never met me,” declares Denise Hale, paragon of San Francisco and international society for over 40 years.

She is a true original with few others who can match her. It’s easy to acclaim the glamour and gloss of a gilded world, but that would not do justice to this remarkable woman. She is one of a kind. She is independent. She is Denise.

Stunning, with exquisitemanners and politesse, Denise is renowned for her perfect carriage, pulchritudinous physiognomy and nonpareil taste in fashion and design. “She has some of the finest examples of 18th century English and French antiques outside of the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” collector Dr. Alan Malouf maintains. Perennially atop international best-dressed lists, Denise can look chic even in her trademark white T-shirts. She is direct, discerning, charming (proffering just the right bon mot), curious and insightful — and above all, she prizes loyalty.

“I was helping one of my tribe,” she says, explaining a rushed exchange when I was ringing her to confirm our meeting, “and I was on the phone for three hours, trying to reach someone who could help him.” Camaraderie, for Denise, runs deep. A dear pal was diagnosed with cancer and needed immediate medical advice; Denise, as she often does for friends, wanted to put him in touch with “the best. I respect the best.” In this case, “the best” was another friend, the first female chair of Radiology at Sloan Kettering, Dr. Hedvig Hricak. Denise literally tracked Hricak down and reached her at the Berlin Airport. Such is her devotion that she would not rest until her two friends had connected.

Her standards of quality and behavior are uncompromising. On the light side, although she favors fine French champagnes and wines, if she is offered a lesser vintage, she’ll opt for a beer without uttering a word, out of politeness and consideration for the host. More seriously, she adheres to a personal code of appropriate conduct. Respect for others is paramount for her — as is courtesy. “It is the way I was raised,” she asserts, “from my grandmother.”

Denise Hale was born in Belgrade, Serbia. Her grandmother, Ana, embraced and took charge of “Dusica” — “my soul, my little soul” — from birth (Denise’s mother, an “earth mother” who was deemed inappropriate, and her father soon divorced). Denise was reared by her grandparentsin a proper, genteel milieu. In a charming aside, Denise presented their photographs and proclaimed, “I would like to introduce you to my grandparents.” When World War II broke out, the Nazis, then the Russian “liberators,” occupied the country. “I ended up in a refugee camp, a displacement persons camp in Italy,” Denise recalled. Before she was 17, Denise married an older Italian mogul, “one of the richest men in Italy,” and then, after several years, walked away — financially independent, anent a world-class collection of jewelry, in 1958.

Arriving in New York “for the season,” Denise was welcomed by and assimilated into the top echelon of New York society, and stayed on.
The love of her life was her third husband, Prentiss Cobb Hale, the department store magnate, to whom she was married for 27 years. She smiles. Her European and British friends “thought I was marrying down,” because he was “in-the-trade [retail].” The two went on to build an extraordinary life together in San Francisco. Denise is a connoisseur of the world — and a global VIP. She has friends everywhere. Ageless and modern, Denise can be found with twentysomethings at the famed Google party, and with royals, such as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Phillip, Princess Michael of Kent, and earlier, Diana, princess of Wales. Denise says, “I don’t care where you come from. I judge where you are. The life you come with.”

She’s gifted — and enjoys laughter. For the last 10 years, she has been supporting a day care center, run by Catholic nuns in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, for poor women to leave their children while they work. She paid for an operation for a young boy who needed surgery to restore his sight. She keeps a collection of drawings he sends to her.

Denise moved into her sumptuous residence in 1984. The grand living room is a showplace, redolent in shades of rich, deep green, interplayed with accents of light champagne, rose and taupe. Everything ispositioned meticulously amid high ceilings and large, graceful windows.

The walls are upholstered in green silk velvet, and the drapes are unlined silk taffeta. Eighteenth-century gilded English and French furniture, especially a rare pair of Charles X gilded armchairs, French, signed, with beautiful carving (she waited 20 years for just the right ones), comport with a magnificent 18th century French Aubusson carpet and an extensive collection of Chinese porcelain from the Kangxi period. Her Redon painting is willed to the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C. A Pisarro graces another wall (she has two). A Degas hangs in the powder room. The gameroom, “where Prentiss and I had cocktails,” faces a breathtaking panorama of the Bay.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live.”

Denise Hale, a half-smile on her proud, dazzling face, might well agree.

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