She had been a famous fashion model from Dallas, a glamorous first lady of New York, and the queen of the Acapulco jet set—but when she died last year at age eighty, hardly anyone even remembered who she was. How did Sloane Simpson start with so much and end up with so little?
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THE NEW YORK TIMES GAVE ELIZABETH SLOANE SIMPSON a brilliant send-off last November, paying her far more mind in her death at eighty than in her life for the past twenty or so years. She was described in the lengthy and laudatory obituary as “the beautiful young fashion model who married New York’s handsome postwar mayor” and as “a Texas beauty and queen of Acapulco society” who had ostensibly enjoyed a life of glamour (she’d been a famous model) interrupted by adventure (bullfighting in Spain) and punctuated by scandal (her predilection for inappropriate romances). Simpson’s life appeared as big as Texas—except that by 1996, no one but a few style-conscious women of a certain age remembered who she was.
The modest Dallas condominium she left behind at 2525 Turtle Creek was more than a little mysterious. Not that the multilevel garden complex is unpleasant; it is helpful to know, given Simpson’s history, that it was constructed to evoke the world renowned Las Brisas resort in Acapulco. But her place was low ceilinged and dim, and her furnishings—the formal dining room table, the upholstery-matching draperies, the Baccarat candelabras, and the very large, very striking portraits of Simpson herself—suggested a big life compressed at the end into a very small space.
What happened? Simpson left few clues. She wasn’t a hoarder and, in the freighted words of the Times, left “no immediate survivors.” The high-society types she had known seemed uninterested in the question or governed by different priorities. (“She was not a great model—I was,” recalled Marshall native and international arts patron Wendy Reves.) Simpson’s belongings as well as the official record of her life were either scattered, lost, or decaying. The silver tea service had gone to Sotheby’s. The house she built high atop a hill overlooking Acapulco Bay had been sold and remodeled, the huge Indian laurel that caused her to christen it Casa del Arbol cut down to make room for the new owners’ second swimming pool. The May 1950 Life cover that featured her as Mayor William O’Dwyer’s beloved first lady was yellowing in many library archives; the edition of True Magazine that chronicled the biggest scandal of her life had vanished, even from the Library of Congress. Sloane Simpson, it appeared, was hard to hold on to.
But her face, smiling from the few remaining photographs, still had the power to captivate decades later. She was indeed beautiful, with Alpine cheekbones, a wide, generous mouth, a sharp, straight nose, and eyes that were at once inviting and appraising. In combination they formed something familiar, an expression that was at once challenging and open, all business yet at the same time all in fun. It was, simply, a Texas face, and anyone who saw it would want to know what happened to the woman who possessed it.
“There are no Cinderella stories,” Simpson’s friend and fellow Texan Marianne Rivas told me one day, trying to explain Simpson’s life. “You never know how it’s gonna run out.” Indeed, it was a singular characteristic of Sloane Simpson’s that, unlike most people, she knew better than to put her faith in fairy tales. don’t look back,” sloane simpson told dallas morning News columnist Maryln Schwartz sometime after she had cut her losses in Acapulco and returned home to Texas in 1989. On that day Simpson was, as always, a good sport: Schwartz had invited her to Peggy Sue Barbecue because the framed picture of Simpson on the cover of Life hung on a wall there beside other celebrity photographs, offering the kind of symmetry that can make for a good twenty-inch column: Subject confronts the past and so forth. But it turned out that Simpson wasn’t really interested in the picture or her past and had been puzzled, rather than amused, at finding that someone had forged her autograph upon it. “That’s not my handwriting,” she said. “I’ve never been here before.”
By then Simpson was in her seventies, and the beauty that had once made her world famous was difficult to discern. Her hair was still auburn and her face was still smooth, but the artificial enhancements she’d employed did not preserve her glamour as much as highlight its passing. By then, too, her story, which for decades had been packaged as a fairy tale—the first lady who enchanted New York, the ambassador’s wife who charmed Mexico City, the seductress who created Acapulco—more closely resembled a cautionary one.
“She was a champagne girl,” one old friend said about her, as good a way as any to explain the particular glamour Sloane Simpson projected. She had an aristocrat’s bearing and an emancipating laugh, which made her the epitome of forties glamour, when femininity and self-possession were not mutually exclusive. Indeed, her beginnings portended the most glamorous kind of future: those nights at the Stork Club, her name in Walter Winchell’s column, the opportunity to call Grace Kelly and Wallis Simpson friends. But Sloane Simpson did not wind up immortalized like Grace Kelly or Wallis Simpson, classic heroines of particularly American stories. If she was forgotten, perhaps it was because she was a Texan, possessed of all the characteristics associated with heroes of Texas stories: the unerring faith in self-invention, the unflappable self-confidence, the boundless optimism, and above all, the need to play by one’s own rules. Texas men with those qualities built tangible empires, but Sloane Simpson, a woman of her time and place, did not have that option. Instead she created something entirely ephemeral, demonstrating in the process how it was possible to begin with so much and end up with so little, the price of a life built on traveling light.
FEW COULD BOAST A FINER TEXAS PEDIGREE THAN SLOANE Simpson. The men who dominated her family were sophisticated but unrestrained, the kind who challenged the Texas stereotype while confirming the Texas myth. In the 1880’s her grandfather John N. Simpson founded the predecessor of First National Bank of Dallas and also claimed ownership of the world’s largest cattle herd. His son, Sloan, graduated from Harvard after riding to the top of San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt. These were people who understood style and presentation: Sloan Simpson traveled in his father’s private railroad car to visit Roosevelt in the White House; when it was time to host Teddy back home—providing an undoubtedly grateful Dallas with a glimpse of a U.S. president—he invited all the local cattle kings and staged a wolf hunt in Roosevelt’s honor.
True to the myth, Sloan Simpson took a legendary beauty for his bride. Her name was Eleanora Myer, a Baltimore debutante who naturally defied her parents to marry him in 1911. The couple settled into a fully staffed Prairie-style mansion in Highland Park, where reality intruded all too soon: Myer, prone to miscarriages, lost several children before a daughter survived in 1916. They named her Elizabeth Sloan Simpson, calling her Betty for short. (She would later add an e to Sloan.)
Just as she carried her father’s name, Sloane grew up a daddy’s girl, the prerequisite for almost every Texas heroine. “He was the hero of her life,” said Marianne Rivas. It wasn’t hard to see why; he was handsome and brash and must have seemed, to a little girl, to have the answer for everything. He was elusive too: Simpson was devoted to his young daughter, but according to the Morning News, he had contracted tuberculosis during World War I, which caused him to spend intermittent periods in sanatoriums. The family fortune foundered, perhaps because of his health or the erratic cycles of the Texas economy; in turn, so did the marriage. When, in the twenties, the Simpsons took the unusual step of divorce, Betty was exiled to Catholic boarding schools. (In later years she would refer to herself as “a recovering Catholic.”) She learned early that she was alone, but she was her father’s daughter and so accepted her fate without remorse or self-pity. Betty Simpson became, simply, contained, a quality that would later be mistaken for the sort of remoteness that drives men wild.
In the beginning, though, she was just another Highland Park girl. For a halcyon period, Betty returned to live with her father in a small brick house on Abbott Avenue; he let her go to Highland Park High School, a time she described in a 1993 Morning News profile as the “happiest, most idealistic time of my life.” She joined the right high school sorority (Theta Sigma Chi), danced at the Adolphus and the Dallas Country Club, and cheered from the bleachers on Friday nights. She was then just another startlingly pretty teenager who seemed poised to become the dutiful wife of some lucky Dallas scion—that is, until her father subverted the plan after her graduation from proper Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri. Maybe he sensed his high-spirited daughter would never make a conventional wife; maybe he saw in her face something that might make her fortune. At any rate, Sloan Simpson showed his daughter an ad for the Powers modeling agency in New York and suggested that she apply. Betty Simpson lost the requisite ten pounds, adopted her father’s first name as her own, and headed for Manhattan, probably imagining that she was closing the book on Texas forever.
BURIED IN SOME NEW YORK NEWSPAPER archive is a once-famous photograph of Sloane Simpson, Wallis Simpson (a.k.a. the Duchess of Windsor), and another socialite named Tootie Milfordhaven who, owing to a previous marriage, also had “Simpson” as her last name. “Those fabulous Simpson women,” the caption says, and when Sloane Simpson’s mother saw it, she was alarmed, imagining her daughter had offended the other, important women in the picture. In fact, the snapshot was a measure of Sloane Simpson’s swift and easy capture of New York society.
New York City and beautiful Texas women have always done well by each other, and Sloane was probably one of the first to sense the mutually advantageous relationship. New Yorkers like ï¿½air and personality, qualities that the ambitious daughters of wealthy Texans had to spare; they couldn’t apply their smarts to running the family businesses, so they developed that peculiarly feminine leadership quality known as style. In the forties Sloane’s insistence on doing things her way attracted the attention of New York society: “You know,” she told a friend, looking for something to wear in the garden, “the cowboys wear those denim pants.” By wearing her Levi’s in public, Sloane launched an enduring trend. Her taste won her a spot on the international best-dressed list, her moves a job on every good runway from Hattie Carnegie to Pauline Trigere. “She wasn’t arrogant, but she was very proud,” said the legendary fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert, a longtime Simpson friend. “She was completely self-assured.”
In a post-war world in which attachment and domesticity were the social norms, Sloane was a free spirit, the embodiment of a secret female fantasy to go it alone. Simpson was brieï¿½y married to a polo player named Carroll Dewey Hipp—an arrangement friends suggest was largely to appease her socially demanding mother. After that episode, however, Sloane seemed far more selective. One heartsick Brazilian suitor tumbled off a horse during a date in Central Park and was so mortified he apologized to Sloane with a large aquamarine ring. “He was a nice man to know,” recalled a woman acquainted with them both. “He would have given part of Brazil to be married to her.” Sloane, however, kept the ring and declined the offer. “She never pretended she would marry him,” the friend explained in her defense.
In fact, Sloane did not like doing anything she did not want to do, which is why she almost missed what would become the crucial moment in her life. Asked to appear at a fashion show at the Grand Central Palace convention center in 1948, Sloane wavered. Once there, however, she must have brightened when Eleanor Lambert introduced her to the mayor of New York. (“I wanna meet the brunette,” he had said.) The press certainly appreciated the magic of the moment, the point at which Sloane’s charmed life took on even more charming dimensions: She was one of the prettiest models in New York; he was the raucous William O’Dwyer, an enchanting Irish immigrant who had brawled his way up from street cop to Brooklyn district attorney before being elected mayor in 1945. Because O’Dwyer was a 58-year-old widowed public official and Sloane was a 32-year-old divorcée, the love affair was carried on in some secrecy—“The romance of Mayor O’Dwyer of New York and Miss Sloan Simpson was a mystery again tonight after both spent the day … denying wedding rumors,” noted the Times—but after Sloane received dispensation from the New York Archdiocese, the two were married in a small service in Florida in 1949. Manhattan reacted as only a style-obsessed city can. Miss Simpson Selects Blue for Her Wedding Ensemble trumpeted the Times’ front-page headline, describing in the place usually reserved for global news her navy-blue suit, blue velvet beret, and blue suede shoes with matching blue pocketbook.
In short order Sloane stepped into what may have been one of the most important jobs for a woman in the U.S., that of first lady of New York City. She appeared on the cover of Life in a cowboy hat and pearls, presaging Jackie Kennedy with a tour of the redecorated quarters at Gracie Mansion, Manhattan’s mayoral residence. She borrowed Irish paintings from the Metropolitan Museum, she hauled out her own tea service when she found none there, she rearranged the drawing room seating so that more people could sit close to the mayor. In social New York, these were seismic changes. “[S]he charmed politicians with her good looks and her ability to be gay without being a ï¿½ibbertigibbet,” Life wrote. “Friends of ebullient Bill O’Dwyer say he is thriving, as husbands should, under his young wife’s shrewd management. … ‘I,’ she says, ‘am the ‘no’ department.’”
Unfortunately, Sloane had taken on her Manhattan role just as her husband’s show was closing. Just one month after O’Dwyer’s 1949 reelection, a Brooklyn newspaper began a series describing local gambling operations and police payoffs that implicated the mayor. (Though Simpson insisted on her husband’s innocence throughout her life, one union representative would testify at a corruption hearing that he had given O’Dwyer an envelope containing $10,000 cash on the porch at Gracie Mansion.) Seven months after the election and after a Bronx Democratic boss interceded with President Harry Truman, O’Dwyer and his lovely bride were sent packing to Mexico. The mayor had been named ambassador, and Sloane Simpson O’Dwyer’s Mexican fairy tale had begun.
ONE LARGE SIXTEEN-MILLIMETER REEL-TO-REEL FILM of Sloane Simpson’s life remains, many hundred feet of which are devoted to her life in Mexico City. For a woman in exile, she looks quite cheerful: Here she is, hosting a party on the embassy grounds, the enormous nineteenth-century mansion decked out in huge ï¿½ags, the lawn sporting women in small hats and wasp-waisted dresses. In another segment she stars in a newsreel, “Hats for an Ambassador’s Wife.” Later she picnics at resorts near the capitol while O’Dwyer, in his bathing suit and smoking a pipe, jaws with other men in bathing suits smoking cigars. Sometimes Sloane looks anxious as she hustles people down a receiving line, but usually she looks dazzling, ever so happy to be there. “At first she really loved Mexico,” said one old friend.
Mexico must have appealed to her in the way it appeals to so many Americans who see a country of infinite resources and unfathomable beauty that isn’t living up to its potential—they assume they can improve it. Sloane arrived with silver place settings for 36 and the belief that she could change the natural order of things with a dinner party. In many ways, she did: She invited prominent Mexican families to embassy parties, she insisted that women be allowed to sit next to men other than their husbands at dinner. “She was the first woman who really had an active part in the embassy,” said Acapulco architect Ricardo Rojas Cañamar. “In those days women were part of the furniture. She broke with protocol.” She even tried to speak Spanish, fracturing the language in ways that charmed her new countrymen. “Me gusta montar caballeros,” she told the president of Mexico, trying to describe her love of horseback riding but accidentally describing another passion. “I like to ride men,” she’d said. Mexico, like Manhattan, fell in love: La Embajatriz, they called her, the ambassadress; in 1951 the Mexico City News even named her woman of the year.
“Sloane was macho,” said one observer. “Sloane was bravado,” topped another. In fact, as so often happens to those who try to change Mexico, the country had seduced Sloane with its ease and sensuality. Soon she was touting native crafts, affecting matador pants, and even trying her hand at bullfighting. “I really don’t fight bulls,” she would correct friends. “They’re cows.”
But if Mexico provided Sloane with a new way of life, O’Dwyer had no such luck. Called back to the U.S. to testify before a Congressional hearing, he was tainted by rumors that he would have to resign his post. He drank and with the drinking grew more and more suspicious of his beautiful young wife, who could tolerate anything but crowding. O’Dwyer’s jealousy eventually poisoned the marriage; later Sloane would tell friends that they might have stayed together if she had been able to stand up to him, but she could not. By the fall of 1952 she was making headlines again, this time denying divorce rumors as she had once denied reports of her impending marriage. “I never even knew there were such rumors until I was questioned by reporters when my train stopped at St. Louis,” she told the press on a visit back East. But by the end of 1953 the news was official: Simpson and O’Dwyer had been granted a temporary separation by Mexico City’s archbishop. Their civil divorce became final in 1954.
Back in circulation, Sloane took off with her mother to Spain, where, to the delight of the international press, she continued her bullfighting career and denied rumors of new romances, including one with the Argentine consul. (On the subject of romance, Simpson often tended toward the opaque. Quizzed about a reputed love affair with a British lord, she declared, “I’ve never been to London.”)
With her divorce final, Sloane returned to the States and a fallow period. She had divorced twice and had run through her money. Her family fortune was long gone, and she had refused any alimony from O’Dwyer. “She thought since she was the one who did the leaving she shouldn’t take any alimony,” said close friend and former model John Whyte. She launched herself as an actress on television and stage but, despite her whiskey voice and tempting sashay, found the limits of the glamour that had once been such a universal passport. (“Wears a trench coat with aplomb,” noted one review.) She regrouped and styled herself as a “celebrity model,” tutoring the likes of Grace Kelly down the runway and toward a Hollywood career. “Sloane wanted to do all that but couldn’t,” said one friend.
Eventually Sloane retreated to a house in New Hope, Pennsylvania, gardened and landscaped, hung her framed news clippings and magazine covers on what she christened her “egomaniac stairway,” and tried, at 44, to make peace with obscurity. But the sixties were beginning, and that was not her style.
SLOANE SIMPSON TITLED ANOTHER PIECE OF THE FILM she had saved “Ski Acapulco,” as if it were a road movie, and indeed, the two people appearing in it look like movie stars. There is a Mexican man with a perfect tan and a ï¿½awless torso, and there is a beautiful woman in a bathing cap, as long legged and trim waisted as a twenty-year-old. It takes a while for the action to get started: Sloane learns to get up on water skis, Sloane and the man ski, the man does elaborate tricks on skis, and the bay of Acapulco, sans the high-rise hotels that would soon line it, serves as a romantically conspiratorial backdrop. Judging from the body language and silent laughter of the film, it’s apparent that the man was one of Sloane’s many lovers there.
“This is an escape place,” said one longtime Acapulco resident. “It always has been.” The Acapulco of the late fifties and early sixties was a society in transition: It looked like the end of the road but was, in fact, the beginning of one. Home to one of the most wildly beautiful coastlines in the world—the white sand beaches are encircled by perilous cliffs and intractable vegetation—it is effusively sensual and incessantly sensuous, a place for people who want to forget, either for a short time or an extended period. For many years there were no roads leading into Acapulco: In the forties it was a glamorous hideout for assorted mobsters, movie stars, corporate honchos in need of R and R, curiously titled Europeans, and, of course, Texans with their own planes. “It was the greatest place in the world, and it will never happen again,” said gallery owner Jan Lavender.
With the creation of the road from Mexico City in 1955, however, Acapulco began a slow transition, maintaining the aura of romance and exclusivity as it appealed to larger and larger groups of people. The mountainside resort known as Las Brisas, for instance, offered postage stamp—sized swimming pools outside each and every casita, partly to meet the romantic needs of honeymooners but also, in the words of a former manager, “for the midwestern millionaire who couldn’t swim and his wife who had varicose veins and wouldn’t go to the beach.” It became, literally, a playground for the rich, a beautiful place where the beautiful people built beautiful homes in which to entertain other beautiful people, those who shuttled between Marbella, Monte Carlo, Palm Springs, and other hot spots on the social circuit.
Not that any of this mattered at all to Sloane Simpson when she arrived in Acapulco in 1960. Like so many people drawn to the place in the early days, she had simply run out of options. New York had nothing to offer her, and she had been feeling cramped sharing the New Hope house with her mother, who had been widowed in 1946. Then, on a visit to Acapulco, she dined with the manager of the Pierre Marqués, a new J. Paul Getty—owned luxury hotel there. He had a peculiar proposal: Would Sloane want to run his gift shop? If this proposition seemed beneath a woman who had been the first lady of New York and the wife of the ambassador to Mexico, well, those titles hadn’t done much for her lately. Sloane bolted for Acapulco. It was, after all, one of the few places in the world where the presence of a former glamour queen behind a hotel gift shop counter would not seem extraordinary.
In fact, Simpson had never abandoned Mexico and by then had earned the particular psychic credentials necessary to settle in Acapulco. Along with being in rather desperate economic straits, in the mid-fifties she had fallen in love with the very married father-in-law of Marianne Rivas, who would later become a close friend. The prominent, prosperous Mario Rivas owned two hotels, conveniently located in Mexico City and Acapulco. Traveling with her mother, Sloane met her lover frequently, to the growing consternation of the Mexican aristocracy. In Acapulco, for instance, they began each day by skiing across the bay, an action that may or may not have been responsible for the affair’s being written up in True Magazine, spreading the scandal to the States. “She really thought he was going to divorce his wife and marry her,” said one observer. “That was not Mexican. They just thought she was silly.” The ultra-Catholic Mexicans who had once loved Simpson now turned on her—to them she was a home wrecker and a tramp. In America it tarnished her reputation for refinement and elegance. (“A fatal mistake,” in the somewhat hyperbolic opinion of auto rental magnate and old friend Warren Avis.) But as they’d say in Acapulco, where men stashed their girlfriends, her behavior simply added to her consequence.
Hence the Pierre Marqués. “It was a terrible boutique,” recalled a close friend of Sloane’s. “Dreadful sandals and guayabera shirts.” Ever the professional, Sloane spruced it up, spending her time fashioning party gowns to order and delivering them to cruise ship customers herself. She even attempted to design the perfect bikini—early on she had scandalized the Mexicans by being the first to wear one on the beach in Acapulco—berating her seamstresses and exhorting a close friend in New York to find the best underwiring for the bra tops. “She had a hard time getting started,” said John Whyte. “She was starving there.” In fact, when she left the Pierre Marqués to open a shop of her own, her Mexican partner left her in a lurch by pulling out, and the business collapsed. In desperation Sloane arranged a trip back to the U.S. in 1964 to finally ask O’Dwyer, with whom she had remained friendly, for money. Going through customs she got the news: “You’re Mrs. O’Dwyer?” the agent asked, eyeing her passport. “That embezzler husband of yours just died.”
At that point a more cautious person might have questioned the value of living entirely according to one’s own rules, but Sloane just downsized: The good family silver that had once been featured at Gracie Mansion and the embassy in Mexico City was now used for smaller gatherings, she traded apartments with friends in New York and Los Angeles when she needed a trip, she exchanged her designer clothes for big straw hats and colorful native garb that were, conveniently, appropriate for her new locale. If casual love affairs had left her virtue a bit tarnished—“I’ve had the morals of an alley cat,” she would confess many years later—she had not lost her ability to charm. A man she had encouraged at a beach sing-along would subsequently receive a songbook in the mail; a man who had lost touch with his daughter decades back would find that Sloane had orchestrated a reunion. By then nicotine had coarsened her laugh and deepened the lines in her face, but she remained game for anything. “I would have done anything for her,” said Warren Avis.
Still, Sloane was in a bind. She consulted a numerologist, who suggested that she add an e to her first name. Acceding, she told a friend, “Maybe it will make things better.”
IN AN ADVERTISEMENT FEATURING SLOANE SIMPSON that ran in the sixties, she is supposed to look like she is having a good time. She is wearing what became a trademark straw hat, a scarf, large earrings, and a Pucci print or a variation of one. One of those ersatz antique telephones is pressed to her ear, and her eyes, fringed with thick false eyelashes, are as wide as her smile, as if she were overhearing or passing on a delectable piece of gossip. The headline on the poster is “Sloan Simpson exposes Acapulco.” The ad touts a new service of Braniff International: Call Sloan.
“For years an exclusive Jet Set resort,” the copy began, “Acapulco has long been shrouded in mystery. Now Sloan Simpson, a charter member of the Jet Set, exposes their innermost secrets.” What followed was a sampling of the tips Acapulco travelers could glean by simply calling Simpson upon their arrival, from restaurant listings to baby-sitters to other, more esoteric concerns. “Where can I find a handsome, devilish, charming man who looks like an El Greco and cares only for me? In heaven. Do I have to bring my mother? Only if she is young for her age, likes to swing, is good looking and will not cramp your style.”
The poster was the creation of Wells, Rich, and Greene, the premier ad agency of the time, for its most visible client, Dallas-based Braniff International. In 1965 the carrier inaugurated a ï¿½ight to Acapulco, the first U.S. company to do so. Texans were behind the deal: Dallasite Harding Lawrence ran the airline, and the route was made at the urging of Braniff board member and Dallas financier Troy Post, who had designs on Acapulco. It was Lawrence’s ad executive wife, Mary Wells, who made Braniff the most stylish airline in the sky—in an age of regulated fares and routes, the company painted its planes bold colors and dressed its stews in Pucci-designed uniforms to attract status-conscious customers. Overnight the ï¿½ight south became the airborne equivalent of a tony Texas car pool: Originating in Dallas, it stopped in Houston and then in San Antonio before moving on to Mexico, picking up the state’s fastest crowd at every stop. Clearly, Braniff needed a very special person to be its public face in Acapulco.
Sloane’s salvation, then, was not the numerologist but Mary Wells, who saw success in institutionalizing what came naturally to Sloane. All the chips in her social veneer—the ex-husbands, the reduced circumstances, the insistence on doing things her way—looked good in Acapulco, where it could be perceived that Sloane had thrown off the burdens of city life to live free south of the border. By the mid-sixties Acapulco had shifted from a society of individualists to a society of followers (“Watch me,” international socialite Gloria Guinness once told a friend. “I’m gonna tell all these people they should cut off their blue jeans and fringe ’em and they’ll do it”). And Sloane, pushing fifty but still beautiful, was perfect for the carefree but sophisticated image Braniff, and Acapulco, wanted to project.
By then, of course, life in Acapulco had become much more elaborate. It hadn’t been enough that local divers jumped off cliffs with ï¿½aming torches to entertain the tourists; now there were enormous discos with roofs that opened to display nightly fireworks and go-go girls dancing in silhouette against the mountains. Sex, which had once been casual, had become ritualized: The single upscale whorehouse had been eclipsed by transvestite revues and a booming business in Mexican beachboys, gay and straight. Dallas’ Troy Post was dreaming up Tres Vidas, “the most exclusive country club in the world,” counting Prince Rainier, among others, as a member.
Nowhere was this kind of social complexity more apparent than in the parties. Once it had been enough to hire an instructor to teach the twist to a gathering on the beach. “The parties were wherever you fell down,” explained one veteran. But as more wealthy and world famous people arrived, boredom and competitiveness set in. The necessity arose for caterers: lavish buffets of shrimp, fish, beef, chicken, and pork tenderloin became the norm. The necessity arose for an Acapulco wardrobe: “When a party is formal that means men are supposed to wear socks,” a hostess told the Times, but in fact the women favored designer dresses with their bare feet. Of course, someone had to organize such lavish productions, particularly to control the guest lists. Sloane Simpson of Manhattan, Mexico City, and the bullrings of Spain was clearly the best person for the job. “Acapulco was the last place that you could get into the jet set,” explained John Whyte. “If you were going down to Acapulco and you wanted to know all the right people, you went to Sloane.”
She had started out planning parties, then hustled her way into a job as a stringer for Women’s Wear Daily, and from there her reputation as a hostess grew exponentially. It may be that Sloane triumphed in Acapulco because she was the only person who was not personally interested in social advancement. “I’m tired of sit-down dinners,” she’d grouse, heading for a picnic on the beach. “Let’s have a lie-down lunch.” She took her poodle to a luncheon for Prince Phillip (the dog surreptitiously snacked off the royal’s plate), served egg salad to Halston and Lady Bird, let Prince Albert bunk in her apartment, and walked the perimeter of Merle Oberon’s villa rather than go shoeless on the marble ï¿½oors, as the haughty actress demanded. (“Sloane liked to fight,” noted Marianne Rivas, recalling the time she bounced some party crashers from the Lawrences’ table.) She styled her soirées in opposition to the standard Acapulcan crush, setting up small dinners featuring opera and conversation or something even more unusual. Feting macabre cartoonist Charles Addams, for instance, she wore long braids as the Addams Family’s Wednesday and urged people to come in coffins. “Of the whole retinue, Sloane was the most down-to-earth,” said gallery owner E. G. McGrath. “It came naturally to her to be a star.” (It didn’t hurt that Sloane had taken herself out of the husband-hunting sweepstakes. She liked to say that she would marry again when she found a man with wealth and a title but had not yet found one with both qualifications; while clever, this smartly glossed over the fact that such men now had their choice of much, much younger women.)
Soon enough, the Braniff job was making Sloane and Acapulco even bigger celebrities. “Acapulco is Sloane’s scene,” announced the Call Sloan press release. “She lives here throughout the year and is on a first name basis with all the beautiful people . . . Kirk Douglas, Merle Oberon Paliai, Emilio Pucci, Presidents, Dukes, Counts and Earls, Sloane knows them all. She attends their parties and they attend hers.” It was true that when Bill Buckley wanted to read up on the place, he got Sloane’s version of Acapulco history, and when Peter Sellers wanted a British car and driver, it became Sloane’s duty to oblige. But now, as Braniff’s “Ambassador of Fun,” she was also selling Acapulco to the tourists the jet set disdained: writing Acapulco guides, advising travelers where they could see the stallion that danced while its owner did rope tricks or where they could find Mexican food prepared “for gringo taste buds.”
If it was annoying to be at the beck and call of international socialites and ordinary Texas tourists, Sloane never said so. Perhaps it was because, for the first time, she had taken something for herself in the bargain. “She bought this piece of land and decided to do what she had always dreamed,” said architect Ricardo Rojas. The site was high atop a hill overlooking the bay, shaded by an enormous Indian laurel that was home to a family of bats. In the early seventies she built the two-story white brick hybrid, open to the elements like all Mexican houses on the bay side, but meeting the street straightforwardly, without the mitigating Mexican wall. “Sloanial, not colonial” was the way she described it. Simpson scoured the country to decorate it with Mexican crafts and, in the nicest way, called in favors to cover her costs: A pantyhose mogul and his wife for whom she’d provided introductions loaned her the money to build and then leased the house back from her during the social season for an amount that covered the mortgage. “They gave it to her,” explained John Whyte.
By then the Avenida Costera Miguel Alemán, the city’s main drag, was choked with traffic, the high rises lining the bay always full. Acapulco had grown into the most popular resort in Mexico, and Sloane Simpson, one of its primary boosters, had built the city in the best Texas tradition: without investing any of her own capital.
“SHE HAD A CHANCE TO SELL THE HOUSE,” is the oblique way friends describe the beginning of the end of Sloane Simpson’s 39-year love affair with Mexico. She had shared the place in later years with her aged mother; when she died, Sloane found herself longing for less space and responsibility and so moved herself and her still-famous silver service into a high-rise condominium just off the Costera. Ever sanguine, she positioned her sculpture by Acapulco artist Victor Salmones on the balcony overlooking the bay. Titled Free, it depicted a young nude escaping his shackles. “That’s the story of my life,” Sloane liked to say.
But shortly thereafter, it wasn’t: During the eighties Acapulco, so long a place unto itself, had to learn that it was a part of the rest of Mexico. The government turned its attention to building other kinds of resorts, places for people who would never be featured in Women’s Wear Daily, and at the same time imminent financial collapse forced the devaluation of the peso. Locals—including Sloane Simpson—found their money worth half what it had been the day before. Events in the States also diminished her options: Deregulation of the airline business soon forced Braniff into bankruptcy. Sloane, classified as an “international executive,” was supposed to receive a $1,000 a month pension but instead got one check for $500. The beautiful people could move on—and they did—but by the early eighties, Sloane was trapped. It was possible that Mexico began to look very grim to her, a place where the servants she’d costumed in native garb were no longer enchanting but desperately poor, where haggling and payoffs were not charming local customs but bitter reï¿½ections of the struggles of day-to-day life.
Sloane considered New York but could not afford it, finally opting for the other place she thought she might feel most at home, Dallas. In what seemed like a short time, she gave away many of her belongings—“The best asses in New York sat on that chair,” she told one friend as she parted with furniture—and, using the money she had left, bought two condos at 2525 Turtle Creek in 1989. “I don’t think she would have sashayed off to Dallas if she hadn’t thought she’d be Miss Dallas after being Miss Acapulco,” said one society type. “She expected something she did not get.”
Indeed, the wealthy Dallasites who had needed her in Acapulco did not need her back home. They met with her a time or two and then moved on. “I didn’t really know her,” many of them say today. “I just saw her at parties,” say others. “When she came to Dallas, the first few months she got in touch with me and said she’d love to see me and review old times, but we just never did meet,” said Wendy Reves. “One friend said to me, ‘You know, maybe she just never realized you were as big a fish as you are.’”
Sloane pretended not to care—“The last thing I want to be is a society matron,” she liked to say—and began again, busying herself with the opera guild and, when funds allowed, traveling to Europe. Gamely, she learned to shop for designer discounts at Syms, tried to teach herself to pump her own gas, and at McDonald’s even attempted to order her hamburgers rare. True to her nature, she did not complain, even after a doctor diagnosed her pain and fatigue as lung cancer. “She never got bitter,” said Harry Bowman, a former Dallas Morning News arts writer who befriended Simpson in Acapulco and became her closest confidant and caretaker in Dallas. “She never looked back in anger at anything.” That Sloane might have had unfinished business with Mexico was detectable only by the fact that she never went back—she never even placed a long-distance call. Only rarely did Sloane give in to regret at all. “She was a very successful courtesan,” Simpson told Bowman after the death of the famously seductive ambassadress to France, Pamela Harriman. “And I wasn’t.”
“At least she’s pretty,” Simpson said of the nurse she hired when she became too ill to care for herself. On good days Sloane taught her how to arrange a sickbed when visitors were coming and how to set a formal table. “Use your china. Use your silver,” she urged the woman, who confessed to keeping her good things packed away. “You’re going to miss things in life by waiting.”
When the end came, someone asked if she’d like a priest. “I don’t think that would be a very good idea,” Sloane replied. Her funeral was sparsely attended, but perhaps that was fitting too for a woman who always lived in the moment. “I’ve had a good life,” Sloane told a friend just before slipping away. “If this is the end, so be it.” By then she had become an archetype anyway, her style imitated by everyone from Lynn Wyatt and Ann Richards to every other Texas hostess who ever let out a whiskey laugh or reached for the good silver without really knowing why.