Thursday, April 12, 2012

California It Girls- Slim Keith

She was born Nancy Gross in the agricultural town of Salinas, but would one day be hailed as the original California girl and the inspiration for movie and novel characters. She grew up in Pacific Grove where she left Catholic high school early and headed out alone in a cute yellow roadster, to the California desert's Furnace Creek Inn to widen her experience. There she befriended movie star William Powell, and became part of his Hollywood circle. Through her connections, love of fun and people, she became close friends with William Randolf Hearst and girlfriend Marion Davies and their frequent guest at Hearst Castle. She later became the toast of Hollywood, New York and London with marriages to Hollywood director Howard Hawks, Broadway producer Leland Hayward and later an Englishman, Sir Kenneth Keith. This girl who grew up near Cannery Row with humble origins and an abusive father, had a confidence and a zest for life. Along with her enthusiasm and humor was her very original, natural and clean-scrubbed California style which made men crazy for her.

Harper's Bazaar

With first husband Howard Hawks.

Her look was sexy and outdoorsy, chic and athletic, which is what made her unique in a Hollywood era in which snoods, pompadours and frills were the norm. As a result she was dubbed the first “California Girl.” Slim believed in having what she called a “house uniform” by day. She favored khakis, tailored shirts, trousers and jackets, soft moccasin-like loafers and thick angora socks she knitted herself.
Annette Tapert writing about Slim Keith in “A Salute to Women in Uniform” for the WSJ

Hunting with pal Ernest Hemingway in Sun Valley 1941. 
Robert Capa/International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos

In her memoir she describes her style in her own words: 

"In my day, different meant not having your hair done in a pompadour and adorning it with a snood, or not trying to hide your intelligence behind a sea of frills. I somehow knew there was a glut in that market. I opted for a scrubbed-clean, polished look. I thought it was more important to have an intelligence that showed, a humor that never failed, and a healthy interest in men.''

Sun Valley. With her striped T and aviators, she'd be in fashion right now.

Slim actually found Lauren (then Betty) Bacall in a Bazaar magazine ad and picked her as Bogart's co-star in husband Howard Hawk's, To Have and Have Not. Bacall even wore Slim's clothes in the movie and used Slim's sayings, including the famous, ''You know how to whistle, don't you?''
Lauren and Slim later became long time friends and you can see the influence of Slim in Bacall's style.

With second husband, Leland Hayward.

With Gary Cooper in Sun Valley.

Watering artichokes in her California garden.

In Ladies Home Journal 1945.

She graced the cover of Bazaar at age 22 and was the first private citizen to win the Neiman Marcus fashion award for inspiring others with her style.

Receiving the Neiman Marcus Fashion Award 1946.

With Hemingway her ardent admirer.

With the love of her life Leland Howard on their wedding day.

Posing with daughter Kitty Hawks, now a famous decorator.

Slim with Diana Vreeland and her husband Reed.

Slim's memoir with its tales of her glamorous and globe-trotting life.  Her close friends ran the gamut from Hemingway to Truman Capote and Babe Paley. It's one of the most loved books in my library. Published in 1990, I've had it about that long, but you can still find it. I just couldn't put down this tale of how she spun a charmed life for herself with her moxie and great taste. Wonderful images too.

I loved sharing this story of an original California girl.


Photos unless noted from the book, Slim, by Slim Keith.


  1. Slim was so beautiful and could have stepped out of a present day Calvin Klein ad - she looks so modern amongst these people and must have really stood out at the time. I first read about her in a fantastic book called The Power Of Style by Anne Tapert which is now out of print but you'd really love if you found an old copy. Hope you're having a great week, xxx

  2. Dear Mrs Exeter, How are you? Thanks for commenting. I wasn't sure anyone was going to like this post! I have admired Slim for a long time and have The Power of Style too. it's one of my favorites and I think that's where I first read about her. You are so right about Calvin Klein ads. She would have been perfect.


  3. Great post - I find it interesting how her "different" is now our "classic" re clothes and accessories - those sandals would be totally in style today.

  4. intersting post - i had never heard of her before...

  5. Enjoyed reading this -- have always been fascinated with the likes of Slim Keith, Babe Paley and the other ladies who lunch -- going to the Stork Club, etc. Thanks for posting this. I'm going to look for the book.

  6. Many years ago, I was lucky enough to have stumbled upon Slim's book in the discount rack of a local store. There was just something in her expression on the cover photo that made me buy the book, and I took it home and became an avid reader and fan of slim's story.With her simple, well spoken honesty,You quickly come to appreciate how well she could cut to the heart of the subject,while still seducing your attention with story details as charming as she must have been in life. In relation to Slim, the old adage" They don't make em like they used to" surely applies now more than ever.

    1. Dear Londongirl,
      I think I came across her book in the same way on a clearance table! I also was enchanted with her writing style and her zest for adventure. Something about her and her story was just so compelling. It still ranks up there as one of my favorite reads. I agree, she was one of a kind!

      Thanks for your note!


  7. Bessette-Kennedy certainly aped Slim Keith's look, didn't she. Right down to the hair, the clothing and there you go with the Calvin Klein connection. If one searches hard enough, although most have been mysteriously removed, one can find high school age photos of B-K with brown wavy hair. She turned herself into Slim and never turned back. The transformation was total. Pull up some photos of both and see for yourself.