The jet set’s soaring style

Beneath the confection of golden lives lies the need to work at pleasure

Barbara Amiel December 29 1980

The jet set’s soaring style

Beneath the confection of golden lives lies the need to work at pleasure

Barbara Amiel December 29 1980

The jet set’s soaring style


Beneath the confection of golden lives lies the need to work at pleasure

Barbara Amiel

They have either a year-round tan or an unusual hobby, quite often both. They also tend to have money—in the family, in the bank or just in their handmade shoes—but wouldn’t want anyone to think it defines them. “It doesn’t buy happiness,” says Canada’s Anne-Marie Sten, sitting in the Paris apartment she rents from Baron Alain Rothschild.

It is style that distinguishes them: a self-fulfilling confidence that the world is a friendly playpen for them to climb, conquer and explore. They have battered leather-edged journals of entries describing evenings with friendly villagers in Nepal or chats with royalty. “They were all so warm and giving,” says Shelagh Vansittart, owner of a chic Toronto furniture store, speaking of the Dalai Lama and the Maharajah of Jaipur. Aviation gave them their current title—the jet set—evoking images of clubby travellers wafting across borders with sleek impunity. “If it’s six o’clock, I think she’s left for the Tyrol,” says Toronto Deputy Crown Attorney Stephen Leggett of his wife, Catherine. As a group they seem, with few complications, to have escaped the constraints of family, career and money that order the lives of the rest of us.

Perhaps that’s why they attract so much attention. They live our fantasies—the confection and fizz of golden lives. And they merit some attention because they are at times a barometer of popular cultural values and lifestyle. “It’s a common mistake,” says author and psychiatrist Andrew Malcolm, “to believe that these people called ‘jet-setters’ or ‘trend-setters’ are in fact the people setting the trends. Society sets them. The trend-setters register them. They are simply the needle on the dial, not the cause of the needle moving.”

As they have been throughout history. What we know of the values of other periods comes from reading about the trend-setters of times past—until this century almost exclusively kings, aristocrats and members of the court. The wicked pens of satirists from Alexander Pope to Tom Wolfe have captured for posterity the values, or lack of them. Canada is no different. Part of the culture’s goals and assumptions are there to be extracted from the gentle whooshings of its jet set.

They all work. Today there isn’t a jetsetter to be found who doesn’t have a

job that is “fulfilling.” Some are so distressed by the unabashed hedonism of the old-style crowd that they are almost underground jetters—if that wasn’t such a contradiction in terms. “I don’t see myself as a jet-setter,” says Toronto’s Richard G. Meech, a Harvard grad and world traveller. “That’s a term for hedonistic joy-seekers who abuse local culture as a playground.”

It all sounds uncommonly responsible for a 26-year-old bachelor currently marking time rather pleasantly as the organizer of special-interest tours, even one with Meech’s anthropological bent. Still, what such attitudes reflect is the potency of the currently chic work ethic. “I don’t spend time lying around beaches just relaxing,” insists 34-yearold Umberto Menghi, a Vancouver restaurateur whose passions include “spontaneous picnics” in which happy participants soar about in balloons until they find the perfect spot to descend and nibble on venison. “Travel is for my work, a constant checking up on wine cellars and cuisine.”

No one is idle, not for a moment, even when ballooning over vineyards or wandering the hills of Sri Lanka. They are absorbing, appreciating, contributing. It is simply unfashionable to drift. Work has social cachet. Gloria Vanderbilt sells jeans. “I’m doing this to pay my heating bill,” said Margaret Trudeau when opening a Montreal shopping complex this month. “And because I find it wonderful to meet people.”


Money is déclassé. If the Canadian jet set is united by the happiness of being productive members of the labor force, there is also a strong measure of agreement on the negligible role of money in their lives— together with a lifestyle that depends on scads of it.

It’s true that money alone is no entrée. To be a millionaire means little in jet-set terms. In Calgary, a city in which money collects in pools, there are few jet-setters. Sable-paw bedspreads and $8,000 black acrylic bathtubs are not enough. The few Calgarians who may qualify for inclusion focus their leisure time on the pursuit of the ideal polo game: they fret about the condition of their stables while lunching in Paris. But the polo players themselves want to downplay the idea that anything more than enthusiasm and balance is required. “Our facilities are very modest,” says Bill Daniels, past president of the 90-year-old Calgary Polo Club, as he talks about the prefab buildings and low maintenance costs. He declines to reveal the dues.

The attitude that seeks to minimize exclusivity seems, in part at least, a

response to the egalitarianism of the age. “One of the demeaning characteristics of our times,” says political science professor John Ridpath of York University, “is the feeling that having more money is in some way inherently unfair.” Meanwhile, the Calgary polo set swing their mallets in India, Australia, England—even Ghana. Says Panarctic Oil President Charles Hetherington, president of the El Dorado Polo Club in Palm Desert, Calif: “Financially, polo doesn’t cost much. All we really have is the oats bill.”

In Paris, Anne-Marie Sten, a warm and generous 26-year-old whose eightroom apartment is a stopping-off point for Canada’s jetters—“Shelagh Vansittart arrived last week with a sleeping bag on her way from Asia”—fluctuates between a sense of elation at the cash flow she enjoys and a feeling that perhaps it would be better these days to present herself as a student in Paris. “I did some crazy things with money my first year in Paris,” she says. “You just go wild. But now it doesn’t mean anything to me. I’m too busy studying.”

Sten grew up in a comfortable middle-class professional home in Woodbridge, Ont. After high sehool and some modelling experience, she took the jetsetter’s mandatory trial flight to Paris. She arrived in 1977 with all the confidence of youth—and her devastating six-foot siren looks.

She was spotted first by Claude Terrail, the 60ish gentleman who owns the famous Tour d’Argent Paris restaurant. “He was very formal and stuffy,” says Sten, “but he introduced me to everybody in French society.” And out of it. It was while Terrail was squiring Sten about that Saudi Arabian emissary and arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi noticed her. She also took note of him. “He was in a nightclub surrounded by girls who

looked about 15 years old. I calculated that the best thing to do was to say ‘no’ to a dinner date and ‘yes’ to lunch.”

The romance has lasted three years. “I prefer to give than to receive,” says Sten, whose gifts to Khashoggi included birthday songs she wrote and recorded in a Paris studio: “He’s like an arrow passing through/He’ll touch your life and dreams come through/Have your cake and eat it too/No one could take your place, who could come after you.” Sten’s life has become a glossy magazine existence of parties, furs, diamonds, a 2,500-franc-a-month apart-

ment next door to one of Khashoggi’s houses and successive trips to Ibiza, Morocco or Riyadh. It even brought her into the après-ski resorts of state. In 1978, she was skiing in Vail, Col., as a guest of Pierre Elliott Trudeau—an acquaintance renewed late last month at a private dinner party for Trudeau at the Paris home of Saudi Arabian entrepreneur Akram Ojeh. “That was a wonderful evening,” muses Sten, adding thoughtfully, “ after dinner we all went swimming.”

Like a great bird of paradise, Sten flits bejewelled and bedecked through the fantasy social scene of Paris balls and bistros, admired by all. Perhaps her conversations of frenetic, almost vulnerable intensity reveal the strain of being a constant bird of paradise. Possibly it is a response to her rootless existence.

Unlike anthropology major Meech, Sten’s curiosity about the cultures of the world she sees in her travels from bistros in Paris to discos in Ibiza lacks an academic base. But with the jet-set enthusiasm for a career, Sten is taking lessons—singing, acting, dancing and Arabic. By day, she sits at her piano, equipped with an echo chamber (“just a dinky one, not expensive”) and composes songs. At night she lives her Paris Match life, full of lusty tales and carryings-on that would scandalize them back home in Woodbridge.

Or would it? If anything, ordinary society has caught up with the jet-setters in this one area. The outrageous sexual and marital escapades that were always the prerogative of the glamor classes of society, from Cleopatra to Barbara Hutton or Bettina and Rubirosa, are now pretty much the stuff of Pointe-Claire or Burnaby. Serial monogamy, commonlaw arrangements, homosexual encounters and so on, are by no means unknown in middle-class life. The only difference, perhaps, is that jet-setters have the funds to make such things as divorce easier—or more high-profile. In Vancouver, residents watched with astonishment this month as wheelerdealer Nelson Skalbania had his eightbathroom, eight-bedroom house with swimming pool and guest cottage auctioned off piece by piece until virtually nothing was left but the littered bricks and beams picked clean by scavenging buyers. The reason: wife No. 2 hankered after a Greek villa in the same location instead of the French-provincial home that had formerly belonged to Charles (Chunky) Woodward.

The world is a friendly playpen for them to climb, conquer and explore

Still, there is some disdain for this sort of West Coast “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” vulgarity among the eastern contingent. “Skalbania? Kanke? Capozzi?” says Toronto’s Vansittart. “I don’t believe I know these people. But I don’t think ostentation is part of the jet-set life .... I remember a lady who came into my interior design shop in Toronto and she looked so dowdy in her shapeless tweed suit that I thought I’d better avoid the luxury fabrics and show her the sale ones. Finally, she threw her hands up in the air. ‘For God’s sake, Shelagh,’ she said, ‘I’m wearing my bird-watching clothes.’ Well, you can be either the bird or the watcher.”

Spontaneity is almost everything: Douglas Leopold’s style is Montreal méchant. He does not dress, he costumes. Street clothing may be jodhpurs or a Japanese kimono. Parties are stacked up each evening like planes circling Kennedy airport. Leopold arrives at them late and leaves quickly.

He began as a nice Westmount Jewish boy and lasted among the maids and paintings until he first heard his society mother whisper “Paris.” (Paris is the one constant in every jet-setter’s universe. They yearn for it, gravitate to it, lose their virginity and Canadian accents in it.) Leopold, now 37, perfected his Oxford-accented French there and came back to “do” public relations. He ended up with a higher profile than his clients and is now a fixture on CKMF radio. His talk is spiced with expressions particulières like “tout le tra-lala” and “mon Coco” and his style is to appear even more outrageous than he is, which is difficult even given his penchant for hyperbole. “Leopold,” says CKMF disc jockey Alain Montpetit, “is marvelous and inventive and is outrage itself. If he is not watched he could spin into extraordinary self-destruction.”

For Leopold, the party, the happening, the spontaneity is all. Which nearly did self-destruct last June when he went on-air at radio station CKMF, unscheduled and without informing management, and threw a party, extending an invitation over the airwaves to “tout le tra-la-la” to come over to the studio and join him. The melee got him suspended for a week.

Toronto’s Catherine Leggett, 32, born in Rio de Janeiro to Canadian parents who were looking after family business (Brazilian Traction Ltd., later to become Brascan), grew up sitting on a Louis Vuitton steamer trunk. By the time she was back in Canada the world had no borders, just locations. This dauntless attitude to travel is matched by Leggett’s energy; in one month this year she travelled to New York three times and paid single visits to Washington, Belgium, Spain, Rio, Paris—for her birthday—and Austria. Spontaneity, Leggett-style, sent her off to find the fabled blue men of the Sahara Desert, an impulse ended only when the jeep carrying the intrepid five-months-pregnant adventurer hit a rock. Back in Marrakesh, Leggett staggered into the chic Mamounia in her terylene maternity pantsuit to find Douglas Leopold lounging by the pool reading English Vogue. Two spontaneous jet-setters had met.

This constant fleeting pattern of encounter, however, has its drawbacks. Durability is not a feature of the social style of the set. Said one observer at Leggett’s Christmas ball this year: “I’ve been coming here for three years and I recognize only one other survivor.”

Styles vary according to the province of origin. AngloCanada is more obsessed with appearances and the puritan values. Montrealers do seem to thrive on Leopold’s sort of continental decadence. “If I bring a handsome young boy with me to a party,” he comments, “Montreal matrons will come up to me and say, ‘what a beautiful body.’ Do that in Toronto and 400 matrons will stop drinking tea.” In Vancouver, says social commentator Denny Boyd, “it’s more of a jock-set mentality than a jetset one.” B.C. tastes do tend to be hearty. Champagne is quaffed like beer. Viva, Vancouver’s newest in-spot, owned by Bud Kanke, is said to sell more Dom Perignon than any other place in Canada (five cases a week at $90 a pop). Picnics feature moose rather than truffled tenderloin. When gambling goes on between the high-rollers it is more likely over a game of racquetball ($10,000 wagered on one game between Herb Capozzi and Nelson Skalbania) than chemin de fer.


But the concerns of the age do creep into jet-set life. Twenty years ago cruising the Aegean was the style. Today’s Canadians are more likely, à la Toronto’s Scott Griffin or Pierre Trudeau, to shoot white water in the Arctic or to feel, as Richard Meech does, that one must “enter a culture as an organic whole, and be careful not to take anything away from it.” Much emphasis is put on the necessity to “work at pleasure.” Toronto’s Norman Elder, the extraordinary explorer and author (This Thing of Darkness) is probably the only member of Canada’s jet set who every j etter agrees is a member.

Today’s jet-setters may pretend to be more enamored of work and business than they actually are. Catherine Leggett wants it clearly understood that much of her travelling is done for business (she’s a director and translator for a large U.S. manufacturer with international business) so that people won’t think she’s frivolous. Douglas Leopold wants it known that not a penny of the money that supports his lifestyle comes from his family.

But paying even lip service to sobriety, hard work and conservation, whether for self-image or the tax man’s benefit, is at least a recognition of other values. Hypocrisy—in Oscar Wilde’s definition “the tribute that vice pays to virtue”—is not necessarily a bad thing. It is certainly more refreshing than the snobbish belief held by high society as recently as a couple of generations ago that all play and no work were the signs of genuine superiority.