Catherine Nugent, a former queen of Toronto high society, appears to be down on her luck
Catherine Nugent, a former queen of Toronto high society, appears to be down on her luck
LAST WINTER, former Toronto Sun columnist Barbara Kingstone decided throw a party. She’d just been through months of chemotherapy after a sevc bout of cancer, and it was her birthday. So, to celebrate, she invited 60 frier for a buffet dinner on Dec. 4 at the elegant Balmoral Avenue house she shares with her psychiatrist husband, Dr. Edward Kingstone. Despite a major snowstorm, most of those invited showed up, a diverse group including artist Charles
Pachter, lawyer Clayton Ruby and former diplomat Martin Stone. Merchant banker Georges Benarroch flew in from Palm Beach, Fla. Surveying the room, interior designer John Manuel commented that it was a scene worthy of Vanity Fair.
Among the attendees was a trio of former socialites and long-time friends: Carole Grafstein, Cathie Bratty and Catherine Nugent. The latter, in particular—dressed in a tight-fitting red satin top, high heels and narrow black pants—made a splash. Nugent, it seemed, was very much back in Toronto’s high society. When she left Canada in the late 1990s with her husband, David, ostensibly to live a life of luxury amid the French elite and to cruise on their yacht on the Riviera, it seemed a fitting denouement to the life of a once-powerful and wealthy socialite. Perhaps, whispers went, Canada had become too small for her and she was scaling the international scene. She and David settled into an elegant house with magnificent gardens and a pool in Mougins, on the Riviera. Catherine was seen out and about in Paris, where Toronto art dealer Bruce Bailey ran into her repeatedly at fashion shows and saw her slipping into the back rooms after the shows with the rest of the haute couture clients.
However, that enviable sailing off into the sunset did not turn out exactly as planned. And after Catherine returned to Toronto a few years ago, settling into an apartment,
taking her first paying job in years and possibly estranged from David, it was rumoured that she was broke. Here she was, back among the crème de la crème. But could she still afford to be on top?
CATHERINE had cut a wide swath in the Canadian social scene in the ’70s and ’80s. For almost two decades, she was the ruling glitter girl in an era where glitter and glitz reigned supreme. Born in Brazil in 1948, the daughter of a high-ranking Brazilian Traction executive, Canadian native Bob Mackenzie, and his wife, Peggy, she became accustomed to the constant and carefree social whirl that enveloped her expatriate parents and their friends. Sent off at the age of 14 to Netherwood School for Girls in Rothesay, N.B., she was thrown into the cold, wintry atmosphere of a rule-bound Canadian boarding school, an abrupt lifestyle change from Brazil. This was Catherine’s first encounter with a hostile environment, and she learned very quickly how to turn the system to her advantage, rising quickly through the ranks to become head girl.
The lessons learned at Netherwood would stand her in good stead throughout her adult life. After studying languages at Toronto’s York University, in her early 20s she married Crown attorney Stephen Leggett, whom she met while working at the courts as a Portuguese interpreter. They moved
into the Tudor-style mansion in Rosedale that Stephen paid for in 1974 with money he and his doctor father had made in the stock market.
Armed with a suitable lawyer husband and a Rosedale residence, Catherine then set out to conquer the Canadian social world. She joined various volunteer groups for organizations such as the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Toronto Symphony. She formed a fast alliance with fellow Brazilian expatriate Anna Maria de Souza, launching the successful Brazilian Ball out of a church basement in 1966. By the 1980s,
Catherine had begun to make a name for herself. She appeared in a 1980 Maclean’s cover story on Canada’s jet set, was a regular in Zena Cherry’s Globe and Mail society column and had been given a double photo spread in the hoity-toity U.S. Town & Country magazine.
Behind the scenes, however, there was trouble—money trouble. Upkeep for the couple’s eight-bedroom house, a housekeeper, a maid, a part-time chauffeur and a nanny for their two daughters, Margot and Jacqueline, made for a costly life. Later there was the girls’ tuition at Branksome Hall, the private girls’ school several blocks away.
But these expenses didn’t cramp Catherine’s style—or her shopping sprees. “She would go into David’s and spend 10 Gs on shoes and then whip across the street to Birks and drop $3,000 for a pair of earrings,” says an acquaintance. The bills were another matter. They were piling up and Stephen, as a Crown attorney, was not making the money to pay them.
The pair became estranged. Catherine began spending lunch hours and afternoons with David Nugent, a perfume distributor for Alfred Sung. Finally Catherine told Stephen she was leaving him; the Leggetts had an uncontested divorce. Stephen left Catherine the house and an undisclosed lump sum, and David moved in. The Nugents had a splashy society wedding on June 24, 1987. Their son, Johnathon, was born in 1989.
David and Catherine were two of a kind, both fascinated with the social world and social climbing, both elegant and charming, both lacking good old-fashioned frugality. If anything, Catherine’s habits in her second marriage became more excessive. She and David kept a yacht at the Bluffers Park Yacht Club and travelled extensively—to St. Moritz, Guadeloupe and Paris. July might find them cruising on the Mediterranean.
It was a heady life for David, who had emigrated from England in 1972. Soon after he arrived, he became Nina Ricci sales manager for Gerd Schwarzkopf, a manufacturer of fragrances, cosmetics and hair products. In 1980, Gerd and David, with a third and minor partner, Adrian Ellis, started the Ralph Lauren Polo franchise in Canada. They also launched the Canadian Calvin Klein franchise, which they held for five years. In 1985, when Alfred Sung became a client, Gerd, David and Adrian, as equal partners, established Riviera Concepts.
Riviera Concepts licensed and marketed fragrances such as Alfred Sung, Bob Mackie and Adrienne Vittadini. Catherine was the ideal partner for David in these ventures. Although she was not involved in the business directly, she opened some doors for him and befriended his clients. A great deal of their travel was to promote the company’s products abroad. Asked if large expense accounts were a reason for the breakdown of his partnership with David, Schwarzkopf answered “partly. The company couldn’t afford it.” Still, Schwarzkopf says he “respects David very much—he was the world’s best salesman.”
Stephen Leggett died suddenly, at age 58, in 1994. Since parting ways with Catherine he’d married another lawyer, Suzanne Holland, who came to loathe her predecessor. She and Stephen took to calling Catherine “the big C,” among other names. Before her husband’s funeral, Suzanne told Catherine over the phone: “Would you have the decency not to come to Stephen’s funeral?” (Catherine did not show up.) As Catherine and Suzanne still move in some of the same circles, employees at Michael Kluthe’s or Robert Gage’s hair salons, aware of the tension, will warn either Suzanne or her mother that they might want to steer clear of their premises on a particular day because Catherine has an appointment.
In 1997, David Nugent sold out his interest in Riviera to Schwarzkopf for about $5 million. The couple headed to France soon after. He would have been able to live in France tax-free for a certain period of time until the French authorities demanded tax on the income from the money he brought over. At a certain point, he moved to Gibraltar, a tax haven.
Friends who visited the Nugents in France reported that their marriage had become highly volatile and they were quarrelling constantly, and that Catherine was making frequent solo forays into Paris and Monaco. She returned to Canada without David. But neighbours say they are cohabiting in a luxury three-bedroom, three-bathroom apartment (monthly rent, an estimated $3,000 to $3,500) at the Manulife Centre on a posh strip of Bloor Street. David has been seen at some of Catherine’s social gatherings, accompanying her just as he used to in the old days. Things seem friendly between them.
Catherine is out and about in Toronto quite a bit these days. She has been appearing again on society pages. She cochaired the May 7 event Fandango!, a Latin-themed dinner-and-dance fundraiser for the Bridgepoint Health Centre at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel. Catherine pulled out all the stops to assemble a com-
mittee that included such old pals and social luminaries as Marlene Del Zotto, Anne Fotheringham (wife of Allan), celebrity hairdresser Gage, Sara Waxman, Anne Delicaet, Jacquie Latimer, Naomi Engel and fashion icon Jeanne Beker.
‘SHE WOULD go into David’s and spend 10 Gs on shoes and then whip across to Birks and drop $3,000 for earrings’
Even though many of the Fandango! committee members had never heard of Bridgepoint (it is expanding and redeveloping the 144-year-old Riverdale Hospital), those approached by the redoubtable Catherine were unable to say no. Unbeknownst to many of them, since returning from France, Catherine has turned her formidable volunteer skills into a paying job as the major gifts officer at Bridgepoint. People in the foundation business say that Catherine’s
salary may be in the $65,000 to $85,000 range (it is certainly below $100,000, since her name does not appear on the published lists of government employees who make $100,000 and up) and may come with perks such as a clothing and/or travel allowance.
Despite all they have been through, she and David still talk a good game. Catherine has been heard to drop a reference to her friends Conrad Black and Barbara Amiel sending a plane for her to spend the weekend with them. After I contacted Catherine to ask for an interview—she never returned my call—she made a phone call to Lady Black beseeching her to try to halt the story.
Indeed, one of the most bizarre aspects of writing this article has been the extraordinary lengths people have gone to close ranks around Catherine. One woman who shall remain nameless began shrieking over the phone before I got two words out. Jeanne Beker asked me how I could sleep at night when I interviewed her for this story. Liz Tory, whose son John, the provincial Conservative leader, is a former executive at Rogers, which owns Maclean’s, called the magazine’s office twice to ask that the story be killed.
To be successful in high society these days, one needs both money—the more the better—and gall. Catherine Nugent certainly has the latter. She continues to wow her loyal coterie and wide circle of fans and admirers with her majestic presence, her gracious gestures, her commanding entrances and her impressive tales. She provokes her detractors for many of the same reasons. Rumours continue to swirl around this most fascinating of socialites. Whatever people make of Catherine, one thing is certain: in a realm where most people are fairly predictable, she keeps people guessing, and Toronto’s upper crust society is more interesting because of her. 171
Ottawa writer Rosemary Sexton, a former Toronto social columnist, is the author of The Glitter Girls and Confessions of a Society Columnist
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