Natalie Harley likes to tell of the night in the late 1960s when she appeared on the Johnny Carson show. TO gregarious hostess and entrepreneur who, with her husband, headed a luxury packaging firm, she possessed a resourcefulness with a ribbon and shears that had piqued Carson’s curiosity.
Her challenge, he told her, would be to gift-wrap a football, tricky under ordinary circumstances, but daunting with a live audience.
“I will need something personal,” she told her host and, without preamble, lunged toward him. “Then I cut off his tie,” she recalled with a hoot.
As she spun the tale, her daughter Tania Badiyi and one of two granddaughters, Natasha, sat alongside her, quietly cheering her on. Yes, they have heard it before, so often in fact that it has the ring of a fablejust one of the many adventures that have made up the patchwork of Harley’s first century.
Harley, who turned 100 in January, was droll on a Zoom call early this month. Was she feeling her years of hers? Not a chance. “Pfft, in my mind I am still 24,” she said. Her motto di lei now, as it was in her youth di lei: “Wherever the wind blows, you just pack a toothbrush and go. “
As she chatted, her sometimes harrowing past seemed as vivid to her as the previous night’s supper, her story suggesting that in palmy, or punishing, times, living intensely is the best revenge.
The daughter of Russian émigrés (her father, Abram Raphaelovich Hourvitch, was a prominent film producer), Harley was born in Berlin and spent her girlhood dodging German bombs in Paris and the nearby countryside. She witnessed bread lines and saw her compatriots flee the city. As war raged, she escaped to America and, with a small nest egg, built a flourishing business, those tumultuous years having done little to tamp her can-do resilience, antic spirit or bracing sense of irony.
“We lived luxuriously,” Harley said, well aware that her comfortable circumstances set her apart. In Paris, there were semiannual visits with her mother di lei to Hermès, Lanvin and other renowned fashion houses. There were frequent dinners surrounded by her grandfather’s tight-knit circle of artists and society friends, and there was plenty of travel, a way of life Harley fought to maintain when, in the early 1940s, she moved with her family to New York.
In 1946, she married Andre Harley, a Russian-born entrepreneur with whom she founded House of Harley, a packager of high-end fragrances and cosmetics. The couple cultivated friendships with Rudolf Nureyev, eminent philanthropist Judith Peabody and their illustrious like.
“You’re famous yourself,” Badiyi teased, her mother responding with a raucous laugh. But Harley would not argue that she is a rarity, her stories of her offering a firsthand glimpse into an all but vanished culturethe tastes and foibles of an Old World elite filtered through her tart sensibility.
When she was 8 or 9, Marc Chagall came to dine with the family. The artist had pleaded to paint her, and a dress was made for the occasion. “It was light blue with buttons from the neck all the way to the floor,” she said. But the plan was quashed when her mother di lei announced, “My daughter is not going to be painted flying around in the sky with brooms and dogs.”
The dress survived, repurposed for a night at the opera – “’The Barber of Seville,’ Chaliapin sang,” Harley said, remembering the famous Russian Opera singer.
The family traveled spontaneously. “We would forget about school and just go,” she said. A crowning adventure was passage on the Normandie from Le Havre, France, to Southampton, England, on its maiden voyage. “We just did it for fun,” Harley said.
In retrospect, such escapades may strike one as profligate. Tant pis. The wardrobe, the road trips, the lavish dinners were cushions against uncertainty – and more. “For my family, these things were an expression of love,” she said.
Soon enough, war threatened to bulldoze that breezily opulent way of life.
“We left the city and went to Étampes to be in our chateau,” she said of the 18-room refuge south of Paris that sheltered the family and a steady stream of visitors. There was an airport close by, planes frequently roaring overhead. “All that was very scary,” she said. Yet she felt secure enough in her family’s care di lei to have picked up her father’s bravado di lei and, with it, his sense of absurdity di lui.
People were leaving the city in streams with all that they could carry. Perversely, amid the desperate exodus, one image stayed with her. “In the crowd,” she recalled, “was a woman clutching a bowl full of fish.”
When the German raids intensified, her father decided to hustle his brood, and three family dogs, to the relative safety of Lisbon, Portugal. “We will take the car that has the most gas in it,” he ordered, and they were off.
“Father made everything seem an adventure,” Harley said.
In 1941, they decamped for New York, where Harley found work stitching stars to American uniforms. She went on to take a job as chief artist for a European packaging firm, her regal appearance and easy rapport with clients lending her an authority rare for a woman at that time.
Was it? Harley shrugged, archly ascribing her success di lei to a lucky jacket. “It was Schiaparelli,” she said. “I always wore it. No matter how hot it was or how much I perspired, I wore it. “
At the firm she met her husband, marrying him in 1946 and eventually leaving with him to start their own venture. For a time, they raised guinea hens in Putnam, Connecticut, then went on, with savings of $ 1,000 and credit from a few corporate clients, to establish the House of Harley.
By the 1970s, the company was netting $ 1 million a year, as reported in the trade press at the time and catering to clients that included Lanvin, Yves Saint Laurent, Elizabeth Arden, Houbigant and Revlon, family businesses run in those years by the first generation.
“It was a very glamorous time,” said Harley, who shuttled with her husband among homes in Forest Hills, Queens; their country estate in South Jamesport, on Long Island; and, when business decreed, their apartment near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. An accomplished cook with a Cordon Bleu certificate, she loved preparing extravagant dinners for 20 or more, a duck often roasting on the spit.
Nureyev was a frequent guest. “He and my mother understood each other,” Badiyi said. Their relationship was warm enough that one year the dance star flew from Paris to spend Easter with the family. In 1987, when Badiyi married, he kept a promise he made years before and strolled her down the aisle.
Harley recalled a dinner given by Peabody. “I was sitting on a piano bench, and Rudolf was in front of me, ”she said. When the person seated at her shoulder di lei gave her a vigorous push, Harley shoved back. Turning, she discovered that her “assailant” was Elizabeth Taylor.
“At first we just stared at each other, and then, oh, did we laugh,” Harley said. “I looked so much like her.”
In those days, she and her husband worked like crazy, she said, “but we had fun.” One evening in Paris, before heading to dinner at Maxim’s, they dashed to Lanvin so that Harley could pick out a dress. “It was a blue and green chiffon snatched from the couturier’s sample room. “I had to have it,” she said, never mind that it scarcely fit.
She had reason to rue her impetuous move. “When we started dinner, suddenly I couldn’t breathe,” she said. “I told Andre, ‘If you don’t unzip me immediately, I will faint.'” He obliged, tugging open the dress di lei and leaving her back di lei entirely exposed. How would they make an exit? Not a problem, her husband assured her. Snatching a tablecloth, he fashioned a cape, and the couple wafted out in style.
Family tragedy put the breaks on such high jinks. In 1968, she and her husband di lei were at home when the phone rang. She picked up to be told with stunning brusqueness that Mara, their 19-year-old daughter, had been killed in a car accident. “It’s a day I will never forget,” Harley said, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. “After that, everything went into slow motion.”
Andre Harley, her great companion in work and mischief, died at 67 in 1978.
In recent months, the pandemic curtailed Harley’s regular outings. “I don’t think we had the experience of anything like this in Europe, even during the war,”She said. “It’s so frightening to think that you can get sick by just going out into the street, that there is nowhere to run, no safer country or shelter.”
Still it takes more than a pandemic to curb her. On a typical day, she wakes up in South Jamesport warming coffee and croissants to take to her garden di lei.
“I have a concert with my breakfast, listening to the birds,” she said. She often spends evenings poring over old photos with her family di lei.
She aches on occasion for old times. In Paris, there was always a car idling, she said, waiting to ferry her to Givenchy, her favorite designer. “I need a dress for tonight,” she would announce on arrival. “And the staff would just cut it, put pins in it, and I would wear it out.
“Givenchy’s designs always made me feel on top of the world,” she said. “I wish I could go back. But I don’t know what I would find there now. “
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.