Cornelia Cochrane Churchill Guest may be her birth name but Cornelia Guest in person and label is the result of a woman exercising her prerogative to be everything in her power, talent, and passion.
A crisp December afternoon finds Guest in her New York office a stone’s throw from Central Park. She is dressed for business in an outfit that closely resembles that of an equestrian in riding pants and blazer.
But first thing’s first—a sunny smile and some cookies.
As we settle into the lush armchairs, Guest’s image of the happy-go-lucky debutante of the ‘80s, whose whirlwind life resulted in a 1986 memoir, “The Debutante’s Guide to Life,” seems past tense. Before me sits a poised woman with her eye on the future. One gets the distinct feeling she holds the reins to her businesses—and her image—as tightly as an army general.
The life Guest was born into as daughter of the late Anglo-American polo champion Winston Guest and the late socialite C.Z. Guest (née Lucy Douglas Cochrane) was spent among artists like Andy Warhol and Truman Capote who were family friends. Photographer Francesco Scavullo and fashion designer Roy Halston were mentors, while the former King Edward VIII, the Duke of Windsor, and his wife—friends of C.Z. Guest’s—were Cornelia’s godparents.
With so much of her life spent in the public eye, it would be easy to become overpowered by the collection of labels and images attributed to herself.
These days, though, Guest is less concerned with the past and fully engaged in the future, both her own and the Earth’s. This is the life that she has been busy making.
She has a line of cruelty free handbags, vegan cookies, is the author of a vegan cookbook, and is also on the board of Humane Society of New York.
On Rebellion and Cruelty
“I follow my passions, I follow my heart. I rebelled against my parents when I was young, but I don’t think of my nonconformism as a way of rebelling. It’s what I believe in. I don’t believe in this day and age that people should be wearing fur.”
Guest is at her most adamant when talking about animal cruelty. She wants people to understand where fur comes from so that, at the very least, wearing fur is the result of an educated choice.
She attributes her love of animals partly to her father and talks fondly about him. He was 60 at the time Cornelia was born and died when she was 17.
“He was such a force in my life, he was so wonderful. People tend to forget about him because he died when I was young, but he had such an influence on me. He was so kind with animals.”
Her father gave her a puppy when she was 4 years old, which ended up teaching her important lessons on life and death.
“Out of his coat pocket he gave me this little creature, and it was a Jack Russell.” One day when the dog killed a chipmunk, her father had to explain to her that this is what terriers did. She held a burial service for the chipmunk.
A few years later, as the dog loved to get into fights, he met his own end in the jaws of the neighbors’ German shepherds. Another burial. In fact, according to Guest, there were burials on a regular basis as a result of her makeshift animal hospital for rescued birds and small critters that had met with misfortune in the vicinity of the family home in Templeton, Long Island.
Don’t Say Vegan
From an early age Guest oscillated between being vegetarian and, at the insistence of the family doctor, a meat-eater. When traveling through Virginia, she would glance at cows, pigs, and lambs. “I really didn’t understand why we were eating them. So that’s really how it started.”
Despite being vegan now, she shuns labels in general, bar one: “The one label I like is ‘cruelty-free.’ Vegan has a terrible connotation. People shy away from vegan, they don’t understand it.”
In her line of bags, Guest uses tactile materials like flannel, linen, faux leather, felt made out of wool alternative, and recycled PVC. Just like her cookies they are delicious-looking and what she calls the “intelligent alternative.”
All this seems to align into Guest’s spiritual beliefs that she describes broadly as: “spirituality is what makes you get up in the morning and want to change the world, and try to make it a better place [for] kids that are coming up and in generations and generations that are coming up.”
Guest’s passion for cruelty-free is not preachy, since she is already aware of labels, so she prefers introducing people to her products through trial and gentle surprise.
Her catering company, Cornelia Guest Events, grew out of her love of entertaining. Although she caters for meat eaters as well, Guest pays special attention to the provenance of her ingredients. She grows organic seasonal fruits and vegetables in her own garden at Templeton, and sources others from local green markets.
Despite being the author of a cookbook—“Cornelia Guest’s Simple Pleasures: Healthy Seasonal Cooking & Easy Entertaining”—Guest is not confident in her ability to create tasty dishes.
“I have no sense of the imagination as a chef,” Guest says, “I love to grow things in the garden, bring everything in, and sort of throw it all together and hope for the best. Sometimes it’s fantastic and sometimes the dogs won’t even eat it.”
Education Through Food
But her love of entertaining fuels her passion and continues to flourish alongside chef Colin Shanley, with whom she develops her recipes. She sometimes picks an unusual ingredient that takes her fancy in a grocery store and challenges Shanley to exercise a chef’s sense of moderation and balance to create something delectable.
“Half the time he wants to strangle me, but he’s taught me so much and I think I’ve introduced him to so many things—so it’s a passion. You can teach people through food or you can show them.”
She may soon be able to teach en masse as Guest has been approached to do a cooking show and her line of bags is selling like hot vegan cookies. She is not giving much away about the style of the summer collection, except to say she loves happy, summer colors. But she sent me off with a bag of cookies, asking for my verdict on them.
As I step out and look at my vegan cookies nestled inside my cow leather bag I am forced to contemplate its provenance.
As for the cookies: They are soft, crumbly, and delicious. They didn’t stand a chance of lasting the whole afternoon.