The Portrait of a Lady

By Kristen Carr

Few people can lay claim to the overused phrase “been there, done that” as well as Sharon, Countess Sondes (pronounced Sohndz), whose immensely rich life-experience encompasses everything from a Park Avenue upbringing, to marriage and life in London with a British aristocrat. A close confidante of the late Andy Warhol, one of the 20th Century’s most celebrated personalities, this consummate New Yorker is also an accomplished writer herself as well as a connoisseur of the best the world has to offer. She also finds time to be one of New York’s and Florida’s most celebrated hostesses - especially noted for her parties, where one might actually, heaven forbid, have fun!
A Lehman banking family heiress, Lady Sondes grew up on New York City’s posh Park Avenue and 62nd Street. It was an eclectic neighborhood, populated by an intriguing mix of celebrities and socialites, such as Johnny Carson, Barbara Walters, Bennett Cerf and his family, then-Mayor Robert Wagner, skater Dick Buttons and glamorous celebutante Brenda Frazier, a thirties-era “it” girl.
The Lehman residence at posh 555 Park Avenue, continued the tradition by often playing host to some of the world’s most famous faces - Mick Jagger, Cary Grant, Woody Allen, even the reclusive Greta Garbo, to name just a few who flocked to the sought-after, sumptuous cocktail-buffets thrown by Lady Sondes’ mother, Ellen Lehman McCluskey, a top-tier interior decorator by day, and one of the city’s premier socialites by night. Salvador Dali - accompanied by a sleek, black puma on a leash - attended Lady Sondes’ coming-out party. “Everyone was scared of it but me and it sat at my feet and purred all evening,” she said. “I introduced Dali to Mia Farrow that night, and the two of them became fast friends from then on.”
Indeed, even as a child, Sondes traveled in the most rarefied social circles, crossing the Atlantic on the glamorous old S.S. United States, accompanied by her beloved governess, Daya, and her sister, Maureen, to attend Queen Elizabeth’s coronation at the invitation of her mother’s close friend and Lady Sondes’ godmother, Lady Iris Mountbatten, the Queen’s cousin. “My mother felt it would be wonderful for us children to be part of such an historic event, and because of this, we were right in the middle of everything.”
  “I had a most wonderful time on the crossing,” recalled Sondes. “Even at the tender age of six, I loved people, and I met everybody. There wasn’t a soul who escaped my hello.” One such soul was celebrated World War II hero General George Marshall, who “twirled me around the dance floor,” recalled Lady Sondes. Another was Cary Grant, who the countess met one night when she, Daya, and Maureen were invited to join the Captain’s table.
Growing up in such exalted company helped Sondes become the indomitable social force she is today. “I think because I always had fun in whatever social situation I was in, it made me confident and relaxed and fun to be with because of that,” she says. “One thing I notice now that is so different from entertaining in the past, is that people don’t seem to have much fun anymore when they go out. We used to give parties and go to parties, and it didn’t matter if you had money or social status, everyone loved being together, and had a good time. Many of the people you see at big ‘do’s’ like charity balls nowadays really see socializing as their ‘job’ - and they feel a lot of underlying tension while they ‘work’ the room. Socializing has become so serious.” That’s why you won’t catch Lady Sondes making the charity ball rounds these days. “As far as that goes, I’ve really been there, done that. My friends are puzzled that I don’t want to be on committees or do charity balls, but I’ve done it for years and years and I just won’t do it anymore. Now we usually just send a donation and don’t go! When I married Henry (Milles-Lade, the 5th Earl Sondes of Lees Court, Kent) in 1981, I kind of gave up socializing as I knew it, because his whole life was about his country estate in Kent and the large shooting parties he favored. This was the life he loved, and so I became a country wife and discovered I loved it.”
These days Lady Sondes would rather be throwing her own parties, her way - at home! In fact, a Sondes-style get-together, which she co-hosts with Geoffrey Thomas, her companion of twenty years, is pretty much the ideal of what a party should be. Take a fascinating cross-section of fun and interesting people, add a piano player who keeps the vintage Gershwin and Porter coming. Top it off with “plenty of top-drawer pours, as the English like to say, washed down with some of my housekeeper and chef Luz’s tasty treats” boasts Sondes, “and you’ve got a party that will go all night.” But what really distinguishes the couple’s parties are their guest lists, which are unapologetically democratic in nature.  “We invite everyone from manicurists to moguls,” she said. “All that matters is that we like them, and they like us, and they’re in!”
“Both Mr. Thomas and the Countess are tireless in making sure everyone is having a great time. There’s such an outpouring of interest and love between them and their guests at their parties,” says Michael Holly, a friend and butler who has spent time in her service. “Their open-armed approach to entertaining is what gives their parties their shimmer and dash.”
“Sharon simply knows how to throw one helluva party,” says David Patrick Columbia, the blogger behind one of Manhattan society’s must-read sites, “The guest list is never the same-old same-old - but a sexy assemblage of movers, shakers, newcomers and establishmentarians - all tossed together like the perfect Broadway cast!”
Lady Sondes has hosted celebrity friends such as Kathleen Turner, the two Micks (Jagger and Jones of the Stones and Foreigner), Bette Midler, Los Angeles Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and his wife Rikki, Robert Altman, writer Gay Talese, and former Mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani. It was pal Andy Warhol, who came to almost every party, who persuaded Sharon to start her writing career for his Interview magazine, by asking her to write a celebrity profile about her gal-pals, young actress-socialites Mariel Hemingway and Catherine Oxenberg.
But even a party lacking the sorts of celebrities and A-listers that Lady Sondes regularly pulls in can benefit from a few of her hosting tips.  “Always have plenty of the best food and wines and spirits you can find. And live music if possible, and if not, lots of atmospheric music is very important,” she said. “I like swing or songs from the 50s and 60s, or Billie Holiday. And, for goodness sakes, introduce people to each other or they will just gravitate to the people they already know. This is how you really knit a party together and hardly anyone does this any more,” she advises. “Old and new friends that you knit together, great food and drink, and wonderful music. If there is a secret, this is it!”
Lady Sondes is as famous for her fabulous cocktail buffets as for her intimate sit-down dinners. Both illustrate Lady Sondes’ preference for “tasty, real food, and plenty of it” that emphasizes the homey over the haute. “I like ‘goujonette’of sole, which is a fancy name for small pieces of deep-fried whitefish that you dip in tartar sauce served alongside a simple cucumber salad,” she said. “I follow that with a main course of tasty roast chicken or meat loaf and mashed potatoes, and for dessert I like to pile a variety of popsicles and ice cream sandwiches on a silver platter!”
When it comes to travel, however, her tastes run less to the simple than to the more complex and exotic. “I don’t travel as much anymore, but when I do, I really want to go on a trip,” she said. “I don’t consider London or Paris foreign cities anymore since when you go there you run into all the people you run into back home. So I go to some place really foreign, like Thailand. I love Thailand and its amazing diversity. Henry took me places there that required dugout canoes and camping out. I also love Morocco and shopping in the souks - it’s the novelty of the food, the people, and the places that I’m looking for.”
Despite her worldliness, Lady Sondes is anything but jaded. She is down to earth and has a wicked sense of humor and an enduring sense of fun - both of which she says are shared by her “soulmate,” Geoffrey Thomas. These two dedicated hosts also have a pronounced homebody streak, Lady Sondes revealed. “We have four TiVos and they are working all the time. Geoffrey and I also love to read, especially history and biographies,” Lady Sondes says. When in residence at their New York pied-à-terre, their favorite evenings tend toward the casual—perhaps attending movie screenings organized by close friends, Bryan Bantry and Bob Felner, or holding court at Elaine’s, the Upper East Side restaurant that’s long played host to Manhattan’s glitterati.
It’s a wonder, though, that Thomas has enough energy to make it out the door, given the fact that he’s juggling no less than three careers at the moment. For one, he is a partner (with Lois Sasson) of a men’s luxury jewelry company, Sasson-Thomas Inc., which supplies blue-chip retailers like Bergdorf Goodman with delicately wrought, often custom pieces, hand-fashioned from platinum or 18K gold and precious stones. He is especially proud of his recent line of original design cuff links, that he calls “tomorrow’s antiques,” which are featured at the Bergdorf Goodman Men’s store.
“I love working with beautiful things and being surrounded by them,” says Thomas, who has developed a love of and a keen eye for antiques, especially art deco furnishings. “While our West Palm house was being decorated, I started going out on my own and bringing back this or that touch that I fell in love with and had to have. I think my finds are part of what gives our house both an elegant and a homey feel.”
A more recent addition to his resume, are his occasional stints as a Ford model, which landed him in the pages of Forbes magazine, and in ads for H&M, the retailer-of-choice for bargain-minded hipsters. “I got ‘discovered” by a scout who spotted me having lunch with our friend, Ann Dexter-Jones, at a Manhattan café,” says Thomas. “I do it because I guess I’m a ‘ham’ and because it’s great fun.”
Thomas’s eye for beauty asserts itself even in the way he chooses to celebrate the close of a big sale: “First I like to take Sharon out for a marvelous meal at a great restaurant. Then I always like to make an original piece of jewelry for her that reminds me of how fun or challenging the deal was,” he explains. Or he’ll indulge in another one of his passions - haberdashery. “Don’t ask me why, but for me, getting a good suit cut is one of the great things in life,” and he favors the exquisite Raphael tailors at Saville Row in New York.
Last but certainly not least, Thomas is a real estate impresario with the Palm Beach branch of high-end realtor Prudential Douglas Elliman. With super agent, Dolly Lenz, his associate in New York, he is representing what could become the country’s most expensive property ever - a 43,524 square-foot estate on a prime oceanfront lot in Palm Beach. The asking price:  $125 million!
“The thrill of merchandising and selling mega-properties is what we all get into the game for,” he said. “And the big Palm Beach mansions are the most fun. There aren’t any other properties out there like them. And the icing on the cake is to be able to see how people live, to see the things they’ve filled their homes with and how they’ve designed them, especially when the property is so beautiful.”
Real estate-related matters are also occupying Thomas and Sondes on a more personal level these days. In 2003, the pair sold their fabulous Park Avenue apartment and moved to the SoSo section (for south of Southern Blvd.) in West Palm Beach, Florida. “West Palm is only just becoming chic and that’s the fun of it - to break new ground. When people first moved downtown to the West Village or Tribeca, everyone who stayed uptown thought they were making a big mistake” says Lady Sondes. Beth Rudin de Woody introduced Sondes and Thomas to the area. She and Thomas like it so much, in fact, that they bought a lavish British colonial estate there and are currently in the midst of adding a 2,000-square-foot addition.
“But of course we still go up to New York a lot where we have a fabulous pied-a-terre at Trump International Hotel and Towers,” she adds. “I have amazing views over Central Park and Columbus Circle through floor-to-ceiling glass windows. It’s like living overlooking the Place de la Concorde in Paris. And it’s a really happening place to be at this particular time, since we’re right across from the new Time-Warner building with all its fabulous shops and restaurants.”
Truthfully, though, it’s not easy to imagine Lady Sharon Sondes spending too much time lingering on one view anyway - not after all the vistas she’s created for herself over the years, and the ones that doubtless await her in the future. “I’ve always been open to new things, new people, and new ideas,” says Sondes. “I also realize that I have been incredibly blessed and lucky in my life and that’s what continues to give me purpose and strength!”