At the age of five, Carolyne Jane Smith had definite ideas about luxury: “Flowers, dress up, more flowers.” The only child of a Missouri school principal, she grew up in what she describes as “a Midwestern version of the Alabama town in To Kill a Mockingbird.” At seven, she made her first luxury purchase: a $7 rhinestone-studded tiara from the Sears catalog that she paid for with her 35-cents-a-week allowance.
It wasn’t until she was 23 and moving to Manhattan that she finally owned, thanks to her mother’s keen eye at a sale, her first Bill Blass and Halston dresses. Her dream of city life was “a job as a designer that would make it legitimate for me to enter a room in a gown and jewelry—and everyone would go, Wow.”
In New York City, her eagerness to learn was matched only by her ferocious work ethic. She scored a prized job with Oscar de la Renta, then left it when she married the scion to a German fortune; she then got divorced, returned to de la Renta, married budding entrepreneur Henry Kravis, starred on the social circuit, launched her own design studio, was a darling of many magazines, and acquired a 1765 Connecticut home on 59 acres, where she created “a little garden that grew very large.”
But after heartache and divorce, she became a less visible presence and began a new career authoring beautiful books. The latest, her 13th, is a richly photographed career-and-life memoir, . Among the photographers: Roehm herself.
This is unsurprising, given that she’s a perpetual student. At 43, she took a summer course in Shakespearean tragedy at the University of Oxford in England. Afterward, she apprenticed herself to a Parisian florist. In 2008, she went to Florence to study the Renaissance. At 67, she feels that she’s only at the midpoint of her education. And yet, as she looks back, she sees a common thread in her personal definition of luxury: the workrooms of designers and artisans.
“I cherish anything to do with quality,” she says. “When you see something of quality, no matter what it is, part of your appreciation comes from knowing that the people who made it respected you—and themselves.” So one of her most satisfying creations was not a $20,000 dress for an upper-crust socialite but a mail-order catalog that aspired to deliver great quality at reasonable prices.
In addition to her home in Connecticut, she also has a duplex in New York and a house in Charleston, South Carolina. Though they’re all filled with beautiful things, her cravings for the rare and expensive have become fewer: “I’ve been privileged to have had experiences of material luxury, and as much as I still respond to all of that, I prefer more and more the high-low mix. Most of what I loved when I was five,” she says, “I still do.”
A few years ago, in Aspen, she took a tumble on her bicycle that left her with a concussion but no broken bones. A month later, an MRI scan revealed a large subdural hematoma. Emergency brain surgery followed, along with an unfashionable titanium plate and a mandatory week in bed. Before the accident, her priorities had already been trending toward people, not things. Now those priorities have become her mantras.
“Luxury is about doing, not having,” she says. “As you go through the years, you discover what you value. Peace. Quiet. Good health. Puppies, always puppies. And time—especially time. Your greatest luxury is your life.”