Powerful Women: Kathryn Byrne on Her Time at Vogue and the Places She's Called Home
Kathryn Byrne — Kay, to her friends — left New York City in 1964.
“I cried all the way down the New Jersey Turnpike,” she said, “because I knew I’d never go back there to live.” And she didn’t. “There’s a saying in New York — ‘There’s nothing west of the Hudson’ — and here I am in California!” Kay, now 93, laughed, as she spoke about the idea that some part of her would always be in the city where she was born and raised and spent 15 years as an art director for media company Condé Nast. She left the city because her then-husband’s work transferred him. It wasn’t the last move for Kay’s family, which includes a daughter, Brooke. All told, Kay’s lived in nine states, though not all the moves stemmed from work transfers.
She lived in Palm Beach, Florida, and worked at a boutique advertising agency, where she feels she did some of her best creative work. Later, she spent seven years in Las Vegas, a town she says she liked because “it reminded me of New York in that you could get a steak at four in the morning if you wanted to — not that you ever would.” Now, she calls Holiday Retirement’s The Westmont in Santa Clara, California, home. And though she’ll always be a New Yorker at heart, she holds a certain amount of affection for the weather, flora and architecture her West Coast home affords her.
“It’s absolutely beautiful,” she said.
And to hear Kay tell it, New York in the ’50s had a beauty all its own. A glorious mess of people and energy that gave rise to her career and colorful stories. Kay said her start in the magazine business began with her choice to go to Parsons School of Design. “I disappointed my parents by going to art school instead of college.”
When she finished her education, Kay had a boyfriend her mother did not approve of, and the solution she came up with was a fateful one.
“My mother called an editor she knew at Vogue and said, ‘Can you do something with this child?’ So, I got a job,” she recalled, laughing.
At the time, Condé Nast owned a roster of magazines and, during her 15-year tenure with the company, Kay worked with all of them, except Glamour — “I never had any interest in working for Glamour,” she said.
Of course, even in the years she wasn’t working at Vogue, she said she could always tell who was headed there from the people she encountered in the elevator. If there was someone interesting or a bit goofy, he or she was almost certainly bound for the 19th floor, the Vogue floor. Example: There was a woman who had a live monkey trained to hang around her neck in a manner that resembled a fur stole.
During her Vogue tenure, Kay met the most interesting character of them all.
“One day, a young man came in with his portfolio of drawings, and they were hideous! The fashions were awful but [his art] had a really wonderful line. I couldn’t wait to use him, just not for any fashion forms. I paid him the standard rate of $25 per published piece,” she said, holding back the big reveal just a moment longer. “His name was Andy Warhol.”
Kay and Andy became friends beyond their working relationship.
“He had five cats, all named Sam, and I had three, so we had something in common. He lived in a fifth-floor walkup just a few blocks from the Condé Nast offices on Lexington Avenue. I would go over there and visit him and his mother — she was very nice,” Kay recalled. When she retired, he gave her a painting. “He went on to bigger and better things, of course, but I guess you could say I gave him his start.”
Lately, Kay’s gotten back into the print field, in a manner of speaking. She asked for a small job, and she’s now the official printer of The Westmont — a job she says primarily involves crossword puzzles. But she stretches her creative muscles with quilting and doing needlepoint and sometimes ponders how she would redo menus she encounters to be more functional.
“My second husband always used to call me a free spirit,” Kay said. “I think I still am.”.