A New York Socialite Goes Hollywood : 'Deb of the Decade' Cornelia Guest Is Pursuing an Acting Career

Times Staff Writer

All's well at Spago. The famous are filling up the Garden Room, and the cameras record each arrival.

It's a good turnout: stars Gregory Peck, Angie Dickinson, Roddy McDowall, Ali MacGraw; producers Allan Carr, Fred De Cordova, David Niven Jr.; artist David Hockney; writers Jackie Collins and Judith Green, who is the guest of honor at this photo opportunity masquerading as a book-signing party.

Off in a corner, a young blond woman ignores the commotion and quietly converses in French with her darkly handsome escort. But her eyes are fixed warily on the paparazzi. Whenever one comes close, she retreats farther into the room's shadows.

A few photographers glance at her. After all, she's strikingly pretty in a sweet sort of way. But they aren't interested in wasting film on what must be, ho-hum, just another undiscovered starlet.

Who Is She?

"Hey," a reporter calls out, pointing to the woman. "Isn't that Cornelia Guest?"

The party's publicist pauses. He squints to get a better look at the woman. "Cornelia Goetz?" he says, puzzled. "You mean she's related to that New York subway vigilante?"

"No," the reporter replies. "Cornelia Guest . Daughter of C. Z., 'Deb of the Decade,' darling of the gossip columnists. Don't you remember?"

The press agent's face goes blank. "Never heard of her."

And he walks away to corral a real celebrity.

Cornelia Guest hears this and laughs, those patrician-sounding peals giving away her aristocratic origins.

Then she begins to explain how a champagne-swilling cherub, who attended 365 parties in 1982, danced until dawn in New York discos and never could keep straight whether her favorite charity was Save the Children or Save the Trees, matured into a 22-year-old who moved to Los Angeles two months ago to study acting seriously in an atmosphere of anonymity.

"And now I'm the first one home at 11 p.m. and sound asleep."

She grabs a steamy slice of Wolfgang Puck's pizza off a waiter's tray ("I can't resist this anymore") and takes delicate little bites. After each one, she dabs at her mouth with a napkin.

"I really don't know if anyone out here knows my reputation. And I hope that they don't," she says.

"I think that in New York I got a really bad rap. I mean, I wasn't as bad as everybody thought I was. You know, I was 18 years old and everybody goes out at night when they're that age. And I just happened to do it in front of the press.

"But I don't do that anymore. It's over. To me, that was one stage in my life. And now," she says, with a sweep of her hand to take in the scene at Spago, "this is another."

A young woman comes up to Guest and gives her a playful hug. Guest introduces her as Christina Green of New York and Palm Beach. They look so much alike they could be twins; in fact, they're childhood friends.

"Yes, we were little terrors," Green says.

"And we still are," Guest adds.

"No you're not," Green says, looking forlornly at her friend. "All I can say is that we miss her desperately in New York. Absolutely.

"We know she's out here trying to become a great star, which she probably will. But everywhere back home, people are saying, 'Where's Cornelia? Where's Cornelia?' It's true ."

Guest frowns ever so slightly.

"And I say, 'Don't worry. You can visit. I have a guest room. I'll even come get you at the airport.' "

Guest's attention is diverted by her escort for a moment, and Green confides that she thinks her friend has fled New York for good.

"Well, she said to me at lunch the other day at the Beverly Hills Hotel that the nicest thing about being out here is she can walk into any restaurant in this town and, No. 1, she doesn't know a soul. And No. 2, nobody knows her. And No. 3, it's more relaxed. She doesn't have to get dressed. She doesn't even have to brush her hair.

"Whereas she said that if she walks into Mortimer's or somewhere else in New York, she's got to say hello to 50 people before she can sit down."

Guest is the first to admit that leaving home was hard. Her oh-so-social family is an East Coast institution, after all. Her father, the late Winston Guest, was a second cousin of Winston Churchill, an heir to the Phipps steel fortune and one of the top 10 polo players in the world. Her mother, C. Z. Guest, maintains homes on Long Island, in Palm Beach and on Park Avenue, has a vast array of famous friends, including Nancy Reagan, and keeps occupied writing a gardening column for the New York Post.

National Publicity

So, naturally, when pedigree-perfect Cornelia Cochrane Churchill Guest was presented to society in 1982, the debut attracted national publicity. She was dubbed "Deb of the Decade" by Life magazine, which had featured the 1938 "Deb of the Year," Brenda Frazier, on its cover. Frazier later blamed the brouhaha for sparking a backlash (people sometimes hissed when she walked into a restaurant) and ultimately ruining her life. In her 1963 memoir, "My Debut--a Horror," Frazier chronicled her nervous breakdown, failed marriages and a notorious affair with an Italian playboy.

Though Guest in 1982 described her coming-out as "probably the best year in my life," she soon found herself playing the part of the perpetual deb.

She went around the country promoting her 124-page handbook, "The Debutante's Guide to Life." She tried to become a pop singer, appearing at New York's Xenon and even performing "It's My Party and I'll Cry If I Want To" on "Late Night with David Letterman." Time magazine later said her "syrupy voice" might improve with training.

At the urging of her mother's friend, "Hair" producer Lester Persky, Guest had a screen test at ABC. She also auditioned for a major film role, but didn't get it.

The rest of the time, she partied. And the press relentlessly pursued her. "I felt like I was in a fish bowl. And I just wanted to get out," Guest recalls.

But where? Well, Washington is a good place for ex-debs. "But I'd still get just as homesick as if I lived someplace farther away," she says. And, besides, after her debut she told the Washington Post that she didn't know whether she was a Democrat or Republican.

Palm Beach was considered briefly but rejected, according to family friend Judith Green, Christina's mother and the author of "Sometimes Paradise," the book being pushed at this party. "It used to be the worst members of the best families would be sent down there. You know, the ones the family never wanted to see again. And that certainly wasn't the case with Cornelia."

The Call of the West

Then Guest came to Los Angeles to visit some friends "and I really liked it. And I said, 'Well, I'm just going to move out there.' So I moved. I didn't anticipate doing it. But I think that if I had pondered it back and forth, well, then I would have driven myself into an anxiety attack."

And though she once described Los Angeles as a city she visited "for some sleep," now she says "it's where I can just do what I really want to do--pursue an acting career. I've wanted to act ever since I was really young. And I think to be in this profession you have to be out in California, especially when you're starting out."

Now the prep school dropout who got her diploma by mail is taking acting lessons for 12 hours every week from Hollywood coach Sandra Seacat, whose students have included Jessica Lange and Rachel Ward. Guest also is taking classes on how to read scripts cold and is starting to go out on auditions.

A friend helped her get an agent, Kelly Newby at the La Rocca Talent Agency in Burbank, which handles such clients as Tony Curtis, sisters Judy and Audrey Landers and former Playboy Playmate Shannon Tweed.

"I found her very well-studied, which was quite a surprise," Newby says. "She's chosen the right coaches and made the right moves so far."

Newby is looking to line up a TV series for her client, and possibly a film: "She has what it takes to make it. There's no doubt in my mind. But it's tough in this business to be taken seriously if you're attractive like Cornelia. But to be attractive and have that celebrity on top of it is a difficult thing to fight. She's just got to hang in there until it happens."

Guest says she would like to act in romantic comedies, "stuff like Goldie Hawn. It's light, it's fun and I love to make people laugh."

She starts laughing herself when she self-consciously makes another pass at the Spago waiter's pizza tray. "I'm not completely health conscious quite yet. I mean, what I eat would make half these people ill. I just love junk food, and I'm in heaven now. I jump from one Taco Bell to another. And Fatburger is great."

From the sound of it, that's about all the going-out she does from the Benedict Canyon house she shares with two old friends, both lawyers. And while she's listed in the phone book, "it's the wrong number," she says, obviously pleased. "I don't party at all. I haven't joined any clubs. I might hang out at Helena's or go to Tramps. I have some people I date. But I'm not the night owl I used to be. I've grown up. Most of the time, I study acting and that's what I do for fun. I read a lot of plays and stuff. It's very grueling."

She wrinkles her lightly freckled nose. "Yeah, I know. It's boring. Sorry, but this is it . I didn't move 3,000 miles away from home to goof off."

Or to bury herself in obscurity, either. Eventually, a struggling actress is going to need to get known around Hollywood. Now that she has an acting coach and an agent, maybe the next step is hiring a publicist?

"A publicist !" she cries, almost dropping her slice of pizza on a nearby photographer. "Even hearing that word makes me start to faint."

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