Oleg Cassini, the designer who created Jacqueline Kennedy's iconic styles, had been linked or married to the most beautiful women of his day – Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe, Anita Ekberg, Gene Tierney, among countless others. But Cassini's death in 2006 revealed a bombshell: unbeknownst to nearly everyone, Cassini had been married for the past 30-plus years to the woman he regularly introduced as his "assistant," Marianne Nestor. His death kicked off a bitter estate battle between his no-longer-secret third wife (now widow) and Cassini's daughter from a previous marriage, Christina Belmont Cassini, which continues to play out in the courtroom and on Page Six to this day.
In August 2010, Vanity Fair ran an article by Maureen Orth titled "Cassini Royale," exploring Oleg's colorful career, the ongoing battles over the Cassini estate, and the woman to whom he had been married for over three decades. Among other reminiscences, a movie producer who had lived with one of Marianne's sisters noted that the three Nestor sisters "put the Gabor sisters to shame," as "[e]very one of them latched onto big guys." A real estate attorney who had dated Marianne's other sister recalled "parties the Nestor sisters threw in the 60s in a Fifth Avenue apartment where there were only a few other girls and lots of older guys looking for action." He observed: "The game the three Nestor sisters had was to hang out with rich guys, many of them if they could – the guys who could write the checks."
Unhappy with her portrayal in the Vanity Fair piece (for which she had declined to be interviewed), Marianne filed a complaint against Vanity Fair on the day before her one-year statute of limitations expired under New York law. She challenged numerous statements from the article, but emphasized her concern with the anecdote about parties in the 1960s. Then, she served Vanity Fair 124 days later, four days after the statutory period for service had lapsed.
Vanity Fair moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim and for failure to timely serve. In response, Marianne amended her complaint and moved for a retroactive extension of her time to serve, claiming that she had miscalculated 120 days as equivalent to four months. While she admitted there was no good cause for the delay in service, Marianne claimed that the extension should be granted under the broader "interest of justice" standard in CPLR 306-b based on the merits of her action. In particular, Marianne claimed that the quote referencing the Nestor sisters' 1960s parties with "lots of older guys looking for action" portrayed her as a "prostitute." She also objected to a passage suggesting that she was aware Cassini was carrying on extramarital affairs in their home during their secret marriage, claiming that it imputed unchastity and sexual immorality to her.
On April 19, 2013, the New York County Supreme Court dismissed the suit, finding that the complaint failed to state a claim for libel or infliction of emotional distress, and that for the same reasons, no extension of time to serve was warranted in the interests of justice. Plaintiff appealed, and on February 10, 2015, the First Department of the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, unanimously affirmed the lower court's dismissal. The appellate court explained that "[c]ontrary to plaintiff's contention, the allegedly defamatory statements, including a quoted statement that plaintiff and her sisters used to throw parties in the 1960s that were attended by many wealthy 'older guys looking for action,' do not imply that plaintiff was a prostitute and lacked sexual morals." While brief in its reasoning, the opinion will be helpful going forward as yet another example of courts refusing to read implications of sexual immorality into G-rated (or even PG-rated) language.
Davis Wright Tremaine LLP attorneys Elizabeth A. McNamara and Alison Schary represented Advance Publications, publisher of Vanity Fair, in this matter. Reprinted with permission from the February 2015 issue of the MLRC MediaLawLetter. © 2015, Media Law Resource Center, Inc. All rights reserved.