October 18, 1976 12:00 PM

At an Atlanta Press Club luncheon recently, one woman asked guest speaker C.Z. Guest point-blank, “Are you rich?” After a pause, C.Z. regained her cool: “And have you ever had an abortion?” she fired back. “We both began to laugh,” says C.Z. “The woman had asked me a rude question—and I asked her one back.”

“We never discuss money,” explains Lucy Cochrane Guest (she adapted her nickname, C.Z., from her baby brother’s attempt to say “sister”). But as the wife of sportsman Winston Guest, glittering society leader, horsewoman extraordinaire and mistress of houses in Long Island, Palm Beach and Virginia, C.Z., to answer the Atlanta woman’s question, shares in an estimated annual family income of $1 million.

She is also a prime example of a new caste: the working rich. At the age of 56, C.Z. is suddenly one of the busiest women in her rarefied world. She started last year by opening a franchise for Willy Rizzo, a Roman furniture designer. Last May she published First Garden, a horticultural primer with drawings by Cecil Beaton and foreword by Truman Capote (“Who could have imagined that lurking inside this cool vanilla lady was a madcap, laughing tomboy?” asks Capote). Since then she has introduced a new jumpsuit for gardeners—with C.Z. emblazoned on the hip pocket—and created a perfumed insect repellent. Its slogan: “No flies On C.Z.”

“I never intended to do any of this,” C.Z. emphasizes. “It just happened out of the blue, and it seems part of a trend. Look at all my friends, they’re all working—Jackie [Onassis], Lee [Radziwill], Charlotte [Ford], Mary [McFadden], Gloria [Vanderbilt]. I think it’s wonderful. We’re all contributing.”

“Contributing” is not something C.Z. was raised to do, unless it was by check to a local charity. The daughter of a Boston Brahmin family, she was always a bit of a cutup. She dallied as a showgirl in a Ziegfeld Follies revival, as a nude model for Mexican painter Diego Rivera (the painting hung for years over the bar of a Mexico City hotel) and as a 1945 Hollywood hopeful. “I was absolutely without talent,” admits C.Z., who never got so much as a bit part. She returned East after six months, later to meet and marry Guest, the blueblooded scion of the Phipps dynasty. “If I’d never seen that side of life, I’d have always wondered. But I am what I was meant to be,” she says. That includes being the mother of two, Alexander, 22, and Cornelia, 12, whom she had at age 43.

She is tackling her new business career with zest. “The thought of going out into the world terrified me,” C.Z. admits. “But now I’m getting more confident. I don’t know when I’ve had so much fun.” Not the least, she finds, is confounding her husband, who for years was reluctant for her to go to work. “He’s flabbergasted,” C.Z. says. “He’s so used to me spending money—he never imagined I could be making money.”

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