The Creative World of Cornelia Guest

May 21, 2024

Text: Jeremy Whitaker

“It's a beautiful, gorgeous day here. It's four o'clock and I can't think of anything better than talking to you right now.” These were among the first words spoken to me by the delightfully charming and ever-glamorous Cornelia Guest, and they made me blush. 

To define Cornelia Guest by one facet of her expansive creative career would be impossible. She is an actress, an awarded equestrian, a philanthropist, a media-defined socialite, a designer, an author, and above all a country girl. Most recognized for her timeless glamour and commitment to animal protection across species, Guest is the definition of a Renaissance woman. 

Before the excitement of her film premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, Guest and I talked through her ever-growing belt of creative endeavors, the trichotomy of truth, and preserving the legacy of the intelligent women who came before her. Furnished with images from Guest's own camera roll, Rain offers an inside look into the sunny world of the creative powerhouse.

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Cornelia Guest is a member of Paul Schrader’s ensemble for Oh, Canada, one of the most highly anticipated films of the year. In the film adaptation of Russell Banks’ tale of an American draft dodger, Guest plays the role of Jessie Chapman. Above all, “She’s a matriarch,” says Guest. 

Featuring a superstar cast of Uma Thurman, Jacob Elordi, Richard Gere, and Michael Imperioli, she has nothing but praises for her costars. “Everybody involved in it is fantastic. It was just such an honor.”

Photo Courtesy of Cornelia Guest's Instagram, Ensemble of Oh, Canada at Cannes Film Festival 2024

While this is one of Guest’s most notable roles, this is not the first by far. “Like most actors, you're always looking for the next gig. I've always loved to do it, and I was just thrilled to be a part of a movie that's getting so much recognition.” In addition to the upcoming film, Guest has credits in American Horror Stories and Showtime’s Twin Peaks. In fact, the jack-of-all-trades studied at the world-renowned Lee Strasberg Institute in New York City.

“I've always looked into my imagination, and I love to get into somebody else's skin,” says Guest, who was initially drawn to a career in acting because of its transformative capabilities. As a fashion lover, she knows that wardrobe plays an integral part of developing a character, and as Guest says, it’s a lot of the fun. “The costumes, the hair, the whole thing, especially when it's a period piece. You learn so much about yourself and you also learn so much about the world and other people. You see some of these costumes that are just incredible and we're lucky to get to play dress up.”

When Guest is not filming, she can be found in her home in Texas or bouncing from one project to the next. Most recently, she could be spotted presenting a collaborative collection of classic pieces alongside Adrienne Landau at New York Fashion Week. In discussing this achievement and the nature of designing, the sheer scope of Guest’s creative depth astounded me. I begged the question, “Please tell me, how do you keep your creativity so fresh?” 

Her response: “I love to read and I watch everything. I love documentaries and I love old movies. I always try to keep informed, but I love to read.” This is the kind of advice that I was looking for. 

From biographies to James Patterson novels, Guest reads indiscriminately, and it is ultimately the secret to keeping her creative spirit nourished. Currently, she is reading a biography on John Singer Sargeant, a painter most famous for his work inspired by the culmination of impressionism, realism, and classic portraiture. “Check out El Jaleo," I said, “it’s my favorite.” For Guest to pick a favorite would be impossible. “I also love going into old churches. It's kind of like saying, what's your favorite old church? I don't know! It's sort of like walking up and down a staircase, every step you take, the view is different. To me, every time you go into a museum, the view is different.”

Photo Courtesy of Cornelia Guest, pictured alongside David Gonzales at Cannes Film Festival

The respect that Guest has for art is only rivaled by her reverence for nature. “Mother Nature just covers herself and all her little beings so beautifully. There's a reason for everything,” she says. Is this yearning for nature what took her away from the socialite scene in New York City and into deep Texas, I asked.

“I was not brought up in the city. My parents, we were the country people. We went into the city, but I grew up on Long Island, so I was always out in the country. I am a country girl. I've never been a city girl,” Guest clarified to me.

If you presume to know anything about who Guest is, you may be surprised by this. A simple search will produce images of Guest’s New York City days with Andy Warhol and one of her best friends, America’s beloved Halston. She was an award-winning debutant with the grace of high society and yet, she is somewhat of an enigma. Through our conversation, she made it clear that it was being raised in the country that kept her grounded and seemed to keep her out of the fray. “How do you see yourself, Cornelia?” I asked.

“I see myself taking care of animals, walking around barefoot, and then going to work. I think I have the best of both worlds. After I'm done with a movie set or a TV show, I get to come home, it's so rejuvenating. I have a bunch of rescue chickens and a bunch of turkeys, and I love seeing them and I love playing with them. One chicken just had three little chicks. Last year we had a bunch of peacocks that had babies. To me, that's what I love the most.”

As any good interviewer, I took a detailed look at Guest’s social pages before we met. How Guest defines herself now is easily depicted in the surprising feed of someone with her resume. To her nearly 55 thousand followers, there is rarely a post that isn’t about animals in need. Her commitment to animal care extends way beyond the screen, beginning at a very young age. 

“I've always been very enamored with animals all my life. I would rescue everything that I could on the side of the road. Once my mother told me that all the stray dogs in Virginia would go to labs to be tested on. So as a little girl, anytime I saw a dog on the side of the street, anywhere, I'd bring it home. We would bring them back to Long Island, and stick them in the horse barn. My parents really didn't know, my father, especially. One day my father went up to the barn and saw that I had about 50 dogs up there. He was like, ‘What's this?’ And everybody ran. I was like, ‘Daddy, you can't let these angels go. They're going to be killed and horrible things are going to happen to them.’ So, we would get them spayed and find them homes or we would keep them. What we do to animals as a society is just mind-boggling, the cruelty these creatures experience.” 

Photo Courtesy of Cornelia Guest, Pictured (From L to R) with Rick Cosnett, David Gonzales, and Pablo Kyriakis

Guest’s approach to philanthropy is hands-on. In addition to rehoming dogs, the philanthropist founded Artemis Farm Rescue, a horse and donkey rescue, in upstate New York. This project targeted those animals that were up for auction to be slaughtered or eaten. “I would rehab donkeys and get them in pairs, and we would get them to farmers to help them. We’ve got so many adopted. Farmers love them because they protect their herd against coyotes.” In her words, the best part is to see the creatures “fattened up and looking beautiful.” 

Passionately, Guest advocates that philanthropic work is accessible to everyone. Many animal shelters, she taught me, actually put lists of needed items on Amazon. “There are so many ways that we can help now. Call your local shelter. Go clean cages and walk dogs and get to know them, and you're going to fall in love. There's nothing as uplifting as communicating and being in the presence of an animal, they're such regal, unbelievable spirits and souls.”

What is apparent in every aspect of Guest’s endeavors is a high level of commitment. It is evident in her approach to acting, her dedication to animals, and particularly her commitment to maintaining the history of her mother, C.Z. Guest. Found in interviews and posts are nuggets and stories that bring continued depth to her mother, a high society woman that one may recognize as Truman Capote’s “Swan.”

Her mother has been described as the type of woman with singular enigmatic beauty. I recognized her from the cover of my copy of Slim Aarons: The Essential Collection, in which she can be found on the cover with Guest’s brother standing in front of a Greco-style swimming pool, the picture of American royalty.

Photo of C.Z. Guest and son in Palm Beach by Slim Aarons, from my copy of Slim Aarons: The Essential Collection

Guest describes her mother as the woman who instilled a toughness and independence in her that allowed her to flourish. “My mother, she was quite a good educator like that. I was always inspired by her. She was always changing and always had interesting people around her. She never cared who anyone was, neither did my father. That was very inspiring to me because I've always had an intense curiosity about stuff. She always made sure that was nurtured.”

While as a child, there is a natural inclination to rebel against your parents, Guest’s definition of rebellion was more fashion-forward. “I look at some of the pictures and I'm like, ‘Oh boy.” But I was very lucky that I had some dear friends, Halston wouldn't let me go too far off, and Carolina Herrera wouldn't let me wear stuff that was inappropriate. I was lucky to know these people and be dressed by them and to have that shape me. I think also as you get older, you figure out what works and what doesn't work. I know what works for me, and I definitely know what doesn't work. Anytime I've gone off that road, it's a disaster. I always say it's classic with a twist.”

Her duty as a stewardess of her family history is more important than ever, with shows like Ryan Murphy’s Feud: Capote vs. The Swans telling stories that may not reflect the actual character of her mother and friends in favor of dramatization. The stories that she shares with the world are her truth, how she sees it, and how she remembers it. “They always say there is your truth, my truth, and the real truth. I tried to put out what I remember and the things that I know, it was just such a different world.”

Guest believes that people get too caught up in the glamour and forget to see what is behind it. “I think people love to rewrite history, and this is my history. These women were so glamorous but all these balls, all these dinners, [were] about philanthropy. The April and Paris Ball, they all benefited something, someone, some wonderful cause and I think people forget about that. I think people forget that these women were highly intelligent. They ran their houses, they ran their husbands' lives. We have all these women who were serious powerhouses that led the way for all of us. My mother, she wrote a gardening column.”

What Guest conveys is the real depth of the women of this time. Women who are almost stuck with the label of ‘socialite,’ when in reality, “they were CEOs in their own right.” For women of her mother's time, being in the spotlight took a lot of smarts and a lot of maneuvering. “Don’t forget, they did it all themselves,” says Guest, “Yeah, they had designers, they had the hairdresser, but there weren’t these stylists. It was all their own clothes and they figured out how they looked best, how to put it all together, and they did it for their husband. Then after organizing a whole event, they went out on the town.”

As for the Hulu series, Guest hasn’t seen it yet. “I know how Truman [Capote] was with me. He was a dear friend of my parents, and my father adored him. My mother adored him. I knew him as a child and a teenager, and he was always very kind to me. He was always very funny with me. I'd sometimes see him out in the nightclub. I always laugh when people ask me, ‘What did you think of Andy Warhol doing this and this?” I was a teenager! That was the last thing on my mind. I mean, what do teenage girls talk about? Truman and I talked about boyfriends, about horses.

I think with a lot of these shows, I have a certain way that I remember everyone, and I kind of like to keep it that way.”

To learn more about the mission of Artemis Farm Rescue, click here.