03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Great Ladies and the Gifts They Gave

I am not one of those people who finds it more exciting to give than to receive. Perhaps due to the intensive labor of love that my Christmas wish list has always been- items organized by probable giftee, qualified by size, color, and addendumed with sourcing information from roughly my seventh Christmas on- I have rarely been disappointed with a gift. But as I've watched others open gifts this holiday season, I've noticed that although their faces sometimes register barely controlled precipitous droops of dismay at an egregiously misjudged gift, other times their faces explode in a smile I started itching to elicit, in the way I'd previously itched for, say, item 15, size small, heather grey, I began to wonder: what was so great, anyway, about knowing exactly what to get myself? So I set off on search of what made gifting so pleasurable, outside of any sort of pure altruism.

What made some of the most stylish, couture/bauble/Hermes hound women of the past such noteworthy gift givers (as well as getters), I wondered. How could I make the gifts I gave as uniquely, personally exciting as the gifts I decided I would be getting each year? Did the ubiquitous, last-minute dispatch of Diptyque candles each holiday season mean that I didn't really know my friends and family? I set off in search of those I suspected would have been the best of the best at giving remarkable gifts.

Of course I began with Jackie. The first anecdote I stumbled upon is a story of Jackie having decided, for reasons of her own, to surprise Ari Onassis with a present at breakfast one morning. When her husband sat down to his morning meal, he found an old watch of John F. Kennedy's perched on his napkin roll, with the inscription FALJ (For Ari Love Jackie) on one of the links. Onassis had often told Jackie she was his costliest expenditure, and so Jackie found a quotation from an appropriately Greek philosopher, and left it on a card next to the watch-- "Our costliest expenditure is time." Another "just because" gift Jackie gave was to her friend Andy Warhol. Jackie blew up and framed photographs that had run in LIFE Magazine of herself swimming nude in Montauk, and signed them-- "For Andy, with enduring affection, Jackie Montauk"-- a nod to the locale of Andy's beach house and the scene of paparazzic violation.

I discontentedly shifted around in my chair, looking at the candles I intended to give to people I surely had a more intimate history with than a cylindrical stack of wax would imply. What else had Jackie given as a gift? Upon her arrival in France, she gave Charles de Gaulle a letter from George Washington thanking the French for their help during the American Revolution. For her mother, a copy of her beautifully illustrated journal documenting her time in Europe during the summer of 1951. I furrowed my brow, and lit one of the candles. My apartment sure would smell fantastic for the next year, I decided, because I sure wasn't able to give lame little candles out as gifts anymore.

The next obvious great lady-- Michelle Obama. Although much has been made of a snafu involving the Gordon Brown's wife and two White House gift shop helicopters for her sons, Michelle's outstanding gifts have far outstripped her gaffes. For songstress Carla Bruni in Paris, an American Gibson guitar. For Laura Bush, on her way out of the White House, a leather-bound journal that came on the heels of a conversation between the two about Laura's forthcoming memoirs, as well as a Louis L'Amour quotation: "There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. Yet that will be the beginning." At the G20 summit in Pittsburgh, Michelle gave honey she'd been growing on the White House South Lawn, along with a one of a kind porcellian tea set, inspired by the china used by that other Illinois president, Abraham Lincoln, and his wife.

Candle burning next to me, I continued my search. After all, it wasn't like I had access to custom reproduction presidential china, or presidential watches, for that matter. Perhaps dramatic gift giving simply required a more dramatic life than mine?

What did Diana Vreeland, a master of high drama during her two decades helming Harper's Bazaar and Vogue, recommend for her more pedestrian readers? "Why don't you... wake your children up with silver balloons on Christmas morning?" She asked in one of her famous "Why Don't You?" columns. Okay, fine. Other more accessible holiday trinkets? In an old New York Times society report I found from 1902, a breathless columnist described Caroline Astor's party favors as such: "For women, rose ruffs, and decorated long pipes for the men. Leather and gilt imported photograph frames, large leather and fancy calendars, hoops covered with flowers and ribbons, leather memorandum books, brocaded silk bags, and gilt paper weighs." Had this reporter even been given any of the party favors, or was he awed just by looking at them?

By this point, I was giving my candles withering looks in their corner. How about some practical advice, great ladies? Houston socialite extraordinaire Lynn Wyatt says she always gives gifts that are in some way personalized, and is particularly fond of anything alligator printed with initials. Annette de la Renta, wife of Oscar, is noted as having given Brooke Astor (daughter of the aforementioned Caroline Astor and her rose ruffs) a fur rug that Mrs. Astor kept on her bedroom floor. Maria Callas, of course, gave friends signed copies of her opera programs, so convinced was she of their supreme value. December's issue of Vogue informed me that Parmelia Reed, prima hostess of Hobe Sobe in Florida, sent black sweaters to residents displaying indecorous behavior, indicating that they should exit stage left of the social scene, immediately. So cheeky!

If my trip through elite gift giving taught me anything, other than the fact that candles don't count, it's that much like throwing a rollicking, fabulous party, giving a great gift is a game. Each great lady gift hearkens back to a conversation between the gifter and the giftee, or is the result of some research and thought as to where the giftee is in their life. (What 90+ year old woman wouldn't want to be thought of as a "fur rug kind of woman"?) Another hallmark is a dash of wit. Candles, not funny. Irreverence, however, is the name of the game when gifting a sentimental reminder of a time spent swimming nude, or a black garment to wear like a scarlet A out of sunny Florida's social scene. Lack of necessity seems to be a necessity itself for champion gifts. While everyone (or maybe just every woman) needs candles, who really needs a fur rug or silver balloons? And who doesn't look at a new fur rug or silver balloons and think her life is about to change for the better?

So giftees extraordinaire, listen up. This year, I am ditching the candles, digging deep into my extensive "favorite prints" archives on iPhoto and picking the perfect Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sartorialist, Irving Penn or otherwise attributed print, learning how to gallery frame and mount them, and thus doling out uniform yet unique gifts to everyone on my list. For my father, whose chief edict is "respect nature?", a silhouette of an elephant chasing a little boy, his arms throw up, against a setting African sun. For my most exuberant friend, a Patrick Demarchelier shot of Shalom Harlow jumping on the bed for Vogue. It may not be a Gibson guitar, but I think I can probably find some silver balloons, and perhaps, then, some smiles, a candle just can't elicit.

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