The spread was fit for the most discriminating of guests: shrimp and grits, flutes of champagne, quiche Lorraine. But those who visited New Orleans Auction Galleries on Sunday morning weren’t there to eat; they came to bid on more than 240 hats that belonged to the New Orleans social phenomenon known as Mickey Easterling, who died in April.
The hats — plus a selection of handbags, fur wraps and a leopard coat — were the most recent items of Easterling’s to be auctioned off. Past auctions have included other personal effects, including a dazzling jewelry collection that featured a 10-carat diamond ring. When the gavel was lowered, its final price was $80,000.
But for those who knew Easterling, like auctioneer Tessa Steinkamp, her hats may have been her most recognizable adornment.
“Mickey never went anywhere without wearing a hat, sometimes three at a time,” said Steinkamp, who knew her for 25 years. “She would expect you to notice her hat and, of course, comment on it. But if anyone recognized a hat she was wearing as one she had worn before, she would put it away and never wear that hat again.”
Easterling was the daughter of a dairyman whose humble beginnings belied the wealth she gained later in life. She gave generously to a host of charities and causes, and she made a name for herself as a giver of lavish parties, always decked out to the hilt in furs and jewels.
Though a towering figure on the New Orleans social scene, she stood a mere 5 feet tall. Since her death, many of her personal effects have been sold at auction.
The collection of hats offered by New Orleans Auction Galleries spanned everything from wide-brimmed straw bonnets to brocade turbans and a bejeweled fez that Easterling acquired in Morocco.
“Mickey was very well traveled, and she bought hats wherever she went,” Steinkamp said.
Interest in the hats at the auction was brisk, with Steinkamp rapidly announcing bids that arrived via two Internet stations, four telephones and, of course, the floor. Stephanie Durant, wearing a close-fitting straw fedora, was one of those bidding in person. Steinkamp referred to her as the bidder “on the blue couch.”
“I have a vintage hat collection of my own, maybe about a thousand,” Durant explained, somewhat sheepishly. “And I wear them. Because most of the hats in this auction were in lots of three or four, I had to bid on all of them just to get the one hat in the lot that I really wanted.”
Durant said she had acquired several of Easterling’s dresses at an earlier sale, again because she likes to collect — and wear — fine vintage clothing and accessories.
It was not simply the allure of owning something that belonged to a famous New Orleans socialite and philanthropist that attracted bids. Instead, the hats, bags and furs in the collection were all quality items, many with designer labels: Yves St. Laurent, of Paris; Zandra Rhodes and Frederick Fox, of London; Fleur de Paris, of New Orleans.
The leopard coat, size 6, went for $5,500 after Steinkamp made sure that bidders on the phone and Internet knew that, by law, the exotic fur could not be shipped out of state.
Durant went home with several lots, including a black wool riding hat with velvet-trimmed net that commanded the highest price for a single hat: $550.
“It is just so devastatingly stylish; I can picture Vivien Leigh wearing it,” Durant said.
Durant also claimed the contents of lot 767, a collection of three crinoline hats, one of which should be recognizable to anyone who has seen the photograph of Easterling’s body at her memorial service at the Saenger Theatre. She was posed in elegant attire, a cigarette in one hand and Champagne flute in the other, wearing extravagant jewelry and, of course, a hat.
“I knew that the hat from the memorial service that made The New York Times was one of the three in the lot, but it really wasn’t the one I was after. I wanted the white crinoline,” Durant said. “All the same, Mickey was such a wonderful person that I am honored to have the last hat she ever wore.”