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A New York Socialite Goes Hollywood : 'Deb of the Decade' Cornelia Guest Is Pursuing an Acting Career

June 26, 1987|NIKKI FINKE | Times Staff Writer

So, naturally, when pedigree-perfect Cornelia Cochrane Churchill Guest was presented to society in 1982, the debut attracted national publicity. She was dubbed "Deb of the Decade" by Life magazine, which had featured the 1938 "Deb of the Year," Brenda Frazier, on its cover. Frazier later blamed the brouhaha for sparking a backlash (people sometimes hissed when she walked into a restaurant) and ultimately ruining her life. In her 1963 memoir, "My Debut--a Horror," Frazier chronicled her nervous breakdown, failed marriages and a notorious affair with an Italian playboy.

Though Guest in 1982 described her coming-out as "probably the best year in my life," she soon found herself playing the part of the perpetual deb.

She went around the country promoting her 124-page handbook, "The Debutante's Guide to Life." She tried to become a pop singer, appearing at New York's Xenon and even performing "It's My Party and I'll Cry If I Want To" on "Late Night with David Letterman." Time magazine later said her "syrupy voice" might improve with training.

At the urging of her mother's friend, "Hair" producer Lester Persky, Guest had a screen test at ABC. She also auditioned for a major film role, but didn't get it.

The rest of the time, she partied. And the press relentlessly pursued her. "I felt like I was in a fish bowl. And I just wanted to get out," Guest recalls.

But where? Well, Washington is a good place for ex-debs. "But I'd still get just as homesick as if I lived someplace farther away," she says. And, besides, after her debut she told the Washington Post that she didn't know whether she was a Democrat or Republican.

Palm Beach was considered briefly but rejected, according to family friend Judith Green, Christina's mother and the author of "Sometimes Paradise," the book being pushed at this party. "It used to be the worst members of the best families would be sent down there. You know, the ones the family never wanted to see again. And that certainly wasn't the case with Cornelia."

The Call of the West

Then Guest came to Los Angeles to visit some friends "and I really liked it. And I said, 'Well, I'm just going to move out there.' So I moved. I didn't anticipate doing it. But I think that if I had pondered it back and forth, well, then I would have driven myself into an anxiety attack."

And though she once described Los Angeles as a city she visited "for some sleep," now she says "it's where I can just do what I really want to do--pursue an acting career. I've wanted to act ever since I was really young. And I think to be in this profession you have to be out in California, especially when you're starting out."

Now the prep school dropout who got her diploma by mail is taking acting lessons for 12 hours every week from Hollywood coach Sandra Seacat, whose students have included Jessica Lange and Rachel Ward. Guest also is taking classes on how to read scripts cold and is starting to go out on auditions.

A friend helped her get an agent, Kelly Newby at the La Rocca Talent Agency in Burbank, which handles such clients as Tony Curtis, sisters Judy and Audrey Landers and former Playboy Playmate Shannon Tweed.

"I found her very well-studied, which was quite a surprise," Newby says. "She's chosen the right coaches and made the right moves so far."

Newby is looking to line up a TV series for her client, and possibly a film: "She has what it takes to make it. There's no doubt in my mind. But it's tough in this business to be taken seriously if you're attractive like Cornelia. But to be attractive and have that celebrity on top of it is a difficult thing to fight. She's just got to hang in there until it happens."

Guest says she would like to act in romantic comedies, "stuff like Goldie Hawn. It's light, it's fun and I love to make people laugh."

She starts laughing herself when she self-consciously makes another pass at the Spago waiter's pizza tray. "I'm not completely health conscious quite yet. I mean, what I eat would make half these people ill. I just love junk food, and I'm in heaven now. I jump from one Taco Bell to another. And Fatburger is great."

From the sound of it, that's about all the going-out she does from the Benedict Canyon house she shares with two old friends, both lawyers. And while she's listed in the phone book, "it's the wrong number," she says, obviously pleased. "I don't party at all. I haven't joined any clubs. I might hang out at Helena's or go to Tramps. I have some people I date. But I'm not the night owl I used to be. I've grown up. Most of the time, I study acting and that's what I do for fun. I read a lot of plays and stuff. It's very grueling."

She wrinkles her lightly freckled nose. "Yeah, I know. It's boring. Sorry, but this is it . I didn't move 3,000 miles away from home to goof off."

Or to bury herself in obscurity, either. Eventually, a struggling actress is going to need to get known around Hollywood. Now that she has an acting coach and an agent, maybe the next step is hiring a publicist?

"A publicist !" she cries, almost dropping her slice of pizza on a nearby photographer. "Even hearing that word makes me start to faint."

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