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Lady Godiva

Yes, Sandy Lerner Posed Nude on a Horse. But Her Cosmetics Company Is Hot Stuff, and She's Got Enough Money to Buy Jane Austen's Ancestral Home in England. If You Don't Like It, Get a Life.

March 01, 1998|RENEE TAWA | Renee Tawa is a Times staff writer

Prologue -- "In polite society, you cut off your crusts."--Overheard at the Jane Austen Society's annual meeting.


The Janeites speak of her as a concept, a rather puzzling concept. "Oh, Mrs. Lerrr-nah," they muse. Otherwise, though her absence is notable, here, at Jane Austen's ancestral home, no one notes it.

Really, what they want is to be left alone with their tea and pre-buttered scones and tiny cucumber sandwiches, and to hurry off to a picnic spot under the beech trees on the wide lawn of Chawton House. Once a year, the grounds of the estate in the South of England turn into a Buckingham Palace for keepers of the flame, the place where Janeites gather for the spectacle, the tradition, the notion that all is right with the British Empire, that all is right with Jane Austen. They have come because Austen wrote or rewrote her six novels in a cottage on the Chawton estate, owned by the same family since 1578.

Every July for 40 years, Jane Austen Society members have parked their Volvos and Saabs along the skinny lane outside the 51-room mansion with its climbing-ivy Tudor brick. Under a billowing white tent pitched on the lawn, the dames and sirs, ladies and lords gather alongside a handful of 60ish-plus men in snug suit jackets and wide ties, and hundreds of white-haired women in straw hats with big bows and ankle-baring floral print dresses. In a land of savoir-faire, the only bit of grumbling is over the sandwich triangles with inexplicably attached crusts.

Only when a Janeite must ponder the future of Chawton House is the comforting clink of teacups on saucers jarred in a blink of low-grade anxiety. "It's just the sort of thing an American would do, isn't it?" "What if she goes off on a tangent and wants to buy an estate in Texas or something?" "People just don't know much about her."

And then a deft--so smooth!--turn of conversation . . . .

On this afternoon, a soft wind stirs through the avenue of yew trees, the same ones that Austen would have known in the early 1800s. No one frets about rain, though a gray sky has sputtered all week over the medieval village. It has not rained on the society in more than 20 years.

Interview with Jane Austen Society secretary Susan McCartan:

Q: You mentioned the [society's officers] all have other jobs. May I ask what they do for a living?

A: Confidential information.

Interview with Sandy Lerner:

Q: Are you a speed freak?

A: Totally.

On a busy street in Orange County, Sandy Lerner cranks her black Jaguar into a rib-rattling turn. Sorry, she says to her passenger. But she doesn't sound sorry at all. Lerner, who is slim and leggy with waist-length hair streaked a reddish purple, once showed up at a party for then-British Prime Minister John Major in blue body glitter and a little black dress, and she's not sorry about that either.

Really, what she wants is to be left alone with a Cuban cigar, a glass of Port and a bowl of SpaghettiOs. She says she's a quiet, 42-year-old nerd, no good at small talk. She prefers jeans with clunky sandals and no makeup but doesn't mind an empire-waist ball gown or Mildew eyeshadow. She doesn't laugh much but is a wicked mimic (a dead-on British accent) and silly enough to quote her cat, Lily. In flat, tenor-low tones, she also will quote H.L. Mencken or Jethro Tull and explain that she posed nude on her horse for Forbes magazine to be edgy and GET A LIFE if it bothers you and, what the hell, it was only her backside shot by a female photographer.

She is, she insists, an untidy bundle of stupidities and frailties who invented hip nail polish colors and sewed her own medieval jousting outfit and read Austen's "Persuasion" more than 65 times and gave millions to animal welfare and built a digital recording studio for fun and . . . God, would she love to work a makeup booth at Lollapalooza if she ever gets a minute.

Lerner is CEO of Urban Decay, the hottest, most in-your-face cosmetics company in the country, with offices in Costa Mesa and Mountain View. With creepy, ironic names like Asphyxia and Gangrene, the company's colors often fall on the glo side of Day-Glo. Its products, which include lipstick packaged in faux bullet shells, are sold at Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom. Devotees include Dennis Rodman and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy.

Years before she started Urban Decay, Lerner co-founded Cisco Systems, the Silicon Valley company that produces most of the world's e-mail and Internet routers. She and her former husband sold the business in 1990 for $200 million and then set up their own charitable foundation, which so far has handed out large grants to projects like the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. But that's not the foundation's most audacious undertaking--its most audacious undertaking, at least if you ask the Janeites gathered on the great lawn, and you must ask, because if you don't, they would never bring it up--is her decision to buy and restore Chawton House and turn it into a study center for women's literature.

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