Lady Palumbo traces a life of service from Beirut to London.
Speaking with Lady Palumbo is a lovely introduction to what doing it all with grace and kindness looks like. Married to British Lord Palumbo, noted property developer, patron of the arts, and former chair of the jury of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, since 1986, this Lebanese mother of five adult children doesn’t miss a beat and seems to glide effortlessly within a world of charities, family, friends, and work. When asked about her wonderful needlepoint store specializing in hand-painted embroidery called Tapisserie, she laughs, “It was not something I wanted to do. It was my hobby, but I never thought I would end up with a shop. I always had a bag of needlepoint with me, a granny’s hobby.
I used to say to one of my closest friends, the designer Nina Campbell, that one day I would open a shop and find all the designs I loved. I never really meant it. When she moved shops and changed addresses, she called my ex-husband, Ely Calil, and told him to buy her old lease for me. All of this behind my back and one day he said, ‘Here’s your shop!’” That was in 1985, with Tapisserie opening the following year. “It’s good to have a challenge and learn new things. It took me three years to turn it around – but I would never start something and not succeed. I thought I might do it for a few years and then it started working. You never know in life,” shares the long-time London resident and Lebanese born and educated Hayat Palumbo.
Her name, Hayat, means “life” in Arabic; she was named by her publisher father, Kamel Mrowaa – founder of Al-Hayat newspaper – who was murdered in 1966, when Hayat was only 16. She would go on to finish her education in Middle Eastern history at the American University of Beirut and earn a master’s in international relations from the Sorbonne in Paris. Following her father’s love of journalism, she worked as a reporter for another one of his newspapers, The Daily Star, as well as Jeune Afrique magazine in the Seventies.
Her friend, Lebanese businesswoman Nayla Audi, who has known Lady Palumbo since childhood, shares, “From early on, I saw in Hayat the strength of beauty, education, and being from this part of the world. I looked up to her then and I still do.” Lady Palumbo has always had her heart set on having a positive effect on others. “I used to be quite a committee fundraiser for a lot of charities. I never said no, and started to think I was doing too many things and having little impact. I wanted to do something that was not just a flash in the pan.” Her mother had cancer and Lady Palumbo felt strongly that she could help raise money to fund the search for a cure. So she founded Foreign Sisters in 2007, a committee of women dedicated to raising funds for cancer research. “I thought, what about an annual lunch for international women based in London. We kept it light-handed, no auctions, a fun lunch that wraps up in under two hours and raises tons of money in one afternoon.
The first one we had was at the River Cafe and we had about 80 people with 52 nationalities. It was incredible. Harry Winston was our first sponsor.” For their 10th anniversary luncheon in 2016, Foreign Sisters raised £300,000 and for the past two years, they’ve had the generous support of Pomellato.
The Palumbo family also founded and manages The Walbrook Club, of which she is chair, but she points out, “I managed it for 28 years, and now it is our son Philip who is the managing director and runs the day to day – and very well, I might add.” It is an elegant members-only club where smart business attire has always been de rigeur. The idea of the club came about one weekend in the country, with the Palumbos’ friend Mark Birley. “We were discussing what to do with the place and Mark said, ‘Let me turn it into a little club in the city.’ They now have a speakers series called City Breakfasts, where the Saudi ambassador recently spoke. It was a big success.”
Despite everything shifting, in large part due to Covid-19, Lady Palumbo is perennially chic, even if not in heels and a gown anymore. Having always been interested in fashion, Lady Palumbo still focuses on always looking good, with a closet full of classic Marni, Prada, Chanel, and Yves Saint Laurent. Not the current collections, though, which Lady Palumbo points out aren’t for her. “My life is different than before. We aren’t going out every night anymore. We used to dress up all the time and would have dinner parties at home that were black tie.” She continues, “I like flats, but not trainers. Everyone looks like they just came from the gym. I try to be understated and can’t do frills anymore. I do think it’s important to dress, as it affects your morale. I have some lovely kaftans from Beirut and you build your own style. We did have a lot of fun with fashion and dressing. You need to know and also, not look ridiculous.”
Her thoughts turn to her beloved Lebanon and the current situation in Beirut. “It is so heartbreaking. I recently heard the former mayor of New Orleans being interviewed by Christiane Amanpour and his words brought a lot of encouragement to me. He said that when everyone wrote off New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the people did not. He said that the local people love their city and with this love, they succeeded in putting it back together.” Lady Palumbo wholly agrees. “If you love a place, you will work hard and bring it back; differently, but you will bring it back. The Lebanese people are survivors and they will rebuild and they will do it better. They have lost everything and it is incredible what they are doing there now.”
Thinking about what’s next, Lady Palumbo pauses and says, “I am so much enjoying things now and being available for my shop. I want to give it a lot more time and maybe, a little more time for myself. I’d like to do things a little bit slower and enjoy things a bit more.” The next chapter sounds well-deserved after a life devoted to family, households, and other people.
Originally published in the November 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia