“The only woman I fear in America is Denise Hale,” said Andy Warhol. He had a point. San Francisco’s reigning social empress is known for her “deadly Serbian memory” and whiplash opinions.

“With me it’s simple; I do or I don’t like you,” she says. If she does, doors spring open, connections are made, and mountains moved. If not, you might want to try Milwaukee.

I met Denise in May 2009 when I was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Academy of Art University, in San Francisco. “You were hilarious,” she said in an unplaceable accent (“Do you speak Denise?” is an oft-heard refrain in the Bay Area) after my speech.

Slight but of undeniable stature, she was wearing the kind of jewelry the Queen saves for a state occasion. I demurred. “No. False modesty does not become us,” she said, wagging a finger on which gleamed a yellow diamond the size of a baby’s fist.

Greeting Queen Elizabeth and Ronald Reagan in 1983.

Later, at dinner, I was seated to her left, the publisher Prosper Assouline, a fellow honoree, to her right. Prosper quickly ascertained that while the other guests were served a local Napa Valley white, Denise was quietly sipping a fine French Burgundy. He motioned to the waiter. “May I have what she’s having?” he said. “And may I have what they’re having?” I added. I had entered Denise’s world.

She was born Danica Radosavljevic in Belgrade. Don’t ask me the date. And don’t ask her either, unless you have a death wish. A child of privilege, she was brought up principally by her paternal grandparents and steeped in the manners and mores she still adheres to today.

The Nazi invasion of the city, followed by its Communist occupation, ended the idyll. Attempting to escape to Italy with her second cousin, she spent three days adrift on the Adriatic in a rowboat before being picked up by a British Navy minesweeper and deposited in a refugee camp in Bari.

In case that sounds fanciful, you should know that Denise is disinclined to embellish an already storied life. Four years ago, at Claridge’s hotel in London, she introduced me to the daughter of the captain of the minesweeper, with whom she has kept in steadfast touch.

“False modesty does not become us,” she said, wagging a finger on which gleamed a yellow diamond the size of a baby’s fist.

Denise spent the war in three different refugee camps, after which she made her way to Rome, where she modeled briefly and, at 19, married an Italian businessman many years her senior. “The wealthiest of my husbands,” she recalls. The marriage was not happy, but, thanks to his myriad connections in Asia, it did introduce her to international travel and spark her lifelong fascination with jewelry.

By 1960, she had extricated herself from the union. A born pragmatist, she had insisted the wedding take place in Uruguay (her husband had a dual Uruguayan passport) as opposed to Italy, where divorce would not be possible.

Denise Hale (the former Mrs. Vincente Minnelli) in the 1960s.

Not long afterward, Betty Benson Spiegel (married to film producer Sam Spiegel) introduced her to Hollywood director Vincente Minnelli. Somewhat to her own surprise, within months she had agreed to marry him. Laurence Harvey, acting as best man, made the arrangements, borrowing Kirk and Anne Douglas’s Palm Springs house for the ceremony on New Year’s Eve, 1960. Denise panicked and tried to call it off. “Get your ass to Palm Springs. Divorce him the next day, if you have to,” Harvey yelled.

Denise duly married and moved to Minnelli’s house across the road from the Beverly Hills Hotel. “I was the only one they accepted,” she says, referring to the grandes dames of Hollywood society, “because I knew how to behave.” The journalist Rex Reed asked her what it took to be a part of the movie colony’s “Group A”: “It’s a combination of money, power, achievement, savoir faire, great connections throughout the world, wit, talent and charm.” Simple. Beyond Beverly Hills, Denise attended Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball and Baron Alexis de Redé’s Bal Oriental, and was at Versailles the night Seventh Avenue took on—and beat—French fashion in the storied “Battle of Versailles” runway show.

In 1968, she began a passionate affair with Prentis Cobb Hale, a pillar of WASP society and a department-store heir. It led to the breakup of both of their marriages, and a seismic scandal.

The couple married in San Francisco in 1971 (John Wayne and Truman Capote attended the ceremony) and Denise relocated to “one of the two good buildings” in the city by the bay. Her husband insisted that their apartment be remodeled from three bedrooms to one in order to pre-empt an influx of her European friends. “There will be no guest rooms. Period,” he declared.

Hale, photographed by Larry Sultan in San Francisco.

Denise had the drawing room lined in green silk velvet copied from her friend Liliane de Rothschild, the better to complement the Redon, the Bonnard, and the Braque. “What can I say—opposites attract,” she says. “He was the love of my life, even if I did want to kill him five times a day. We were happy for 27 years.”

Hale also introduced her to his 6,000-acre cattle ranch, in the Sonoma Valley. The main building, surrounded by 200-year-old oak trees, was an unprepossessing hunting lodge dating from 1950, and Denise was appalled. Reimagined and remodeled over time, it became her Nirvana.

Hale died in 1996, and Denise made the decision not to close her doors. Nor did she cede her role as social arbiter and taste-maker. Curiosity and good company still draw her out most nights she’s in San Francisco.

Among her favorite long-standing friends are Nancy and Paul Pelosi, Vice President Kamala Harris, and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas; among the more recent, Sir Jonathan and Lady Heather Ive. Then there’s the group of stalwart gentlemen (being attractive, attentive, and male are not prerequisites for a place at the table, but they do no harm) to whom she dispenses infallible advice:

“Never have an affair with someone who has less to lose than you. They talk.”

“Never order branzino unless you know the chef.”

“In Europe, we don’t go to the gym.”

In February 2020, I checked into the Beverly Hills Hotel. It was the night before the Oscars, and Denise had invited me to accompany her to a party. Jet lag and the knowledge that she gains strength and energy just as I start to lose it spelled danger.

But canceling is not an option unless you can produce a death certificate, and at nine o’clock we arrived at a house in Bel-Air. Outside, a band of the best-looking guys outside a Tom Ford photo shoot parked cars and pinned gardenias to our wristbands.

Hale and Reinaldo Herrera at El Morocco, the storied New York supper club.

Inside, as my eyes adjusted, the room swam: Jennifer Aniston and Julia Roberts. Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, Scarlett Johansson, Timothée Chalamet. Diane von Furstenberg and Warren Beatty.

Seizing an opportunity, I introduced Denise to Renée Zellweger, nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Judy, as “the lady who married Vincente Minnelli after Judy Garland.” “Sit down!” she gasped, and Denise, in her element, diamonds shooting stars, regaled her with stories of once-upon-a-time-in-Hollywood.

I called her recently, wanting to know how she accounted for such extraordinary longevity.

“It’s simple, darling,” she said. “I am a great secret-keeper. I learned that from my grandfather.” And though she remains irrepressibly au courant and in the swim, her modus operandi is strictly behind the scenes.

“I don’t broadcast where I go or what I do,” she says, “and I don’t need to know when you go to the bathroom.” So let’s raise a glass—Montrachet only—to the Last Empress, after whom they didn’t just break the mold; they scattered the pieces.

David Downton is an Editor at Large for Air Mail