Frances Umlauf

Cucumber Sandwiches and Sherry


Frances Umlauf

Cucumber Sandwiches and Sherry

By Elizabeth Skenes Millen    Photography by Christian Lee

Frances Umlauf is as multi-layered as a sweet Vidalia onion. In spending time with her and peeling back a layer at a time, it just got sweeter and sweeter.  I thought I was going to visit her to talk about throwing fabulous parties, which she is famous for. What I found was one of the most intriguing, multi-talented, lighthearted and fun ladies I’ve ever met.

I met Frances at her home in Windmill Harbor on Hilton Head Island. The minute I pulled into the driveway, I knew I was about to enter a Lowcountry palace. The home was beyond beautiful. It was charming and cozy, grand and elegant, yet homey. It was bursting with personality and individuality. My eyes soared to the beams in the great room, which reminded me of a historic chapel, and bounced from one stunning work of art to another. Close to life-sized zebras were in a large,  powerful painting that lead to the kitchen, where the familiar black and white checks of various MacKenzie-Childs' pieces added a welcoming whimsy.

I didn’t know it until I left, but her home décor is a direct reflection of her dancing personality and beauty—a perfectly blended mixture of refinement, charm and hutzpa. We landed in the kitchen—the often used complete chef’s kitchen—to sit at the bar with freshly made cucumber sandwiches, tea cookies, sherry, iced tea and wine. It was delightful. “I love to cook,” Frances said. In taking in the gourmet surroundings and tasting the cucumber sandwiches, it was obvious she does it well. “I love cooking classes. It’s a passion of mine and I love making salads. They are not regular salads; they’re composed. My husband proposed to me over a salad. He said, ‘If you make this again, I’ll marry you!’”

Frances is known for throwing lavish dinner parties. To be on her guest list is a treat because everyone knows she goes the extra mile in everything she does. However, what people may not know is the more serious side of Frances as a career woman, volunteer and a two-time breast cancer survivor.

Frances’ upbringing was a bit on the unusual side. Her father was 66 years old when she was born, her mother 36. Her father was from Scotland, mother from England and she was raised in Australia. Her father was the first importer of cars in the land down under and her mom was a concert pianist and artist who spoke five languages.

Frances was only 6 years old when she moved with her mother and sister to Marine County, California, where her mom went to work. “We had to raise ourselves. We were poor. The market owner would stop me as I walked by and tell me my mother needed me to take home a bag of groceries. It wasn’t until later that I discovered he was giving us those groceries because we had no food,” she said. Basically, she was raised with all the etiquette, culture and well-to-do methods of nobility. The only thing missing was the well-to-do part. “I have had an amazing life,” she said. After hearing her fascinating stories, I believe it.

Finding work in jobs at the best addresses—Montgomery Ave., Wall St.—she has lived the life, from San Francisco and Los Angeles to Park City, Utah and Park Avenue in New York City. She married Jim Umlauf and their life has been filled with the finer things: Parties, celebrities, travel, art, world-class dining and more. In fact, more includes being invited to the St. James Palace in England to a party hosted by the Queen. “The thing I noticed the most [about the Queen] was her vivid blue eyes. They were a vision of brilliance touched by life-long royalty and history. It was so special,” Frances said. It’s not surprising that Frances’ uncle was knighted by the Queen. An interesting note is when deciding what to wear, Frances went to the Stock Exchange consignment store, purchased a jacket “with good lines” and went home and sewed on embellishments to make it look perfectly Chanel. See what I mean? How can you not love this practical, yet fancy woman?

In addition to Frances, her mother and sister had breast cancer. Her sister lost her battle after 14 years of being the “posterchild” for a new and hopeful breast cancer breakthrough drug. She had provided so much hope for so many people that was dashed with her death. Frances felt as though she had been given a new lease on life when she beat cancer the first time. She began volunteering her time to plan and coordinate walk-athons, marathons, charity galas and the likes to raise money for cancer. From this, she honed her party planning skills, combined them with her love of cooking and magnetic personality and that’s how she became the hottest “ticket” in town. “I like people who enjoy life and don’t take it so seriously,” said Frances. And, that’s exactly why I like her.

Up Close:

Thoughts on Sherry: I think we should all have a sip in the afternoon. It’s a nice tradition and goes well with tea.
Biggest Planning Event: Decorating the LA airport for a huge event. It was so amazing Nancy Reagan complimented us.
Beyond Salad: I love fish—brown butter, lemon, capers! Italian dishes! Delicious!
Self-taught: I taught myself to cook. At one time I had over 3,000 cookbooks.
Largest Accomplishment: Having my son and seeing him get the finest education. He now has two beautiful children, who I adore.