Even in her modeling days, Margaret Caroline Bippus, known as Sunny, was more than just a pretty face. The photographers and art directors with whom she worked in the 1960s quickly learned that she was also a good sport. Hence, they threw her from airplanes, submerged her in swamps and perched her on precipices wearing everything from swimsuits to ball gowns.
"I was always knee-deep in something," says Bippus, the 1966 swimsuit issue cover model. "Once I did a commercial in the Caribbean for Bic. The photographers had me underwater with a spear gun for five days. I was to spear a treasure chest, open it, take out a ballpoint pen and write 'Bic' on a board. The last time, I wrote: 'I want out of the damn water.' "
For an SI story on fishing, photographer John Zimmerman was shooting Bippus on an airboat in the Florida Everglades when the boat, going 65 mph, hit a petrified stump. Bippus was thrown from the craft, but as soon as Zimmerman determined that she wasn't badly hurt, he ordered her back aboard for a few more shots "before the bruises come out."
These days Bippus makes her living in a drier and less perilous milieu. With two other women, she operates Kemble Interiors, a decorating firm that caters to the carriage trade in Palm Beach, Fla., where she grew up. Her typical client spends $350,000 to $400,000, demands perfection and expects a lot of personal attention. Fall is the height of the decorating season in Palm Beach—"They all want their houses ready by Christmas," says Bippus—and this autumn Kemble Interiors handled 24 such clients at once. "You're dealing with people who are used to having their way in everything, and it does get to be very, very difficult," says Bippus.
February 7, 1989
Making sure the paint is dry by Christmas is the easy part. When necessary, the designing women of Kemble Interiors also hire the chef, interview the prospective nanny, stock the larder, trim the tree, turn down the beds and meet the plane. "If you stay organized, you can go through your life without a jumble," says Bippus. "I have a lot of things in my life, but I make sure that everything has a place. I have to live that way for it to work."
Bippus attributes her 48-year-old good looks to frequent exercise, a healthy diet and a No. 30 sunblock. "I put it on the minute I wake up in the morning—on my face, neck, hands, arms," says Bippus. "I've even started putting it on my legs, because I've been in the sun so much." Thus protected, she begins her day with 45 minutes of Rollerblade skating along the edge of Lake Worth. "It's a skate I found last year that helps you with your snow skiing," she says. "It's a cross-country sort of movement that certainly helps your thighs, but all of a sudden even your feet begin to look nice. When you get to be my age, the only things worth looking at are your feet."
As an active member of the Palm Beach tennis set, Bippus plays mixed doubles four or five times a week at the Everglades or Bath and Tennis clubs or on a private court, "if I'm lucky enough to be asked." She attends low-impact aerobics classes three evenings a week, and frequently, after a long, hard day at the office, she swims in her backyard pool. "Even half an hour of that can make you feel wonderful," she says. She also plays golf, windsurfs, shoots quail and, for two or three weeks every January, goes to Aspen, Colo., where, as she puts it, she skis her brains out.
Recently, Bippus has discovered trout fishing. "I was in Idaho for four weeks last summer and I fell in love with it," she says. "I fished in a stream behind a tiny grocery store called Jerry's. Jerry would say, 'Today I want you to use a woolly worm,' and then he'd walk me out the back of his store and say, 'All right, see that rock over there? Go three feet to the right, and I promise you'll catch the biggest trout you've ever seen.' Then I'd pad off into the stream, and he'd go in the store and cook the best-smelling chili I'd ever encountered."
There have been a number of men in Bippus's life, including, for a six-year stretch in the 1970s, a husband. She speaks well of all of them. Her first love was Peter Revson, the handsome, race car-driving member of the Revlon cosmetics family. She didn't marry Revson because, at 23, she felt she was not yet ready. If she had, she would have been a widow by 35; he was killed in a racing accident in 1974. "Maybe it was a mistake. I loved him a lot," she says. "But I don't think so."
In 1970 she married Thomas Swift Taylor, a Chicago businessman and member of the Swift meat-packing family, also handsome, who had been married five times previously, and moved with him to London for several years. "It didn't last long, but it was fun," she says. "We parted company in the friendliest possible way."
Now Bippus lives alone in a pretty, two-story white frame house on a quiet block in West Palm Beach, the wrong side of Lake Worth in the Palm Beach context. Inside, the house is a showcase for the traditional style that is its owner's professional specialty—English antiques, 18th-century landscape paintings, dainty porcelains and flowered chintz. At the foot of the staircase, however, near the door, is an umbrella stand whose contents are 20th-century Florida—a Prince racket, a Wilson softball bat and an L.L. Bean fly rod.
"My father was a surgeon and his whole life was his medicine," says Bippus. "My mother basically brought us up. She taught us to shoot and fish and play tennis and everything. I think it's very important that parents make sure their children learn sports. We live in a computer age, and we're becoming more and more insular. I've known children who sit in their rooms all day and play with a computer instead of being outdoors learning how to get along with people. That's a mistake."
When Bippus's house was built in 1940, it had a view, over grass and marsh, of the lake. Now that vista is blocked by apartment buildings, and the neighborhood is no longer as tranquil as it was once was. Three attempted break-ins have occurred while Bippus was in the house, which have led her to keep a loaded shotgun beside her bed. She's not terrified, that's not her style; she's merely cautious. "I go out to the shooting range just to keep in practice, and I have a stun gun on my bedside table," she says. "It sends out a 40,000-volt charge. If anybody ever touched me, I'd zap 'em."
Despite her independent nature, Bippus was well into her 30's before she became truly self-sufficient. After her divorce in 1976, she moved to Aspen, where she learned the decorating trade from a friend, established a business of her own and came into contact with other women who were doing the same things. "I met so many fabulous women who were running their own shops or were lawyers or dentists, and they changed the way I felt. We can do anything we set our minds to. There were about 30 ladies' softball teams in Aspen. Ours was called the Wild-flowers, and we were the absolute worst. But we brought wonderful buffet dinners and champagne to the games, and everybody came to watch us play because they couldn't wait for the champagne. And we got so good we won the league title the next year."
Bippus regards her eight years in Aspen as the happiest in an altogether happy life, even though the period ended badly. "I walked into my office one day, and my two partners said, 'We have fired you.' It's worse than a divorce when that sort of thing happens," she says. "I was the godmother of their children, and after eight years, Aspen was my life."
Bippus returned to Palm Beach in 1983 and started over, with few regrets and undiminished reserves of energetic optimism. "I've had the best life in the whole wide world," she says. "It's ridiculous to say, because God will probably strike me dead tomorrow, but there's not one year that hasn't been absolutely perfect."