Let Us Eat Cake: Undercover at the Blackstone Holiday Party

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Photo: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

It's been rumored, in certain New York social circles, that Steve Schwarzman knows how to party. So when I heard that Schwarzman’s private-equity juggernaut, the Blackstone Group, was having its 25th annual holiday bash at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Thursday night, I knew something momentous was about to go down.

I texted a friend who works at Blackstone: Can I crash it? He shot back: The whole firm will be there. You’ll blend in. (Which translates to: You’re not nearly as good-looking as us, but don’t worry: The IT guys with buzz cuts and square-toe shoes will cover you.)

So I donned my good suit, looped my one and only Vineyard Vines tie, and headed uptown to pull off some Jason Bourne–style black ops. Getting in was surprisingly easy. Head down, a quick wave to the women with the clipboards, stick out my jaw, and use the old pretend-to-be-on-the-phone trick: I was past the guards and back into 2007.

Big-name Wall Street banks may be cutting back on their holiday parties to save face, but private-equity firms, who never really cared what Main Street thinks, are still going all out. Blackstone rented out the entire museum for the night, but the party proper was being held in the Sackler Wing, where all the priceless Egyptian relics live. Outside the door, a line wound into the hallway. A husband and wife talked behind me.

“What are we waiting for?”
“Steve and his wife are shaking hands at the door.”
“Oh, I thought the line was to see the art.”
“He is the art.”

I shook the founder’s hand, silently noting his orange Hermès tie and well-coiffed wife, and was so sweaty-palmed and nervous that I accidentally wished him — Steve Schwarzman — a Merry Christmas. Whatever, I was in.

The room was decked out to banker cocktail-hour specs: deep blue lighting, clinking crystal glasses, Bublé on heavy ro'. Guests mingled in front of the Temple of Dendur, a first-century Egyptian shrine commissioned by Emperor Augustus, a Roman power broker who ruthlessly negotiated his way into control of the entire Mediterranean region and was made a god for his efforts. Subtle, Steve.

My Blackstone contact was wisely pretending not to know me, so I beelined for the bar (top-shelf and open, obvi) and, then, to the food section. Bingo. Salmon hand rolls, tuna cru, chicken roulade. Black mission figs topped with prosciutto mousse. An Asian table with sizzling woks and bamboo steamers holding dumplings, fried rice, and spring rolls. An Indian table with mini-samosas. In line, a Gordon Gekko doppelgänger with slicked-back hair and a purple pocket square glanced at another table being picked over by a couple of men in yarmulkes.

“Must be the kosher table,” he whispered to his wife. “All the guys with the, whaddya call em, berets.”

As finance types go, the Blackstoners at the party divided among familiar lines — trophy wives in furs, back-office workers talking about the Knicks, fresh-from-Princeton analysts laughing too hard at their bosses’ jokes.

Mark, I’d like you to meet my wife, Jane. I know what you’re thinking: What’s she doing with an old toad like me? Ha ha!

So I said to him, honey, buy the piece! Just buy it! Didn't I, honey? And now it's hanging in our family room.

At eight, a hush fell over the room as Schwarzman himself stepped onto the platform. He introduced retired Blackstone co-founder and active deficit hawk Pete Peterson and Blackstone president Hamilton E. James, a patrician with a permanent sneer. The occasion of seeing these three moguls reunited under one roof — the Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman of high finance, with a combined net worth of $10 billion, give or take — was not lost on the Blackstoners, who listened rapt as Schwarzman recounted the firm’s creation myth.

“Who would have known when Pete and I started out in 1985 with only $400,000 in capital that, 25 years later, we’d have 1,400 employees — we’re glad you’re all here — 24 offices around the globe from Boston to London, Dubai to Mumbai, Beijing to Sydney, and more than 700,000 people who work at our 62 portfolio companies.”

The buyout barons dispensed the year-end company awards (one, named for Peterson himself, came with a Wimbledon-style trophy and a $10,000 check) and picked the winners of the office raffle. Ken from IT got two tickets to Vancouver and three nights at a Hilton resort. Michael from the credit department won round-trips to Curaçao and three nights at the Curaçao Hilton. What was left unsaid is that Blackstone owns the entire Hilton chain, making Schwarzman’s gifts to his underlings the equivalent of letting them use his personal hole punch for a weekend.

After the raffle, it was time to cut The Cake, a towering multilayer monstrosity topped with replicas of landmarks from each city where Blackstone has offices. Etched into one replica was the word ACCOUNTABILITY.

I was trying to have accountability with some damn chocolate macaroons when waiters blitzed me with mini salted-caramel ice cream cones, lemon tarts, and plates of Christmas cookies. You could not stop the food at this thing. The music came back on.

I got a feeling. That tonight’s gonna be a good night.

A little more mingling and it was time to bounce. I was getting depressed at my career choice, and people with good hair were starting to look at me sideways. Back out to the lobby, where more macaroons and cookies were waiting. I threw five bucks to the coat-check guy, passed by another phalanx of waiters on the way out (“Sir, would you like a caramel and Earl Grey truffle?”) and hailed a cab.

"Was it a good party?" asked the driver, as we made our way down Fifth.

"Yes," I confessed with a sigh. "Yes it was."

Verdict: Food 5, drink 4, venue 5, debauchery 1, exclusivity 5 (but really 2)