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The Death of (the Idea of) the Upper East Side

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Poodle-walking on Madison Avenue, 1994.  

Members of the tribe that inhabits these buildings and whose territory comprises the Upper East Side seldom use the words society or socialite, although the phrase “social people” is often used to denote its members. It is far more porous today than it was in the days when Mrs. Astor’s Patriarch’s Ball defined society; some of its members descend from those old families or newer ones like the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts who were considered parvenus in the Gilded Age; many of its women, among them some of the fiercest guardians of its ramparts, married up from very humble backgrounds, and some of its fortunes are first-generation. It is most easily defined by the annual circuit-of-charity benefit parties, among which the cocktail preview of the International Fine Art and Antique Dealers Show at the Armory benefiting the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center is one of the biggest. “Sloan-Kettering brings out all the Big Girls,” says a medium-size girl who is surveying the crowd on a recent October night, looking down the long aisle of antique booths at such Big Girls as Carol Mack, Hilary Geary, Pat Altschul, Somers Farkas, Debbie Bancroft, and Barbara de Portago. It is the wives (and widows and heiresses) who are the keepers of the benefit circuit, although many of the men are here as well: Ambassador Earl Mack, buyout baron Wilbur Ross, sugar heir Pepe Fanjul. It’s not a formal event, just a cocktail party, but some of these dresses and gowns could definitely go straight on to major black-tie events; observing the unwritten sumptuary law of their caste, the men are all wearing gray or navy business suits and muted ties. No one would call it a young crowd, with a few exceptions—like flame-haired model-heiress Lydia Hearst-Shaw and professional party boy Fabian Basabe. You can’t help wondering where their friends and peers are hanging out tonight and whether, when the time comes, they will bother to dress up and join the boards and carry on the arcane social-philanthropic traditions of their elders.

“This used to be so grand,” says my friend, a voluptuous blonde socialite in Carolina Herrera. “It was so great when Nan Kempner and Pat Buckley were chairing. It’s really just not the same.” This lament sounds frequently up and down Park Avenue. For many people, Nan Kempner’s death last year marked the end of a sparkling era of New York social life. The chain-smoking, best-dressing, quick-witted socialite was the embodiment of the tribe, the Platonic ideal of a socialite, the kind of Big Girl who made all the others feel good about being in the tribe, and so far she has no obvious successors. Various candidates have been nominated, privileged and fashionable women in their thirties and forties: Tory Burch, Gigi Mortimer, Marina Rust Connor, and Lauren Dupont are in the wings, but so far no one has been anointed, and it’s not clear that anyone’s volunteering. One can only imagine the fierceness of the competition back in the days when Babe Paley and Slim Keith and Capote’s other swans roamed the earth.

Donald Trump walks past, poking into a jewelry booth, his hair improbably reddish, and no one seems to notice. Trump is not a member of the tribe, although his territory overlaps theirs; he eats at the same restaurants and attends some of the signature parties. His brother Robert is a member, although somewhat less popular since he left beloved Big Girl Blaine Trump. The feeling on both sides seems to be one of indifference bordering on disdain. The Donald is unclubbable, and he’s made it clear he has no use for the genteel rituals of the tribe.

Some of the guests are examining the wares—major furniture and jewelry from the Ming dynasty to mid-twentieth century, and curiosities like an eighteenth-century walnut gentleman’s traveling case for $60,000; a carved ivory German crossbow for $220,000—while others complain about last night’s Henry Street Settlement benefit party, another major event on the circuit, judged to be overly long and boring this year. A group of women are talking about the funeral earlier today of designer Vera Wang’s father, which many of them attended. “Was there a lunch afterward?” asks one them, sounding slightly aggrieved. “I didn’t know there was a lunch.”

On this particular chilly Thursday, some of the antiques-show crowd is going on to the ‘21’ club (which wasn’t actually named after the Zip Code where most of its patrons live), where Alex Kuczynski is having a party for her book, Beauty Junkies. Not everyone approves of Kuczynski’s book, which is something of an exposé of certain tribal rituals. It would be safe to say that most of the women at the Sloan-Kettering party have been the beneficiaries—or victims—of certain cosmetic procedures, and certain surgeons and doctors are the objects of hero worship. “She’s just a total bitch for hanging herself and a lot of us out to dry,” one of the ladies who lunch griped to Liz Smith. Kuczynski is a member of the tribe by virtue of her marriage to hedge-fund mogul Charles Stevenson, though, as a working journalist, she is something of a maverick. The party at ‘21’ reflects this mix, with two fairly distinct groups, the journalists and the socialites: 60 Minutes’ Steve Kroft and his wife, Jenny Conant, crossing paths with billionaire David Koch and his wife, Julia; the two groups mingling if not quite mixing.


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