It was the perfect letter—if the goal was to blow up New York society. A bombshell of preening and aspiration, it set off a war between an aging princess and the girl who threatened to snatch her crown. There was just one catch: According to a complaint filed last week with the Manhattan district attorney’s office, the letter was a fake.
The publisher of the letter was socialiterank.com, a mysterious Website that appeared on April 24, 2006, declaring itself unofficial judge, jury, and executioner of 10021—the Zip Code of upper Park Avenue and Fifth, and the home of many young women who appear on the charity-ball circuit. Each fortnight, the Website released a “Social Elite Power Ranking,” scoring the women on their personal style, public appearances, and publicity efforts. The perennial No. 1 girl was Tinsley Mortimer, a Virginia rug salesman’s daughter who had married into New York society.
The Website took an ominous tone from the start. “Next time you think about skipping that certain gala, wearing that unknown designer, dating some weird band member, beware,” it warned. “We’re watching. And your ranking is on the line!” In the year since it appeared, Socialite Rank manipulated the city’s gossip cycle, elevated unknown women to unlikely prominence, and gained thousands of readers, who filled the comment boards with catty and frequently venomous remarks. Several socialites were mocked and ruined, others smeared with rumors of cocaine abuse. And what made it more eerie—like the voice of a Bitch God bellowing from the heavens—was that no one knew who was speaking: The Rankers hid behind their anonymity, as did the commenters who wrote in with their own harsh judgments.
As Socialite Rank gained prominence, it found its ultimate target in Olivia Palermo, a wide-eyed New School student who had hit the charity circuit in tight dresses and loose ringlets around the time of the site’s launch. At first she was warmly received, but gradually she began to offend. During Fashion Week in February, Olivia, just 20 years old, sat in the front row of so many Bryant Park shows that she became known as a potential threat to Tinsley, the reigning princess. Almost instantly, Socialite Rank turned on Olivia, pelting her with nasty remarks.
On March 27, the site posted a breathless headline: EXCLUSIVE! OLIVIA PALERMO LOSES HER MIND AND SHOCKS SOCIALITE WORLD. The accompanying story claimed that Olivia—“our social climbing heroine of the moment”—had written a letter apologizing for her sycophantic ways. According to the site, she had e-mailed 70 prominent socialites to beg “for acceptance, privacy and forgiveness.” The Website also claimed that the e-mail was being forwarded all over town, with recipients claiming it was “desperate,” “crazy,” “idiotic.” But what angered socialites—or allegedly did so—only excited Socialite Rank, which instantly delivered its own “final verdict”: Olivia Palermo had been officially evicted from the club. “This is better than Ecstasy,” the Website gushed.
“Dear Ladies,” the “Palermo letter” began. “I know I have gotten off on the wrong foot with many of you and there may even be some of you that do not like me. But I feel that those feelings are more a creation of websites like socialiterank, rumors and gossip than they are to your own experiences.” The writer went on to reintroduce herself as a student, an athlete, and a “great shoulder to cry on” who hoped for nothing but forgiveness and friendship, perhaps a spot on a charity committee, and eventually a friendly hello if she dropped by the Waverly Inn. “Lots of love,” she closed.
Olivia instantly denied writing the letter, which Socialite Rank claimed she sent from a Yahoo account that Olivia said she never owned. Not only that, Olivia said, the writer of the letter had stolen her identity. She planned to hire a lawyer. The announcement evoked howls. “She’s turning into the Anna Nicole Smith of the benefit circle,” one social observer quipped. “A tawdry, trashy, white-trash circus freak.” But Olivia was serious. “I may be a young girl,” she told another socialite, “but behind every young girl is a powerful father.” Quietly, her father, Douglas Palermo, a successful New England real-estate developer, hired one of the nation’s premier litigation firms.
One month later, on April 26, Socialite Rank ran its final post. “SR is closing its society heaven,” the Website announced. After urging readers to take a deep breath and focus on the screen, Socialite Rank’s founders claimed they hadn’t shut down owing to “lawsuits, complaints or threats.” In fact, they had always planned to publish for a year and no more. Now, having gathered “behind-the-scenes triumphs, power struggles, love affairs,” and “many more unpublished ‘Palermo’ letters,” they would compile the results in a book, tentatively titled The Year of the Rank. Around noon on Sunday, April 29, the Website went blank.