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An Affair to Remember

Saul Steinberg’s 50th-birthday party was a Tableau Vivant of Eighties Excess.

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SOCIETY 1989

Saul Steinberg was the greenmailer king, head of Reliance Group. For his 50th birthday, in August 1989, his ravishingly beautiful wife, Gayfryd, threw him a birthday party at their home in Quogue. No press was invited, but I wangled an invitation and talked Mrs. S. into letting me write it all up for the Daily News. No doubt she regretted it later.

I reported that, of course, having money helped, but in this case Gayfryd had exhibited rare creativity and intelligence. With the help of party master Robert Isabell, she catapulted herself into the ranks of the Charles de Beistegui Venetian costume party in the fifties and Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball in the sixties. It was reported that she spent her own money (estimated at from $250,000 to $1 million) to impress her husband and some 250 guests. Steinberg was well known for his collection of old masters. So Gayfryd made the party tent into a seventeenth-century Flemish eating-drinking house. In ten vitrines were actors posing in re-creations of some of the world’s finest paintings. These included two by Vermeer—The Kitchen Maid and The Artist in His Studio. An actors’ agency provided people who could stand stock-still in costume for twenty minutes at a time.

The Steinberg beach house overlooking the Atlantic rocked and rolled with hundreds of flickering terra-cotta pots, identical twins posing as mermaids in the pool, dancers in seventeenth-century garb, heralds, and banner wavers.

The guest list was A-list nouveau riche and rising. I will never forget the late Steve Ross of Warner Bros. dancing with the Vermeer girl with the pitcher during her “rest” period. Saul toasted his wife like this: “This may be a bit of history. Honey, if this moment were a stock, I’d short it.” He joked that his wife had done a lot for the economy and “anyone who is talking about recession—well, forget it!” Gayfryd said in her toast that “if Reliance stock hadn’t gone up, I wouldn’t have been able to afford this.”

My fellow columnists jumped all over me. The Washington Post declared it “wretched excess,” and much lip service was paid to the idea that rich people should give their money to charity, not pay for their own birthday parties. I defended the party, including Gayfryd’s having an actress pose nude in a tableau of Rembrandt’s masterpiece Danae. I said it was a free country and that people could spend their money any way they liked. I noted that Gayfryd had refused to seek a tax deduction for hosting many of her husband’s business friends. I wondered how many people criticizing the Steinbergs as nouveau riche had given their own birthday-party expenses to charity. Actually, though, I was just defending the general right of people to do any damned thing they pleased within the law and to let me have the exclusive story on it. After all, nobody remembers Marie Antoinette’s acts of charity; everybody remembers “Let them eat cake!”

Later, like many eighties high-lifers, the Steinbergs would fall on hard times on their way to the twenty-first-century boom-bust guillotine. I suppose this looked like justice of a sort. But frankly, I miss their bright lights.


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