By 10:30, the reopening party for the renovated Bulgari store on Fifth Avenue had degenerated into a Nathanael Westian night of the A-list. Futilely waving invitations, a mob was pushing toward the jewelers doors, where a phalanx of list-keepers and security men held them at bay -- barely. Near the curb, the policemen whod just ordered the partys doors closed watched as Town Cars pulled up, their dark windows rolled down, and eyes flashed warily within before the big black cars sped away.
Meanwhile, inside the store, those who had managed to get in took one anothers measure. Socialites in little black dresses brushed past drag queens while Sandra Bernhard danced, face flushed, for photographers, and TV camera crews pushed by, seeking out the celebrities -- Sheryl Crow, David Lee Roth, Roshumba, and Kylie Travis -- who were simultaneously looking for them. Here was Ivana Trump, all big hair and cleavage, with her latest boyfriend, Roffredo Gaetani, in a brown leather bomber jacket; there the Donald, hugging a model, while nearby, more mannequins whispered at a table littered with Heineken bottles and packs of Marlboro Mediums under poster-size blowups of Bulgari advertisements.
Jeffrey Jah, along with Mark Baker, had been hired by Bulgaris P.R. firm to produce the thousand most fantastic people in New York that night. Jah created the crowd by mixing Bulgaris guest list with names from his computerized database. It has about 8,000 entries. Jah ended up with a roster of 1,500 movers and shakers -- people with presence, he says in his small, invitation-stuffed office on Union Square. When you see those people, you know its happening. Especially when theyre stuck outside, clamoring to be let in, as theyre likely to be when 1,500 invitations yield maybe 3,000 guests.
Jah and Baker are among New Yorks newest A-list arbiters. In Jahs computers is a remarkably detailed taxonomy of New Yorks caste and hierarchy. It is categorized sociologically under rubrics like celebrities, uptown socialites, downtown socialites, models, hard-core gay, publishing, fashion, finance, press, and art, then subdivided by social status and job description into five-star types (Calvin, top models, rock stars, movie stars, editors-in-chief, Laura Steinberg, David Geffen, Diane Von Furstenberg -- if they have room on their calendar), AAA (the best of the best people you know), AA (good but not the best; theyre filler, theyll follow), and mere A-types (if you need to fill a stadium). They dont want to name sub-five-star types. Theres a lot of politics and ego to deal with, Jah says.
Jah and Bakers well-honed sense of hierarchy came in handy that night. How do you say no to fabulousness? Baker asks. Thats the pecking order. Ivana, Christy, and Claudia were stuck outside when the party was first shuttered. Jah managed to negotiate their entry (installing Schiffer with two drag queens in a roped-off VIP corner near the D.J. booth) before the cops clamped down again. Then, inevitably, more five-star types arrived. I took them in through a storage room in the Crown Building, Jah admits. There is always a way.
Were getting up there, as Andy Warhol used to say. But where is there, exactly? The noisy, colorful chaos and randomness of Andys world are still with us -- social life in a blender -- but lately, all this frenetic mixing hasnt always seemed like fun. Some years ago, it all ground . . . not to a halt, but into a blur, says John Loring, design director of Tiffany & Co., whos been at A-list events for almost 40 years. People like Jah and Baker view themselves almost as artists, creating stunning new social tableaus on a nightly basis, but among the spectators and even some of the participants, a certain seen-it-all exhaustion has set in. Nobody is watching the door right now, moans P.R. czar Bobby Zarem.
For most New Yorkers, the question Who killed society? is of more or less archaeological interest, except in certain Jurassic provinces like Bedford or the boardroom of the Botanical Gardens. The social world now, party planners repeat like a mantra, is a meritocracy, and God Bless America for that. Pedigree is archaic, says Peggy Siegal, the publicist and poster child for the excesses of the new A-list. Its a new age with vast new fortunes that have nothing to do with the Roman numerals of the eastern aristocracy.
But it is slowly dawning on many of New Yorks boldface names that their place on the A-list is less a social order than a marketing machine -- an invitation to be leveraged and manipulated in the service of a movie, or a designer, or a magazine.
Public social life is now overtly and relentlessly commercial. Todays social arbiters and the people who underwrite them are usually advancing some cause or another, and not just philanthropy. Philanthropy is often a stalking-horse for whats being promoted, whether its luxury goods, a magazine, the latest movie, or the arbiters own social advancement. This process requires and subsidizes the kind of quasi-public events -- ballet benefits, movie premieres, publicized private dinners at East Side restaurants, cocktail parties for the latest socially connected authors book on fashion or floral design -- that one reads about incessantly in the columns.
And increasingly, people whose families made their money the old-fashioned way are shocked, shocked, to find mere commercialism spoiling their gavotte. Parties, whether private or quasi-public, are about trophies now, says Michael Thomas, the curmudgeonly novelist. You look around and realize its not the pleasure of their company; its the fact of their presence.
You dont get invited to peoples houses anymore without an ulterior motive, adds Patricia Hearst Shaw. You have to call and say, What is this for?