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Social Life in a Blender

Relentlessly commercialized and propelled by aggressive publicists, the A-list party world is spinning out of control (and Mrs. Astor is spinning in her grave). Some charter members are even beginning to resist the hard sell. But what if they gave a party and no socialites came?


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 jeweler’s doors, where a phalanx of list-keepers and security men held them at bay -- barely. Near the curb, the policemen who’d just ordered the party’s 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 another’s 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 Bulgari’s P.R. firm to produce “the thousand most fantastic people in New York” that night. Jah created the crowd by mixing Bulgari’s 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 it’s happening.” Especially when they’re stuck outside, clamoring to be let in, as they’re likely to be when 1,500 invitations yield maybe 3,000 guests.

Jah and Baker are among New York’s newest A-list arbiters. In Jah’s computers is a remarkably detailed taxonomy of New York’s 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; they’re filler, they’ll follow”), and mere A-types (“if you need to fill a stadium”). They don’t want to name sub-five-star types. “There’s a lot of politics and ego to deal with,” Jah says.

Jah and Baker’s well-honed sense of hierarchy came in handy that night. “How do you say no to fabulousness?” Baker asks. “That’s 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.”

“We’re getting up there,” as Andy Warhol used to say. But where is there, exactly? The noisy, colorful chaos and randomness of Andy’s world are still with us -- social life in a blender -- but lately, all this frenetic mixing hasn’t 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., who’s 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. “It’s 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 York’s 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. Today’s 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 what’s being promoted, whether it’s luxury goods, a magazine, the latest movie, or the arbiter’s 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 author’s 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 it’s not the pleasure of their company; it’s the fact of their presence.”

“You don’t get invited to people’s houses anymore without an ulterior motive,” adds Patricia Hearst Shaw. “You have to call and say, ‘What is this for?’ “

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