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Social Life in a Blender

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Even Donald Trump professes to be fed up with the vulgarity of New York’s A-list social world. “For people like me who work and work hard,” Trump says, “there’s nothing worse than to have to come home and put on a tuxedo and go out to an evening of complete bullshit. These people are far more vicious than ruthless killers in business. They want to be seen, and this is their only chance. I go to as few A-list events as possible. There is nothing as boring. But the harder I abuse these people as a group, the more I get invited.”

It’s not only Trump whose presence is cordially requested, and requested and requested; these days, invitations are flying around town like confetti. “We’ve had such a surfeit of balls,” says one social lioness. “I must get eight invitations a week I don’t go to. I write a check to some.”

“I’ve cut out a lot of these parties,” agrees Patricia Hearst. “My pet peeve is VIP rooms at benefits where a bunch of movie stars and models who probably haven’t paid a penny to go are hiding and the people who paid $1,000 are bored. For me, they’re paid performers and should be out there. It’s so vulgar and insulting.”

“We are all too aware we’re in the computer,” says Jonathan Marder. “It’s all about herding bodies for marketing purposes. To attract a crowd, you need bait.”

And the P.R. people themselves, the keepers of the list, are, when speaking anonymously, at least, aghast at what the A-list has become. “When you put together these parties, you’re almost embarrassed to invite nice people because of the need to feed the publicity monster,” an event planner admits.

The Costume Institute benefit for the Metropolitan Museum, the so-called Party of the Year, is a case study of the changes that have swept New York’s A-list. Once chaired by Jacqueline Onassis and attended by the crème de la crème of international society, the benefit was taken over by the fashion business in a bloodless coup three years ago. This year, eschewing museum-style timelessness, it honored the late Gianni Versace and, instead of old names, attracted single names like Madonna, Elton, Cher, and Sting. “Their job is to raise the most money possible,” says a social observer of considerable standing. Indeed, they raised an unprecedented $2.3 million. “I have great regard for the people who did that by cynically manipulating that audience.”

But more happened that night than the selling of some records, Vogue, W, Versace, or Julia Koch. A new A-list was asserting its preeminence, symbolizing a seismic shift in society. Some of the old social stars appeared -- Pat Buckley, Oscar and Annette de la Renta, Senator John Warner of Virginia, San Francisco’s Denise Hale, Barbara Walters, and Chessy Rayner, for instance -- but they were overwhelmed by the new glitterati of designers, photographers, models, and film and music personalities.

And some of the A-list socialites were not shy about expressing their feelings.

“Who is that?” a couture-clad society landmark asked a friend, nodding disapprovingly at a sullen, bow-mouthed young woman in Versace.

“Lisa Marie.”

“Who?”

“Elvis’s daughter.”

“I don’t care,” came the reply. “She’s still common.”

Ward McAllister, of course, was New York’s most famous list-maker, the Peggy Siegal of his time. The husband of an heiress, McAllister set himself the task of helping the nouveaus, whom he deemed Swells, sip the soup of the more established types he called Nobs. His successes emboldened him to contrive a definitive list of society, based on the “visiting lists” of prominent families and limited to 400 because that was the capacity of his friend Mrs. John Jacob Astor’s ballroom. Four years in the making and relentlessly publicized, the list was published in the New York Times in February 1892, simultaneous with a ball at Mrs. Astor’s. Needless to say, the list included one Ward McAllister.

The age of the 400 lasted barely 25 years. In 1919, Maury Paul -- who wrote the first daily social-gossip column, under the name Cholly Knickerbocker (in later incarnations, it would employ Liz Smith and be taken over by one Suzy Knickerbocker, a.k.a. Aileen Mehle, who now writes gossip for W and WWD) -- stumbled on a then-unprecedented scene: a group of society types dining out in a restaurant. He pinned the name café society on them.

Publicity society was born. Henceforth, real social power would belong to the press and to P.R. handmaidens like party hostess and Peggy Siegal precursor Elsa Maxwell, whose career as a hostess was preceded by stints as a vaudeville performer, a press agent, and, finally, a society columnist. (Her ambitions exceeded mere acceptance; some social figures regularly gave her money.)


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