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Social Life in a Blender

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Not all hosts and hostesses are quite so crass. Some actually manage to pull off the trick of making business entertainment seem personal. P.R. man Benjamin Sonnenberg did it with style and grace in mid-century, and so does Realtor Alice Mason today. Sonnenberg is best -- if at all -- remembered as the owner of one of New York’s last great private mansions: 19 Gramercy Park. (A perfect symbol of New York’s social devolution, that house was built for Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish of the 400 and is now owned by fashion designer Richard Tyler). From the thirties through the sixties, Sonnenberg melded public and private in his 37-room home, conducting a salon that attracted the celebrated, the social, the rich, and the richly amusing -- and, of course, journalists who would consecrate them all in print.

In November 1966, Truman Capote took it upon him- self to redefine society with his Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel, honoring Katharine Graham. Like McAllister’s 400, Capote’s guest list -- all 540 names -- was printed in the New York Times, which described Capote’s guests as “diplomats, politicians, scientists, painters, writers, composers, actors, producers, dress designers, social figures, tycoons and what Mr. Capote called ‘international types, lots of beautiful women and ravishing little things.’” A businessman printed the guest list on toilet paper and gave it to his friends.

The party received mixed notices. In George Plimpton’s new book, Truman Capote, A-list intellectual Norman Podhoretz is quoted calling the ball a “turning point in the cultural history, the social history of New York, even the United States in the sense that the confluence of the fashionable social world and the literary world and the world of political power was embodied in that guest list.”

Gray Foy, the companion of the late Condé Nast publishing eminence Leo Lerman, remembers it differently. “That was a mess, one of the most boring events, nothing but people looking at each other, each in their own enclave,” he says. “No doubt it was a watershed, bringing all those worlds together -- De Ribes, Sinatra, Mailer -- and proving they don’t mix at all.”

But mix they did -- eventually -- even if at first all were a bit uncomfortable about it. “We started to focus on achievement, not provenance,” says Loving & Weintraub principal Harriet Weintraub, a P.R. executive with 6,674 names in her event database. “We don’t have the same prejudices. We don’t have an elitist group anymore. We have a goulash, a stew, and New York is better for it.”

One of the first events that took the goulash ethic to its limit was the black-tie premiere of the movie version of the Who’s Tommy in the 57th Street subway station in 1975. Bobby Zarem, a son of Savannah, the same city where Ward McAllister was born, spent months working on the project, seeking the perfect site for a party that would mix society, movies, Warhol superstars, and the era’s raffish, raucous rock stars. “I never bought any list; I developed my own concept,” Zarem says. “It wasn’t conscious -- I was scared shitless. What I did was combine a conventional sit-down dinner with a bizarre setting. And I invited Pat and Bill Buckley, D. D. and John Ryan, Marion Javits, everyone I felt meant something, based on quality, character, intelligence, culture, and class.” They rubbed shoulders with rock stars, rock critics, groupies, and dope dealers.

Around the same time as the Tommy premiere, Carmen D’Alessio, a Peruvian who’d worked for several couturiers in Europe, began hosting parties for other fashionable expats in New York at a club called Infinity. They were such a success that she was soon poached away by Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager to work at a disco they owned in Queens. “She combined straight people with hard-core gays,” Schrager says. “She created a sense of event. You died to get in. A nightclub with the best people. That’s what gives you bragging rights.” It wasn’t long before the trio returned to Manhattan to launch Studio 54.

“Everyone cooperated,” says D’Alessio. “Calvin Klein, Andy Warhol, Francesco Scavullo, Ford Models, and the Islanders” -- an organization of gay men from Fire Island -- “all gave me their lists, and I compiled the most incredible list you can imagine. We got them all on computer.” A beautiful woman was installed as ticket taker, “and if you were good-looking, had presence or charisma, we’d ask her to get your name and address,” says Schrager, now a hotelier. “The A-list is a moving target. In order to deal with it, manipulate it, we had to formalize it.”

Not everyone got the idea. “I always think, ‘This is as low as it will go,’ but it fools you,” says Gray Foy. “I went to Elizabeth Taylor’s birthday at Studio 54 out of morbid curiosity. It looked like the last act of Salome. You couldn’t talk, you couldn’t hear, you didn’t need to be intelligent. All you needed was a look. That was not A-list. It was more L.A. When society is a dressmaker, what is that? Hairdressers? They’re all up for hire. There are no standards. I don’t see any. Do you?”

“Studio was innocent and spontaneous,” says Schrager. “But it doesn’t take long for someone to see you can make money from this. It evolved into a cottage industry.” D’Alessio was joined by promoters who specialized in different types: Gays, yuppies, Europeans, and preppies all had their own arbiters. “Dallas, Jerry Rubin, Ludovic Autet, Baird Jones, you name it!” D’Alessio says. “It became too commercial for my tastes.” When all those promoters moved into Studio, D’Alessio moved on to Xenon, Regine, Club A, Limelight, Palladium, Tatou, and Gaugin. “But the crowd changed,” she says. “The glamour was gone.”

In the eighties, new social venues appeared. The metropolitan Museum began renting out the Temple of Dendur to plutocrats who could afford to make hefty donations. And retail stores “emerged as a center of social life,” says Harriet Weintraub, who’d worked at Bonwit Teller. For a few years, the fall social season’s starting gun was Saks Fifth Avenue’s annual gala salute to American fashion; the honored designers all chose a charity and invited their A-list clients and friends to support it. As surely as night follows evening, Bergdorf Goodman and Bloomingdale’s invitations would arrive, too.


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