The paradigm of that sort of fashionable fête was a Bergdorf Goodman-sponsored fashion show and dinner-dance benefiting aids research at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital, held a week after the stock market crashed in October 1987. Under the World Financial Centers 40-foot-high indoor palms, chairs were tied with taffeta bows, forced roses swayed, a grand modern staircase twinkled with thousands of votive candles, and a new social style blossomed. Lauren Huttons date, rock impresario Malcolm McLaren, set off a chain reaction of placement nightmares when he took another guests chair next to the model. Bianca Jagger ate fruits de la mer Provençal with her satin-glove-clad fingers. Revlon paid for the fireworks. Not long afterward, Jackie Onassis told John Loring that she thought 1989 was the final year where there was any hope of representing the American party as a glorious achievement of civilization.
Once in a lifetime, theres a party like this, Condé Nast owner S. I. Newhouse claimed one night in March 1988. It was the fifth anniversary of the second lifetime of Vanity Fair magazine and tout le monde was there to celebrate, from Alexander Godunov to Henry Kissinger to Jerome Zipkin. The venue was Billy Roses old Diamond Horseshoe nightclub under the Century Paramount Hotel, which had been used only one other time since its purchase by Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager -- when it was the site of a memorial luncheon after Andy Warhols funeral.
That event had been sadly spontaneous; this one was not. It was a strategic decision, says a former Condé Nast executive, to revive the sense of cultural elitism that was part of the premise of Vanity Fair. Si had the intuition to understand that if he opened his pocketbook to Tina Brown, the editor, it would pay off in cachet and status. That was the beginning of the elaborate expenditures. When Anna Wintour took over the editorship of Vogue a few months later, Newhouse opened his wallet for her, too. Then the spending escalated. Browns 1990 pre-Oscar party, a benefit for Phoenix House in Los Angeles, and Vogues 100th-birthday party at the New York Public Library in 1992 set everyone on their ears, says a P.R. man for a competing glossy. People were stunned by the attention they brought the magazines.
At events like these public galas and private but well-publicized lunches and dinners, Condé Nast took a page from its founder, who tossed lavish penthouse parties and cultivated his own A-list crowd. Newhouse created a new paradigm, the ex-executive says. Suzanne Eagle then head of the companys P.R. department saw a vacuum and filled it with the notion of magazine editors as celebrities with carefully cultivated images and limitless budgets. Whether advertisers were at the party or only read about it, it paid off. Indeed, it sometimes seemed to pay off more if they werent invited.
In the face of competitive pressure from magazine kingdoms like Hearst and Hachette, Newhouse decreed that Condé Nasts tradition of elitism would save the day, the executive continues. The articulation of that elitism came through well-cultivated arrogance, and it hit a primal urge in people who wanted to belong. It was a decision made not for fun or the joy of entertaining but for marketing goals. Ever since, magazine editors have shouldered aside traditional social figures at the pinnacle of New Yorks public life.
Someone else who filled the void was Peggy Siegal, the screening queen, who has used her Hollywood connections to propel herself not only to the arbiters Olympus but also onto the A-list, à la Ward McAllister. Richard Johnson of Page Six loves to call me Pushy Peggy, but I dont know any successful people that arent somewhat aggressive, says Siegal, who has aggressively transformed herself into an exemplar of both the best and the worst of the new A-lists attributes. Raised in New Jersey, Siegal was a fashion-and-accessories designer before she turned to public relations. Just before the Tommy premiere, she went to work for Bobby Zarem.
Peggy Siegal, the day I fired her, had keys and stole my black book, Bobby Zarem claims before dropping a couple of the names he had in it, both now conveniently dead. I had to call Mrs. Onassis and Greta Garbo and tell them.
An ex-employee agrees: Shed go in at 6 a.m. and Xerox his Rolodex. Siegal has denied this, but if its so, theres justice of a sort.
Weve all stolen Peggys lists, a competitor admits. Of course, its only good for ten minutes and then it needs to be updated.
By the mid-eighties, in business for herself, Siegal had begun to practice her special brand of social alchemy at the screenings and premieres that became her signature.
Siegal first manifested this talent when she was representing Michael Douglas and stage-managing his then-wife Diandras brief stint in New York society. Then Siegal did P.R. for Paul Schraders movie about Patty Hearst. I started introducing her to friends and the rest is history, Hearst says. Its the age-old Edith Whartonesque story.
Siegal raised her profile when she was first hired by HBO, charged with putting on an annual summer party in the Hamptons for original films like Citizen Cohn, And the Band Played On, and Truman. In exchange, she is given free office space.
HBOs then-chairman, Michael Fuchs, was a family friend; he, Siegal, and Claudia Cohen, now a TV gossipeuse, had once shared a house in the Hamptons. Fuchs, whose mother suffered from Alzheimers disease, Siegal says, was planning a benefit for that cause when he learned that Princess Yasmin Khan, a friend of Patty Hearst and her sister Annes, would be chairing a competing event. Someone got them to combine forces, Siegal says. He told me Id be volunteering.
Siegal threw herself into the job and, with events like a Capote-esque Black and White Ball on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the original event, raised the charitys profile considerably. Those evenings, and the chits they earned her, also worked wonders for Siegals private life. The whole society thing really interests and impresses Peggy, Anne Hearst says. In return for screening invitations, shes called me up to ask to be invited to dinner. One time I told her no and she yelled at me. Id be embarrassed to call someone and say, Invite me to your party. She does it with a lot of people. Why? She wants to marry a wealthy man and be seriously social, says an amused Hearst.
Adds an ex-employee, She wants to move up in the world. Thats what its all about with her.
Siegal doesnt deny her interest, only its extent. Id prefer the word curious, she says. I was very curious about it. Id spent years understanding the social, political, and intellectual fabric of the film industry. When the proximity to the Hearsts brought a new social frontier into focus, I was fascinated, she says, and set out to understand it as well.
Siegal admits that theres a very fine line between her private and professional lives. But she denies the oft-repeated charge that shes a social climber. I just like to be around bright, successful, talented people, she says. If the worst thing people say is that Im a climber, I can live with that. I mean, really, do they look in the mirror? Who wants to be home alone all the time?
Those who help her are rewarded with invitations -- and more. We called them the gray people, says an ex-employee. They were invited to everything, but we could never figure out what they did. In the early nineties, Siegal adopted lawyer Michael Kennedy and his wife, Eleanore, who were in the limelight when they represented Ivana Trump in her divorce. They let Siegal rent their guest house in East Hamptons exclusive Georgica Association. She was really pushing them, says Anne Hearst, going on and on about how wonderful they are. If shes personally P.R.ing you as a friend, youll wind up at the right hand of God.
And if you dont, someone will feel Siegals wrath. When she disapproved of Eleanore Kennedys seat at a benefit a few years back, Siegal complained so loudly, one of the dinner chairs was forced to tell her to sit down and shut up. Incidents like that have slowed her progress. She wants acceptance in clubs shell never get into, a friend says sadly. Anytime I see her in a private home, I think, That person wants to go to movie premieres.
Though some complain that she doesnt always deliver the celebrities she promises, theres also grudging praise for Siegals professionalism; shes perceived as someone who really knows how to throw a party. Says a movie publicist Siegal trained, She doesnt have an A-list per se; she zeroes in and targets whos perfect for the event. Adds another, She knows how to do it; she has the lists and shes not ashamed to badger people.
Loyalty is not one of Siegals virtues, however. She goes hot and cold with people, says a former intimate, who asks to be described as one of the disposable people. Behind their backs, this woman says, Siegal regularly disparages her friends and the people she works for. Art dealer Larry Gagosian was a pig. Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein was a fat slob. The first time she saw Patty Hearsts house, she said it looked like a dentists and was a tasteless mess. Theres no friendship with her. (Siegal says her remark about Hearst was a joke. I was naïvely expecting to walk into San Simeon, she explains. She acknowledges that she was angry with Weinstein, who demanded she work for him exclusively, but adds that she considers him the most brilliant and tenacious filmmaker in the industry. As for Gagosian, she laughs and qualifies her remark: Gagosian is still a pig, perhaps, but in hindsight, one with impeccable taste.)
It isnt only clients and friends who get the Siegal treatment, however. She even disdains the journalists she depends on for coverage. When a female friend started dating one, Siegal firstyelled at her, then dropped her from the A-list. I have no respect for writers, Siegal told her. They never make money. Theyre like poor people looking in the windows.
Nostalgists still speak of the days when character, kindness, and manners all mattered. And some, at least, are hopefully predicting that theyre ripe for a comeback. Though its not the best thing for her business, Harriet Weintraub insists the private party has returned. Paul Wilmot, former P.R. master at Calvin Klein and Condé Nast, says that real A-list types know the secret of making themselves scarce.
For many on the A-list, agent Bryan Bantrys screenings have emerged as an alternative to Siegals P.R.-driven pressure-cooker events. Im not a publicist, says Bantry, who arranges screenings of films he loves and thinks should be seen. Theres no press, no cameras, and his audiences include everyone from top models to the lowliest assistants. I think assistants are the most important people on the planet, Bantry says. I dont believe in A-lists.
So how do you get on his? Its just friends and colleagues, he replies, offering not a clue how to become one. But he does reveal how to get disinvited. I always overbook, he says, and the chicest people in the world sit on the floor if they have to. At a late January screening of The Apostle, however, four late arrivals refused. Insecure self-importance! Bantry raged the next morning. Thats an instant way to be thrown off the list.
A new generation of uptown A-listers even seem willing to play the part of high society -- while sometimes indulging their taste for the lower life-forms downtown. Alex and Alexandra Miller Von Furstenberg, her sisters Pia Getty and Princess Pavlos, Carolina Herrera Jr., the Boardman and Bass girls, Samantha Kluge Cahan, and Tiffany and Louis Dubin -- all born after the baby boom and free of its disdain for old conventions -- are all contenders for the mantle of a new social leadership, should they choose to accept it.
If they take up the challenge, their A-list will likely meld old values and names with the new. Weve gone too far to turn back now. You have to have diversity, says Mark Baker. Like the time I saw Donald Trump with Marilyn Manson at Ted Fields in East Hampton. Its about inclusion. A smile. You just cant include everybody.
One last thing. There was a night not long ago when I thought I heard the death knell sound for publicity society. It was Oscar Night, 1996. I was driving down Melrose in L.A., en route to have dinner and watch the awards before heading to several studio parties, when I went past Mortons, where Vanity Fair magazines annual five-star A-list party was beginning.