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Social Life in a Blender

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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 Center’s 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 Hutton’s date, rock impresario Malcolm McLaren, set off a chain reaction of placement nightmares when he took another guest’s 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, there’s 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 Rose’s 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 Warhol’s 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. Brown’s 1990 pre-Oscar party, a benefit for Phoenix House in Los Angeles, and Vogue’s 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 company’s 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 weren’t invited.

In the face of competitive pressure from magazine kingdoms like Hearst and Hachette, Newhouse decreed that Condé Nast’s 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 York’s 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 arbiter’s Olympus but also onto the A-list, à la Ward McAllister. “Richard Johnson of ‘Page Six’ loves to call me Pushy Peggy, but I don’t know any successful people that aren’t somewhat aggressive,” says Siegal, who has aggressively transformed herself into an exemplar of both the best and the worst of the new A-list’s 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: “She’d go in at 6 a.m. and Xerox his Rolodex.” Siegal has denied this, but if it’s so, there’s justice of a sort.

“We’ve all stolen Peggy’s lists,” a competitor admits. “Of course, it’s 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 Diandra’s brief stint in New York society. Then Siegal did P.R. for Paul Schrader’s movie about Patty Hearst. “I started introducing her to friends and the rest is history,” Hearst says. “It’s 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.

HBO’s 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 Alzheimer’s 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 Anne’s, would be chairing a competing event. “Someone got them to combine forces,” Siegal says. “He told me I’d 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 charity’s profile considerably. Those evenings, and the chits they earned her, also worked wonders for Siegal’s private life. “The whole society thing really interests and impresses Peggy,” Anne Hearst says. In return for screening invitations, “she’s called me up to ask to be invited to dinner. One time I told her no and she yelled at me. I’d 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. That’s what it’s all about with her.”

Siegal doesn’t deny her interest, only its extent. “I’d prefer the word curious,” she says. “I was very curious about it. I’d 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 there’s “a very fine line” between her private and professional lives. But she denies the oft-repeated charge that she’s a social climber. “I just like to be around bright, successful, talented people,” she says. “If the worst thing people say is that I’m 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 Hampton’s exclusive Georgica Association. “She was really pushing them,” says Anne Hearst, “going on and on about how wonderful they are. If she’s personally P.R.’ing you as a friend, you’ll wind up at the right hand of God.”

And if you don’t, someone will feel Siegal’s wrath. When she disapproved of Eleanore Kennedy’s 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 she’ll 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 doesn’t always deliver the celebrities she promises, there’s also grudging praise for Siegal’s professionalism; she’s perceived as someone who really knows how to throw a party. Says a movie publicist Siegal trained, “She doesn’t have an A-list per se; she zeroes in and targets who’s perfect for the event.” Adds another, “She knows how to do it; she has the lists and she’s not ashamed to badger people.”

Loyalty is not one of Siegal’s 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 Hearst’s house, she said it looked like a dentist’s and was a tasteless mess. There’s 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 isn’t 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. They’re 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 they’re ripe for a comeback. Though it’s 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 Bantry’s screenings have emerged as an alternative to Siegal’s P.R.-driven pressure-cooker events. “I’m not a publicist,” says Bantry, who arranges screenings of films he loves and thinks should be seen. There’s 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 don’t believe in A-lists.”

So how do you get on his? “It’s 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. “That’s 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. We’ve 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 Field’s in East Hampton. It’s about inclusion.” A smile. “You just can’t 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 Morton’s, where Vanity Fair magazine’s annual five-star A-list party was beginning.


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