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Nouveau Rich

How the wife of a billionaire fugitive reinvented herself as a Grammy-nominated songwriter, peripatetic party girl, and first-class FOB. Lisa DePaulo on the second coming of Denise Rich.

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Hours before catastrophe strikes the greatest Denise Rich party ever, the hostess is already in tears. "I'm just so nerrr-vous," Denise is saying, in her breathy, singsong voice. "Ohhh, I'm gonna cry agaaain!"

The crowd gathered in her Fifth Avenue penthouse this afternoon knows the drill. A few seconds pass while Denise rapidly fans her face. Then she pulls herself together. "Okay. Calm down. Don't freak," she instructs herself.

She is kneeling on top of an enormous glass-covered desk in the office wing of her sprawling, art-drenched triplex, straddling the seating chart. Surrounded by her usual coterie of acolytes, she is putting the final touches on the night that will effectively close the deal on the remarkable transformation of Denise Rich: from slightly outré wife of a billionaire fugitive to slightly outré but newly powerful pillar of philanthropy, politics, and pop music. Before this party's over, everyone from the president of the United States to the Duchess of York will have attested to the fabulousness of Denise, and Celine Dion will have serenaded her by satellite.

But for now Denise is frantic. The phone rings and she hops off the desk, making a perfect landing on three-inch Manolo Blahniks. "Yesss!" she sings into the telephone. "The president is coming! At first they thought he might be busy bombing Bosnia, or whatever they're bombing . . ." But as Steve Grossman, the chairman of the DNC, later puts it, "He would never have missed Denise's party."

Denise's party. The phrase has taken on a life of its own in New York, where even the most peevish can't resist the chance to partake of one of Denise's trademark blowouts, if not for the entertainment factor (who could forget the gold-painted women ice-skating out on the terrace during her Grammy party?), then for the chance to see, up close and personal, the colorful doyenne-in-the-making herself. The Versace-clad songwriter and fortyish former wife of Marc Rich -- the most celebrated white-collar fugitive in U.S history -- has become such a darling of the Clinton White House that the Monday after the Starr Report was released, the president made his first public appearance at Denise's place for lunch, with Hillary, Al, and Tipper in tow. "It was the first time," says Grossman, "that I ever saw the four principals in one place for such an event. It was something of an historic moment." And one that netted the DNC a quick $2.5 million before the lemon cake was served.

But the October 12 gala isn't just another Rich party. Denise spent a major part of the past two years planning this one -- since the night she lay in a Seattle cancer ward, cradling her 27-year-old daughter in her arms, numb with the realization "that all the love and all the money in the world couldn't save Gabrielle," an ethereal beauty with an honors degree from Oxford who wanted to be an actress. It was her daughter's dying wish that her mother channel her considerable energy into creating a foundation for cancer research. And nothing would stand in Denise Rich's way when it came to the G&P Charitable Foundation (named after her daughter and Philip, the young husband she left behind). The party will mark the foundation's formal kickoff.

As always, no detail has been overlooked, from a poem of Gabrielle's daintily engraved on 1,500 white chocolates to the twelve-foot-tall bird centerpieces painted in screaming jewel tones. Five hours before showtime, the only major detail to be dealt with is the crucial "final, final" seating plan. Denise has been laboring for weeks finessing the details: Is Goldie close enough to the stage? Should Fergie be seated beside the chairman of Escada? Where to put Alan Alda? And Stevie Wonder, Martha Stewart, Joe Torre, Katie Couric? Can Star Jones be squeezed in next to Patti LaBelle? Are Donald and Ivana seated far enough apart? And the Fiji people! "Omigod," says Denise. "They donated all that bottled water and we're seating them way back here? Sssss," she says, visibly deflating. "Maybe if I cry again now, I won't cry during my speech," she decides, sniffling loudly. "I hate sobbing people on the podium. It's sooo tacky."


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