The movie-memorabilia auction at the W Hotel has been under way for only fifteen minutes, and Alfonse D'Amato has been here for less than two, but already the former senator is on the charm offensive. The target of the moment is a 30-ish brunette with exemplary cheekbones -- "I'm a singer, but I also do public relations" -- who happens to be standing on his right when a waiter swings by, carrying a tray of champagne. D'Amato grabs two glasses and hands her one. "Hi," he announces. "I'm Alfonso." The woman smiles, slightly baffled. He plows ahead, taking her hand and examining her ring, demanding to know whether it contains her birthstone (it does), blitzing her with personal questions. A roving photographer snaps their picture. The senator slings his arm around her waist for the occasion, then asks what she is doing tomorrow night. Flying to England, she says. "Aggghh!" he moans in his thick, Elmer Fudd patois, a hand clutched to his breast. "A dagger through my heart!"
The senator recovers, of course; he always does. Within minutes, he is threading his way through the star-strewn crowd (Lauren Bacall, Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio) as effortlessly as a shuttle glides through a loom. When he greets people he knows, it is almost always the same: a howl, a grin, an animated embrace involving a clutch at the base of the neck and a kiss on the cheek. He spots Hank Ratner, chief operating officer of Rainbow Media and a client of D'Amato's new corporate-consulting firm, and starts scheming about ways to televise soccer. He chats with Barbara Winston, wife of Bruce, one of the heirs to the Winston jewelry fortune, and meets her daughter Stephanie -- "Hey, Steph!" Then he meets Stephanie's Promethean fiancé -- "You got a hunk, baby! A hunk!" -- before moving on to an old friend, Peter Boyle. Seeing the actor sends the senator off on a mad tear, reenacting his favorite scenes from Young Frankenstein, the movie that first catapulted Boyle to fame: "What hump? Abby Normal?! What knockers!"
Forty minutes later, tenacious as ever, the senator decides to give Gwynne Rivers, the singer-publicist, one last shot. Earlier in the evening, I'd had a chance to ask her whether she had any idea who her suitor was. She hesitated. "Yes. Well -- yes," she said. "I knew he was a senator." Then she hesitated again before asking an entirely reasonable question: "He's out of office, though, right?"
D'Amato, who served as New York's junior senator for eighteen years, is indeed out of office, dismissed by the voters last November in favor of the wonkier, higher-minded Charles Schumer. But losing, as it turns out, was probably the best career move Alfonse D'Amato has ever made. He is now doing in the private sector what he did so ably in the public one -- twisting arms, dispensing favors, and solving "problems" -- but for a lot more money, and without the hindrance of Senate ethics rules. He remains a vital force in New York Republican politics -- advising Pataki, tweaking Rudy, drilling for cash -- but without having to account publicly for his own behavior.
Most astonishing, at 62, he is dating even more flamboyantly than he did in the Senate -- flying down to Palm Beach with erstwhile sex columnist Candace Bushnell, squiring around Olympic swimmer Dara Torres -- forcing the New York Post to haul out the word canoodle not once but twice in its boldface coverage of his nightly romps. Before, D'Amato's companions looked like astronauts' wives. Now they look like MTV V.J.'s.
"I'm married," says Al Franken, who does a devastating impression of D'Amato. "But if I were out there with him, I think I'd be kind of pissed if the babes were going after him and not me. I mean, they've done scientific studies on what makes people attractive, and as far as I can tell, he doesn't fit any of those."
Most recently discarded politicians spend years licking their psychic wounds and figuring out what to do with themselves. D'Amato, in fact, seemed especially vulnerable to this kind of isolation and humiliation -- remember the rumors about him weeping in the elevator on the way to his concession speech? -- because he couldn't do anything in particular; he wasn't a gifted lawyer or orator or policy-maker. Even while sitting at the helm of a committee, D'Amato was quietly regarded as a figure of fun.
But as Mike Myers has proved, goofy guys can be highly effective if they're famous enough, well-connected enough, and have more than enough mojo. And that's what Alfonse D'Amato is: the Austin Powers of Island Park. He's an oafish charmer who knows a million people, solves the world's problems, doubles as his own worst enemy, and manages, in spite of his epic bumbling, to get the girl.
Asked how he stays relevant, D'Amato shrugs, as if the answer were obvious: "By bein' me." No one could have guessed how marketable, powerful, and (apparently) lovable being him was -- and how easily it could withstand the separation from public office.
"From what I understand, Alfonse is still slapping people on the back, getting engaged to young girls, and people are still calling him senator," marvels Charlie Rangel, the salty Harlem Democrat who's served in Congress since the Nixon administration. "So really," he says, "I ask you: What the hell's the difference?"
The obligatory opera soundtrack swells in the background at Limoncello, the restaurant on the ground floor of the Michelangelo Hotel, where the senator is due to arrive at any moment. The waiters are thrilled. They say he tips well, is easy to please, and likes to sit near the front, where he can banter with customers. D'Amato arrives about twenty minutes late.