On a breezy midweek evening, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's summer rooftop gala hosted by the Apollo Circle, its newly formed junior committee, is in full, albeit subdued, swing. A mix of single women in Guccis and bias-cut slip dresses and single men in pinstripes and windowpanes have each shelled out $100 to mingle over spring rolls against a sweeping backdrop of Central Park West. "The talent is not that good tonight," says a 31-year-old Web designer decked out in a navy-blue suit and a silver tie, double-fisting vodka tonics. "I went to one of these parties at Christmas," he shouts, as Cher's "Believe" thumps overhead. "I met a girl, she wrote her number on my hand and sealed it with a kiss. How could I resist that?" As the sun is setting, a criminal lawyer who's been working the crowd -- and the bar -- since 5:30 p.m. is making one last effort to corral a dinner date. He doesn't hesitate to elaborate on why he paid a $1,000 membership fee. "I was hoping to meet a woman, get married, and inherit 50 million bucks."
The "talent" -- and we're not talking the museum's permanent collection -- is, indeed, the point of today's charity soirées. While the pro bono&-party circuit has been around since Scott and Zelda were fountain-hopping, more and more single urban professionals, from fashion-industry executives to MBAs flush with cash from recent IPOs, are finding benefits to be the most promising -- and most efficient -- path to pre-nup negotiations (or at least a few plausible dates).
"Maybe they met someone in college, but people move away," says a longtime benefitgoer. "It's a mobile population. When they come back to the city, they need to start a new social group of friends. New York is an intimidating place to meet people. And this is a way to institutionalize it. Besides, people in New York live in small apartments as a rule, especially the younger ones. They don't have the facilities to entertain."
"People are nervous about having large parties in their homes," confides one fixture on the scene who frequents junior events despite his up-there age. "They're yuppies with the finer things now, not college kids who don't mind having 200 people trash their apartment. They're too lazy from work to have to plan an English dinner party for eight and too cheap to hire caterers. And they're not going to bars to meet people," he says. "Elitism is missing from bars."
Marjorie Gubelmann, a junior hostess for the Palm Beach&-Southampton crowd, has attended as many as three events a week. "November is a very busy month," she says. "I put the invites on the mirror in my bedroom, and now I can't see my face." Even though Gubelmann is one of those rare New Yorkers who regularly treats her friends to home-cooked meals in her crimson dining room, she acknowledges that for most, the parties fill a kind of social void. "Most people I know don't know how to cook. Most of my friends can't even make toast," she says. "Plus, people are working longer hours. It's harder to come together socially."
And so, the city's institutions have stepped up their role as dating service for the monied class. Museums, hospitals, libraries, even auction houses these days are offering something the bars and clubs never could: a prescreened, high-caliber pool of candidates. In response to increasing demand, they're throwing more and more parties and expanding existing "junior" evenings.
For the first time, the Israel Museum held a formal event at the Tribeca Rooftop instead of the usual modest cocktail mixer. MOMA's annual "Party in the Garden" was bursting at the seams with pashmina shawls and Shoshanna dresses. Since so many juniors populated the pre-party patrons' dinner, a new committee was formed this year to sponsor a simultaneous juniors-only meal for an additional 300 in the downstairs Garden Café. The Wildlife Conservation Society's "Evening at the Central Park Zoo" sold out weeks earlier than usual, with 750 guests signing up in advance for the early-bird $150 ticket special. Another 250 snapped up the remaining spaces, which went for $165 apiece. The Young Collectors' Night at the Armory's Winter Antiques Show (which benefits the East Side House Settlement) expects 1,500 attendees this January, up from 350 three years before.
"Basically, it's a high-class meat market," declares one Wall Streeter on the party committee for Montefiore's Albert Einstein hospital. "This is sport."
"I suppose the benefit circuit is a sort of spin-off from the days of arranged marriages," says Kristina Stewart, editor-in-chief of Quest, a shiny sheet for the cummerbund crowd. "Today, there are plenty of bonus babies to mix it up with the trust-fund babies. My advice to the goateed Internet moguls looking for a high-maintenance deb to marry and set up home for them: Buy your own dinner jacket. And don't call it a tuxedo."
Each party has its own personality. The Israel Museum attracts an expectant Jewish audience; the Intrepid, a swarm of post-college bridge-and-tunnelers. The Museum of the City of New York lures a capped-off coterie of 800 black-tie-and-blue-blood swanks; the Bridgehampton Polo matches, a mix of society straw hats and scrappy hangers-on. The cultural institutions have a reputation for attracting publishing, music, and fashion types as well as businesspeople. Some -- like the Young Collectors' Night at the Winter Antiques Show -- pull a notoriously comely group. "We get a really good mix of uptown and downtown," says board member Marina Rust. "I think we've developed that kind of reputation. And that's fine." People have been known to call from Chicago looking for tickets.
It's an unspoken rule that "the diseases" -- cancer, Crohn's and colitis, and cystic fibrosis -- are the least flashy. "The diseases get more professionals in finance, doctors, lawyers, accountants -- a more unattractive group," says a regular party attendee.
In down times, circuit regulars tide themselves over by scoring free invites to store-opening parties and Website launches. "You have to get on the Shriftman-London-Grubman lists," explains a member of the Young New Yorkers for the Philharmonic who just attended the Coach store's 57th Street reopening. Wanna-gos find out which P.R. company -- usually Harrison & Shriftman, London Misher, or Lizzie Grubman -- is throwing an upcoming event and then the shameless phone campaigns begin. "We get calls all the time," says Lara Shriftman, who orchestrated the openings of Louis Vuitton's SoHo boutique, Jimmy Choo's midtown shop, and Cartier's East Hampton outpost. "And if we know them, or they know somebody we like, we'll usually put them on the list. Store openings are like nightclubs were in the eighties. Young people don't like to go to nightclubs anymore. They know these will be nice events. They'll go to the store to have cocktails in a civilized environment."
Guests act like media buyers as they consider their invites. For the price of a night at odeon, they can position themselves in front of their target audience.
Guests strategize like media buyers as they consider their fistful of invites. For the price they insist they'd pay for a regular night at the Odeon, they can position themselves directly in front of their target audience. "People are attracted to people from the same social economic status, the same prep school," says a former magazine media buyer. "You're always trying to qualify your leads."
For many marquee events, tickets are quickly sold out in advance. Those who are not cozy with committee members (and therefore don't receive heavy-stock invitations in their mailboxes) can only hope to sidle up to a table hostess at the lesser-priced "dessert" portion of these evenings -- in the hopes that she will ask them to join the table next year.
One lawyer in his thirties, who admits to forking over $3,500 a year on such entertainments, does the math: "I could go on five dates, and it's going to cost me 700 bucks. Or I could go to one of these for $150 and get five phone numbers."
Samantha Daniels, who runs Table for Two (or More), a dating service for the young and successful, likes to introduce her clients to potential mates at these benefit parties. There's no stigma associated with them, as there may be at a typical "singles weekend" or even an evening overtly constructed for the purpose of romance, i.e., a blind date. And, as Daniels explains, part of the allure of this tax-deductible dating game is that you know you're going to see at least a handful of people you sort of know. "It's not a random crowd," she explains. "It's only degrees of separation."
The growing interest in charity events is even inspiring fashion designers like Céline, the couture house run by designer-of-the-moment Michael Kors, to lend frocks out to society party girls and their friends to be photographed in them like Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8. For MOMA's Party In the Garden, a $9,000 beaded crystal dress was lent to a friend of Serena Boardman's. Language, a trendy boutique on Mulberry, has become a clearinghouse for such occasions, supplying Skin Jewelry, a kind of sparkly fake tattoo, to the likes of Alexandra von Furstenburg. Co-owner Ana Abdul tries to make sure girls don't leave with the same outfits, but sometimes she can't help it. Abdul, who dressed Manhattan File editor Christina Greeven head to toe for a ballet benefit at the Met, sold 30 pashmina shawls the afternoon before one MOMA bash and outfitted the same crowd with Chlöe T-shirts when they headed off to sip champagne with Stella McCartney at the store opening in September. This fall, Philip Treacy handbags are the coveted accessory, especially for those who did not make the waiting list for a shipment of pashmina ponchos -- expected to arrive just in time for November's busy dance card.