On August 1, alongside a corn-field on Wickapogue Road, some 1,400 people will dance past white ostrich feathers clustered into faux palm trees in a tent the size of a football field. And even though boldfacers like Ronald Perelman, Peter Kalikow, and Rand Araskog will be cruising the buffet elbow-to-elbow with swimming-pool contractors, the Southampton Hospital bash remains the prestige launch pad for a society blast-off. Joining the Platinum Circle ($25,000 minimum gift) or buying a table may not catapult a Wall Street wizard into the Meadow Club, but it does earn invitations to benefit-before-the-benefit parties in some of the great homes of the Hamptons and Palm Beach.
This year's summer-party chairman, Barbara Stovall Smith, has a killer act to follow (not to mention the bad luck to be competing with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger's do for the Clintons on the same evening). Hospital backers give Howard and Lynette Gittis credit for getting their billionaire buddies to pitch in on a fund-raising leap from just under $2 million in 1996 to $3.3 million last year. No small feat considering there weren't any more wings waiting to be built and chiseled with the name of a heavy-hitter pal. Howard is vice-chairman and CEO of Revlon and MacAndrews & Forbes Holdings, Lynette his forthright blonde wife.
"They claimed and deserved legitimacy with the Southampton Hospital benefit last year," says social chronicler and editor-in-chief of Avenue magazine David Patrick Columbia. But a scion with the acreage to host 600 guests at the family home is less generous: "They're very new, and they're trying to break into the community. And they're getting there, they're getting there,'' he says with a laugh. "Howard turned the steam on all his friends."
In addition to opening up Westerly, their 22-acre Georgian estate on Ox Pasture Road, and their Palm Beach home for such events, the Gittises pulled in numerous big gifts by the standards of a little hospital: $25,000, $50,000, $100,000. "The Gittises have tremendous personal contacts, and they used them," says Jean Remmel Little, a longtime hospital-board member and unofficial godmother of benefit chairmen.
This year's benefit, however, is powered by an even stronger instinct: protecting the hospital's very existence. Deep in generalists and family practitioners but short on income-generating hyper-specialists and their technological gadgetry, Southampton Hospital is the only medical institution within 35 seaside miles that stands between a vacationing CEO and death by cardiac arrest. But after three bright years under the stewardship of newly hired president John J. Ferry Jr., during which the hospital saw needed refurbishing, physician recruitment, and expansion into outpatient clinics, it suffered a dramatic shortfall in 1997. Like other small hospitals, Southampton was whomped by shrinking reimbursements from HMOs. And there were fewer patients than projected. All that led to layoffs, a reorganization, and the loss of $4 million, equal to the hospital's permanent endowment. (To boost interest -- and gifts from summer people -- Stovall Smith insisted that all proceeds be allocated to an emergency-room endowment fund.)
Ferry, a 46-year-old pediatrician, is in the odd position of being castigated as a financial manager even as he's praised as the fastest physician callback east of Stony Brook. By all accounts smart, charming, and a favored dinner guest, Ferry seems to have met everyone and invited them all to keep in touch. Many have taken this to mean they can bypass 911 and speed-dial Ferry when the au pair slices her hand open along with the bagel. "I guess the word is out. He's incredibly accessible, even if you're someone no one's ever heard of," says hospital board member Catherine di Montezemolo. "I must have called him six times myself this summer," says a young media executive. "He's everybody's doctor, because when you're out here, you don't have a doctor. So you call John Ferry, and he's terrific."
Many are the stories of Meadow Laners getting instant Ferry referrals for guests or staff members and returning the favors with hospital contributions. Ferry calls these tales "a little embarrassing" but admits that when Mort Janklow tripped over a bicycle stand in front of the American Hotel, he had Ferry paged so he could alert a plastic surgeon. "They're lovely people and very, very supportive, and a lot of people don't think twice about calling me. That's fine, it works," Ferry says. Then he adds quickly, "But there's no jumping the line in the emergency room."