T hey codified snobbery! They made careers out of fame! And they did some amazing things for this city (see the New York Public Library, the Met, etc.). This list of the most influential socialites was put together after consulting several experts on the New York social scene, whose comments are below. No doubt socialite-ologists will cry foul over some entries—even our own experts may complain—but when it comes to the world of socialites, not everybody can make the cut.
1. Caroline Astor
“The grandmother of all socialites”—and, as such, “the original American snob.” Her “Four Hundred” was the “avatar of any subsequent ‘in’ crowd worthy of the name (e.g., the ‘in’ and ‘out’ lists Truman Capote drew up for his Black and White Ball).”
2. Jackie O.
“The socialite every socialite not so secretly wants to be, and the twentieth century’s greatest fashion icon, bar none.” What’s more, “she made it socially acceptable—even enviable— to marry a Greek billionaire.”
3. Paris Hilton
As much as it pained some of our experts to say this (one crossed her name out altogether), Paris “belongs high up on this list because of the immense success she has had in parlaying minor, ‘Page Six’– and porno-fueled notoriety into inexorable global celebrity. Like all socialites, this woman is a self-marketing genius, but on a much larger playing field.”
4. Edie Sedgwick
“She made rebellion chic.”
5. Eleanor Lambert
“One of the early social working ladies,” she invented the Best-Dressed List, way back in 1940. “Little did Ms. Lambert know that her innovation would soon become a staple of—and a cash cow for—fashion magazines everywhere.”
6. Alva Vanderbilt
“Famed suffragette” but also famous for her expert social maneuvering. Snubbed for a time by Caroline Astor, she got even (and accepted) by throwing a ball to end all balls, in 1883. And her inability to get a box at the (old) opera helped lead to the founding of the Met. (Not to be confused with Gertrude—she’s the one who started the Whitney.)
7. Babe Paley
They don’t, as one respondent noted, make ’em like Babe anymore. “The most famous of Capote’s Swans” (CZ Guest, Slim Keith, Gloria Guinness), she had “flawlessly elegant style”—and was “a trailblazer in the murky terrain of New York society’s ethnic and religious prejudices,” marrying the Jewish Bill Paley.
8. Consuelo Vanderbilt
“By championing unglamorous causes like women’s sweatshops and prisoners’ wives, she was a very early model of the gritty do-gooderism now practiced globally by celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Bono.” Plus, “one of the first to famously marry into European aristocracy,” with her 1895 wedding to the Duke of Marlborough.
9. Gloria Vanderbilt
Survived a custody battle that ranks up there with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger’s to become “not just a madcap author-actress-heiress” but a “pioneer of self-branding in general and of the big-money designer-jeans industry in particular.” Also brought a distinct spirit of free love to Park Avenue; she called one of her more recent paramours a “Nijinsky of cunnilingus.”
10. Amanda Burden
The daughter of Babe Paley is a decidedly “modern socialite”—of the best kind—known far more for her work with the City’s Planning Commission than “for her partygoing.” “Add an extra olive in the form of Charlie Rose and you’ve got yourself a somewhat dirty martini.”
11. Nan Kempner
Famous for her smoking, partying, cursing, and dressing up, Nan was the ultimate good-time-girl clotheshorse. As one panelist put it, lamenting her death, “Of the breed that doesn’t bore you with yoga.”
12. Brooke Astor
“The name, the breeding, the civic virtue, and, most important, the intellectual curiosity.”
13. Cornelia Guest
First “girl with society name to work the media for leverage,” she was “a breaking point,” laying the groundwork for Tinsley Mortimer and Paris. Rode lots of horses and dated Sylvester Stallone, briefly.
14. Annette Reed De La Renta
“For many, it’s the De la Renta that makes her important. Others know that Reed reads in its own right. Her stepping in with Kissinger [to help] Brooke Astor last year bumped her up into the highest tier of society.”
15. Diane Von Furstenberg
Fashion icon who managed to make nightclub crawling look elegant, a lesson sadly lost on some of today’s generation. Married well. Twice.
16. Brenda Diana Duff Frazier
A debutante who made the cover of Life magazine in 1938 (“two things that were important at the time but are no longer”). “She allowed the public a first chance to really ogle the private society world.” Later became something of a hermit.
17. Ivana Trump
She’s like a socialite from a soap opera: a little tacky and a lot plucky. Made “making money look like a moral crusade.”
18. Pat Buckley
Put the Costume Institute on the New York social map.
19. Peggy Bedford Bancroft D’arenberg D’uzes
“The term jet set could have been invented for her.”
20. Muffie Potter Aston
(Also see “The Socialista Universe”) Many living socialites could come before her on this list, but “I think the public just likes her name.” And sometimes that’s all it takes.
▪ The Number-One Girl
▪ The Socialista Universe
Our experts were Virginia Coleman, a partner at HWPR; Chris Meigher, chairman and CEO of Quest; Bob Morris, the writer and New York Times Sunday “Styles” columnist; Charlie Scheips, a historian; and Caroline Weber, author of Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution.