By 10:30, the reopening party for the renovated Bulgari store on Fifth Avenue had degenerated into a Nathanael Westian night of the A-list. Futilely waving invitations, a mob was pushing toward the jeweler’s doors, where a phalanx of list-keepers and security men held them at bay – barely. Near the curb, the policemen who’d just ordered the party’s doors closed watched as Town Cars pulled up, their dark windows rolled down, and eyes flashed warily within before the big black cars sped away.
Meanwhile, inside the store, those who had managed to get in took one another’s measure. Socialites in little black dresses brushed past drag queens while Sandra Bernhard danced, face flushed, for photographers, and TV camera crews pushed by, seeking out the celebrities – Sheryl Crow, David Lee Roth, Roshumba, and Kylie Travis – who were simultaneously looking for them. Here was Ivana Trump, all big hair and cleavage, with her latest boyfriend, Roffredo Gaetani, in a brown leather bomber jacket; there the Donald, hugging a model, while nearby, more mannequins whispered at a table littered with Heineken bottles and packs of Marlboro Mediums under poster-size blowups of Bulgari advertisements.
Jeffrey Jah, along with Mark Baker, had been hired by Bulgari’s P.R. firm to produce “the thousand most fantastic people in New York” that night. Jah created the crowd by mixing Bulgari’s guest list with names from his computerized database. It has about 8,000 entries. Jah ended up with a roster of 1,500 “movers and shakers – people with presence,” he says in his small, invitation-stuffed office on Union Square. “When you see those people, you know it’s happening.” Especially when they’re stuck outside, clamoring to be let in, as they’re likely to be when 1,500 invitations yield maybe 3,000 guests.
Jah and Baker are among New York’s newest A-list arbiters. In Jah’s computers is a remarkably detailed taxonomy of New York’s caste and hierarchy. It is categorized sociologically under rubrics like celebrities, uptown socialites, downtown socialites, models, hard-core gay, publishing, fashion, finance, press, and art, then subdivided by social status and job description into five-star types (“Calvin, top models, rock stars, movie stars, editors-in-chief, Laura Steinberg, David Geffen, Diane Von Furstenberg – if they have room on their calendar”), AAA (“the best of the best people you know”), AA (“good but not the best; they’re filler, they’ll follow”), and mere A-types (“if you need to fill a stadium”). They don’t want to name sub-five-star types. “There’s a lot of politics and ego to deal with,” Jah says.
Jah and Baker’s well-honed sense of hierarchy came in handy that night. “How do you say no to fabulousness?” Baker asks. “That’s the pecking order.” Ivana, Christy, and Claudia were stuck outside when the party was first shuttered. Jah managed to negotiate their entry (installing Schiffer with two drag queens in a roped-off VIP corner near the D.J. booth) before the cops clamped down again. Then, inevitably, more five-star types arrived. “I took them in through a storage room in the Crown Building,” Jah admits. “There is always a way.”
“We’re getting up there,” as Andy Warhol used to say. But where is there, exactly? The noisy, colorful chaos and randomness of Andy’s world are still with us – social life in a blender – but lately, all this frenetic mixing hasn’t always seemed like fun. “Some years ago, it all ground … not to a halt, but into a blur,” says John Loring, design director of Tiffany & Co., who’s been at A-list events for almost 40 years. People like Jah and Baker view themselves almost as artists, creating stunning new social tableaus on a nightly basis, but among the spectators and even some of the participants, a certain seen-it-all exhaustion has set in. “Nobody is watching the door right now,” moans P.R. czar Bobby Zarem.
For most New Yorkers, the question “Who killed society?” is of more or less archaeological interest, except in certain Jurassic provinces like Bedford or the boardroom of the Botanical Gardens. The social world now, party planners repeat like a mantra, is a meritocracy, and God Bless America for that. “Pedigree is archaic,” says Peggy Siegal, the publicist and poster child for the excesses of the new A-list. “It’s a new age with vast new fortunes that have nothing to do with the Roman numerals of the eastern aristocracy.”
But it is slowly dawning on many of New York’s boldface names that their place on the A-list is less a social order than a marketing machine – an invitation to be leveraged and manipulated in the service of a movie, or a designer, or a magazine.
Public social life is now overtly and relentlessly commercial. Today’s social arbiters and the people who underwrite them are usually advancing some cause or another, and not just philanthropy. Philanthropy is often a stalking-horse for what’s being promoted, whether it’s luxury goods, a magazine, the latest movie, or the arbiter’s own social advancement. This process requires and subsidizes the kind of quasi-public events – ballet benefits, movie premieres, publicized “private” dinners at East Side restaurants, cocktail parties for the latest socially connected author’s book on fashion or floral design – that one reads about incessantly in the columns.
And increasingly, people whose families made their money the old-fashioned way are shocked, shocked, to find mere commercialism spoiling their gavotte. “Parties, whether private or quasi-public, are about trophies now,” says Michael Thomas, the curmudgeonly novelist. “You look around and realize it’s not the pleasure of their company; it’s the fact of their presence.”
“You don’t get invited to people’s houses anymore without an ulterior motive,” adds Patricia Hearst Shaw. “You have to call and say, ‘What is this for?’ “
Faced with this reality, onetime stalwarts of the city’s charity circuit are jumping ship, “A lot of people don’t like their lives written about and talked about,” says Blaine Trump. “People did pull back. There are just as many extravagant evenings, but they’re done privately. They’re not willing to open their doors to show how they live. It’s a different world. You have to think about security for your family. So you read about movie premieres instead, whatever’s being sold.”
Pat Buckley calls what’s occurred “a philanthropic abdication.” She is not referring to her own departure as chair of the Costume Institute Ball at the Met, where she had presided for seventeen years; she “decided the time had come to spend more time with my husband,” she says. Rather, it’s what’s happening all over the charity circuit. Briefly, social observers banked on the emergence of a next generation of social leadership. But youngish A-list women like Annette de la Renta and Blaine Trump, who “were given the baton,” as a society insider puts it, “gave it back. They didn’t care. Annette didn’t have the personality. Blaine walked away. She didn’t want the pressure.”
According to the insider, Trump and Buckley, long perceived as mentor and protégée, “had a falling out,” which caused the museum to go “in search of new faces.” They both insistently deny that. Trump says she decided to dedicate herself to one cause – the AIDS organization God’s Love We Deliver, where she’s helped amass a $7 million endowment. The Costume Institute party, which she co-chaired for two years, “was a lot of fun,” she continues, “but I had to go where I was needed.”
So in the past three years, the Party of the Year has been chaired by Vogue editor Anna Wintour, Harper’s Bazaar editor Liz Tilberis, W chairman Patrick McCarthy, and two rookies, Clarissa Bronfman, who didn’t return for a sophomore year, and Julia Koch, this year’s social sacrificial lamb.
“It used to be based on the museum hierarchy,” the insider says. “When Pat ran it, it was a very insular event. To get that invitation was a coup. Then they realized they needed more money and reached out to their natural support base, the fashion community. Now it changes every year.”
More and more, the high-society A-list, the ones who chaired the functions and filled the coffers of New York’s great public institutions, are dropping out of the social ballyhoo. “The names,” says decorator Mario Buatta, “you don’t see. They’re at home, living like normal people. Once you achieve enough, you say ‘Hell, who needs this?’ Who wants to go out to dinner every night and sit next to two women you’re never going to speak to again? How many of these things can you go to?” So they are begging off in droves from public events.
“No one wants to go,” agrees a onetime regular. “The smaller the dinner, the more exclusive it is. Who can I get to my house for dinner? That’s the new frontier.”
Jonathan Marder, executive director of special marketing for Condé Nast, has developed a system for rating invitations. “The best party is hosted by someone very famous or very beautiful whom you know well, at their home,” he says. Below that come parties hosted by “committees you know, committees you don’t, and corporate entities,” he continues. “You can also judge by place: A private home is best.” Less appealing are apartment-building lobbies, studios, and other not-quite-public places, restaurants, hotels, and retail stores. At the bottom of the Z-list? “A party with no hosts in a disco.”
Even Donald Trump professes to be fed up with the vulgarity of New York’s A-list social world. “For people like me who work and work hard,” Trump says, “there’s nothing worse than to have to come home and put on a tuxedo and go out to an evening of complete bullshit. These people are far more vicious than ruthless killers in business. They want to be seen, and this is their only chance. I go to as few A-list events as possible. There is nothing as boring. But the harder I abuse these people as a group, the more I get invited.”
It’s not only Trump whose presence is cordially requested, and requested and requested; these days, invitations are flying around town like confetti. “We’ve had such a surfeit of balls,” says one social lioness. “I must get eight invitations a week I don’t go to. I write a check to some.”
“I’ve cut out a lot of these parties,” agrees Patricia Hearst. “My pet peeve is VIP rooms at benefits where a bunch of movie stars and models who probably haven’t paid a penny to go are hiding and the people who paid $1,000 are bored. For me, they’re paid performers and should be out there. It’s so vulgar and insulting.”
“We are all too aware we’re in the computer,” says Jonathan Marder. “It’s all about herding bodies for marketing purposes. To attract a crowd, you need bait.”
And the P.R. people themselves, the keepers of the list, are, when speaking anonymously, at least, aghast at what the A-list has become. “When you put together these parties, you’re almost embarrassed to invite nice people because of the need to feed the publicity monster,” an event planner admits.
The Costume Institute benefit for the Metropolitan Museum, the so-called Party of the Year, is a case study of the changes that have swept New York’s A-list. Once chaired by Jacqueline Onassis and attended by the crème de la crème of international society, the benefit was taken over by the fashion business in a bloodless coup three years ago. This year, eschewing museum-style timelessness, it honored the late Gianni Versace and, instead of old names, attracted single names like Madonna, Elton, Cher, and Sting. “Their job is to raise the most money possible,” says a social observer of considerable standing. Indeed, they raised an unprecedented $2.3 million. “I have great regard for the people who did that by cynically manipulating that audience.”
But more happened that night than the selling of some records, Vogue, W, Versace, or Julia Koch. A new A-list was asserting its preeminence, symbolizing a seismic shift in society. Some of the old social stars appeared – Pat Buckley, Oscar and Annette de la Renta, Senator John Warner of Virginia, San Francisco’s Denise Hale, Barbara Walters, and Chessy Rayner, for instance – but they were overwhelmed by the new glitterati of designers, photographers, models, and film and music personalities.
And some of the A-list socialites were not shy about expressing their feelings.
“Who is that?” a couture-clad society landmark asked a friend, nodding disapprovingly at a sullen, bow-mouthed young woman in Versace.
“I don’t care,” came the reply. “She’s still common.”
Ward McAllister, of course, was New York’s most famous list-maker, the Peggy Siegal of his time. The husband of an heiress, McAllister set himself the task of helping the nouveaus, whom he deemed Swells, sip the soup of the more established types he called Nobs. His successes emboldened him to contrive a definitive list of society, based on the “visiting lists” of prominent families and limited to 400 because that was the capacity of his friend Mrs. John Jacob Astor’s ballroom. Four years in the making and relentlessly publicized, the list was published in the New York Times in February 1892, simultaneous with a ball at Mrs. Astor’s. Needless to say, the list included one Ward McAllister.
The age of the 400 lasted barely 25 years. In 1919, Maury Paul – who wrote the first daily social-gossip column, under the name Cholly Knickerbocker (in later incarnations, it would employ Liz Smith and be taken over by one Suzy Knickerbocker, a.k.a. Aileen Mehle, who now writes gossip for W and WWD) – stumbled on a then-unprecedented scene: a group of society types dining out in a restaurant. He pinned the name café society on them.
Publicity society was born. Henceforth, real social power would belong to the press and to P.R. handmaidens like party hostess and Peggy Siegal precursor Elsa Maxwell, whose career as a hostess was preceded by stints as a vaudeville performer, a press agent, and, finally, a society columnist. (Her ambitions exceeded mere acceptance; some social figures regularly gave her money.)
Not all hosts and hostesses are quite so crass. Some actually manage to pull off the trick of making business entertainment seem personal. P.R. man Benjamin Sonnenberg did it with style and grace in mid-century, and so does Realtor Alice Mason today. Sonnenberg is best – if at all – remembered as the owner of one of New York’s last great private mansions: 19 Gramercy Park. (A perfect symbol of New York’s social devolution, that house was built for Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish of the 400 and is now owned by fashion designer Richard Tyler). From the thirties through the sixties, Sonnenberg melded public and private in his 37-room home, conducting a salon that attracted the celebrated, the social, the rich, and the richly amusing – and, of course, journalists who would consecrate them all in print.
In November 1966, Truman Capote took it upon him- self to redefine society with his Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel, honoring Katharine Graham. Like McAllister’s 400, Capote’s guest list – all 540 names – was printed in the New York Times, which described Capote’s guests as “diplomats, politicians, scientists, painters, writers, composers, actors, producers, dress designers, social figures, tycoons and what Mr. Capote called ‘international types, lots of beautiful women and ravishing little things.’” A businessman printed the guest list on toilet paper and gave it to his friends.
The party received mixed notices. In George Plimpton’s new book, Truman Capote, A-list intellectual Norman Podhoretz is quoted calling the ball a “turning point in the cultural history, the social history of New York, even the United States in the sense that the confluence of the fashionable social world and the literary world and the world of political power was embodied in that guest list.”
Gray Foy, the companion of the late Condé Nast publishing eminence Leo Lerman, remembers it differently. “That was a mess, one of the most boring events, nothing but people looking at each other, each in their own enclave,” he says. “No doubt it was a watershed, bringing all those worlds together – De Ribes, Sinatra, Mailer – and proving they don’t mix at all.”
But mix they did – eventually – even if at first all were a bit uncomfortable about it. “We started to focus on achievement, not provenance,” says Loving & Weintraub principal Harriet Weintraub, a P.R. executive with 6,674 names in her event database. “We don’t have the same prejudices. We don’t have an elitist group anymore. We have a goulash, a stew, and New York is better for it.”
One of the first events that took the goulash ethic to its limit was the black-tie premiere of the movie version of the Who’s Tommy in the 57th Street subway station in 1975. Bobby Zarem, a son of Savannah, the same city where Ward McAllister was born, spent months working on the project, seeking the perfect site for a party that would mix society, movies, Warhol superstars, and the era’s raffish, raucous rock stars. “I never bought any list; I developed my own concept,” Zarem says. “It wasn’t conscious – I was scared shitless. What I did was combine a conventional sit-down dinner with a bizarre setting. And I invited Pat and Bill Buckley, D. D. and John Ryan, Marion Javits, everyone I felt meant something, based on quality, character, intelligence, culture, and class.” They rubbed shoulders with rock stars, rock critics, groupies, and dope dealers.
Around the same time as the Tommy premiere, Carmen D’Alessio, a Peruvian who’d worked for several couturiers in Europe, began hosting parties for other fashionable expats in New York at a club called Infinity. They were such a success that she was soon poached away by Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager to work at a disco they owned in Queens. “She combined straight people with hard-core gays,” Schrager says. “She created a sense of event. You died to get in. A nightclub with the best people. That’s what gives you bragging rights.” It wasn’t long before the trio returned to Manhattan to launch Studio 54.
“Everyone cooperated,” says D’Alessio. “Calvin Klein, Andy Warhol, Francesco Scavullo, Ford Models, and the Islanders” – an organization of gay men from Fire Island – “all gave me their lists, and I compiled the most incredible list you can imagine. We got them all on computer.” A beautiful woman was installed as ticket taker, “and if you were good-looking, had presence or charisma, we’d ask her to get your name and address,” says Schrager, now a hotelier. “The A-list is a moving target. In order to deal with it, manipulate it, we had to formalize it.”
Not everyone got the idea. “I always think, ‘This is as low as it will go,’ but it fools you,” says Gray Foy. “I went to Elizabeth Taylor’s birthday at Studio 54 out of morbid curiosity. It looked like the last act of Salome. You couldn’t talk, you couldn’t hear, you didn’t need to be intelligent. All you needed was a look. That was not A-list. It was more L.A. When society is a dressmaker, what is that? Hairdressers? They’re all up for hire. There are no standards. I don’t see any. Do you?”
“Studio was innocent and spontaneous,” says Schrager. “But it doesn’t take long for someone to see you can make money from this. It evolved into a cottage industry.” D’Alessio was joined by promoters who specialized in different types: Gays, yuppies, Europeans, and preppies all had their own arbiters. “Dallas, Jerry Rubin, Ludovic Autet, Baird Jones, you name it!” D’Alessio says. “It became too commercial for my tastes.” When all those promoters moved into Studio, D’Alessio moved on to Xenon, Regine, Club A, Limelight, Palladium, Tatou, and Gaugin. “But the crowd changed,” she says. “The glamour was gone.”
In the eighties, new social venues appeared. The metropolitan Museum began renting out the Temple of Dendur to plutocrats who could afford to make hefty donations. And retail stores “emerged as a center of social life,” says Harriet Weintraub, who’d worked at Bonwit Teller. For a few years, the fall social season’s starting gun was Saks Fifth Avenue’s annual gala salute to American fashion; the honored designers all chose a charity and invited their A-list clients and friends to support it. As surely as night follows evening, Bergdorf Goodman and Bloomingdale’s invitations would arrive, too.
The paradigm of that sort of fashionable fête was a Bergdorf Goodman-sponsored fashion show and dinner-dance benefiting aids research at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital, held a week after the stock market crashed in October 1987. Under the World Financial Center’s 40-foot-high indoor palms, chairs were tied with taffeta bows, forced roses swayed, a grand modern staircase twinkled with thousands of votive candles, and a new social style blossomed. Lauren Hutton’s date, rock impresario Malcolm McLaren, set off a chain reaction of placement nightmares when he took another guest’s chair next to the model. Bianca Jagger ate fruits de la mer Provençal with her satin-glove-clad fingers. Revlon paid for the fireworks. Not long afterward, Jackie Onassis told John Loring that she thought 1989 “was the final year where there was any hope of representing the American party as a glorious achievement of civilization.”
‘Once in a lifetime, there’s a party like this,” Condé Nast owner S. I. Newhouse claimed one night in March 1988. It was the fifth anniversary of the second lifetime of Vanity Fair magazine and tout le monde was there to celebrate, from Alexander Godunov to Henry Kissinger to Jerome Zipkin. The venue was Billy Rose’s old Diamond Horseshoe nightclub under the Century Paramount Hotel, which had been used only one other time since its purchase by Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager – when it was the site of a memorial luncheon after Andy Warhol’s funeral.
That event had been sadly spontaneous; this one was not. “It was a strategic decision,” says a former Condé Nast executive, “to revive the sense of cultural elitism that was part of the premise of Vanity Fair. Si had the intuition to understand that if he opened his pocketbook to Tina Brown, the editor, it would pay off in cachet and status. That was the beginning of the elaborate expenditures.” When Anna Wintour took over the editorship of Vogue a few months later, Newhouse opened his wallet for her, too. Then the spending escalated. Brown’s 1990 pre-Oscar party, a benefit for Phoenix House in Los Angeles, and Vogue’s 100th-birthday party at the New York Public Library in 1992 “set everyone on their ears,” says a P.R. man for a competing glossy. “People were stunned by the attention they brought the magazines.”
At events like these public galas and private but well-publicized lunches and dinners, Condé Nast took a page from its founder, who tossed lavish penthouse parties and cultivated his own A-list crowd. Newhouse created “a new paradigm,” the ex-executive says. “Suzanne Eagle then head of the company’s P.R. department saw a vacuum and filled it with the notion of magazine editors as celebrities with carefully cultivated images and limitless budgets. Whether advertisers were at the party or only read about it, it paid off.” Indeed, it sometimes seemed to pay off more if they weren’t invited.
In the face of competitive pressure from magazine kingdoms like Hearst and Hachette, Newhouse decreed that Condé Nast’s tradition of “elitism would save the day,” the executive continues. “The articulation of that elitism came through well-cultivated arrogance, and it hit a primal urge in people who wanted to belong. It was a decision made not for fun or the joy of entertaining but for marketing goals.” Ever since, magazine editors have shouldered aside traditional social figures at the pinnacle of New York’s public life.
Someone else who filled the void was Peggy Siegal, the screening queen, who has used her Hollywood connections to propel herself not only to the arbiter’s Olympus but also onto the A-list, à la Ward McAllister. “Richard Johnson of ‘Page Six’ loves to call me Pushy Peggy, but I don’t know any successful people that aren’t somewhat aggressive,” says Siegal, who has aggressively transformed herself into an exemplar of both the best and the worst of the new A-list’s attributes. Raised in New Jersey, Siegal was a fashion-and-accessories designer before she turned to public relations. Just before the Tommy premiere, she went to work for Bobby Zarem.
“Peggy Siegal, the day I fired her, had keys and stole my black book,” Bobby Zarem claims before dropping a couple of the names he had in it, both now conveniently dead. “I had to call Mrs. Onassis and Greta Garbo and tell them.”
An ex-employee agrees: “She’d go in at 6 a.m. and Xerox his Rolodex.” Siegal has denied this, but if it’s so, there’s justice of a sort.
“We’ve all stolen Peggy’s lists,” a competitor admits. “Of course, it’s only good for ten minutes and then it needs to be updated.”
By the mid-eighties, in business for herself, Siegal had begun to practice her special brand of social alchemy at the screenings and premieres that became her signature.
Siegal first manifested this talent when she was representing Michael Douglas and stage-managing his then-wife Diandra’s brief stint in New York society. Then Siegal did P.R. for Paul Schrader’s movie about Patty Hearst. “I started introducing her to friends and the rest is history,” Hearst says. “It’s the age-old Edith Whartonesque story.”
Siegal raised her profile when she was first hired by HBO, charged with putting on an annual summer party in the Hamptons for original films like Citizen Cohn, And the Band Played On, and Truman. In exchange, she is given free office space.
HBO’s then-chairman, Michael Fuchs, was a family friend; he, Siegal, and Claudia Cohen, now a TV gossipeuse, had once shared a house in the Hamptons. Fuchs, whose mother suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, Siegal says, was planning a benefit for that cause when he learned that Princess Yasmin Khan, a friend of Patty Hearst and her sister Anne’s, would be chairing a competing event. “Someone got them to combine forces,” Siegal says. “He told me I’d be volunteering.”
Siegal threw herself into the job and, with events like a Capote-esque Black and White Ball on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the original event, raised the charity’s profile considerably. Those evenings, and the chits they earned her, also worked wonders for Siegal’s private life. “The whole society thing really interests and impresses Peggy,” Anne Hearst says. In return for screening invitations, “she’s called me up to ask to be invited to dinner. One time I told her no and she yelled at me. I’d be embarrassed to call someone and say, ‘Invite me to your party.’ She does it with a lot of people.” Why? “She wants to marry a wealthy man and be seriously social,” says an amused Hearst.
Adds an ex-employee, “She wants to move up in the world. That’s what it’s all about with her.”
Siegal doesn’t deny her interest, only its extent. “I’d prefer the word curious,” she says. “I was very curious about it. I’d spent years understanding the social, political, and intellectual fabric of the film industry.” When the proximity to the Hearsts brought a new social frontier into focus, “I was fascinated,” she says, and set out to understand it as well.
Siegal admits that there’s “a very fine line” between her private and professional lives. But she denies the oft-repeated charge that she’s a social climber. “I just like to be around bright, successful, talented people,” she says. “If the worst thing people say is that I’m a climber, I can live with that. I mean, really, do they look in the mirror? Who wants to be home alone all the time?”
Those who help her are rewarded with invitations – and more. “We called them the gray people,” says an ex-employee. “They were invited to everything, but we could never figure out what they did.” In the early nineties, Siegal adopted lawyer Michael Kennedy and his wife, Eleanore, who were in the limelight when they represented Ivana Trump in her divorce. They let Siegal rent their guest house in East Hampton’s exclusive Georgica Association. “She was really pushing them,” says Anne Hearst, “going on and on about how wonderful they are. If she’s personally P.R.’ing you as a friend, you’ll wind up at the right hand of God.”
And if you don’t, someone will feel Siegal’s wrath. When she disapproved of Eleanore Kennedy’s seat at a benefit a few years back, Siegal complained so loudly, one of the dinner chairs was forced to tell her to sit down and shut up. Incidents like that have slowed her progress. “She wants acceptance in clubs she’ll never get into,” a friend says sadly. “Anytime I see her in a private home, I think, That person wants to go to movie premieres.”
Though some complain that she doesn’t always deliver the celebrities she promises, there’s also grudging praise for Siegal’s professionalism; she’s perceived as someone who really knows how to throw a party. Says a movie publicist Siegal trained, “She doesn’t have an A-list per se; she zeroes in and targets who’s perfect for the event.” Adds another, “She knows how to do it; she has the lists and she’s not ashamed to badger people.”
Loyalty is not one of Siegal’s virtues, however. “She goes hot and cold with people,” says a former intimate, who asks to be described as “one of the disposable people.” Behind their backs, this woman says, Siegal regularly disparages her friends and the people she works for. “Art dealer Larry Gagosian was a pig. Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein was a fat slob. The first time she saw Patty Hearst’s house, she said it looked like a dentist’s and was a tasteless mess. There’s no friendship with her.” (Siegal says her remark about Hearst was a joke. “I was naïvely expecting to walk into San Simeon,” she explains. She acknowledges that she was angry with Weinstein, who demanded she work for him exclusively, but adds that she considers him “the most brilliant and tenacious filmmaker in the industry.” As for Gagosian, she laughs and qualifies her remark: Gagosian is still a pig, perhaps, “but in hindsight, one with impeccable taste.”)
It isn’t only clients and friends who get the Siegal treatment, however. She even disdains the journalists she depends on for coverage. When a female friend started dating one, Siegal firstyelled at her, then dropped her from the A-list. “I have no respect for writers,” Siegal told her. “They never make money. They’re like poor people looking in the windows.”
Nostalgists still speak of the days when character, kindness, and manners all mattered. And some, at least, are hopefully predicting that they’re ripe for a comeback. Though it’s not the best thing for her business, Harriet Weintraub insists the private party has returned. Paul Wilmot, former P.R. master at Calvin Klein and Condé Nast, says that real A-list types know the secret of making themselves scarce.
For many on the A-list, agent Bryan Bantry’s screenings have emerged as an alternative to Siegal’s P.R.-driven pressure-cooker events. “I’m not a publicist,” says Bantry, who arranges screenings of films he loves and thinks should be seen. There’s no press, no cameras, and his audiences include everyone from top models to the lowliest assistants. “I think assistants are the most important people on the planet,” Bantry says. “I don’t believe in A-lists.”
So how do you get on his? “It’s just friends and colleagues,” he replies, offering not a clue how to become one. But he does reveal how to get disinvited. “I always overbook,” he says, “and the chicest people in the world sit on the floor if they have to.” At a late January screening of The Apostle, however, four late arrivals refused. “Insecure self-importance!” Bantry raged the next morning. “That’s an instant way to be thrown off the list.”
A new generation of uptown A-listers even seem willing to play the part of high society – while sometimes indulging their taste for the lower life-forms downtown. Alex and Alexandra Miller Von Furstenberg, her sisters Pia Getty and Princess Pavlos, Carolina Herrera Jr., the Boardman and Bass girls, Samantha Kluge Cahan, and Tiffany and Louis Dubin – all born after the baby boom and free of its disdain for old conventions – are all contenders for the mantle of a new social leadership, should they choose to accept it.
If they take up the challenge, their A-list will likely meld old values and names with the new. We’ve gone too far to turn back now. “You have to have diversity,” says Mark Baker. “Like the time I saw Donald Trump with Marilyn Manson at Ted Field’s in East Hampton. It’s about inclusion.” A smile. “You just can’t include everybody.”
One last thing. There was a night not long ago when I thought I heard the death knell sound for publicity society. It was Oscar Night, 1996. I was driving down Melrose in L.A., en route to have dinner and watch the awards before heading to several studio parties, when I went past Morton’s, where Vanity Fair magazine’s annual five-star A-list party was beginning.
Stopped at a light, I caught a glimpse of a blonde in a long red dress in the restaurant’s driveway, holding a little pink pig by a leash, posing for what seemed like half the photographers and camera crews in the world. I assumed it was Babe, the porcine star of that year’s surprise Best Picture nominee. And at the door of Morton’s, watching, was Graydon Carter, who’s traded smart satirical editing for his more rarefied social elevation as the editor of Vanity Fair, beaming like a proud father at the sight of his guest, the movie star. This, I thought, is what the A-list has come to. Little did I know.
A few days later, it turned out that the blonde and her charge had been sent by the Star; the pig was an impostor.