Time Capsule

With three hours to go and 400 racks of lamb still to be sliced before Time’s seventy-fifth-anniversary gala commences, editor Walter Isaacson is trying to remain circumspect. “It’s such a mix of people. I don’t think it’s … well, you do the superlatives. But it may be the party of … whatever.” As the hour draws nigh, however, it becomes hard for him to stay detached. “I didn’t believe it was all going to happen until yesterday,” he confesses, “when David Neslen came here from White House Advance and said, ‘Okay, walk me through where the president is supposed to come in.’ I finally said, ‘Okay, I guess it is going to happen.’ “

Still, it’s only when the 1,100 guests start showing up at 6 p.m. that it really sinks in. These are no ordinary party folk, after all; they are people whom Hegel would have referred to – had he been a publicist, say – as “world-historical individuals.” Among them are almost 100 people who’ve been featured on the magazine’s cover: Men of the Year, sports heroes, revolutionaries, statesmen, moguls, and artists.

The sight of all these stars from barely overlapping solar systems, now briefly occupying the same orbit, makes for some serious cognitive dissonance. Jerry Falwell strolls past Toni Morrison, who strolls past Donald Trump, who strolls past Nancy Kerrigan, who strolls past Ralph Nader, who strolls past Carol Channing. “It’s like one of those upended cornucopias of stars they used to put on the old photo magazines,” says the inevitable Dick Cavett.

It’s not just a bigger, better version of the usual celebrity event, however. Even the frequent comparisons to Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball fall short. That gala of socialites and power brokers was fueled by its sense of exclusivity. (“It didn’t occur to me to crash, and it didn’t occur to him to invite me,” recalls Barbara Walters.) The door policy here is no less strict, but the feeling inside is quite different: It’s cacophonous and uncontainable, full of cameras and spotlights and loudspeakers. The effect is oddly democratic, like a convention of the entire celebrity class where everyone has equal mingling rights and no juxtaposition, however unlikely, is inappropriate.

Henry Kissinger rumbles over, eager to meet Tom Cruise (“My God, Tom, who the hell is that?” Nicole Kidman whispers). Raquel Welch, standing with Mary Tyler Moore, thanks Mikhail Gorbachev “for everything you did for Russia.” He can’t quite place her face – but he warmly takes Moore’s hand. “Oh, yes,” he says, “we know the shows. We have seen quite a few American movies.”

Interrupting a chat with Molly Ringwald, Jay McInerney gives Kofi Annan his props. “Thanks a lot, man,” he tells the diplomat. “You saved us all.”

But the fraternity among deities can’t erase all the past conflicts. When the room rises in thundering applause for Muhammad Ali, a stone-faced Louis Farrakhan – whom Ali once denounced – stays seated. No sourpuss, though, Farrakhan gives it up for Betty Friedan.

And, of course, some celebrities are still more equal than others. The VIP-est VIPs, such as President Clinton, Isaacson, or Gerald Levin, sit near the front of the stage, eating food prepared in a special kitchen and inspected by flashlight-wielding Secret Service agents. “All I got was Cheryl Tiegs, her yogi boyfriend, and six guys I never heard of,” complains “Page Six” editor Richard Johnson.

After the dinner is cleared, the toasts begin, and the speakers, paying tribute to their heroes and leaders, summon the entire sweep of the past 75 years. Seeing Joe DiMaggio as he listens beside Henry Kissinger, Billy Graham, John Glenn, and Lauren Bacall, one expects to find Mao Zedong in the next seat, or Indira Gandhi, or Marilyn Monroe, or Henry Luce himself. The collective effect of the charmed company, the living history, and the stunning décor – not to mention all the white wine – is intoxicating.

By the time Clinton rises to praise Franklin Delano Roosevelt, it really has become the party of the century. Not the biggest or most memorable, though it has to be a contender, but the one that celebrates the century itself – even embodies it, through the people represented in the flesh and those they in turn invoked. It is all, of course, skillfully constructed (as parties are these days, especially $3 million ones) to convey the felicitous impression that Time not only recorded the history of those years but actually helped to produce it. And, of course, the ancillary impression: that if this many newsmakers come to your birthday party, you can be counted on to be where it’s happening as the next century unfolds.

Not everyone is finding the road ahead so easy to travel, however. As the evening draws to a close, limousines clog the street for blocks. Bill Gates, the richest man alive, can’t even find his car. After waiting in vain for half an hour, he finally gives up and hails a taxi.

Additional reporting by Vanessa Grigoriadis.

Time Capsule