Hours before catastrophe strikes the greatest Denise Rich party ever, the hostess is already in tears. “I’m just so nerrr-vous,” Denise is saying, in her breathy, singsong voice. “Ohhh, I’m gonna cry agaaain!”
The crowd gathered in her Fifth Avenue penthouse this afternoon knows the drill. A few seconds pass while Denise rapidly fans her face. Then she pulls herself together. “Okay. Calm down. Don’t freak,” she instructs herself.
She is kneeling on top of an enormous glass-covered desk in the office wing of her sprawling, art-drenched triplex, straddling the seating chart. Surrounded by her usual coterie of acolytes, she is putting the final touches on the night that will effectively close the deal on the remarkable transformation of Denise Rich: from slightly outré wife of a billionaire fugitive to slightly outré but newly powerful pillar of philanthropy, politics, and pop music. Before this party’s over, everyone from the president of the United States to the Duchess of York will have attested to the fabulousness of Denise, and Celine Dion will have serenaded her by satellite.
But for now Denise is frantic. The phone rings and she hops off the desk, making a perfect landing on three-inch Manolo Blahniks. “Yesss!” she sings into the telephone. “The president is coming! At first they thought he might be busy bombing Bosnia, or whatever they’re bombing …” But as Steve Grossman, the chairman of the DNC, later puts it, “He would never have missed Denise’s party.”
Denise’s party. The phrase has taken on a life of its own in New York, where even the most peevish can’t resist the chance to partake of one of Denise’s trademark blowouts, if not for the entertainment factor (who could forget the gold-painted women ice-skating out on the terrace during her Grammy party?), then for the chance to see, up close and personal, the colorful doyenne-in-the-making herself. The Versace-clad songwriter and fortyish former wife of Marc Rich – the most celebrated white-collar fugitive in U.S history – has become such a darling of the Clinton White House that the Monday after the Starr Report was released, the president made his first public appearance at Denise’s place for lunch, with Hillary, Al, and Tipper in tow. “It was the first time,” says Grossman, “that I ever saw the four principals in one place for such an event. It was something of an historic moment.” And one that netted the DNC a quick $2.5 million before the lemon cake was served.
But the October 12 gala isn’t just another Rich party. Denise spent a major part of the past two years planning this one – since the night she lay in a Seattle cancer ward, cradling her 27-year-old daughter in her arms, numb with the realization “that all the love and all the money in the world couldn’t save Gabrielle,” an ethereal beauty with an honors degree from Oxford who wanted to be an actress. It was her daughter’s dying wish that her mother channel her considerable energy into creating a foundation for cancer research. And nothing would stand in Denise Rich’s way when it came to the G&P Charitable Foundation (named after her daughter and Philip, the young husband she left behind). The party will mark the foundation’s formal kickoff.
As always, no detail has been overlooked, from a poem of Gabrielle’s daintily engraved on 1,500 white chocolates to the twelve-foot-tall bird centerpieces painted in screaming jewel tones. Five hours before showtime, the only major detail to be dealt with is the crucial “final, final” seating plan. Denise has been laboring for weeks finessing the details: Is Goldie close enough to the stage? Should Fergie be seated beside the chairman of Escada? Where to put Alan Alda? And Stevie Wonder, Martha Stewart, Joe Torre, Katie Couric? Can Star Jones be squeezed in next to Patti LaBelle? Are Donald and Ivana seated far enough apart? And the Fiji people! “Omigod,” says Denise. “They donated all that bottled water and we’re seating them way back here? Sssss,” she says, visibly deflating. “Maybe if I cry again now, I won’t cry during my speech,” she decides, sniffling loudly. “I hate sobbing people on the podium. It’s sooo tacky.”
“Denise!” Her father, an elegant man in head-to-toe black cashmere, calls sharply from the corner of the room. “Denise. Why are you crying? You have to realize that everyone will be unhappy and insulted wherever they’re sitting.” He pauses. “Enough already!”
Five hours later, a radiant Denise Rich, cloaked in fur-trimmed Escada, garnished with several pounds of diamonds and rubies, is greeting her guests at the Sheraton. Glued to her side is her boyfriend of seven years, Niels Lauersen, the Park Avenue gynecologist, fertility expert to the stars, and renowned author of The Complete Book of Breast Care. In a matter of weeks, Lauersen will be indicted for insurance fraud, but tonight he is all smiles, greeting the surreal assortment of boldface names streaming into the Sheraton ballroom.
Here’s Milton Berle (celebrating his 90th birthday for about the 90th time tonight) chatting up Sabrina the Teenage Witch. The president – the benefit’s honorary chairman – sharing the stage with Stevie Wonder, Star Jones, Plácido Domingo, and, yes, Robin Leach, who will auction off a Ferrari donated by Ivana’s boyfriend.
Things couldn’t be going better when flashing lights signal the guests to take their seats. Suddenly a look of sheer terror crosses Denise’s face, as a functionary whispers into her ear what guests trying to locate their tables have already learned. The social equivalent of Armageddon has struck Denise’s party: The seating chart is stuck in a cab in midtown traffic, leaving all 1,500 guests with no idea of where to sit.
Geraldo Rivera, who’s been tight with Denise ever since Lauersen helped his wife get pregnant, tries to save the night by standing with a microphone and reading off 1,500 seating assignments (“Bill Cosby, table 3 …”) from the just-arrived list. But finally, he gives up, advising the crowd to get their seats from Barbara Walters, who has another copy, or “just sit down anywhere.”
By this point, even Denise’s publicist, Bobby Zarem, is plotting a quick exit to Elaine’s. No one can find Michael Bolton; Ahmet Ertegun is poking around the ballroom with his cane, trying to divine his table; a total stranger is eating Bill Cosby’s appetizer. Backstage, Denise is “freaking.” “All I could hear was people saying, ‘Stevie Wonder’s walking out. Milton Berle’s walking out,’ ” she remembers later. “But maybe they were just going to the bathroom!”
In fact, everybody stayed. The following day, the gossips called Denise’s party, catastrophe and all, the social event of the year. Jeannie Williams did a full-column gush in USA Today. “Woodstock for rich people,” proclaimed the Daily News’s Mitchell Fink. Better than Time’s star-studded anniversary party, Liz Smith declared. And, not incidentally, it raised $3 million for Denise’s charity.
An astounding feat when you consider how much easier it would have been for New York’s swell set to dis Denise Rich. Go to her parties maybe; cash her checks for sure – but in that time-honored tradition of New York society, trash her mercilessly. Which is precisely what happened when Denise returned to New York from Switzerland in the early nineties, having shed her fugitive husband, but not all of his billions, to re-create herself as a successful songwriter. “No one could believe she was really a songwriter,” says her close friend the Broadway producer Marty Richards. At best, they assumed music must be “like, some hobby,” says Denise.
Her special brand of spacey spirituality didn’t help much. At parties, she would talk about channeling her dead relatives in the shower. Or how her psychic helped her pick out the perfect plastic surgeon. Then there was the matter of her wardrobe. “Sausage casing” is how one society wag describes Denise’s ensembles, which tend to be long on cleavage and short on length. Marty Richards remembers advising Denise, “You know, it wouldn’t hurt to wear your skirts a little longer.” (“When I was married to my husband,” Denise says by way of explanation, “he made me dress like a nun.”)
As Rich began to shimmy her way into Democratic politics, the sniping got even worse: One way or another, cynics declared, she was seeing that Marc Rich’s money went to the government. This is the only swipe that makes Denise bristle. “It’s mine,” she says firmly. But they underestimated Denise, who was busy disarming even her staunchest critics with her gushy goodwill. Everyone has a story about the first time he or she met Denise – a story that usually begins with eyes rolling and inevitably ends with “and we became instant friends.”
“She’s like a little baby, very vulnerable,” says her friend Patti LaBelle. “She’s a lady who has so much wealth, but you wouldn’t think she had a dollar.” “I’m telling you, there isn’t a mean bone in this woman’s body,” says her pal Star Jones, who claims that she would “drive the Bronco for Denise.”
“The first time I met her, I was having dinner in St. Barts with Clive Davis, and she came over to the table,” says Richards. “I thought she was one of Clive’s performers. She was very showy, very bubbly, very up.” Richards had just lost his docking space for the annual New Year’s Eve extravaganza he throws on his yacht, and Denise offered a deal: “If I give you my docking space, can I come to the party?” Richards wondered: Who is this chick?
“I knew she was a songwriter, so I thought she was a broke songwriter,” says another of her closest friends, Michele Laurent-Rella, who met her in 1991, when both had just arrived in New York, and who is now development director of Denise’s foundation. “Then I went to her home and was like, ‘Who are you?’ And she looked at me and said, ‘You mean, you liked me for me?’ “
None of this seemed to be in the cards for Denise during her last incarnation as a New Yorker, a stint that came to an abrupt end in 1983, when then-U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani went after Marc Rich, the billionaire commodities trader, for tax evasion, fraud, racketeering, and trading with the enemy (Iran). Rich bolted to Switzerland as Denise – or so the story goes – begged him not to leave. Friends say she was literally on her knees in the doorway, pulling at his pants legs, as he headed for the airport.
Denise herself downplays the drama: “Well, it’s true that I didn’t want him to leave… . I really believed that everything could work out.” She thought maybe he could “settle or something.” Instead, he settled into a palatial estate in Zug. Several months later, Denise and their three daughters joined him. To Denise, following the fugitive was a no-brainer. “It was like, ‘It’s my husband. I’m his wife. This is life,’ you know? … I mean, of course there was anger there, too, but on the other hand, it was like, shit happens.”
A great deal more would happen after Denise settled into life on the lam, only to realize that her marriage was beginning to fall apart – abetted by the discovery that her husband had a 48-year-old German blonde on the side. “Oh, yes,” says Denise. “There was that too.” It’s a topic she has kept from addressing all these years, but today, as she sits curled up on a sofa in her penthouse, her breakup with Marc is one of the few topics that doesn’t make her cry. “That started, um, actually, the day my mother died.” She pauses. “I mean, I understand, he was not happy at the time because of everything that was coming down on him. And I was traveling so much, and so he was alone quite a bit …”
Unlike her husband, Denise could return home without getting arrested, and when her mother was dying of cancer (which also claimed her only sibling, a sister), she traveled to her hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts, to be at her bedside. “And I remember, the day she died, I called Marc to find out how he was. And he was like, ‘Don’t worry, I’m with people and friends and they’re taking care of me.’ ” She didn’t know just how well he was being taken care of until some friends clued her in.
Denise had been married to Marc Rich since 1966. “I was young, sooo young, and I had a baby, like, immediately,” she says. The couple met on a blind date arranged by her father and were married six months later. “I just knew,” says Denise, “that I would have a fascinating life with this man.” Marc was already a mini-Master of the Universe when he married Denise Eisenberg, but in many ways it was he who’d married up. Denise’s parents were Holocaust survivors who left a family fur business in Berlin when they fled Hitler. Penniless when he arrived in Worcester, her father started a shoe factory that would eventually make millions. “I think that’s where I get my shoe fetish from,” says Denise. In any event, “it was my father,” says Denise, “who gave Marc the money to start his own business.”
After she discovered her husband’s girlfriend, Denise hung in for almost two years, hoping that if she ignored the mistress she would go away: “I fought so hard. But she was very aggressive, you know? It was sort of an Ivana kind of situation.”
Denise first tried her hand at songwriting “as a way to communicate with” Marc Rich. “Like, when I would fight with him, I would get so emotional. Because he was all about business. And I was about, you know, feelings and love. I had a hard time putting my feelings into words. So I put them into songs.”
It didn’t exactly work. “I remember her telling me how she’d come up with these wonderful songs and lyrics,” says Zarem, “and he would turn up the radio in the car to drown her out.”
She soon discovered a more appreciative audience. By the late eighties, she already had a No. 1 hit, “Frankie,” a song that came to her “in a dream on an airplane” after she visited her dying sister in 1984. Though it was one of the first songs she’d ever written, it was picked up and recorded by Sister Sledge and soon topped the international charts. (“Sister, see? There are no coincidences,” says Denise, who has a tendency to divine deep spiritual significance from the most mundane events.) Her husband called it a fluke, “which really pissed me off.”
When she finally left Marc, in 1991, one of the first new songs she wrote, “Free Yourself,” was recorded by Chaka Khan. Her next giant hit would become the theme song for The First Wives Club. By the time she wrote “Love Is on the Way,” she was living in New York, but still dealing with her feelings for Marc Rich. “I was so hurt,” says Denise. “But I wanted to believe, you know? The whole positive thing: ‘I’ll get over you.’ ” And so she wrote a song about “starting on my own” and “not hanging on to heartbreak.” (Kind of an Ivana song.)
It would become more than Denise Rich’s mantra. At one of Denise’s blowouts, in January 1995, Bette Midler happened to be among the guests when the singer Billy Porter (who is signed to Denise’s record company) jumped to the piano and belted out “Love Is on the Way.” “That song,” Midler declared, “has to be in my movie!” Later, Celine Dion, after seeing The First Wives Club, recorded the song again, turning it platinum. In recent months, Denise has also written for Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin.
Denise’s songs have turned up in some unlikely places. It was she who wrote the city’s last theme song, “New York, It Ain’t Over.” And “All I Wanna Be Is Understood” – which was written while she was exiled in Switzerland – became the theme song for the Civil Rights Museum. “Isn’t that the weirdest?” says Denise, who often says she feels like “I’m really black.” Her “soul sister” Patti LaBelle, whose ‘98 Grammy-nominated album included two songs by Denise Rich, describes her as “a white woman with a black woman inside her screaming to get out.”
When Rich moved back to the city permanently in the mid-nineties, she found herself a social outcast. But several shrewd moves and an endless flow of cash ensured that she wouldn’t remain one for long. She hired, in quick succession, a publicist, cranky legend Bobby Zarem, who made sure she appeared in all the right columns, and an “imagist” (he prefers to be called “family friend”), Brad Boles, who says he helps “realize Denise’s vision for parties and events” and helps pick out her clothes.
On off nights, Rich would make the scene with her posse, which consisted largely of black music associates and gay retainers. Even Zarem has been heard to grumble, “They drag her out to all these ditzy, drecky things at these stupid clubs, and here I am trying to maintain a prestigious image. I don’t think much of any of them, but then, I’m not a hairdresser.” Under Zarem’s tutelage, Denise also set out to prove herself in a slightly loftier realm: politics. She wrote her first check to Bill Clinton during the Gennifer Flowers, draft-dodging days of his beleaguered campaign. Denise, after all, knew a thing or two about scandal, and says she felt an affinity with the charming candidate. “He is a beautiful person,” says Denise. “We’re all human, you know?”
Covering all bases, she has also generously supported Rudy Giuliani, the very man who chased her husband out of the country. “I came back here, and people thought I’d hang my head in shame,” says Denise. “Why? I’m proud to be an American.”
Even “during the darkest moments,” the Clintons could count on Denise Rich, says Steve Grossman of the DNC. “She made it very clear she would do anything to help. And I don’t just mean she writes checks. Lots of people write checks. But there are few who have, well, a sense of wonderment about it.”
But didn’t anyone have a sense of wonderment about the source of her money? Denise says the subject of her ex-husband “never, never, never” came up with the president or his operatives. “For what purpose?” says Denise. “That is totally behind me.”
But politicians aren’t the only beneficiaries of her largesse. Rich has also (quietly) donated millions to various charities, with a special emphasis on aids and cancer. “There was a time, four or five years ago,” says Zarem, “that no matter who you were, if you went to her for money, she’d give it to you. I used to beg her to stop, to be more discerning.” Zarem believes her ex-husband’s history has spurred her charity work. “I think she tries a little harder to be constructive.”
One night at Tatou, soon after Denise returned to New York, she was introduced to Niels Lauersen, a lumbering Danish doctor with a practice on Park Avenue. They immediately started holding hands. “I felt like I knew him in another life,” says Denise. “They’re both quite physical people,” adds Denise’s daughter Ilona, a sculptor whose two children were delivered by Lauersen. Denise’s other daughter, Daniella, is an actress.
In 1994, Denise and her daughters settled into a huge duplex overlooking Central Park that houses a state-of-the-art recording studio and a vast art collection. Music mogul David Geffen lives underneath her. He once had to replace his wardrobe after Denise’s hot tub leaked into his closet. Denise promptly picked up the tab.
It was in her new digs that Denise began to forge a reputation as Brooke Astor in spandex. But, as her friend and associate Jimmy Hester likes to point out, “Denise’s parties always have a purpose.” She’s either “promoting someone” or fund-raising for some charity. There’ve been numerous parties to “increase awareness” of Lifebeat, the music industry’s aids group, one of which featured seventeen cupids in scarlet short-shorts (for Valentine’s Day). To celebrate Francesco Scavullo’s fiftieth year in fashion, she dressed the help in shocking-pink-and-orange wigs, and at her party for Henry Kissinger, Larry King was flown in to serve as emcee. Then there was Patti LaBelle’s birthday bash, for which Denise scoured the downtown bars in search of the perfect drag-queen Patti clone to lip-synch Patti’s songs.
There are other blowouts on Red Mountain in Aspen, where “Denise has one of the killer houses and gives the best party of the year, bar none,” says her friend Caroline Davis, who, along with Denise, was a member of a ski-for-charity group, Chicks on Sticks. Until her divorce settlement from Marc – she reportedly demanded $500 million – friends were often invited to jet over to Marbella, where Denise once owned a sprawling Spanish villa with her husband.
It was while she was yachting off Italy with Niels and some friends several summers ago that Denise received a phone call from her second child, who’d found a lump on her neck that turned out to be cancerous. At the time, Gabrielle was 24 years old. Three years later, seemingly in remission, she discovered she had leukemia. Gabrielle underwent a bone-marrow transplant in Seattle; Denise was the donor. Friends say that even as the marrow was taken from her bones, Denise spent every waking hour railing at the doctors, whose pessimistic reports were not allowed in front of Gabrielle. “If there is anyone in this hospital who doesn’t believe my daughter will survive, get out now,” she told them, once pinning a doctor up against the wall. Then she’d climb into the bed with Gabrielle and sing to her. At night, friends say, Denise would sleep holding a stuffed animal.
Gabrielle’s husband, Philip, served as the telephone point man between the hospital room and Marc Rich, who couldn’t leave Switzerland to say good-bye to his dying daughter. “To tell you the truth?” says Denise. “I think that was payment enough.” On one of the last days her daughter was conscious, Denise brought a string quartet to the hospital, lined them up in folding chairs outside her daughter’s room, and asked them to play Tchaikovsky. Gabrielle died in her arms a few days later.
Today, she pulls out a note from her daughter. “You remind me of those rubber ducks that keep popping up and smiling …” Gabrielle wrote. “I love you so much, my brave little Mommy.”
As Denise likes to say, “There’s a reason for everything.” Two nights after her big party, she is still in tears over the seating fiasco, but she will eventually come to the conclusion that this, too, was meant to be. “She thinks that maybe Gabrielle channeled the confusion,” says Michele Laurent-Rella. “Yes, she would have loved the mix-up,” says Denise, “because she always used to say to me, ‘Mom, you’re surrounded by such bullshit!’ “
Nevertheless, Denise has spent the past 48 hours calling up her guests and apologizing. Even an onslaught of floral arrangements sent by guests doesn’t have her convinced. She’s already started “her thing where she starts sending flowers thanking people for the flowers,” says Marty Richards. “I just got a Baccarat crystal angel. I said, ‘Denise, we’re on to 30 affairs since then. Get over it!’ “
“I’m trying,” says Denise.
She is off to a party to celebrate Ahmet Ertegun’s 50 years in showbiz. A modest Town Car delivers her to Chelsea Piers (Denise doesn’t do limos). Her boyfriend, she explains, had been supposed to join her but had “like, three deliveries tonight.” As she steps onto the red carpet in the doorway, photographers begin screaming her name. During the course of the night, two dozen people will come up to her and gush about her party. One tells her she should lose the list again next year: “It’s no fun when everything’s organized!”
Shortly before midnight, Denise cuts out. She has an appointment at the Hit Factory, where Stevie J, the 23-year-old wunderkind producer (of Puffy and Whitney and Mariah and so forth) has summoned her. The Town Car drops her off and she takes the freight elevator up to the fifth floor, in her Pamela Dennis suit, golf-ball-size diamonds, and strappy silver Blahniks. The homeboys greet her at the door. “I’m a big fan of yours, Miss Rich,” says one of Stevie J’s posse.
Stevie, who’s wearing almost as much jewelry as Denise, takes her in his buff arms and nibbles on her ear. Denise giggles. “Oh, I love him,” says Denise. “Isn’t he cuuute?”
“People think,” says Stevie, “that just ‘cause she gotta lotta money, you can’t get close to her. Fuck that!”
“Yeah. Fuck that!” says the posse.
Stevie plays a song for Denise, then Denise plays one of her songs for Stevie. Then he sits back, readjusts his baseball cap, and declares that they will write a song together. “It’s your time now!” he shouts. “You are the shit!”
“Oh, Stevie,” says Denise. “That is straight from the heart.”
As she leaves, he grabs her by the arm: “Don’t forget to tell Dr. Niels I wanna donate to his sperm bank.”
“That was sooo great,” says Denise as she teeters back out onto 54th Street. “Sooo real.” Minutes later, she is on the cell phone in the car. “Oh, Niels! I just had the greatest expeeerience, Niels. You know the one who’s gonna donate the sperm … ?”
The following morning, the New York Times will report that among Niels Lauersen’s deliveries that day was an indictment from the federal government for filing false insurance claims. Lauersen defenders will later point out that he is one of the few fertility doctors in the city who will treat poor women, and insist he was targeted by insurance firms. But tonight, Denise doesn’t say a word about that. In the backseat, she kicks off her silver shoes and runs her fingers through her hair. “God, life is good,” she sighs.