Tax-Free Bonding

On a breezy midweek evening, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s summer rooftop gala hosted by the Apollo Circle, its newly formed junior committee, is in full, albeit subdued, swing. A mix of single women in Guccis and bias-cut slip dresses and single men in pinstripes and windowpanes have each shelled out $100 to mingle over spring rolls against a sweeping backdrop of Central Park West. “The talent is not that good tonight,” says a 31-year-old Web designer decked out in a navy-blue suit and a silver tie, double-fisting vodka tonics. “I went to one of these parties at Christmas,” he shouts, as Cher’s “Believe” thumps overhead. “I met a girl, she wrote her number on my hand and sealed it with a kiss. How could I resist that?” As the sun is setting, a criminal lawyer who’s been working the crowd – and the bar – since 5:30 p.m. is making one last effort to corral a dinner date. He doesn’t hesitate to elaborate on why he paid a $1,000 membership fee. “I was hoping to meet a woman, get married, and inherit 50 million bucks.”

The “talent” – and we’re not talking the museum’s permanent collection – is, indeed, the point of today’s charity soirées. While the pro bono&-party circuit has been around since Scott and Zelda were fountain-hopping, more and more single urban professionals, from fashion-industry executives to MBAs flush with cash from recent IPOs, are finding benefits to be the most promising – and most efficient – path to pre-nup negotiations (or at least a few plausible dates).

“Maybe they met someone in college, but people move away,” says a longtime benefitgoer. “It’s a mobile population. When they come back to the city, they need to start a new social group of friends. New York is an intimidating place to meet people. And this is a way to institutionalize it. Besides, people in New York live in small apartments as a rule, especially the younger ones. They don’t have the facilities to entertain.”

“People are nervous about having large parties in their homes,” confides one fixture on the scene who frequents junior events despite his up-there age. “They’re yuppies with the finer things now, not college kids who don’t mind having 200 people trash their apartment. They’re too lazy from work to have to plan an English dinner party for eight and too cheap to hire caterers. And they’re not going to bars to meet people,” he says. “Elitism is missing from bars.”

Marjorie Gubelmann, a junior hostess for the Palm Beach&-Southampton crowd, has attended as many as three events a week. “November is a very busy month,” she says. “I put the invites on the mirror in my bedroom, and now I can’t see my face.” Even though Gubelmann is one of those rare New Yorkers who regularly treats her friends to home-cooked meals in her crimson dining room, she acknowledges that for most, the parties fill a kind of social void. “Most people I know don’t know how to cook. Most of my friends can’t even make toast,” she says. “Plus, people are working longer hours. It’s harder to come together socially.”

And so, the city’s institutions have stepped up their role as dating service for the monied class. Museums, hospitals, libraries, even auction houses these days are offering something the bars and clubs never could: a prescreened, high-caliber pool of candidates. In response to increasing demand, they’re throwing more and more parties and expanding existing “junior” evenings.

For the first time, the Israel Museum held a formal event at the Tribeca Rooftop instead of the usual modest cocktail mixer. MOMA’s annual “Party in the Garden” was bursting at the seams with pashmina shawls and Shoshanna dresses. Since so many juniors populated the pre-party patrons’ dinner, a new committee was formed this year to sponsor a simultaneous juniors-only meal for an additional 300 in the downstairs Garden Café. The Wildlife Conservation Society’s “Evening at the Central Park Zoo” sold out weeks earlier than usual, with 750 guests signing up in advance for the early-bird $150 ticket special. Another 250 snapped up the remaining spaces, which went for $165 apiece. The Young Collectors’ Night at the Armory’s Winter Antiques Show (which benefits the East Side House Settlement) expects 1,500 attendees this January, up from 350 three years before.

“Basically, it’s a high-class meat market,” declares one Wall Streeter on the party committee for Montefiore’s Albert Einstein hospital. “This is sport.”

“I suppose the benefit circuit is a sort of spin-off from the days of arranged marriages,” says Kristina Stewart, editor-in-chief of Quest, a shiny sheet for the cummerbund crowd. “Today, there are plenty of bonus babies to mix it up with the trust-fund babies. My advice to the goateed Internet moguls looking for a high-maintenance deb to marry and set up home for them: Buy your own dinner jacket. And don’t call it a tuxedo.”

Each party has its own personality. The Israel Museum attracts an expectant Jewish audience; the Intrepid, a swarm of post-college bridge-and-tunnelers. The Museum of the City of New York lures a capped-off coterie of 800 black-tie-and-blue-blood swanks; the Bridgehampton Polo matches, a mix of society straw hats and scrappy hangers-on. The cultural institutions have a reputation for attracting publishing, music, and fashion types as well as businesspeople. Some – like the Young Collectors’ Night at the Winter Antiques Show – pull a notoriously comely group. “We get a really good mix of uptown and downtown,” says board member Marina Rust. “I think we’ve developed that kind of reputation. And that’s fine.” People have been known to call from Chicago looking for tickets.

It’s an unspoken rule that “the diseases” – cancer, Crohn’s and colitis, and cystic fibrosis – are the least flashy. “The diseases get more professionals in finance, doctors, lawyers, accountants – a more unattractive group,” says a regular party attendee.

In down times, circuit regulars tide themselves over by scoring free invites to store-opening parties and Website launches. “You have to get on the Shriftman-London-Grubman lists,” explains a member of the Young New Yorkers for the Philharmonic who just attended the Coach store’s 57th Street reopening. Wanna-gos find out which P.R. company – usually Harrison & Shriftman, London Misher, or Lizzie Grubman – is throwing an upcoming event and then the shameless phone campaigns begin. “We get calls all the time,” says Lara Shriftman, who orchestrated the openings of Louis Vuitton’s SoHo boutique, Jimmy Choo’s midtown shop, and Cartier’s East Hampton outpost. “And if we know them, or they know somebody we like, we’ll usually put them on the list. Store openings are like nightclubs were in the eighties. Young people don’t like to go to nightclubs anymore. They know these will be nice events. They’ll go to the store to have cocktails in a civilized environment.”

Guests act like media buyers as they consider their invites. For the price of a night at odeon, they can position themselves in front of their target audience.

Guests strategize like media buyers as they consider their fistful of invites. For the price they insist they’d pay for a regular night at the Odeon, they can position themselves directly in front of their target audience. “People are attracted to people from the same social economic status, the same prep school,” says a former magazine media buyer. “You’re always trying to qualify your leads.”

For many marquee events, tickets are quickly sold out in advance. Those who are not cozy with committee members (and therefore don’t receive heavy-stock invitations in their mailboxes) can only hope to sidle up to a table hostess at the lesser-priced “dessert” portion of these evenings – in the hopes that she will ask them to join the table next year.

One lawyer in his thirties, who admits to forking over $3,500 a year on such entertainments, does the math: “I could go on five dates, and it’s going to cost me 700 bucks. Or I could go to one of these for $150 and get five phone numbers.”

Samantha Daniels, who runs Table for Two (or More), a dating service for the young and successful, likes to introduce her clients to potential mates at these benefit parties. There’s no stigma associated with them, as there may be at a typical “singles weekend” or even an evening overtly constructed for the purpose of romance, i.e., a blind date. And, as Daniels explains, part of the allure of this tax-deductible dating game is that you know you’re going to see at least a handful of people you sort of know. “It’s not a random crowd,” she explains. “It’s only degrees of separation.”

The growing interest in charity events is even inspiring fashion designers like Céline, the couture house run by designer-of-the-moment Michael Kors, to lend frocks out to society party girls and their friends to be photographed in them like Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8. For MOMA’s Party In the Garden, a $9,000 beaded crystal dress was lent to a friend of Serena Boardman’s. Language, a trendy boutique on Mulberry, has become a clearinghouse for such occasions, supplying Skin Jewelry, a kind of sparkly fake tattoo, to the likes of Alexandra von Furstenburg. Co-owner Ana Abdul tries to make sure girls don’t leave with the same outfits, but sometimes she can’t help it. Abdul, who dressed Manhattan File editor Christina Greeven head to toe for a ballet benefit at the Met, sold 30 pashmina shawls the afternoon before one MOMA bash and outfitted the same crowd with Chlöe T-shirts when they headed off to sip champagne with Stella McCartney at the store opening in September. This fall, Philip Treacy handbags are the coveted accessory, especially for those who did not make the waiting list for a shipment of pashmina ponchos – expected to arrive just in time for November’s busy dance card.

Publicists and luxury lines are vying to place their products at the parties’ silent auctions, betting that each of these marriage-minded singles will soon be half of a well-heeled household with two incomes to burn. One gallery donated a Robert Indiana print to the Israel Museum’s raffle. Comité Colbert, the association of French luxury-goods companies, sponsored a party to honor the young collectors’ committee of the Winter Antiques Show. Each company erected a sitting room showcasing its wares that was the size of most guests’ studio apartments.

The new e-commerce site has gotten countless requests to include charity events on its yearlong “LuxuryFinder Calendar,” debuting next week. “Yes they’re interested in sporting and fashion events, but we’re getting a ton of e-mail inquiring about charity parties,” says executive vice-president Pamela Gross. “Even internationally.” What better way to waltz into the path of a count or an heiress than at the Monte Carlo’s Red Cross Ball next August?

Jennifer Hung, dressed in a Chlöe tank top and Earl jeans and clutching a tan Hervé Chapelier handbag, is scouring NoLIta for something to wear to the opening day of Bridgehampton Polo – which doubled this year as a benefit for the Hale House children’s shelter. After visiting a pair of Mark Schwartz pony-skin heels for the fourth time, she walks across Prince Street to Ina, a high-end resale shop. “This is a perfect skirt for Polo!” she gasps, waving a lavender, green, and white patterned Pucci above her head. Hung, who left a job on Wall Street for comparatively low-paying positions in fashion and publicity, explains that with the same crowd milling through most events, recycling that taffeta ball skirt is impossible. The scene has a long list of infamous characters: the gentlemen pushing 50 who insists on buying “junior” tickets, the financier with a penchant for threesomes, the Prada-swathed fashion editor who languishes unapproachably as the guys pursue less-intimidating targets, the Czech playboy with a standing table at downtown Cipriani.

Despite the fact that most of Hung’s girlfriends have yet to procure any fiancés, they remain convinced that coughing up the thousands of dollars a year for tickets, outfits, and pedicures while their hair is being blown out will set them on the right track. “These parties invite flirtation,” Hung argues. “If you’re interested in someone, it gives you an opportunity. But it’s a Catch-22. You can’t look or be hungry. I’m 26, but I tell them I’m 25,” she says,.”Twenty-six sounds fat.”

By 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, the polo match is filled with revelers sipping cobalt blue “dot-com” martinis. Hung arrives in a navy slip dress and Manolos and whisks past the throng at the London Misher check-in desk. Hamptons magazines are fanned out like a deck of cards on white foldout tables. A gigantic Mercedes hood ornament rotates behind the bar. As turkey wraps and chocolate brownies whip around the tent on trays, the chatting and networking is on a high flame. “I should introduce you to my friend. He wants to go to business school,” says Hung, scanning the crowd. “So he’s been going to everything.”

On the sidelines, a hedge-fund manager is skeptical of his party prospects: “I’ve met people I’ve gone home with at these parties, just not any woman that’s turned into a serious relationship,” he says, as Russell Simmons strolls by with his wife, Kimora Lee, rubbing her pregnant stomach. “But that’s my life.”

Over at the silent-auction table, a fight has erupted over a $3,000 mink coat. John D’Urso explains that he’s in bankruptcy arbitrage. “Like what Richard Gere did in Pretty Woman,” he says. “I met a young lady I dated for three years. Since we broke up, I’ve been going to these parties.” So often, in fact, that he’s become a self-styled party expert. Every Monday, D’Urso sends “Ironman” dispatches of the coming week’s events via e-mail to a select list, prefacing them with an inspirational quotation. A recent bulletin co-opted a few lines from The Rake’s Progress. Another opened with Oscar Wilde: “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.”

“It’s a double-edged sword,” says D’Urso, shaking his head. “If you’re seen at parties, you get a reputation as a party boy. But girls don’t want to date party boys, and boys don’t want to date party girls. I’ve been on the circuit a year and a half, and I’ve just about reached my fill. I’m going to ask my grandma to hook me up.”

A few months later, on a particularly crisp October evening at the Winter Antiques Show’s junior-committee party in Vanderbilt Hall at Grand Central, spaghetti straps have given way to pony skin, strawberry tarts to crème brûlée. The fall season is gaining momentum.

Guests drop their business cards into a bowl in the ersatz room fashioned by Rémy Martin while a Bianca Jagger look-alike in a crimson shawl is drawing a crowd. Back from a trip to India, she is trying to organize a pashmina trunk show, the Upper East Side’s version of a Tupperware party.

As friends greet familiar faces from their summer shares, there is a kind of back-to-school excitement. Tonight, it is decided, the crowd looks more prime than usual, but then, boldface names like Marina Rust and Brooke de Ocampo are now honorary chairs. A pair of identical twins who look like Heather Locklears are stationed by the bar, champagne in hand. They are both single. “One night, we were at this party at the public library,” explains the elder of the two, shouting over the house music as a tray of lemon squares passes by. “We said, ‘Okay. We’re going to split up and go on our own for twenty minutes.’ We did a few laps around the room and hit the bathroom when it got lonely.”

Still, even if the parties feel overvalued these days – even if the returns remain disappointing – Manhattan’s wealthier random hearts continue to mail in their checks diligently. “Most people are fairly desensitized to price right now,” says Hung. “And I, personally, think the Wall Street people think it’s glamorous.”

But as these parties grow in popularity, old-guard scenesters are shying away from these nights at the shining armory. MOMA and the Youth Renewal Fund sell unlimited tickets at the door; AMFAR’s “Boathouse Rocks” party was even advertised on TV. The come-latelies, as some see it, are watering down the social champagne.

“Over the last five years, the character has really shifted,” sniffs a Dartmouth grad who religiously attends events in the city and the Hamptons. “The most obnoxious stockbrokers, the cheesiest girls, gauche older couples. Women who had one too many tune-ups, you know? A guy who’s put his wife under the knife too many times. That’s why I stopped going to the December Met party. Too many knuckleheads.”

“Some people, ‘the Rats,’ go to every one of them,” echoes a Wall Streeter who counts the Zoo, Einstein hospital, and the Israel Museum among her annuals. “The real rats go to more than ten a year. You have to be very selective.”

The consensus seems to be that the A-list dinner tickets remain the Metropolitan’s Costume Institute Ball, the spring benefit at the Whitney (“It’s inconsistent,” notes Quest’s Stewart), the New York Botanical Garden’s Winter Wonderland Ball, and the Boys’ Club fall fête. And there’s high-powered grazing at Save Venice, the American Ballet Theater, the Museum of the City of New York, and Society of Memorial Sloan-Kettering’s junior dances.

“To a certain extent, people want to go to a party and run into people they know,” says Mark Gilbertson, the gatekeeper of the charity scene, over lunch at La Goulue. Unofficially, Gilbertson is the upper-crust matchmaker of New York’s junior society, helping new arrivals navigate the city’s social offerings and orchestrating intimate get-togethers for the right crowd. Officially, he is the founding chair of the Directors’ Council for the Museum of the City of New York as well as a member of the Young New Yorkers for the Philharmonic. “Familiarity is important,” he says. “If people see too many unfamiliar faces, they think, Who are these people? What’s the deal? I think a mix of old and new faces is ideal. Other parties where you go and don’t know who anyone is but there are five so-called celebrities? I don’t think those are much fun. That’s people-watching, not people-greeting.”

But at Gilbertson’s most recent Museum of the City of New York gala, there is no hint of heterogeneity. A sea of blondes in flowery sheaths and cartoonish plaid ensembles washes through the cavernous first floor and spills out onto the museum’s courtyard. The theme is hats. One women has crafted her own with a brim of AstroTurf studded with figurines of ladies sipping tea, their Chanel bags beside them. One man in pink slacks descends the spiral stairs with a proletarian hard hat. Gilbertson, in a seersucker jacket and shorts, is snapping pictures of flashbulb-friendly couple Whitney and James Fairchild as Bill Cunningham shoots a giddy partygoer in a wide-brimmed fuchsia chapeau with her face through a wreath mounted on a trellis. It is an insular crowd of Rockefellers, Brokaws, and Javitses. Inside, Marjorie Gubelman is adorned with South Sea&-pearl-and-diamond-drop earrings and a matching pearl necklace. Her prizewinning wide-brimmed black hat blazes with a lavender ribbon. “The same people come to this every year,” she says. “If you grew up in Palm Beach and Greenwich and ended up in New York City, you’d come to this party to see your friends. It doesn’t attract celebrities or moguls – it’s a reasonably priced Old World benefit.”

But the pay-to-players are finding their way into the Museum of the City of New York party, and there’s been some culture clash. “Many of these guys are Daddy’s little boys – they don’t work – and Skippy McButters, Daddy’s little girls who don’t have jobs,” observes one newish New Yorker who has made a point of befriending Gilbertson. “If you don’t grow up here, you don’t have the childhood stories. You can’t say, ‘I used to play touch football with John-John.’ But these parties are a great way to move in.”

The room is “coupley,” as they say, but the few bachelors get to work, undaunted. “She’s looking for the BBD,” says a thirtysomething lawyer, after being shot down at the bar: “a bigger, better deal.” Such events, he insists, don’t necessarily lead to instantaneous hookups. “People play it for the next play.” The trick is to parlay your persistent presence into a dinner-party invite down the road.

Maybe so. But even the right backdrop is not without its complexities. A bleary-eyed guest heads, alone, for a cab – his blue blazer hooked over his finger. “I’m dating seven people right now,” he sighs. “And I’m not going to marry any of them.”

Tax-Free Bonding