Welcome back, my friends
to the show that never ends.
We're so glad you could attend!
Come inside! Come inside!
There behind a glass
stands a real blade of grass
be careful as you pass.
Move along! Move along!
Come inside, the show's about to start
guaranteed to blow your head apart
Rest assured you'll get your money's worth
The greatest show in Heaven, Hell, or Earth
You've got to see the show, it's a dynamo....
Emerson Lake & Palmer from Karn Evil 9: First Impression, Part Two
Welcome back, my friends
The Society Show, much like Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus, has a unique cast of chracters all its own. Whether your view is that of an insider or from the outside looking in a circus may certainly seem to be the appropriate analogy. The Players? Socialites, Publicists, Philanthropy, Fashion, Cocktails, Photographers and Press galore, all interwoven in a mix that writer Michael Gross previously referred to as Social Life in a Blender. (Photo: R Couri Hay at a Holiday Musicale at the home of Janna Bullock on the Upper East Side of Manhattan by Gregory Partanio for Manhattan Society.com)
In modern day New York we still find remnants of the old guard, a veritable self-appointed society mafia who consider themselves part of the existing social order. Behind the scenes they serve as gatekeepers in an attempt to insure some antiquated notions of preserving the public trust that went out with Edith Wharton's, the Age of Innocence. And some think that this is rather unfortunate. Preservation of exclusivity, style and a regal element is certainly in the best interests of "the Show" but I am not sure whether all aspects are necessary or helpful. Afterall, excluding those with large checkbooks, however, is philanthropically shortsighted, if not foolish.
The similarities between "Made Men" in the Mafia and "Socialites" as accepted within the existing social hierarchy is uncanny. Case in point, Lorraine Bracco, none other than Dr. Melfi from the Soprano's is one of the more active (in a meaningful way philanthropically) ladies on Manhattan's social circuit these days. Daughter Stella Keitel, from her "relationship" with Harvey Keitel (one of this writer's favorite actors along with Pacino & DeNiro) appears to be following suit. The making of a "Socialite" is either an evolutionary process or by birth right. When a Socialite gets "whacked", however, she may just find herself banished to Page 6 infamy where ironically she can perhaps become more infamous and notorious many of those attempting to preserve the existing social order. Maybe she can ever cross over in to "Celebutante" status, see Paris Hilton. Once a celebrity or a celebutante maybe she will even be welcomed back into the fold, even if the Co-op Board of the Luxury 5th Avenue apartment buildings banish her to East of Park or worse yet midtown.
"The List" is undoubtedly in flux but evolving as a result of a variety of factors. For one, there is commericalism and a proliferation of local print and online media domestically and internationally, covering the phenomenon of "Society", each with their own take on it and a reality TV based culture looking for more "celebs" of the moment. As a result, you will find reality TV stars making grand entrances or glorified appearances around the city at charity and cultural events posing as actual celebs, often with their own publicists in tow. "Oops, sorry I did not see you on the Apprentice. I just noticed that you had err uh uh "nice cupcakes". So since you were fired by the Donald, what else have you been up to?" Oh it wasn't Donald? Oh yeah I forgot Martha Stewart had a show also."
Secondly, there is also the never ending infusion of international monied classes into Manhattan from around the world which has further led to an expansion of what is considered "the List". For that reason alone, it appears "the List" largely depends on who's making it and how much actual fundraising one would like to accomplish. That perhaps explains why David Patrick Columbia's list differs from that of Jason Binn or Amy Sacco's at Bungalow 8 or for that matter Suzanne Bartsch at Happy Valley. If nothing else, it proves that no matter how cool you are, not everyone will ever think that you are cool enough to be on their list. The fact is that on any given night almost anyone can be summarily turned away out of the blue and made well to feel sort of like a Gatecrasher or a "Shaggy" (a.k.a., a shaggy haired party crasher extraordinaire with a hair line resembling a french poodle and notoriously questionable hygiene who has become infamous for his ability to sniff out an open bar on any given night in Manhattan). Believe me I know. There is many a list that I am not on and it does not bother me, as much as it amuses me. If I have learned anything in life it is that doors open when you least expect them to and also when you are not preoccupied with having them open. I am simply more curious that there so many actual doors to open.
Society even has its own Hired Papparazzi, which are referred to as "celebrity" photographers. A designation which I informally received myself despite the fact that I photograph exclusively the world of philanthropy: socialites, business leaders, politicos, philanthropists and much less actual hollywood celebrities. With this style of photography permission is implicit. Jumping out of bushes is not necessary nor is a zoom lens to capture them from 1,000 feet. That would be impersonal, impolite and inefficient but also rather unnecessary. Par for the course is full length close ups from close range to capture fully the magnificient coture designs that often these ladies are paid or asked to wear to important events. Sure its about being seen but being seen in Vera Wang, Douglas Hannant, Ralph Lauren, Lily Pulitzer etc etc. In New York, it is certainly about who you know, who you are and what you do or have done but, it is also very much about who's designs you wear. In many cases, what you find the upwardly social wearing may very well exceed the net worth of some small countries, much less those photographing them.
If I had 15 Minutes while I was Out & About to take a stroll down the Avenue to peruse the beautiful Young on the Guest List at this week's hottest event, in a Quest to figure out how A, let's call him Andrew, knows B, lets call him Ben (a blonde bomber who is often gawked at and is anything but a "Gatecrasher" and usually always on the List), is also connected to C, I probably would not need to ask Richard Johnson for the Lowdown or check Page 6 to confirm that the straw that stirs the drink behind many a society cocktail is none other than C, simply meaning Couri or R Couri Hay, publicist, columnist and man about town. Flamboyant? Sure. Aggressive? Perhaps at times. But, is he effective? Most definitely. R Couri Hay is a Social Maestro, an integral cog in the wheel of philanthropy and high end social life in New York City, often conducting the flow of publicity by cultivating relationships with the press leading them to a story before, during and after events in this town. Much like a magician or puppeteer, even when he is not present, or you cannot trace his fingerprints to a story it is his work or that of his able bodied staff, that may often be at play. Couri certainly seems to have his competition with the growing ranks of trust fundafarian socialite/publicist/event planners each of whom have carved out a special niche and clientele in the world of fashion and philanthropy. Ironically enough they can often be seen mixing about in the same social shark tank eyeing their prey, networking with the over networked. Air kisses aside it is not surprising that there is a juicy under current of cattiness, envy and pretense as well as some ruthless competition, except I am not a gossip so that is as far as I will go with this. Then again, sometimes you find them working in concert at or behind the scenes for the same organization, never really sure how or who is being compensated for what is transpiring.
This may seem like a critique of the social system in place in New York, Palm Beach and the Hamptons. I can only truly speak for New York City, in particular the Island of Manhattan. To the contrary, "the Show" is a necessity for fashion, philanthropy, arts and social life to thrive and flourish in this town. Without "the Show" New York would really not be New York. If you think a drink is a drink and that clothes are merely cloth to cover your weary limbs perhaps you do not understand or comprehend what is at play here. Hollywood has celebrity. New York has Society. No doubt, a merger of the two seems to be evolving to some degree, but not entirely, as more and more Hollywood celebrity types become omniprescent on the New York social scene mixing among the cities socialities, philanthropists and business leaders. Perhaps this is a wise move for those in the entertainment business who find themselves between sitcoms, film roles or on the downward side of a career cycle in an attempt to keep their name in the headlines if not the social pages. The star system in New York, however, is a tad different than it is in Hollywood and the flavor a bit more up close and personal. Not everyone can handle it.
Hollywood celebrities often require civilian guests and press to remain at an uncomfortable arms length distance which can take away from the intimacy of an event. I recall being almost knocked to the ground by an overzealous body guard several years ago inside the tent at Tavern on the Green at a benefit for the Fresh Air Fund. The reason? I was a guest, without a camera (yes there was a time Chris London, B.C., before camera) within 50 feet of Mariah Carey (who by the way in my estimation looks alot better now with more junk in the trunk and on the grill as well) who was coming in with an entourage and my back happened to be to the entrance.
It is the illusive but accessible quality of "the socialite" that gives her a powerful star like draw which in many cases exceeds that of celebrities. Ask any event planner what it means in New York City to have Amanda Hearst, Lydia Hearst or Gillian Hearst in attendance at your social event with or without Anne Hearst and the man who wrote the quintessial modern New York novel which brought the world's focus to an element of New York Nightlife in his book Bright Lights Big City, Jay McInerney. Beauty, wealth and education seem to enhance one's pedigree whether you trace your roots to the Mayflower, 5th Avenue, the Hamptons, Palm Beach or even Forest Hills. As one who has photographed many of the leading "stars" of New York Society, the thoughtful photographer must appreciate the need to be creative but efficient in how you photograph them. Do not monopolize their precious time because others will need to photograph them. The Socialite must be permitted to find a comfort zone that enables her to relax and enjoy the event so that the pleasure of her company may be enjoyed by many, including her personal and intimate network of confidants who undoubteldy came to lend their support for the evenings charitable recipient. This is the reason why I will usually keep my dialoque brief and polite wth the Hearst Girls, Debbie Bancroft, Coralie Charriol Paul, Tinsley Mortimer, Allison Aston, Bettina Zilkha, Zani Gugelmann, Alex Lind Rose, Mona Wyatt, Emilia Fanjul Pfiefler (and her office full of model like socialite babes every one stylish, wall mannered and beautiful as the next) etc etc. These women are sexy, beautiful and engaging creatures but frankly they are part of "the show" and last I checked I was not the only one with a ticket.
Society's stars pump up the volume in a look at me way that well says...look at New York. Look at our beautiful venues, great art and architecture and these wonderful charitable organizations, and the people behind them even if it sometimes feels that charity is an afterthought and not the preveiling thought. And yes look at some of the great work of fashion designers being done in the Fashion Capital of the World. For some reason a highball at McFadden's Pub does not taste quite the same as does a glass of Veuve Clicquot in a Champagne glass at the Park Avenue Armory or on a schmooze cruise aboard The Highlander, the Forbes Family Yacht, in the New York Harbor while flirting with a Hearst, a Forbes or one of the other young, beautiful and upwardly social ladies of Manhattan. For those who Gawk and poke fun at this "scene" recognize, they have also enabled your journalistic career to some degree. Cheers and welcome to 2006 where the show is just getting underway.