And speaking of Masters or those who could conduct such a class – in his or her field of endeavor – yesterday lunchtime at Michael’s saw Arianna Huffington, the most glittering political pundit on the internet (or, if you want, in the media) these days. If you haven’t read her huffingtonpost.com, then you don’t know why a lot of mainstream media opinion-makers and journalists are awed but not pleased with her success. She says not the unsayable but what so many others who evidently have half a brain aren’t willing to say.
Mrs. Huffington began her career in America here in New York. Back in the 1970s or 80s. From the outset she always had a knack for positioning herself amongst the moneyed elite as well as the politically powerful (they’re first cousins in our world).
Her skill at social maneuvering made her both amusing and admirable, and controversial. They gossiped about her objectives but couldn’t take her intellectual prowess away from her. Or match it. She wrote books. And promoted them far and wide. She wrote a biography of Maria Callas, as a matter of fact, that was a big seller as well as being controversial because of the author’s methods and techniques.
When she lived in New York in those early years, she was known by her maiden name, Arianna Stassinopoulos, as a brilliant Greek woman who’d attended Girton College at Cambridge University. When there she was President of the Cambridge Union Society and had a reputation for being an excellent debater. She graduated with an MA in economics. She then moved to London where she was soon one of the intellectual darlings of the London party circuits.
Plus she had charm. The Question was always: what is she after? Fame? Fortune? A rich husband? All of the above? Everyone recognized that she was fiercely ambitious and as aggressive about realizing her objectives. Rich and generous friends got to experience being both rich and generous around Arianna. She took advantage of both when it came her way and suited her needs.
Here in Manhattan circles it was assumed she wanted the “regular”: a guy with big bucks. Not just any guy of course. What she ended up with, having been introduced by her friend and sponsor, Ann Getty, was Mr. Huffington, the Texas oil scion who was very rich.
Arianna Huffington (ART STREIBER CORBIS/OUTLINE)
We all know Mr. Huffington ran for Congress in California and won, and the couple went to Washington. Once there, Arianna employed her talents in making a place for herself amongst the conservative punditry (as opposed to her current position amongst the largely liberal punditry). She also served as the good wife.
The next part of the story is where the marriage fell apart. In People Magazine, and Mrs. Huffington moved to Los Angeles. “Arianna is going to become a liberal,” a mutual friend who enjoys great economic power and social access, remarked with amusement at the time, adding: “Because she wants to know David Geffen.”
After the Huffington marriage was dissolved, there was again speculation as to what the lady would do next. The consensus was that she was never going to be The First Lady a la Bill-and-Hillary or a Nancy-and-Ronnie. She could forget that one. So she still hadn’t lived up to her fan's, observer's, friend's and detractor's expectations. She hadn’t clearly identified what all those brains and wit and bravado were meant to add up to.
I believe she finally has with the Huffington Post. She has already won a huge audience as diverse as the membership of the Metropolitan Opera Guild. I don’t doubt that her power is her voice which speaks plainly and clearly to the notion of common sense.
Last Friday night I had dinner with another mutual friend she and I share and Arianna once again came up. He hadn’t seen the Huffington Post. He had no idea. But he wasn’t surprised. He told me about an incident that occurred a number of years ago when Arianna was first making her way in New York. She had a pleasant apartment at 67th and Lexington. It wasn’t grand like so many of her very rich friends, but it was comme il faut.
At that point Arianna was famous for being present at many a dinner table, but not as a hostess herself. By now she was acquainted with a large number of the Jet Set/Beautiful People/Tycoons and Courtesans. And artists and writers. She decided to bring some of them together. She gave a dinner “in honor” of a very distinguished gentleman, so distinguished that people would drop everything just to be in attendance.
That night, during the cocktail hour, one of the female guests – the wife of a very famous designer, and she herself known for her driving ambition and cleverness – slipped into Arianna’s dining room and had a look at the placement. Placement, (plahs-mon) if you didn’t know is considered one of the rarest of arts as the world gets rarer. Placement is political, just as it was with the Bourbons. Social yes, but political more.
So, back to the dining room. Quickly assessing the placement, the designer’s wife, with feline agility, quietly but suddenly stopped in front of one place setting and, very quickly (“like three card monty” was how it was described by the single witness), switched two place cards.
A few minutes later the dinner guests were invited in to dine. When the hostess, then Ms. Stassinopoulos, went to take her seat (that she had assigned herself) with the guest of honor in his proper place on her right, she discovered that her place had been switched. Designer Wife’s card was now in her place, with the guest of honor on her right. So, obviously… that left poor Arianna sitting with her guest of honor on her left and trumped by Designer’s Wife. Designer’s Naughty Wife. Wicked Wife. Hmmm …
However, within moments, the charming, gracious hostess stood up, called her dinner guests to attention, and raised her glass to her Guest of Honor. She told the room that she knew that it was considered “proper” for a guest of honor to be seated to the right of the hostess. But, she added, in this case, she seated her guest of honor to her left … because that was where her heart was – on her left side – and she wanted him to be closer to her heart.
So take that Designer’s Wife. Arianna had laid out her case and flipped a petty social slight into an aphorism about human relations. “She didn’t even need time to plan it; she just came out with it,” my friend recalled in the telling. He did not know that although he had not yet read the Huffington Post, the personality that he was recounting was the one who created this important and widely read web site. As the late Lester Persky, the Hollywood producer, (and an enthusiastic acquaintance of Arianna) often used to say, “you can’t kid a kidder.”