L. to r.: Melissa Berkelhammer; Allison Aston; Joanne de Guardiola; Helen Lee Schifter; Tory Burch.
Lloyd Grove in the Daily News went after Melissa Berkelhammer last week for being herself. Herself is a 29-year-old New York born and bred woman who is supported by her parents, lives alone, goes out to parties all the time and also pays a monthly fee to R. Couri Hay, the publicity impresario, $2500 a month to assist her in getting invitations and getting her name and image around in the magazines and columns. The gist of the non-accusation was: is this all that matters to her? The answer: Maybe and, whose life and whose business is it anyway?
Once upon a time social position was inherited or derived from marriage. There are still remnants of that tradition today in New York, but society today is mainly a business. Its philanthropic arm generates billions annually in New York alone, not only in charity fundraising but in a vast array of income producing businesses and in employment. And publicity and public relations is a requisite to its ongoing success. Furthermore, the business of private individuals paying publicists and public relations people to get their name in the papers (mentioned favorably) is as old as the hills.
Back in the 1920s, the Rockefellers paid a man named Ivy Lee $250,000 a year to get the family name in the papers. A quarter of a million bucks a year back then is equal to something like 12 million bucks into today’s currency. That’s a million a month. Of course the Rockefellers had a bigger and even historic objective. They were repairing the family name which had been deeply damaged for years by the muckraking reporters of the early 20th century who had a lot of bad (and often true) news to report about old John D., the founder of the family fortune. And those reports weren’t salacious tidbits about his sex life but about his business dealings which were not always so lilywhite or kosher. The end result of Mr. Lee’s work, a form of divine public relations, for want of a better term, is evident today, and without any PR executive’s imprimatur: Rockefeller is one of the most distinguished family names in the world because of their wealth and mainly because of what they did with it – namely philanthropy.
Public relations people played a very large role in the matter of society, beginning in the late 19th century in New York. It played a powerful role in the emergence of Brooke Astor as the now venerated grande dame of New York philanthropists. She did not need it to get her name in the papers, but when she first embarked on her vocation of disbursing the Astor millions to charity, pubic relations artists advised and assisted her. She was an ideal client: the good advice she sought was used skillfully. Her great success ultimately was the result of her own shrewdness and consciousness. She also enjoyed the popularity and the elevated social position that it granted her but she never took her eye off the ball, i.e. the disbursement of the Astor fortune.
She managed her public image with input from men like the late George Trescher (see Monday’s NYSD) and by maintaining cordial relationships with members of the press (and media). Unlike many in her position of prominence and wealth, she made herself accessible to writers and reporters who had legitimate pursuits about which she could be helpful. She was quite at home with reporters, and being a writer herself, understood a lot of their needs. She always gave a writer/reporter something they could use.
I interviewed her more than fifteen years ago about some social peers of hers whom I was writing about. While many others in her set wouldn’t deign to acknowledge my presence in the human race, Mrs. Astor invited me to her office and encouraged me to ask away. While she was impeccably gracious about the characters we discussed, never maligning or indulging in gossip, she also knowingly shed light that was unfavorable on those she did not think much of.
In the beginning of her career as Mrs. Astor, and then after she was widowed and became a major philanthropist, she had detractors within her own set. Some were more socially prominent at the time, and in some instances richer, and therefore influential amongst the social set. She was not entirely unaware of those who didn’t speak kindly of her but bore all slights with her characteristic grace while never losing her focus. And of course, as we know, in the end, she triumphed over all the nay-sayers. Publicity and public relations played a decisive part in her triumph.
In the social world, a public relations firm or a publicist is frequently at the root of a socialite’s prominence. The PR person is the messenger, the man or woman who knows the territory and the signposts. The basic objective is getting a client’s name around. Less obvious are those public relations people who are hired to keep their clients names OUT of the press (or media). Their skills are possibly the most valuable, and they are very often employed by the very wealthy, the very powerful and even the very royal.
In New York, publicity is a tool for moving up in life, to improving one’s stature, one’s business and of course making useful connections which may provide a financial bonanza through business or marriage. It’s the business of life for many. In social circles, after objectives have been reached, continuing PR is often needed to assist in carrying out the tasks taken on. There isn’t a charity event in New York, for example, that doesn’t use public relations people. They do everything from publicizing to organizing and planning to managing chairmen’s participation in the event. The bigger and more prominent the event, the more PR is involved.
The problem with acquired social prominence is it may require a thick skin. The more exposure, the more one is vulnerable to the jeering crowds. Motivations are questioned publicly. Marrying for money, for example, is an ancient accusation.
L. to r.: Jennifer Creel; Jamee Gregory; Daisy Soros; Brooke Astor; Fabiola Beracasa.
When Brooke Marshall married Vincent Astor, that’s what the gabbers were gabbing: why else would she marry a man who was both arrogant and cloddish? Welcome to planet Earth. However, achieving what Mrs. Astor achieved, of course (and really against many odds), requires more than just desire. It requires something rare and even more precious as these days rush by: class. A public relations person, no matter how skillful, can never supply that. However, the woods are full of smart, shrewd women for whom Mrs. Astor is an icon of success.
In today’s post-Feminist world, publicity can get a girl (or a guy) out and about. It's a networking device, par excellence. It also offers the age-old possibility of matchmaking. There are millions of men and women who share these objectives: being popular and being invited can even also possibly bring you fame and a career: Paris Hilton, anybody?
Melissa Berkelhammer is one of those girls, plain and simple -- a young woman in New York who likes to get around, likes to go to parties, likes to dress up and likes to make friends, and who likes to be photographed. That last preference is one of the main perks in our society today. We are more image crazy then when George Eastman invented a camera for the masses a century ago. If a picture’s worth a thousand words, why not go for it? For a young woman or a young man, if they can afford it, it is a ticket to a party, maybe a good time, and maybe, oh just maybe, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. What’s to object?
L. to r.: Tinsley Mortimer; Debbie Bancroft; Eleanor Ylvisaker; Blaine Trump; Bettina Zilkha.
L. to r.: Hilary Ross; Dayssi Olarte de Kanavos; Annette de la Renta and Mercedes Bass; Somers Farkas.
L. to r.: Celia Lipton Farris; Pauline Pitt; Audrey Gruss; Anne Bass; Karen LeFrak.
L. to r.: Wendy Vanderbilt; Susan Fales-Hill; Veronica Hearst.
L. to r.: Zani Gugelmann; Marina Rust Connor; Tiffany Dubin; Muffie Potter Aston; Olivia Chantecaille.