|Beautiful mid-May weekend in New York; sunny, bright and breezy. Leisurely dinner on Saturday night at Swifty’s which was jammed with diners including the beautiful Judy Taubman and her tycoon cum memoirist husband A. Alfred T.; Dr. Bob and Bea Guthrie, East End realtor Charles Bullock and with his pretty blonde cousin, art dealer Raul Suarez in from Switzerland.
Last Monday night while I was at Lincoln Center for the Literacy Partners Gala (see NYSD 5.8.07), over at the Metropolitan Museum, the museum’s Costume Institute was holding its annual gala.
The Costume Institute was formed in 1937 as an independent museum on its own by two sisters, philanthropists and cultural leaders – Irene Lewisohn and Alice Lewisohn Crowley. Nine years later it merged with the Met and today it has a collection of almost 40,000 items (costumes and accessories) from all over the world and dating back as far as five centuries ago.
Anna Wintour and Harold Koda
In 1972, after having been unceremoniously dumped (no nicer word for it) as editor-in-chief of Vogue, Diana Vreeland went to work as a “consultant” for the Costume Institute. The rumors always were that some of the social ladies in town, such as Jackie Onassis and Babe Paley, rallied around and made this position possible so that Mrs. V would have some sort of livelihood.
Whatever the story, Mrs. Vreeland’s presence and special brand of genius put the Costume Institute on the map, with the assistance of some of those aforementioned ladies, such as, and maybe most especially, Nan Kempner and Pat Buckley -- whose memorial service is being held at the Met this very morning (Monday, May 14). These same women – Mrs. Buckley, Nan Kempner, etc. (and of course Jackie O) turned the annual gala into one of the stellar social events of the Spring social season in New York.
Thirty-five years after Mrs. Vreeland’s arrival, and now with the passing of Mrs. B., Mrs. V., Mrs. O., and Nan K, Mrs. Vreeland creation, ironically, is completely, as if it were a business subdivision, in the hands of Conde Nast, under the auspices in this case, of Anna Wintour, the present editor-in-chief of Vogue.
Under Wintour’s direction and imprimatur, today the gala has taken on quite a different social tack, its guest lists loaded with young movie actresses along with some of the younger social signets (with rarely a swan to guide them) of the city, some of whom are referred to nowadays as “socialites,” whose presence can deliver popular publicity devoid of charisma but high on dash, flash and tabloidal allure.
It should be noted that this reporter last attended one of these galas in 1996, which was I think (I don’t keep track of these things) the last time I was “invited” to attend. If I had been invited again, I might very well have attended again, as I am wont to do with a lot of these things. Although this year I would not have passed up the Literacy Partners for anything else, notwithstanding the fact that after awhile everything can become vulnerable to the same-old-same-old.
1996 was the year that the ill-fated Diana, Princess of Wales made her appearance at the gala, in tribute to Christian Dior, and it was her attending that motivated me to get there. I just wanted to see the lady in the flesh.
I can still recall the moment quite clearly. Most of the crowd had arrived and were eagerly or at least just curiously waiting in the museum’s entrance gallery for Diana’s arrival.
I had been standing not far from the main entrance, talking to Amalia de Fortabat and Lee Thaw, telling them what I’ve just written -- that I’d come mainly just to catch a glimpse of the princess -- when Mrs. Thaw said to me, “well then you’d better turn around because she’s standing right behind you.”
I turned, and…there she was literally at arm’s length from me, in profile, off to the side, standing by herself in the half-dark, as if waiting, with a bank of instantly assembled paparazzi and photographers standing no more than ten feet directly in front of her.
When you first see a very famous person whose image is familiar because of photographs, there is a confounding adjustment that occurs, because although the person looks like that photographic image, the person also looks a little different -- because it’s the real thing. Diana, for example was tall, but taller than my imagination had created her. And thin, but what we’d call a big girl; and in profile, the nose was more pronounced. She was not pretty, but beautiful in the classic sense, and elegant in maturing youthfulness. She was wearing a new, shorter, more casual haircut and was rather skimpily clad in a bright night-sky blue silk dress that looked almost like lingerie and rather daring – or so it seemed to this writer’s sensibility – for the occasion. She was also wearing a beautiful pearl necklace of several strands clasping a large sapphire surrounded by diamonds or pearls. She looked sensational.
In the half-dark I watched as she stood there silently by herself, looking very somber but eyes cast before her, when suddenly the photographers’ lights flooded the scene -- the famous face with the wide and slightly bashful smile and bright eyes lit up and all the glamour of the girl filled the space before us. The cameras shuttered and clicked away for three or four minutes, maybe five minutes, and then…poof!…the lights went out, as did the light in the eyes, as her handlers moved in to escort her on into the banquet hall.
It was the eyes I remember so clearly because I thought to myself at that moment: these were the eyes of a woman who was alone in the world, on her own, sadly facing the elements, including the danger zone; and she knew it.
Of course it was this writer’s imagination, or perception, however you want to regard it, reflecting what I was seeing before me. A year later she was dead in quite the accident, quite the convenient accident, however you want to look at it, considering all that has followed. And now the biographers, even those who once kissed her hems and jockeyed like the sycophants they were to be within her aura, write about her as if she were some kind of ennobled harridan manipulating out of some kind of congenital neurosis, or even madness, usurping the rights and privileges of real royalty such as the poor pitiful prince who was once her husband.
I don’t recall seeing Diana again that night, although I’m sure I did. Her arrival, however, at the ball, was a milestone not only for me but for the Costume Institute’s annual gala and its hundreds of guests. Since then it has become, thanks to the new management, something that was missing only one thing to complete its composition the other night: the presence of Paris Hilton.
Nevertheless, as you shall see, from the Party Pictures on these pages, thanks to the truly ubiquitous Patrick McMullan (who was also present at the Literacy Gala), last Monday night’s event was not lacking in youth, fashionable for these times; and pulchritude, and voluptuousness in moments, not to mention the creative clamoring for what Mr. Warhol aptly labeled the “15 minutes of fame.”