Tuesday, June 25, 2013

At its simplest and most effective

Moon over Manhattan. Photo: Jeffrey Hirsch.
Tuesday, June 25, 2013. Very hot in New York. And humid. The A/Cs whirr their massive dull roar into the streets of the night. We’ve been lucky so far this year weather-wise: very cool, often rainy, often breezy. Now comes the reality ...

There was an article by Ruth La Ferla called “What Price Generosity” in the Style section of this past Sunday’s New York Times about the charity circuit and how much it costs those girls to make it in New York and to keep at it. Ms. La Ferla used the annual New York Botanical Garden gala dinner dance at the Botanical Garden as the scene to exemplify the result of all that expense.  The Botanical evening is one of the very last of the Spring season (it used to mark the end of it, although nowadays there is no end to anything). Its patrons are among the wealthiest, and in many cases (not all) most established members of the New York social set.
Yana Paskova for The New York Times
Ms. LaFerla called me about the piece when she was working on it. The objective, as I understood it, was to figure out How Much It Cost to partake of this kind of “high profile” New York social life. I told her, off the top, that it took “a lot of chutzpah and a lot of money.” She thought that was funny and laughed (and never used the quote). It is funny and it doesn’t apply to everyone of course, but it does apply to a prominent aspect of the charity social scene these days.

The getting and spending of money has long been part of the city’s social life. It reaches back decades and now even centuries. There have always been women who were extravagant in their achievement as fashion plates. Cole Porter commented on it in the 1930s in a song he wrote for Ethel Merman, “I’ve Still Got My Health (So What Do I Care”:

What do I care if Mrs Harrison Williams                             
Is the best-dressed woman in town?                                 
What do I care if Countess Barbara Hutton                    
Has a Rolls-Royce built for each gown ...?                       
Why should I get the vapors when I read in the papers
That Mrs. Simpson dines behind the throne.                 
I’ve got a cute king of my own ...

Jackie Kennedy Onassis.
Gloria Guinness.
Babe Paley.
Marella Agnelli by Richard Avedon.
CZ Guest leaning in to listen to Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan.
The Duchess of Windsor with the Duke behind.
When Jacqueline Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis it was reported that she spent hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on her wardrobe (allegedly much to his annoyance). Although this came as a surprise to the average reader, it was still a pittance compared to some of her friends who would spend in the millions. They were considered the Best Dressed, of course, and many believed it was necessary in order to achieve such fashion glory. (After his death, and her settlement with his daughter, it was unlikely that Mrs. Onassis would spend those kinds of sums of her own money, as she was known to be tight with a buck.)

These women, especially Mrs. Onassis and some of the Capote swans like Gloria Guinness, Babe Paley and Marella Agnelli were also good for the fashion business. Mrs. Paley was once photographed (by Women’s Wear) emerging from lunch at La Cote Basque with her Hermes silk scarf tied around the handle of her Hermes bag. That one photograph was seen around the world. It sent sales through the roof and made the Hermes scarf (and bag) nationally famous (and longed for – they were very expensive: the bag itself cost $100). And in no time every woman in New York (those who could afford it – or had the money at the time) was doing the same thing with the same scarf and the same bag.

You could argue that those ladies established the pattern that has decades later gone ballistic in several ways. For example, although the aforementioned were already established in the social environs, the way to social notoriety for many these days (acceptance is another matter entirely) is via the purse – or in most cases, the wallet. It is almost always the women who are doing the advancing (climbing). Although usually there is a man in the background (not the shadows) who is presumably pleased with the exploit for a variety of reasons having to do with getting around and getting to know people in New York. There is nothing new about this in the history of metropolitan social life, but it is far more publicly obvious than ever before.

The New York Botanical Garden’s annual gala is a longtime, well-established one. Its founders and backers were mainly people who were interested in the Botanical Garden. Horticulture, plants and flowers. The result of their efforts over the decades is self-evident – it is beautiful garden park in the Bronx, filled with extraordinary specimens collected and nurtured over time. In its day it could have been regarded to those who did not, or could not afford to attend as a closed club because it had some of those markings to it, i.e, you’d see the same names year after year of people who socialized with each other year round on the golf courses and private clubs and international watering holes fairly exclusive to their set, namely, the rich and powerful.

This event was – and still is – essentially a beautiful cocktail garden party followed by a swell dinner dance in a tent. The ladies dressed and the men wore black tie. A kind of thank you (as well as fund-raiser), for their  devotion and financial support).

The prestige of the Botanical still exists with that set. But like so many charities nowadays, the competition to sell tickets and raise money (I don’t know what they raised this year but I’d be surprised if it were less than $1 million) is keener than ever. It has made the event, like many of these galas, more of a photographer’s night – with everything but the insipid step-and-repeat scrim advertising some commercial contributor.

Social photographers are also now a big business here in New York. This has been going on for decades except now it’s a huge revenue producer for the photographers and a boon to the publicists and their clients as well as the charities. Once upon a time there were a few men like Jerome Zerbe and Bert Morgan and Slim Aarons who covered the smart set at their galas and parties in Palm Beach, New York, Newport and Southampton. These men were also part of that social milieu, dining, dancing and quaffing the bubbly with their hosts and hostesses – many of whom were close, even very close, friends. Their cast of characters in their photos were very social and you’d see them over and over – the bejeweled princesses and the social dowagers. And as often in the Social Register or the Almanach de Gotha. That famous photo of CZ Guest leaning in to listen to Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan comes to mind ... or The Duchess of Windsor hovered over by her society penguins in their white tie and tails, with the Duke seated nearby looking like he was about to pass out from terminal ennui.

It was another world – way out there, way up there, fascinating to see and a million miles away from us ordinary working stiffs. It was intriguing, or desirable, or laughable, or outrageous, or all of the above. But nevertheless fascinating. Amusement. Show business with a (real) diamond tiara.

Back in the late '60s John Fairchild’s Women’s Wear Daily established itself as the new social bible by decorating its editorial pages with b&w candids by photogs like the then new-comer, Bill Cunningham, of the society ladies and the jet setters in their latest fashions (and they were the latest, and the chicest) dancing at private parties in discotheques (no one called them discos) or exiting their luncheons at Cote Basque, Caravelle or La Grenouille. These were all fashion shots, showing you what the fashion empresses were wearing, carrying, walking in. The dye was cast there.

In the late 1970s when paparazzi were flourishing in Rome and Paris, an industrious and enthusiastic kid from Long Island named Patrick McMullan began shooting strips of black and white photos for Andy Warhol’s Interview of the outré or the downtown set (which was just beginning) of social life in New York. Then Studio 54 was born and Andy Warhol’s dishabille Factory people were being replaced by Halston’s nightly group (including Warhol) of chic celebrity playthings with their high end fashion style and cocaine and champagne bacchanals. Still fascinating for us ordinary folk agog at life among the leisurely.
Andy Warhol by Patrick McMullan circa 1984.
Today, Patrick McMullan is a small industry employing a corps of photographers covering all kinds of events. And he has lots of competition – notwithstanding the now legendary Bill Cunningham of the Times, and Mary Hilliard, photo-heiress of the Slim Aarons set; Rob Rich, Julie Skarrett, Mia McDonald, Eric Weiss, Cutty McGill, Chris London, Gregory Partanio, Annie Watt, Billy Farrell, and his band of merry photogs, to name only a few who are busily covering the scene. Some “social” web sites have even turned it into a business – hire them and they’ll run your pictures on their site.

The upshot of this mass of lenses at every gala or kick-off or preview opening has created a new kind of social competition, creating a Paris Hiltonesque social celebrity now seen at all of the social charity events in New York. That is: getting your picture taken.

Nicky and Paris Hilton in 1999. Photo: Patrick McMullan.
There have always been ambitious women (and occasionally a man) eager to be photographed (and thereby publicized on various social pages – including the NYSD). But the ritual was always in pursuit of  recognition by those whose company they aspired to. There are not a few of the socially prominent couples in New York who have enhanced and even established their “standing” among the glitterati and social set by being “noticed” by the photographers. It’s publicity at its simplest and most effective.

The expense of gaining “acceptance,” of “belonging” among this strata has historically been an expensive task. Not every prospector has been successful and there have been more than a few Madame Bovary’s cast aside by the “betters” they aspired to. This is Edith Wharton’s territory and it is classic. But today, society (for want of a better word) is far more homogenous socio-economically. It is often a Business with a moveable P&L statement. The objective is closer to Warhol’s famous “15 minutes of fame” category. Get in the spotlight and stand out as long as you can get the light (or lights) to shine on you. Paris Hilton’s approach defines it – and it began one summer in Southampton in the mid-1990s, and later moved West to her hometown, Hollywood. Her exponents, the Kardashians are its champions. Its influence is far wider than most would imagine. Now it can be seen in media vehicles like the Reality TV shows, and even, among those who are neither young nor actors on the charity circuit, all reflecting the quickly changing, transforming times of society and the world of fundraising for philanthropies.

Andy Warhol, photobooth pictures of Ethel Scull.
Fifty years ago in New York, when Andy Warhol was first gaining a foothold as a famous artist, among his early supporters was a couple here in New York named Ethel and Robert Scull. The Sculls were wealthy owners of a fleet of yellow cabs. I think Mrs. Scull’s father was the original owner. They came out of nowhere (the suburbs of Nassau County I believe) and into the bright lights of the city as collectors of the very new Pop Art that Warhol was creating along with a number of other emerging artists (many of whom are now Establishment). The Sculls’ rise to prominence was entirely based on their early (before most collectors) acquisition of the new Art which many people didn’t understand, comprehend or even like. Nevertheless, they were cutting edge and it lifted them into prominence in the art scene and subsequently (to a small degree) into the social scene of New York. Furthermore by most people’s standards, they were wealthy.

In 1962 or early 1963, I was fresh out of college when a girl I knew invited me to an “art opening” in a small gallery in a townhouse in the East Seventies. It was for an artist I’d never heard of before: Andy Warhol.  I believe the gallery might have been that of Leo Castelli but, as it was with Warhol, I’d never heard of him either. It was an astounding exhibition for this kid. You entered the gallery on the ground floor. At the end of the room there was a wall piled high with Kelllogg’s Corn Flakes boxes. On either side of that wall were entrances to two rooms. On the left was a room stacked high with Brillo boxes, and to the right was a room, the floor of which was diagonally laid out  with Campbell Soup boxes (the red and orange box). That was the exhibit.

I was confused, having come from college Art History classes and knowing nothing  despite that classic experience. This was Art? Later, of course, I learned. The artist was way ahead of us.

After the exhibit we were all invited to a party at the artist’s loft which was in the East 40s. I’d never been in a loft before and I daresay most New Yorkers had never seen a loft (unless they worked in one). It was a new way of living and working, like the art. The loft was Warhol’s. It was all silver, painted, its support poles and columns wrapped with tin foil, the floors, walls and ceilings were all silver. It wasn’t sleek or chic but it was creative and different and an artist’s studio. The crowd was diverse but included a lot of artists – almost all of whom I’d never heard of but with names like Lichtenstein, Poons, Dine, Rauschenberg, Johns, etc. Most prominent was a fashion model, and most famous, Jean Shrimpton, who was the center of all attention, including what few photographers were present. They all wanted a picture of Shrimpton and all the artists wanted to be in a picture with Shrimpton. That was easy to understand.
Ethel Scull 36 Times.
Ethel Scull, a blonde woman of unremarkable presence, not beautiful, not unattractive, but easily identifiable as maybe a suburban housewife, finally took the floor in the center of the room, surrounded by nobody (everyone was crowded around Jean Shrimpton), and  yelled to no one in particular but within everyone’s earshot: “I’m paying for this fucking party, when the fuck are they gonna take a picture of me??!!”

She was mad.

And no one responded. Years later the Sculls were famous in the art world for having been among the very first to collect what now has become a billion dollar category of art works. She and her husband later divorced and someone told me that the art was sold (at what would now be bargain basement prices), and Ethel Scull’s star rose and fell to dust, now long forgotten.

Today Mrs. Scull would have no problem, and even be above all those looking for the same sort of simple photographic attention, although as her luck would have it, she came much too soon to the ball.

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