A famous birthday party recalled

Featured image
A pear tree in bloom along Fifth Avenue. Photo: JH.

Friday, April 9, 2012. Sunny and very pleasant weather yesterday in New York with temps touching 70. And people, shedding their jackets and even their sweaters.

The weekend pass for Malcolm Forbes’ 70th birthday celebration.

A famous birthday party recalled. And who was there. On the weekend of his birthday way back when, on August 19, 1989, from the 18th to the 20th, Malcolm Forbes, owner/publisher of Forbes Magazine, gave himself a 70th birthday party in Tangier, Morocco where he owned a palace, the Palais Mendoub. 

Highly publicized at least here in the US, and especially in New York, Forbes flew his 800 guests in on a chartered Boeing 747, a DC-8 and a Concorde. The list included friends and associates from among the world’s rich and famous, from the US and Europe, as well as half a dozen US governors, scores of CEOs of mulinational corporations and the highest of the mucky mucks of Forbes’ era, like Gianni Agnelli, Henry Kissinger, Barbara Walters, Robert Maxwell, Rupert Murdoch (who arrived on his yacht The Lady Ghislaine); Kay Graham, Leonard and Allison Stern, Robert and Blaine Trump, Kelly and Calvin Klein, Pat and Bill Buckley, Tom and Nan Kempner, Walter and Betsy Cronkite, Betsy Bloomingdale, Caroline Roehm and Henry Kravis, Gayfryd Steinberg, King Constantine of Greece, Diane von Furstenberg and Barry Diller, Mario Buatta, Claudia Cohen and Ron Perelman, plus hundreds more just like ‘em, and including the birthday boy’s “date” for the event, Elizabeth Taylor.

Robert Maxwell’s The Lady Ghislaine docked in Tangier.

It was a party festooning in ballyhoo, in glitter and glamour and illusion, comparable to Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball 23 years before in New York. It was well publicized also, especially in the fashion and society press, with a healthy dose of fairy-dust in the dailies. It was obviously good for business mingling advertisers and potential advertisers with the elites of London and Manhattan and Elizabeth Taylor. And it was good for his social reputation, transporting and putting up his very rich friends all for free and in high style to an exotic land in a Mediterranean climate amidst a Who’s Who of partygoers.

Mary Hilliard, who was in attendance and recorded the three-day celebration with her camera, from arrival to the actual birthday party to departure, recalled it as being one of the most glamorous and fun events she’s photographed in the last 25 years.

The party entertainment was on a grand scale, including 600 drummers, acrobats and dancers and a fantasia — a cavalry charge which ends with the firing of muskets into the air — by 300 Berber horsemen. The cost of the whole affair was estimated at more than $2.5 million.

Among the distinguished was Norah Lawlor, an 18-year-old girl from Canada, new to New York who had immigrated to the Big Town after finishing her education, and was working at the time as a public relations assistant.

Hundreds of Moroccans in colorful native dress lined the runway to greet the fashionable flock winging in by chartered, commercial and private plane to be on hand for the weekend celebration.

At the time Norah was working as an assistant PR girl at a disco/supper club in the East 20s called called Stringfellow’s. It was owned by an Englishman of the same name who had a famous “strip club” in London patronized by the rockers, the hipsters and the social A-Listers.

The New York club never got to match the London success but in 1989, our friend Norah was working there nightly. Among the regular customers was Malcolm Forbes who always arrived on his motorcycle and accompanied by his cyclist friends. He was there often enough that young Norah and he were familiar — if not exactly friends — to each other.

One night Norah learned from a young photographer who worked the scene that he was going to Morocco that August (it was 1989) to a birthday party that Malcolm Forbes was hosting for himself, and that he was flying all of his guests over to Tangier. The whole idea sounded like such an adventure for a naïve young woman that the next time Forbes was in the club the still-naïve Norah mentioned the upcoming party to the man himself. And she even asked as a naïve and innocent newcomer to the Big Town might … if she could attend?

Forbes immediately invited her, and she was soon given instructions for flying to Morroco that August. Because she was with Canadian passport, she was flown on the Concorde (all foreign guests were flown on the Concorde and American guests were mainly flown on the Moroccan airlines).

Waiting for the arrivals on the Concorde to disembark in Tangier. One of those guests being a naïve young woman named Norah Lawlor.
Norah, fresh off the Concorde.
And ready to check in for the weekend.

Norah’s seatmate on the Concorde: Betsy Bloomingdale.

She was very excited to be taking the trip and she knew that Elizabeth Taylor would be the host’s personal guest, but she didn’t know or had even heard of the lady who was her seatmate on the Concorde: Betsy Bloomingdale. 

She prepared for the three day jaunt by getting her hair done and buying a new dress and wardrobe for the events on the calendar which was exciting but still unknown to her. From the moment she checked in at the airport to the arrival at the party, she soon realized she was like a fish out of water.

She not only didn’t know any of the guests personally but also had never heard of almost all of them — Taylor being the glaring exception. Everyone was assigned rooms at the hotels which Forbes had arranged to host his guests — all expenses paid.

I learned about Norah’s adventure over dinner the other night at Sette Mezzo with Norah and her husband Jeffrey Bradford. Her memories of the trip were basically clouded by her complete lack of knowledge of the social list, none of whom she had never met or even heard of before.

As a young woman under the circumstances she remained uninformed about the guest list throughout the experience, except to know there were a lot of very “rich VIPs,” which is something she assumed because of the host. 30 years later, Norah is the longtime proprietor of her own successful PR business here in New York.

It was three days of being a stranger in a strange land (the social scene) but nevertheless, a thrillingly memorable experience. Mary Hilliard’s photos tell the story of the big event.

Malcolm Forbes arrives.
L. to r.: Allison and Leonard Stern; Walter and Betsy Cronkite.
Pouring tea.
L. to r.: Ann Getty; Annette and Oscar de la Renta.
Malcolm and Liz.
L. to r.: Arnold Scaasi and Gayfryd Steinberg; Barbara Walters and Shirley Lord.
Carolyne Roehm, Henry Kravis, and Barbara Walters.
L. to r.: Betsy Bloomingdale, Reinaldo Herrera, and Aline de Romanones; Beverly Sills.
David and Helen Gurley Brown.
L. to r.: Catie and Donald Marron; Diane von Furstenberg.
Robert Maxwell.
L. to r.: Ezra and Cecile Zilkha; Pat and Bill Buckley.
L. to r.: Kelly and Calvin Klein; Laure Boulay de la Meurthes.
Hamish Bowles.
L. to r.: Elizabeth Taylor; Nancy Kissinger.
Henry Kissinger and Beverly Sills who sang Happy Birthday to the birthday boy.
L. to r.: Marella Agnelli; Robert and Blaine Trump with Carolyne Roehm and Henry Kravis.
Lucky Roosevelt.
L. to r.: Susan Gutfreund and Pat Kluge; Tommy and Nan Kempner.
The birthday tent.
Malcolm cuts the cake with Liz by his side.

Recent Posts