Twenty-four years ago this month, at the Metropolitan Club, there was a PEN dinner to beat all previous PEN dinners. It was chaired by Gayfryd Steinberg who was then one of the reigning queens of New York Society. The top ticket was $750, which in those days was like $5000 today, and it was a sell-out. Mrs. Steinberg invited the crème de la crème of the social world of that moment. It was a time that John Fairchild, the editor of Women’s Wearand W had dubbed the Nouvelle Society, and although there was a flubba-dub-dub to the name, it accurately acknowledged the leadership of the social community.
These were heady times. It was the Reagan Era, well-established by now. Prosperity was flashing wealth around New York that hadn’t seen such grandeur since the turn of the century. The leaders, with very few exceptions, were the young women like Mrs. Steinberg.
They got a lot of attention. In previous times, a PEN fundraiser might have been readings by an important author in some Broadway theater. The money raised was used to help writers and to promote freedom of expression and freedom of speech. This charter remains. However, since that milestone event at the Metropolitan Club, PEN dinners have been fancy affairs that have grown in size.
That April night they raised between $200,000 and $250,000 – an impressive sum for such an event in those days. I can’t remember what PEN raised at last year’s dinner but I do know it was substantially more– held at an even larger venue – the American Museum of Natural History.
At the time, she took a lot of flak in the press about it, but Gayfryd Steinberg raised the bar for PEN for keeps. Today, it remains one of the “important” benefit galas on the annual social calendar. It’s still fancy, although perhaps in a more austere, less theatrical way. (Mrs. Steinberg has since transferred her signature of style to the annual New York Public Library Literary Lions dinner.)
Because of its illustrious membership, PEN also still draws a fair share of the deep pockets and well-heeled who make up what is regarded as “society” in New York today.
This party, however, was pure spectacle for those New Yorkers who attended (or just read about it). Mary Hilliard was there to photograph, and this is her archive of the event.
All photographs by Mary Hilliard.