In The Magazine

What Is Society Now?

Friday, October 30, 2015
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After four decades of covering the social vanguard in New York, it’s pretty clear things have changed.
We convened a panel of experts to help us define how.

Participants

Jack Bryan, Filmmaker and entrepreneur

Bob Colacello, Special correspondent of Vanity Fair, author of Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up and Ronnie and Nancy: Their Path to the White House1911 to 1980 (second volume in progress)

Amy Fine Collins, Special correspondent of Vanity Fair

Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia, Founder, president and creative director of jewelry firm, Prince Dimitri Company

Daisy Prince, Editor of AVENUE

Peter Davis, Writer and editor

DAISY PRINCE: Welcome to the first ever AVENUE lunch to decide “What is society now?” I was joking to Dimitri that I’ve assembled the Council of Nicea. Here’s how it came about: In the past, it was so clear to me who the social leaders were because they were constantly in the pages of AVENUE. The leaders of the ’80s we can easily identify: Nan Kempner, Blaine Trump, Nina Griscom, Pat Buckley . . . They were constantly in Mary Hilliard’s photos. In the ’90s, it was Emilia and Lourdes Fanjul, Fernanda Niven, the Boardman girls—

BOB COLACELLO: I think society has become a lot more about money.

DAISY: That’s an interesting jumping-off point. How so?

BOB: I mean, what is society? Is it the ruling clique? Which, in America for a long time, were wealthy WASPs. That was society, really. But it started opening up after the wars especially.

AMY FINE COLLINS: There were so many distinctions because you have the robber barons and then you have the old New York families.

BOB: New York is different from every other city in that the old money always accepted the new money to the point of say, the Rockefellers taking in the Lauders. Cities like Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, they’ve always looked down their noses on new money, and that’s why they’re not doing as well. San Francisco, finally, has been overwhelmed by this new high-tech/young money, and there aren’t many of the old-timers left. But Catholics have been part of society for a long time. I mean, they started going to Southampton because they couldn’t get into Newport.

AMY: Neither could the Jews, but then again many of the founding families of New Amsterdam—

BOB: But there are the German Jewish families and—

AMY: Well, they were separate from the WASPs. Some of the early Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam such as the Verplanck family, were Jewish. I believe the Belmonts came a little later and were also Jewish. These early families often eventually assimilated or converted and they integrated with the WASP establishment. I don’t even think it was until maybe almost the ’70s and ’80s that everyone and everything loosened up a little.

BOB: What about the Lehmans and the Loebs, those families? Weren’t they already well placed in the 1920s?

AMY: Did you see them in the Social Register? No. It was still separate. I mean it depends on who, what and where. Palm Beach still separates.

BOB: It’s kind of silly because they mix everywhere but the clubs. You go to dinner parties in Palm Beach and it’s probably half Jewish and half Christian.

AMY: It is, and I think the reason why Palm Beach is still like that is because it’s not New York. Palm Beach is full of people from every part of the country.

BOB: They say that 75 percent of capital wealth of America is in Palm Beach during the month of February. That’s how concentrated it is.

DAISY: The history is so interesting, but the question I have is: what is society now? Does it, in fact, still exist? Is it relevant? Who are the social leaders now, and who will they be in the next 40 years. How is social media changing it?

AMY: Every generation thinks society is dead, something has changed, unrecognizable.

DAISY: Just like they think they invented sex?

AMY: Yeah! Marcel Proust thought that society was dead, Cleveland Amory wrote Who Killed Society? It’s because it has become unrecognizable and changed over the years.

BOB: It became more international.

AMY: With the jet set, definitely, it did. America is also different. There were never titles.

BOB: Americans love titles.

PRINCE DIMITRI OF YUGOSLAVIA: Thank God.

BOB: Exactly! They want to marry titles.

DAISY: [Gives Bob, who was a few minutes late, a list] This is a list of the It-Girls we saw in “On the Avenue” through the years.

BOB: I love that Deeda Blair is an It-Girl. I think she’s great. The younger generation all flock around her now.

AMY: The ladies all used to be very involved in philanthropy. And now, philanthropy and being a hostess is less important and it’s more important to be photographed.

BOB: Nan Kempner was an It-Girl in the 1960s, not the 1980s. [Scanning the list in his hands]

AMY: But Nan Kempner could not have been an It-Girl in the 1950s.

BOB: In the 1960s you had this new group in New YorkAndy Warhol, Jane Holzer, Mary McFadden, Freddy and Isabel Eberstadt and Nan Kempner. They were money; they were Park Avenue, but they wanted to be a little bit bohemian. They went to the discos and they had a creative connection and they wanted to go to Andy Warhol parties, they were daring—

DIMITRI: They were open-minded.

BOB: They were open-minded and they were bored. Look, I’m not society; I was born in Brooklyn. I happened to go to work for Andy Warhol and get helicoptered to Mount
Olympus in one fell swoop. I’m an observer of society. Today, there is such a thing called media society, the media has become so powerful since Watergate that people like Nora Ephron and Barbara Walters have become the equivalent of the Pat Buckleys and the Brooke Astors in terms of being great hostesses. And someone like Louise Grunwald has established herself as this person who crosses over from society to media. In the ’70s, another change was fashion designers, who were called dressmakers, started being invited to dinner by the ladies they dressed. Suddenly in the ’70s, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Halston, Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino, and Givenchy began to attend more lavish and beautiful parties than the ladies they were dressing.

AMY: Givenchy would be the only one that would have been invited in the previous decade.

BOB: Because of his aristocratic connections.

AMY: I remember hearing people in Paris were shocked because Jacques Fath and his wife were invited to a dinner party.

BOB: Even artists were rarely included.

DAISY: In NYC specifically, or . . . ?

DIMITRI: In Paris, too.

BOB: Definitely in Paris in the ’20s.

DAISY: Who is the Nan Kempner of today?

BOB: Samantha Boardman, maybe.

DIMITRI: She’s great but perhaps a few more costume balls . . . .

BOB: Americans don’t give costume balls, because they have this puritanical streak. So they invented charity balls, and again in the ’70s still the remnants of those important charity balls, like the . . . what’s it called?

AMY: The April in Paris ball.

BOB: April in Paris ball, exactly. I think now we have this new high-tech Silicon Valley society.

AMY: People certainly suck up to them, and want to emulate them.

BOB: And get the right checks to the right charities. I think philanthropy is still a big part of society.

DAISY: Yes.

DIMITRI: Of American society, yes.

AMY: But for the girls who really want to be the It-Girls now, philanthropy is not as much of a drive as it was.

BOB: What is now, though? Art. Getting on museum boards. Rich people used to follow the horses and couture, now they follow the art fairs and the auctions. They plan their travel schedules around those. May and November are becoming the really big social monthsthey always were to a degreeand it’s because that’s when the auctions are.

DAISY: Even if you don’t buy art?

BOB: Not only are the major auction houses having dinners, all the galleries are doing very posh things. I think today more and more people who make money think becoming an art collector is the thing to do, and then you have all these socialites or so-called socialites who used to make candles now calling themselves art advisors!

AMY: Candle makers!

BOB: This whole idea that you had to have a career started with your generation. Back in the day, if you were on a few charity boards or chaired a few events, you did not have to have a career if you were a Fifth Avenue or a Park Avenue society lady. That was enough. But starting with your generation

PETER DAVIS: Socialite became a bad word. No one wants to be called a socialite. It’s a dirty word. Now, you take people’s picture at a party and it’s like “look at my makeup line, my handbag line, my TV show.” They don’t even want to be known as philanthropists anymore. But people still want to live social, public lives. Everyone is on Instagram and sharing it and commenting on it.

BOB: But If you’re looking at the elite of the art world which overlaps the financial world—the Kravises, the Blacks—they don’t have photographers at their parties and would get upset if someone from the press went to one and leaked it to Page Six. The Herreras still give dinners, well, that’s not the art world, but there are a lot of private dinner parties going on—like the de la Rentas, but they would never want anything in the press, except for Suzy.* Suzy was the only one who was allowed to write about them.

DIMITRI: She only wrote nice things.

BOB: Yeah, and she made it funny.

DAISY: Do you still think there are a lot of dinner parties?

DIMITRI: The older generation, yeah.

PETER: Anna Wintour had a party for Hamish [Bowles] and there was no social media allowed.

AMY: That’s because Vogue was there.

PETER: They wanted to control it.

BOB: There are a lot of dinner parties in Southampton. Serena Boardman gives a lot of dinners out there, from 8 people to 24 people. They have some beautiful parties in the summer. New Yorkers give dinner parties in Southampton in the summer and Palm Beach in the winter and but go to restaurants and want to check out Monkey Bar, the Polo Lounge and Carbone.

AMY: Again, we’re talking about people in their ‘50s and ‘60s. The new riche, the tech riche, the hedge fund riche are very private and don’t care at all about the old status markers.

BOB: I don’t know if I really agree with that. I know a lot of these younger guys who are interested in aesthetic lifestyle and when they are introduced to someone like a Deeda Blair, who has that lifestyle, suddenly they want to learn from her. You go to the house and the food is being passed, not being plated, for example. I think entertaining well is about creating an atmosphere that facilitates social discourse, and it facilitates business, politics—

AMY: Romance.

BOB: One of the big problems with Washington, people say, is that it’s so dysfunctional. Maybe the reason the political parties don’t get along is that no one has parties! Starting with Laura Bush and Michelle Obama, it’s been seven years now of no White House entertaining.

DIMITRI: Every Wednesday they have a party at the White House.

BOB: Every Wednesday?

DIMITRI: Every Wednesday they have some special night at the White House, I read somewhere.

BOB: Well, they have one state dinner a year or two.

AMY: There’s no Washington hosts like there were.

BOB: Like Evangeline Bruce or Kate Graham, [Ina] Ginsburg, or Susan Mary [Alsop], Elsa [Maxwell] . . . The system worked because there was a lot of entertaining at that time in the White House. No one wants to upstage the White House. That’s how Washington is. The embassies don’t even do much, or they don’t want to be seen as being out of tune with the time . . .

DIMITRI: Looking elitist.

BOB: Yes, looking elitist.

DAISY: Dimitri, may I ask what you feel about all of this as someone who is not from here, although I know you’ve been in New York for a long time . . .

DIMITRI: . . . ’83.

DAISY: Perfect, is that your age or the year you have arrived?

DIMITRI: That is my age, haha.

DAISY: How do you feel the city has changed? What drew you to New York, and how do you feel as someone who knew society very well in Europe and the contrast?

DIMITRI: New York was always very, very international—this is what attracted me. That’s how I grew up. My parents are different nationalities, my four grandparents are from four different countries, different religions. So I grew up in this environment having cousins in every country.

Americans have always been welcoming as opposed to Europeans, who can be terribly xenophobic, but here you are greeted with open arms and become friends instantly.

As for the contrast between society in Europe and American, society in Europe was always based on the aristocracy, who were the role models. In the United States, the concept of a good family has always been tied to money here, whereas you will have families in Europe who are completely impoverished but  received everywhere.

[Jack Bryan arrives.]

JACK BRYAN: Hello, I’m Jack. So sorry
I’m late.

DAISY: Don’t worry.

JACK: I saw I had it in my calendar, and had a freakout moment.

AMY: Have some champagne.

DAISY: So we were talking about society and where is it going? And it’s interesting, who would you say are the social leaders in New York right now? Who would be the person if you saw their name on an invitation you would get out of bed to see?

JACK: Are you looking for a society figure or just a New York person? My generation has a different mentality, more celebrity based. It’s partly from hip-hop culture and easy access to trinkets and stuff like iPhones.

AMY: Consumerism. One big change I think there’s no shame or embarrassment around it. The Rich Kids of Instagram is one of the biggest manifestations of that.

BOB: Words like exclusive, elite, elitism, are those bad things?

JACK: I don’t think they’re bad, I just don’t think they had the weight that they used to even when I was a kid. I think notions of exclusivity are people wanting to be more self-exclusive.

AMY: Hip-hop elite, or the tech elite.

PETER: I think society is hard to define today. When you used to say elite, it would be “People Like Us.” When I was a kid they were like us, they went to school, they went to the beach, saw the same people. Now it’s a free-for-all and a lot more open. People love an invented character.

BOB: I’m from a middle-class family; my father was the first Italian-American executive in the coffee trade, very upwardly mobile, but I think if I started pretending like, “Oh, my grandparents came from Naples in the 1800s, we were fleeing Garibaldi” people would see through that and I don’t think I would have been as welcome as I am just by saying, “Yeah, I was born in Brooklyn!” That’s more interesting, probably.

AMY: Born in Brooklyn: that whole phrase has changed so much.

BOB: When I think of Interview magazine when it started and I was editing it, our common denominator was glamour. It could be a glamorous scientist, a glamorous politician, a glamorous model, a glamorous socialite, but they had to have something special. You had to have something—maybe it was beauty, maybe it was an old family name, or great talent, of course. This idea that everything should be equal—in the end, it boils down to communism basically. In a communist society, everyone is equal. Everyone is poor.

PETER: Except for the communist party leaders!

BOB: Elite is the most exclusive society of all.

PETER: I find that accusations of snobbism always come from people with no family.

JACK: I think that this notion of everything being equal is operating under a false assumption, which is inherent value. In order for something have value it has to be valued by an individual. No book exists as such until it is read and there are no fixed points in space.

BOB: Exactly, and even being born into a great family with money, you still have to earn the respect and the influence and the power by doing something with this money, whether it’s philanthropy or scholarship—you have to play a role.

DAISY: Do you think gender roles have changed?

BOB: Roles were so much more defined back in the day. Men were interested in and did business, sports and politics. Women did decorating, art and entertaining. And I think those lines have completely blurred. You see it in magazines like Vanity Fair, which is almost 50/50 in terms of male-female circulation. Even when Vanity Fair was first revived in ’84, it was almost 90 percent female because it was perceived as more of a society magazine.

JACK: Do you feel you now have to spend more time devoted to what is expected of you as a woman?

AMY: There’s more pressure now than ever before for women to look or dress in a certain way because of the constant presence of cameras.

BOB: The cameras and high definition.

AMY: There are more beauty products out there, more cosmetics. There’s surgery and fashion designers. I have a young daughter and her generation is constantly scrutinizing each other.

BOB: But Amy, aren’t there more male cosmetics and male products and Manhattan face lifts? Or obsessing with gym bodies, and abs and pecs?

AMY: There’s definitely pressure on men. The pressure is on both sexes or all sexes. But I also think you see capitalism at work. A lot of companies have discovered there’s a whole audience that they haven’t been marketing to. Like men never had to have purses, and—

BOB: Oh, when I got to know Estée Lauder—I’d say late ’70s—halfway through a dinner she’d look at me and say, “Have you ever thought of using a bronzer? It’s not makeup, it’s not makeup!” No Estée, I’d prefer not to!

AMY: There was one male cosmetic, what was it?

BOB: In the ’50s and ’60s when I went to college there was always Old Spice and what was the other one? I mean, the Brooks Brothers, I mean—Peter, you would know! What was the WASP scent?

PETER: Polo. When I was in high school that was like the first guy scent

DAISY: Yeah, I remember that, absolutely.

BOB: Well, Ralph Lauren was such a genius, reviving that kind of WASP style. He made it glamorous in a way it had never been. Fashionable. By commercializing it.

DAISY: Okay, I’ll ask: do WASPs still matter?

PETER: Does old money even exist? All the old money is gone.

AMY: It just looks smaller compared to these big fortunes that have been made.

DAISY: That’s true.

PETER: But the one thing is WASPs don’t show their money. I was brought up with two things: fools’ names and fools’ faces always appear in public places, and you’re in the paper when you’re born, when you get married and when you die.

BOB: I love that.

PETER: The first time I was photographed, I was in high school and was photographed at a nightclub. My parents were horrified; it was like I had been photographed with the devil. It was like, “What is wrong with you? You’re done.” My parents said, “You’re never going to get into boarding school. And now it’s completely changed, they hire publicists.

BOB: Society at large is what Andy Warhol predicted: that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. Fame has become the ultimate value, the ultimate goal. More than even money in a funny way. And there’s this obsession with getting your picture in the paper. Even if you have to make a sex video to do it, or kill your wife.

AMY: You get your fame first and then the money follows. It’s like Real Housewives.

BOB: People have no line between fame and infamy.

JACK: There’s another interesting component to this now, because if you are famous for 15 minutes, it’s recorded forever. It’s not like it’s newspaper where it’s wrapping up dead fish tomorrow. It is on the record and it will be there for your kids to see. And that is a new phenomenon.

BOB: Let’s just say I could not have made it through the ’70s if people had cameras in their phones.

DIMITRI: At Studio 54? Can you imagine if that had been documented? That would have been horrifying.

AMY: It’s hard to blackmail anybody anymore.

PETER: I think the iPhone has killed nightlife in a lot of ways. Not only because you document everything, but there are filters. And guys don’t need makeup because everyone knows how to FaceTune. I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t say wait, let me fix this. But also you’re living here [gestures to his phone]. Even at a fashion show, people are spending the whole time looking at their screens so they’re not actually seeing the show, or feeling the music or even looking at the models. They’re seeing everything through the phone.

BOB: Everyone has become so overexposed.

PETER: People need to keep their private lives private!

DAISY: I wonder what Edith Wharton would make of this now? I sort of think of her as this great scribe of New York society. I always wonder what she would make of today’s
fabric, of the characters that she might find.

JACK: She’d probably say, “Well, the forks are totally out of place.”

AMY: She would say that an era has passed and society, such as it is, has been overtaken by vulgarisms and philistines. I think that was her message in her day. And it has been the refrain forever and ever.

From a fashion perspective, I would say that I don’t hear so much anymore about a wish to look “elegant”—it’s more about aspiring to look “sexy,” “cool,” or rich, or some kind of combo of the three.

DAISY: I wonder what AVENUE’s role in the future will be. We are the physical thing in the lobby that you cannot avoid. We are in your hand when you’re tired at the end of the day.

BOB: If you live in a building with a lobby.

DAISY: I’m presuming all of you do. So how can magazines with local circulation stay relevant? AVENUE should be the reward for doing things in the community, and how does this stay a relevant thing? What do you all think?

BOB: Do whatever you do in-depth and with some style. And also, I think basically when you’re a society magazine, it has to have some humor—I mean, the reporting should be well done, but I think it’s sort of like letting the reader know there’s a certain level of absurdity to this world. That was the genius of Aileen Mehle of Suzy* all those years. Even though she was writing in sort of a nice way, between the lines there was a lot of humor. She would write in-depth coverage of the flowers and then ask, “Who else would tell you these things?” You don’t really need to know this, you know.

People still want to look at beautiful photographs and beautiful people. And I think a lot of it is choosing the right person to put on your cover at the right time.

AMY: It used to be architectural detailing.

DAISY: Yes, that’s all it ever was! Pictures of doorknobs!

JACK: Best doorknobs ever.

AMY: I like to think of it as a bit of a yearbook.

DAISY: Oh yes, we are the Upper East Side yearbook.


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