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Robb Report Host Guide: Formal Affairs to Remember

Jack Smith

Redcoat Revel
The year was 1778, and things were hopping in Philadelphia. The founding fathers of the revolution had departed, as had Gen. George Washington’s army (now encamped outside the city in Valley Forge), but Philadelphia’s society belles suffered no shortage of male companionship. Au contraire, they found the occupying British officers to be the most amiable of guests. When, in May of that year, the redcoats were preparing to depart, the town’s most prosperous ladies bid them adieu at a lavish fete called the Meschianza. Given the high prices of food, fuel, and goods at that time, the citizens of Philadelphia were outraged. Though the Meschianza is rarely mentioned in history books, it probably did more to promote support for the rebel cause among the rank and file than the most passionate egalitarian oratory.

A Ball in a Brownstone
Manhattanite Caroline Astor was homely and ostentatious, but that did not matter to wealthy New Yorkers of the Gilded Age; she was one of the richest women in the country, and socialites trembled at the thought of incurring her wrath and being dropped from her invitation list. This was as the snobbish Mrs. Astor wanted it, for her goal in life was to define who was in and who was out in New York society. In 1888, with the connivance of her like-minded pal, lawyer Ward McAllister, she began planning a party to be held four years hence at her Fifth Avenue brownstone mansion. The event itself  promised to be dull—her events always were—but it was a PR coup. For four years, society buzzed with rumors of who was on and who was off the list. Ultimately, the ball was more memorable for its number of guests than the event itself. The press anointed the lucky invitees the “Four Hundred,” which was the number the room would accommodate, and the names formed the basis for the first Social Register, thereby assuring that their descendents would be attending the same parties with each other for generations to come.

A Smashing Debut
Most debutante balls are covered in the local society pages, but Fernanda Wanamaker Wetherill’s debut in Southampton on August 31, 1963, made headlines from Madrid to Moscow, and 21 of the gala’s guests appeared in a police lineup photo on the cover of Life magazine. It began when dozens of young blue bloods, male and female, adjourned with the band for a pre-dawn after-party at a nearby mansion that had been rented to accommodate the out-of-town young studs. Some 12 hours later, the police arrived and found the mansion trashed, 1,600 windowpanes smashed, carpets shredded, and some 30 revelers either passed out or staggering zombielike through the debris. In a way, the deb suggested, it was all the band’s fault. “Everything was fine until the band left,” she explained. Whatever the reason for the willful destruction, it was clear that America’s Age of Innocence was over, and on college campuses everywhere riots soon became derigueur. 

Mixed Reviews from the A List
Never has Manhattan gone so atwitter over a party as it did for Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball at New York’s Plaza Hotel in November 1966. “Everybody in New York knew about it, even the doormen,” recalls author George Plimpton. Ostensibly staged to honor Katharine Graham, then publisher of The Washington Post, the party was unusual in that it drew on the disparate circles of politics, high society, literature, and show business. Throughout the summer le tout New York buzzed over who was on and off Capote’s guest list, and anxieties over invitations and acceptances rose to a fever pitch among New York’s A list. (He had infuriated some of his guests by inviting them but not their spouses.) When it was all over, some said it was a marvelous party, and others said it was terrible. Few benefited from it as substantially as did lawyer/author Louis Auchin-closs. One of his clients had been planning to take her business to another law firm, but when she learned Auchincloss had attended Capote’s party, she decided to stay with his firm.

Blast from the Past
After 2,500 years of Persian civilization, it was time to par-tee, and what the Shah of Iran planned in October 1971 was a costume extravaganza straight out of a Cecil B. DeMille epic. An elaborate tent city was erected among the ruins of Persepolis, formerly the capital of Darius the Great, to house the Shah’s guests. These included nine kings, three ruling princes, two crown princes, 13 presidents, scads of vice presidents, prime ministers, and foreign ministers, and too many celebrities and tycoons to mention (or for that matter, to accommodate—Manhattan socialite Cristina Ford was compelled to wheedle space in Imelda Marcos’ tent). The banquet was lavish and included souvenir menus with covers made of blue silk and gold. A son et lumière spectacle and a parade of Iranian soldiers costumed as Darius’ troops followed the banquet. It was all intended to remind Iranians of the glories of their imperial past, before the advent of Islam. Alas, it failed to make the Shah more popular. Seven years later, he was deposed by followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini, and Iran has had little to celebrate ever since.

Capital Time in Tangier
Malcolm Forbes wore a kilt while the Moroccan army staged a cavalry charge, both to celebrate the media mogul’s 70th birthday at a party in August 1989 at Palais Mendoub, his manse in Tangier. Forbes flew in his guests on a chartered 747, a DC-8, and the Concorde, and reputedly spent $2 million-plus on his party, while Morocco’s King Hassan provided 200 horsemen and 750 folk dancers for the event. But this was more than just another example of wretched excess; it was a carefully staged exercise in corporate branding. Besides such glitterati as titular main squeeze Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Walters, and Henry Kissinger, Forbes invited some 800 business leaders from around the world, and the broadcast and print media devoted countless millions of dollars’ worth of time and space to the event. The Tangier hotel that had been booked for guests had no air-conditioning and was so hot that most of the guests slept with the doors open, but it hardly mattered. Years after they had forgotten the heat, they would remember that they were at Malcolm Forbes’ birthday party.

The Usual Suspects
The invitation was a videotape with Danny DeVito singing and cameos by Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, Christina Ricci, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Chris Rock, and Pauly Shore. The occasion: pop music impresario Sean “Puffy” Combs’ 29th birthday party in November 1998 at Cipriani Wall Street. The media thronged the red-carpeted entrance as 1,000 VIP guests moved past, bound for the bellinis and Champagne flowing inside. The party-goers seemed to have been selected indiscriminately from the gossip columns and included such recognizable luminaries as Donald Trump, Ivana Trump, Marla Maples, Sarah Ferguson, Mike Tyson, and Robin Leach. The night was deemed unforgettable, setting the stage for such subsequent fetes as Combs’ White Parties in Southampton and the post-acquittal blast at which Puffy announced he was no longer Puff Daddy (as he was then known), but rather P. Diddy. Some bluenoses may look askance at such festivities, but in his own way, the Diddster has proven himself a worthy successor to Mrs. Astor. 

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