While New York can weather many troubles, including recession and bedbugs, I’m not sure how it will fare when the last of its ladies who lunch are gone. Brooke, Nan, Chessy, Pat and the lovely Judy Peabody have left us in recent years. These women and others who lived to be admired have gone from endangered to near extinction.
But Carmen D’Alessio, the patrician-looking octogenarian model, was not buying my lament at last week’s party for Gloria Vanderbilt. “Grand dames and socialites have always been kitsch to me,” said D’Alessio, who has played them for a living for years. “They all have inherited wealth or married into it, as opposed to women who struggled to make their way. I was born in 1931, and I’ve worked my whole life.”
Gloria Vanderbilt has worked and struggled, too. On the other hand, she’s never had to struggle to draw attention to herself or whatever it is she’s selling. Her name and blue-blood authenticity move the merch.
And at a time when adolescent actresses playing junior socialites on TV gain access into what’s left of New York society, and when every real housewife in the news is anything but real or a housewife, authenticity is in such short supply that it snookers even the most seen-it-all New Yorkers. It was no surprise when, even on a dreadful, rainy night, an upscale crowd mobbed Vanderbilt’s appearance at a Ralph Lauren store on the Upper East Side. Imperious types who never have to wait on line did so, as if for an amusement park ride, while holding The World of Gloria Vanderbilt (Abrams, $40), a new coffee-table book by Wendy Goodman. The poor little rich girl, now 86 and still beautiful, wrapped in black ruffles and looking half her age, was signing as fast as she could.
“She’s an enduring icon,” I heard Lauren Bush tell a blogger for AOL. “And today when everything’s so fast, it’s nice to have some of the old-school sensibility.”
Actually, I could have used more of that old-school sensibility, and fewer velvet ropes, clipboard nymphettes and bodyguards muscling guests away from a VIP area reserved for Kathy Griffin, Sarah Jessica Parker, David Lauren and Andy Cohen, a Bravo producer. Ralph Lauren, the paterfamilias of inauthentic aristocracy, was long gone.
But if you strained, you could still find some old-school social icons around like afterthoughts or perhaps after-dinner mints left behind at a seated luncheon.
Anne Slater, in her trademark cobalt blue sunglasses, looked a little thrown by the pushiness of the throng. Aileen Mehle, long retired from her reign as the Suzy columnist in WWD, teetered along like a tiny porcelain doll about to crack from the hustle bustle. Kenneth Jay Lane, the costume jeweler and confidante of many a deceased doyenne, looked brittle in the bright lights. As he departed, he recognized a younger person in the thick crowd, Marina Rust Connor, a Vogue muse, and granddaughter of Marshall Field.
“When are you writing your coffee-table book?” he asked her.
To her credit, Rust doesn’t have one in the works.
At 8 p.m., Vanderbilt, who has pushed home décor, jeans, art, several memoirs and erotic fiction, has had a brief acting career and whose observations that evening included “follow your instincts about expressing your feelings about beauty and life,” was gone.
D’Alessio, with pearly skin glowing and silky white hair tied back with a black velvet ribbon, laughed at the spectacle. Even after so many years as a highly visible icon of elegance, she remains aware that she’s anything but the real thing.
“My job is to pose like an aristocrat and keep my mouth closed,” she said.
Except when she’s with a bitter little columnist on the wrong side of a velvet rope.