January 12, 2008
Like Count Dracula, I used to love the night, hence nightclubs and late-night parties were the staple of my life. Back in the good old days when Eisenhower was president, I used to sneak out from my boarding school near Princeton University—50 miles from New York City—and go to El Morocco, the greatest nightclub of its time. Elmo’s, as it was called by those in the know, was zebra-striped, the great room circled by wide and comfortable booths where the more elegant types were seated. In the middle were tables where lesser folk—the nouveaux riche, the flashy, and those whose names appeared in the newspapers—would spend their boozy evenings. To show you how much the world has changed, back then appearing in the papers was a no-no, even where nightclubs were concerned. Angelo, the famous maître d’, stood at the entrance and acted like St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. Angelo knew everyone and everything about everyone. His son worked for the government and eventually became deputy mayor of New York, so Angelo’s background briefings were far more accurate than those the U.S. government concocted about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
The booths were assigned mostly to old WASP aristocrats, international celebrities like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, internationally famous playboys like Porfirio Rubirosa, who was a friend of the owner, and famous noctambulists such as Aristotle Onassis and Errol Flynn, despite their almost daily appearance in the European and American gossip columns. (“We make exceptions to the rules for exceptional clients of ours,” said Angelo). The reason a small-timer like me actually managed to get in, and even got a booth at times, was because of my father’s friendship with the owner, one Mr. Perona, a man reputed to have Mafia connection, but a great host who used to go out late after closing time with my old man, boozing and chasing you know what.
El Morocco was where I clocked in for work once I was out of school and attending the university of life. It is difficult to describe, especially during today’s egalitarian nighttimes—full of zonked out rapper wannabes and pelvis-churning dummies—how truly glamorous Elmo’s crowd was. There were two orchestras, one that played mostly Cole Porter and Gershwin, the other rumbas, sambas, mambos and cha-cha-chas. The bands sat on a revolving stage that turned while the dancers continued to swirl uninterrupted.
El Morocco died when the twist was born, and along with it died society as we knew it. Needless to say, there were other great nightclubs, some of which equaled Elmo’s, such as Jimmy’s and L’Elephant Blanc in Paris, and, of course, Annabel’s in London. Recently, Annabel’s changed hands after the death of its owner, Mark Birley, which means the rich but vulgar will now be persona grata in the last remaining bastion of elegance and grace. Another fun institution of sorts, couture parties, has also bit the dust. Fashion parties used to be like a Vincente Minnelli film from the ’50s, the people were elegant, the setting beautiful, the hors d’oeuvres delicious, and the drinks seamlessly served. Fun. If the great nightclubs of the ’50s died because of the twist, the couture parties have been killed off by the celebrity culture. Parties are now business meetings. People attend for the photo-op and then leave. Nor are the prying lenses of the myriad of paparazzi conducive to spontaneous enjoyment. No one dares have any fun with the ubiquitous cell phones taking photos.
I suppose the antidote to all this lost glamour is the private dinner party. Privacy is great and all that, but the unexpected is an important ingredient to any party—and when was the last time you gave a dinner at home for 12 and a beautiful woman walked in unannounced and asked you to take her to the Casbah? As I’ve often said in the past, the party’s over, and we all should just as well get used to the idea.