July 17, 2009
“One can name-drop with impunity when writing about the past,” said Nicky Haslam. “What is hard is to avoid it when writing of the present,” according to the sage. I remember when this column began 32 years ago readers writing in to complain about ND. But what was I to do? Go to a grand ball and not mention anyone but the help? Or the name of those in the band? There was still high life back then, and most people wished to know who was partying and where. Before the crumbling of the social order it was fun to read about toffs dancing the night away. Now we have “Sir” Philip Green appearing daily in the gossip columns, which in a manner of speaking has done away with name-dropping. As Lady Bracknell would doubtlessly have exclaimed, “Philip Green! Philip Green!”
The great party-givers of my time were neither narcissists nor show-offs, just good-time Charlies who liked to share their good fortune with their friends. Guy de Rothschild used to give grand balls in his magnificent chateau outside Paris, and as a young man in a hurry I was invited to most of them. Guy and his wife Marie-Ellen knew how to mix it up. The old guard of French aristocrats, la jeunesse dorée, le tout Paris, young actors, artists, playboys and sportsmen made all their balls memorable. The Rothschild clan has always believed in restraint, never flamboyance, yet their parties were magical because they mostly invited their friends.
If I had to pinpoint the sine qua non of a successful bash, it would be that: friends. Porfirio Rubirosa, the legendary Dominican playboy and seducer, was also a great party-giver. He gave a ball at Maxim’s once. Some of us were photographed emerging into bright sunshine in white tie, and a communist paper screamed bloody murder. It bothered Rubi for about a millionth of a second. John Aspinall was a fabled party-giver because of his extravagance and over-the-top scenery—1,000 boy scouts carrying torches lining the drive, midgets jumping around wild animals that mixed freely with the guests—but he was an exception. In England, thrift trumps ostentation.
All this, needless to say, was private. It was not deductible as a business expense, public relations people were not permitted within a radius of 25 miles or so and the press was as welcome as swine flu. Then from America came the charity ball, a euphemism for rich social climbers getting their names in the papers, their champion being my old friend John Fairchild, of Women’s Wear Daily fame, who, like a modern Mrs Astor, decided which vulgarian was in and which one was in the doghouse each week. It’s been downhill ever since, in fact there are no parties any more, yet I managed to go to three fabulous ones these past six weeks in London. If the Hanbury cricket weekend was the wild party and the Livanos wedding in Blenheim was grandeur itself, the Bismarck tropical ball was elegance and fun personified. In fact, it has to be the party of the decade, and imagine what I’d have to say if I hadn’t been running a high fever all evening.
It was Bolle and Debbie Bismarck’s silver wedding anniversary. The theme was tropical but elegant. It took place in the Bismarck house on Gerald Road, where 15 years or so ago I had attended a demolition party. The Gerald Road police station was demolished and Claus von Bülow and I found ourselves in the cells for a couple of uncomfortable minutes. This time the old police station had been turned into a tropical paradise, with palm trees, pineapples, a tiki bar with cigarette girls in red satin busties, and 6,000 white cymbidium orchids flown in from New Zealand and suspended from willow branches on sterling silver thread. You get the picture. We were 100 for dinner and 150 for the dancing at 10.30. The party was over by 7 a.m. although Moritz Flick was found peacefully asleep in the tent sometime before lunch. The whole extravaganza was the brainchild of Eric Buterbaugh, florist to the Hollywood gods and a great friend of the Bismarcks.
Now comes the hard part. The ND. Who was there? Well, let’s see. How about Prince and Princess Heinrich von Furstenberg, plus a lot of other German aristos, with Schoenburgs and Bismarcks galore? Mario Testino, Bryan Ferry, Leonardo DiCaprio (all in black, including baseball cap). But it was the fairer, younger set that stole the show: Gabriella Calthorpe, Mafalda of Hesse, Mafalda Millies, Saffron Aldridge, Lucy Lin, Mary Charteris, the Forte girls, the four Bismarck boys and countless other youngsters who put the rest of us to shame. Leopold Bismarck’s speech was a peach. He thanked Debbie for 25 years and four beautiful sons, then put an iron cross which belonged to his family around her neck — and that was that. A perfect gesture to go with Debbie’s canary-yellow gown and Philip Treacy yellow-bird hat. Mind you, imagine what time I would have gone to bed if I hadn’t had the flu. I’d most likely still be there as I live next door.