Social Studies

Perusing 40 years of imagery from the W archives, Kevin West follows the ebb and flow of society—from last century’s reclusive “beautiful people” to the media-savvy celebutantes of today.

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Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, 1974.

Social Studies

Perusing 40 years of imagery from the W archives, Kevin West follows the ebb and flow of society—from last century’s reclusive “beautiful people” to the media-savvy celebutantes of today.

The history of society, much like the history of art, alternates between moments of brilliant achievement and periods of stagnation and decline. At its pinnacle, 20th-century society produced Truman Capote’s spectacular 1966 Black and White Ball, and the queens of that era—including Capote’s swans as well as luminaries such as Bunny Mellon and Jayne Wrightsman—stand out as supreme examples of their type. But just as gaudy mannerism followed Renaissance classicism, the social world since then has sometimes suffered under the weight of its affectations. After the pouf-clad doyennes of eighties Nouvelle Society reigned—downright rococo in their dizzying excess—the old order seemed to break down entirely in the late nineties, as a new culture of borrowed dresses and pop-up celebrity (paparazzi snaps of a drunken Paris Hilton on Socialitelife.com mark this nadir) brought on a period of millennial confusion. Let’s call it Post-Society.

Of course, not everyone laments the decay of rigid hierarchies, but the change from jet set to EasyJet surely speaks to the shifting role that “society” (in the sense of self-appointed elites) assumes within society (the broader culture). Since the Hiltonian days, however, a tentative new order seems to be taking shape, suggesting a revival that brings back some of the style—and even a few familiar names—of the golden age. Denizens of today’s gang—Daphne Guinness, Eugenie Niarchos, Margherita Missoni, the young Santo Domingos, and Princess Grace’s granddaughter Charlotte Casiraghi, to name a few—flock together on transcontinental migrations just like their forebears, though the stopping points now are more likely to be international art fairs. They also lend new meaning to the term “social media”: Far from existing as mere arm candy or trophy wives, many of the neos also work—or at least “work”—and document their comings and goings on Twitter feeds as avidly as Ron Galella used to chase Jackie O.

To trace this trajectory, it helps to remember the actual function of society as an arbiter of customs and practices that integrate newcomers into an established elite. In centuries past, this task fell to the royal court; society expanded only through its favor, as when Queen Anne elevated John Churchill to Duke of Marlborough for his valor on the battlefield in 1703. Modern social elites, of course, have tended to adopt the airs of a permanent hereditary class—from Rothschilds’ and Wrightsmans’ buying fine French furniture to English rock stars’ playing the gentleman on a country estate—while in fact, society has constantly been in flux, as old families cede ground to rich newcomers clamoring for space. More recently, society has generally been dominated by secular queens who arbitrate from the top of the pyramid, though the undisputed rulers of earlier eras—Jacqueline Onassis, Marie-Hélène de Rothschild, Babe Paley, Brooke Astor—are now largely deceased. Others—including Wrightsman, the Duchess of Devonshire, Nancy Reagan, and Jacqueline de Ribes—have withdrawn from their powerful perches to live quietly as venerable dowagers.

Of course, social-climbing neophytes are almost always considered disagreeable, at least to a degree. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor—born into New York’s Dutch elite before marrying real estate heir William Backhouse Astor Jr. in 1853 to become the Mrs. Astor—only reluctantly opened her doors to the arriviste (and staggeringly rich) Vanderbilts. But in the end, the veterans tolerate the nouveaux—provided at least that they learn which fork to use; without fresh infusions, society would peter out as fortunes are dispersed by debt, death, and divorce.

Though it paled in size and scope in comparison with the 19th century’s gilded age, the system of the later 20th century did, nonetheless, produce a fair number of luminous figures. None was brighter than Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, the archetype of the well-bred beauty who married rich—in her case, twice. And though the first time made her First Lady, it was the second marriage that made her a timeless icon with a snappy moniker—and a paparazzi magnet every bit as strong as Marilyn Monroe or, for that matter, Grace Kelly, who united Hollywood celebrity with European aristocracy. Jackie O’s fame rested on her proximity to political influence and economic power: This classic phase of jet-set society featured contemporaries of hers like Babe Paley’s husband, media baron William Paley, the Rupert Murdoch of his day; and Marella Agnelli’s industrialist husband, who was known as the uncrowned king of Italy. Deeda Blair, whose husband was a Kennedy-era ambassador, lives the old virtues to this day.

In the seventies, society began to mimic pop culture, thanks to Studio 54 habitués like Diane von Furstenberg, who, along with Gloria Vanderbilt, heralded the arrival of the working socialite: Though both women had money and a fancy name, they launched fashion businesses and became Warhol muses. In Paris, Marie-Hélène de Rothschild was reine of the Hôtel Lambert salon, but she kept company with the cutting edge—including Yves Saint Laurent, the star of his own solar system, which featured style icons like Betty Catroux and Loulou de la Falaise. (Rothschild even received the soon-to-be-ubiquitous Warhol, who was making the portraits that would later become society trophies.)

An equally important legacy of the seventies was announced by the debut, in 1982, of Cornelia Guest—the unofficial goddaughter of the disco divas, whose actual godparents were the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Guest’s iconic mother, C.Z., had appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1962 as the model of the American socialite; Cornelia’s arrival on the scene as the so-called Deb of the Decade, though, made her the role model for later generations of famous-for-being-famous camera chasers, such as Paris and Nicky Hilton.

The rest of the eighties witnessed a certain revivalist vigor on the scene. In Europe, party girls Francesca Thyssen and Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis proved that the aristocracy could still produce spitfires, but the real action was with New York’s Nouvelle Society, which lunched daily at Swifty’s. Pat Buckley and Nan Kempner were the wittiest and most prominent hostesses at home, and Nancy Kissinger and Annette de la Renta, who married Oscar in 1989, became the lead contenders to join the rarefied circle around Mrs. Astor.

Meanwhile, the Gutfreunds, Perelmans, Steinbergs, Taubmans, Kluges, and Trumps—Blaine and Robert and Ivana and Donald—captivated everyone else with displays of conspicuous excess. Susan Gutfreund’s comment “It’s expensive to be rich” was the motto of the day, and the Nouvelle’s behavior became all too easily satirized, most notably in Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, which coined the phrases “master of the universe” and “social X-ray” (everyone assumed the latter was a reference to Kempner). Saul and Gayfryd Steinberg moved into a 17,000-square-foot Park Avenue aerie that had once belonged to a Rockefeller, then spent like Medicis on old-master paintings. Judy Taubman famously sent her private plane back to Palm Beach to fetch a pair of shoes. In Washington, D.C., Nancy Reagan held court at the White House, where her own version of the Kitchen Cabinet, known as the Group, included her best friend, Betsy Bloomingdale. The decade also saw a spate of expensive marriages and divorces. When Sid Bass was forced to give a huge settlement to his first wife, Anne, in order to marry his second, Mercedes, Taki Theodoracopulos remarked that Bass had “paid $200 million for a used Mercedes.”

A refreshing splash of new money hit the scene in the nineties, when the three Miller girls—Pia, Marie-Chantal, and Alexandra—came to New York with backing from their father’s billion-dollar fortune. Marie-Chantal married Crown Prince Pavlos of Greece in 1995 in a grand union of cash and title, but as the decade wore on, society somehow began to seem less relevant. Those in the narrowly exclusive club around Brooke Astor chose to see only one another, and the younger set of society offspring, including Aerin and Jane Lauder, smiled for the camera at the right charity gatherings and then went home early to be fresh for work.

The most visible social figures of the decade, Princess Diana and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, were launched into the celebrity stratosphere by relentless media attention, and their premature deaths contributed to the sense of confusion at the turn of the new century, when New York society at times seemed on the brink of collapse. The passing of Mrs. Astor, Kempner, Buckley, and a handful of ­others, meanwhile, depleted the ranks of the old guard. With so little action on the ground, even W columnist Aileen Mehle—better known as Suzy—retired, perhaps weary of mentioning Tinsley Mortimer. The situation was summed up by Marjorie Gubelmann—a third-generation heiress of a cash-register fortune—with the waggish epigram “Better nouveau riche than no riche at all.”

Over in Europe, things were hardly clearer. Even the future of the haute couture—one of society’s important training grounds—was in doubt, although everyone gossiped about flashy American visitors such as Texan Becca Cason Thrash and former stewardess Suzanne Saperstein, who became known as the Rock for her enormous diamond solitaire. Liliane de Rothschild, the last of the great salonistes, passed away, while Lily Safra, who had charmed the Prince of Wales with both her philanthropy and her real estate portfolio, endured false accusations of murder after the death of her husband in 1999. Sir Elton John, meanwhile, became the unexpected queen of the international upper crust.

Despite all the seeming disarray, there is cause for believing that society will endure, just as surely as painting has outlived Picasso. The neo-society has the essential elements in place: an establishment clique made up of illustrious family names—Niarchos, Santo Domingo, Lauder, and so on—who mingle freely with such promising newcomers as Dasha Zhukova, the partner of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. Or perhaps the next Mrs. Astor will be Tory Burch, the media-lifestyle mogul with Oprah’s business acumen and a Main Line pedigree. The neo-socials have also figured out how to turn media attention to their own ends: In 2011 Daphne Guinness, who seems to fashion herself as the Lady Gaga of international society, got dressed for the Met Gala—the modern equivalent of Mrs. Astor’s ballroom—in a window at Barneys.

Perhaps one day the new Midases of the modern economy will want to friend Guinness, Zhukova, and their ilk, just as the Vanderbilts once yearned to know the Astors. Think about it: If any young Gateses, Ellisons, Waltons, or Zuckerbergs ever develop a taste for couture, art fairs, and black-tie balls, they could certainly launch society’s next gilded age.

  • Photo: Gray/Condé Nast Archives

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