New York friendships are a lot like New York roads: They have plenty of potholes. Sometimes, there are exceptions. Rita Delafield Kip and Payne Whitney Middleton met at Sarah Lawrence College 50 years ago. On Dec. 10, they gave a party to celebrate their lasting bond, co-hosted by Mrs. Middleton’s husband, Henry Middleton, at Doubles, the private club in the Sherry Netherland Hotel. The following afternoon, Mrs. Kip and Mrs. Middleton agreed to compare notes about the party at the Middletons’ East Side apartment, with its long East River view. They’d reminisce, they’d consider New York society if needed, “but no pictures,” Mrs. Middleton exclaimed, inclined to lionlike roars. “No photographs. We’re too old,” she announced.
It’s true, as the late Boston Brahmin Mrs. Augustus Hemenway once said, that “Society is a 19th-century word in a 20th-century world.” Nonetheless, you can still spot “society” in today’s melting pot as clearly as you can tell the difference between the tomatoes and the to- mah -toes. Mrs. Middleton is a daughter of the late Joan Whitney Payson, the New York heiress and civic leader who owned the Mets and whose family endowed many New York hospitals and museums. Mrs. Kip-after four marriages, she has taken back her maiden name but kept the “Mrs.”-is descended from the original Dutch settlers of Manhattan. Her family once owned Kip’s Bay.
“Everyone seems to think we had a nice, cozy group,” Mrs. Kip, who wore a drapey blond top and skirt, said of the celebration. “It was a sort of soulful party, I think. Everyone liked each other.”
“We think we’re stars,” Mrs. Middleton smiled. “It all worked out quite nicely. We’re both terrifically psychic and knew whom to seat with whom. Only one person complained: ‘I had the deaf ear of Mr. So-and-So,’” she said, imitating a guest.
“Oh, really?” queried Mrs. Kip.
“But, you know, we drew from different lists,” Mrs. Middleton said of how they scored their guest list. “Some I’d had for 50 years. I keep things like that … No, no, yes, yes, boring. Pity. Dead.”
Henry Middleton entered laughing. Although his family has plantation roots in South Carolina, the distinguished gentleman was raised in Italy. He paused, noticed a guest.
“We’re giving an interview, Henry,” his wife explained.
“You, not me,” Mr. Middleton responded. He exited.
For film and fashion people, dressing for a party nowadays means wearing outfits their stylists borrowed from top designers. At this fete, the ladies wore their own clothes and jewelry. When a gentleman of the Social Register persuasion stood up and called the assembled guests to sing a Christmas carol, he was expressing his affection for his hosts. He was not promoting a record album.
“New York society has always been based on money,” Mrs. Middleton said. “When you fall out of the money loop, you sort of slide down the scale of society. My response to everybody who gets sniffy about how social climbing someone is: don’t knock ‘em. If you’re American, somewhere in your background there’s a social climber. Don’t knock the people who are doing what your ancestors did.”
But I tell you one thing I found perfectly fascinating earlier this year: when Ted Turner suggested there should be a list of the greediest people in America, rather than the 400 richest. There are people whose goal is to be the richest person in America? That’s a goal? I never thought this could possibly be. Growing up, you never talked about money. When I went away to school, someone said my family had some. I called home and asked how much.”
Although their mothers were classmates at the Chapin School, Mrs. Kip and Mrs. Middleton did not meet until they were at Sarah Lawrence. Mrs. Kip grew up on her grandfather Edward Delafield’s property in Riverdale. She came to town on Fridays to skate at Madison Square Garden. Mrs. Middleton went to the Green Vale School near Greentree, the Paysons’ place in Manhasset. “Rita and I are the same age, but she was a year ahead of me at Sarah Lawrence,” Mrs. Middleton said. “I came from a very conservative mold. Rita was very advanced and had sophisticated friends like Millicent Rogers. I was impressed by this older woman.”
They remembered coming out at debutante balls some 50 years ago this holiday season. They called the time “pre-feminism.” Mrs. Middleton wanted to become a veterinarian, Mrs. Kip an actress. Their mothers did not approve. “What you got to do was get married,” Mrs. Kip said.
So, her junior year at Sarah Lawrence, she married John P. Marquand Jr., a writer. When the Marquands separated soon after, Rita got a job in the features department at Harper’s Bazaar . She moved to a fourth-floor walk-up in a building owned by Vincent Astor near Gracie Mansion. Diana Barrymore was a neighbor.
“Rita’s was the first red living room I ever saw!” Mrs. Middleton said. She persuaded her parents that “her poor friend Rita was all alone, and I really should move in.” The Paysons consented. Mrs. Middleton got a job at a bookshop. “I’d never have been allowed to go out on my own otherwise. I got my freedom. Rita taught me to cook.”
“But we didn’t spend a lot of time cooking. Lots of beaux came up those four flights of stairs,” Mrs. Kip said. “I remember Payne sobbing over Peter Matthiessen and wanting to throttle him for hurting my friend.”
“The only time Rita and I argued was when she borrowed my clothes,” Mrs. Middleton said.
A missing dress was irksome, but fashion didn’t hold much sway.
“We weren’t brought up to worry about clothes. That was gilding the lily. Our families looked down on fashion,” Mrs. Kip said.
“There wasn’t any material for clothes during the war. I don’t remember such a thing as ‘fashion’ until Diana Vreeland came in. All those clotheshorses roaming around today,” Mrs. Middleton sniffed, then reconsidered. “Well, how do I know they also aren’t off doing wonderful things at Sloan-Kettering I’d find very difficult and painful to do?”
There were more marriages and children. Illnesses and accidents. Each has a daughter who died. Life happened. “But even when we lived on different continents,” Mrs. Middleton said, “there’s never been a time when we weren’t friends.”
“We’ve grown spiritually together,” Mrs. Kip smiled. They became serious women who can laugh and lark.
Rita Kip remembered “the wonderful slowness” of New York 50 years ago. She remembered leaving a Christmas party when they were young and finding the city covered in snow at midnight. “There weren’t any taxis, but a garbage truck came by and took me home. To be polite. The one constant in life,” she said without a whiff of regret, “is change.”
“Change doesn’t have to mean ruin,” Mrs. Middleton added.
“It depends on your attitude,” Mrs. Kip said.
“Exactly,” agreed Mrs. Middleton and her very best friend.