I’m Barred at Liz Party, But Who Needs Invitations?

Of all the wonderful features in this wonderful paper, the one I turn to most eagerly is The Eight-Day Week–currently supervised by my sparkling colleague, Alexandra Jacobs. In all the world, there is nothing like it. In most other small-town newspapers, calendar features are boring lists of concerts and art shows and charity benefits open to anyone with the price of a ticket. Not ours.

What makes our calendar unique in all the world is that roughly 80 percent of the events it lists are “by invitation only” and therefore closed to 90 percent of the people who read it. To put it another way, the calendar conspicuously does not address the memorable question put (in Camelot ) to Richard Burton by Julie Andrews: “What do the simple folk do?” Although reading about the people whose to-ing and fro-ing is deemed worthy of calendar inclusion does make one kind of yearn for Robert Goulet.

I am quite aware that I am expressing the view of someone who is seldom invited to anything, thanks largely, I suppose, to the tone and spirit in which I have conducted this column since October 1987. Take last week’s Le Cirque Schutzenfest to honor Liz Smith’s recently published memoir. I was not among the masses present “by invitation only,” alas, my name having been removed from the original list by one of the hostesses, or so I am told on the best authority. Not that I blame the woman in question; if anyone had written about me what I’ve written (and intend to continue to write) about her, I wouldn’t let me in the door, either.

Such is life. As I once told Manhattan’s perhaps pushiest publicist, when she begged for an invitation to a party–”by invitation only”–being given for me by friends: “Into each life some rain must fall.” In an effort to soothe her agitation, I crooned this in a soothing near-falsetto, a very passable imitation of the style of the incomparable Bill Kenny, lead tenor of the Ink Spots, of all American close-harmony groups the most deserving of the sobriquet Unverganglich, Unvergessen (“Unforgettable and unforgotten”). But my thoughtful vocalism seemed to provide little solace. At the far end of the phone I could hear her sniffle, even as she crossed my name off the list she was putting together for the next b.i.o. Shaquille O’Neal opening.

I apologize for the last sentences, but I have been rereading S.J. Perelman, and his style has had the same effect on my pre-senescent sensibility as the films of Wallace Reid and Vilma Bánky had on him in post-adolescence. Perelman’s wit makes me wriggle like a tickled puppy, and I am compelled to imitate him–badly. If you are one of the 10 people remaining in Manhattan with a sense of humor, an indispensable compendium, Most of the Most of S.J. Perelman , has been published most handsomely by the Modern Library at $15.95. To paraphrase a remark once made about an unmemorable Yankee first baseman named Nick Etten, the $15 is for Perelman, the 95 cents for an unfortunate preface by Steve Martin, who has gotten increasingly unfunny (an opinion in which I am not alone) the more he tries to make himself over from a wild-and-crazy comedian into a tart New Yorker humorist.

The saddest conclusion to be drawn from our calendar (and much other evidence beside) is what a hick town Manhattan has become. When I went to live in Dallas in 1978, it was my first exposure to a social order in which people routinely went to parties in stores, a convention that I regarded at the time–and still regard, 22 years later–to be a sure sign of sociocultural impoverishment, if not barbarism. In New York today, such venues are a norm, but so too are barbarians.

There’s a terrific irony in this. Namely, that New York has become exactly what New York power players and boldfacers used to look down on Washington for being: closed-off and provincial, self-congratulatory, inward-looking, artistically insipid, intellectually and culturally mediocre and–yes–in-your-face elitist in the worst sense. A place that celebrates access and inclusion over everything else. And what inclusion, dare we ask? Inclusion in a small, noisome and noisy hive of access-celebrity peddlers and access-celebrity buyers whose intellectual and social curiosity is pretty much limited to reading about themselves, mainly in publications that themselves reflect the social aspirations and insecurities of their editors or proprietors.

Today, the rivers that moat Manhattan are what the Beltway is to the nation’s capital, the physical boundaries of a sclerotic, striving, process-driven, talent-stifling, wretched social order without value or values. No wonder fewer and fewer of the cultivated people who dwell between the Hudson River and the Sierra Nevada give a merry screw about what happens in Manhattan. Their cultural life tends to be fresher and more varied at home. They come to New York to shop.

New York today is about shopping and not much more. Not just for luxury goods, but for the other appurtenances of high life: connections and status and the deference of headwaiters. Socially and culturally as well as commercially, we have become a temple to the religion of the brand (one reason for the pre-eminence of the auction houses). The “brand” value of a product usually derives from consistency of quality or utility; unless you are speaking of Placido Domingo, the “brand” value of a person tends to be the brand itself, nothing more. Our calendar, along with columns elsewhere that print “gossip” consisting of publicists’ handouts, is all about the process by which people “brand” themselves, or try to. Which is why I, as a student of such things, read it with the same keen interest and sense of necessity that my peers in other fields experience as they devour Modern Grocer , Pharmaceutical Weekly or Ball Bearings Today .

It’s reflexive to condemn these revoltin’ developments as a terrible comedown from New York’s postwar salad days, when the city was cosmopolitan (“having wide international sophistication”) and not merely metropolitan (“a large important city.”) Back then, people at least kept quiet about themselves–but, to be fair, what has happened in New York in the past 20 years hasn’t been so much a matter of “becoming” as it is of “reverting to type.”

This is a point driven home–one suspects, inadvertently–by Art and the Empire City: New York, 1825-1861 , the over-hyped exhibition du saison at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Something there is about this show that brings to mind a famous remark by the late Benjamin Sonnenberg, the Über -publicist who seems in so many ways to be the presiding spirit of the present age. “My job,” Sonnenberg is supposed to have remarked, “is to build large pedestals for small people.”

The way the show is being peddled implies that the period between the opening of the Erie Canal and the outbreak of the Civil War saw the transformation of Manhattan into a world cultural center: from hick town into metropolis. But if you look closely, it will be hard to avoid the conclusion that what took place during those “momentous” years was merely the inflation of a small hick town into a bigger one, with the same worship of brand-names as today.

If you are able to keep your attention from wandering off during the relatively brief time it should take a reasonably cultivated person to absorb the little that is worth absorbing in this gallimaufry of inconsequential images (apart from a few obvious bows to the great movements of the spirit that held Europe ensnared during the same period, such as Romanticism), perfectly hideous furniture and tchotchkes that would do scant credit to an Atlantic Avenue secondhand stall, I suspect you will share this view. You will see that any “transformation” that occurred in Manhattan during this period had a great deal more to do with retailing than with what used to be called “culture,” no matter how artfully it’s displayed. Indeed, this is yet another New York exhibition in which, so to speak, the frame is infinitely more interesting than the picture.

The iconic images of the period aren’t Asher Durand’s Kindred Spirits or Church’s Heart of the Andes , the latter brilliantly displayed as the department-store diorama it would have been seen as. These are merely artistic window-dressing, reflecting European yearnings. The heart of the exhibition is to be found in the plans for hotels, department stores, the new reservoir, a park to keep “the simple folk” happy on their day off and to do wonders for the value of adjoining real estate. The self-satisfaction and self-importance exuded by the portraiture tells us what we need to know.

What the “Empire City” became during this transformational period was exactly what it has re-become in the past 20 years: the sort of place in which the other big “art” event of the season can be the Armani show at the Guggenheim. A sorry state of affairs, but there you are. And we got there “by invitation only.”