At the Drama League’s annual gala on Feb. 25, singer Elaine
Stritch stood on the stage of the Pierre Hotel’s Grand Ballroom and talked
about a good friend of hers. “She treats this town like Grover’s Corners in Our Town ,” the 77-year-old Ms. Stritch
said in her rat-a-tat-tat way. “She wafts her way in and out of Le Cirque like
it was Starbucks, and she goes to Starbucks like it was ’21.’”
Ms. Stritch was referring to gossip columnist Liz Smith, who was
being saluted that night at the Drama League’s annual benefit gala, but like
the Sondheim song she sings in her one-woman show at the Neil Simon Theater
(the last words of which are the queenly,
” Everybody rise! Rise! Rise! “),
Ms. Stritch could have been toasting any of the Ladies Who Lunch in this town.
And they deserve it.
At this moment, when the alpha males who dominated the 80′s and
90′s are petering out and, according to the
New York Post , baby socialites Samantha Kluge and Paris Hilton are catching
planes to the West Coast, the grown-up women of Manhattan are surging once
New York is Biddy City-and before the Merriam-Websters start
sailing this way, we mean that as a compliment.
ABC News doyenne Barbara Walters, 70, and her colleague Diane
Sawyer, 56, are knocking elbows over A-list interviews like it was the 90′s;
79-year-old columnist Liz Smith is typing as fast as she can to bring the world
scoops about Liza Minnelli’s sideshow wedding. And Texas transplant(andformergovernor) Ann Richards moved to
Manhattan with her own Biddy Creed: “Here’s what I think about power. The more
you give away, the more you get.”
These women-and there are many more of them-are supplying this
momentarily cold town with some welcome hot flashes. They set the agenda for
what we discuss at cocktail parties, which media we consume and to which
charities we give our disposable income. They are, as Mr. Sondheim wrote, an
“invincible bunch / The dinosaurs surviving the crunch,” but while these women
carry the social weight of T. Rexes and their skins are as thick as a
stegosaurus’, they move with the stealth of much silkier creatures.
Are You a Biddy?
Not everyone has what it takes to be a Biddy, and the
qualifications don’t necessarily have to do with age, sex or marital status.
Men can be Biddies, though they’re generally pretty lame at it. New York males
tend to wield their ambition and power in great flaming bursts, often using up
their vitality before they’re ready to shuffle off the stage. “Who would have
thought 10 years ago that John Gutfreund would have been ruined, or Al Taubman,
or Saul Steinberg?” said one grown-up New York socialite who learned the ropes
long before these men and their wives came to town. “They still have their
money, but …. “
These men no longer have the perception of power. That list could
be longer, too. Ron Perelman is still tromping around like he owns this town,
but no one seems to be paying attention. Besides, not everyone has the Biddy
“Don’t you think that it’s anatomical?” said the writer Jay
Presson Allen ( The Prime of Miss Jean
Brodie , Prince of the City and Tru , about the late, fallen Biddy Truman
Capote), who’s 80. “I think men do wear out. Women live longer than men.
There’s some conservation-perhaps totally unconscious-that goes on in women’s
bodies. I think men use themselves up. Even rather mild guys tend to do that.
And people who go on all cylinders, that’s something else. And I don’t think
that kind of hunger is ever satisfied.”
Of course, there are women like that as well. Indeed, the last
week and a half has seen plenty of writing about feminine aggression in both The New York Times Magazine and The Washington Post . In her Feb. 27 Times column, Maureen Dowd addressed
both stories by asking the question: “If schools are overrun with alpha girls,
why isn’t America run by alpha women?” Ms. Dowd rightly went on to point out
that alpha males tend to band together to crush professional alpha women, which
is certainly true enough.
In the same piece, she identified Ms. Walters and Ms. Sawyer as
alpha girls-but, quite frankly, they are Biddies. What’s the distinction?
Biddies are equipped to be alpha females-or even males-but they wield their
power with great economy, the covertness and cleverness of geisha, but more
like Geisha Ninjas. Like black belts and Jedi knights, they know how to be
surgically lethal, but they only kill when provoked. Biddies prefer to use the
forces of flirtation, seduction and charm to gain their goals. Anyone who’s
watched Ms. Walters turn her strapping new 20/20
co-host John Miller into putty on air knows that.
The craftiest and most powerful Biddies came of age in
pre-feminist times and evolved. Some of their archetypes are gone: pioneer
women like Charlotte Curtis, Diana Vreeland, as well some of the old socialite
Cote Basque crowd. But the current reigning Biddies know how to cherry-pick
from both philosophies without looking hypocritical. They also never look like
post-feminist schlubs. Biddies believe in hair and makeup and, when necessary,
So who’s a Biddy? New York
Post gossip columnist Cindy Adams is; so is WWD Suzy columnist Aileen Mehle. So is Helen Gurley Brown.
Real-estate mogul Elizabeth Stribling is a Biddy broker. Lynn Nesbit is a Biddy
book agent. Former Texas governor Ann Richards is the new Biddy on the block.
Socialite Brooke Astor is Biddy emeritus. Kitty Carlisle Hart is Biddy (ret.).
Homemaking mogul Martha Stewart swings between Biddydom and alpha-girl
tendencies, Wendy Wasserstein is the Biddy Boswell, and The New York Times ‘ Alex Kuczynski is a Biddy in training. Rosie
O’Donnell and Liza Minnelli aren’t Biddies, but they are Biddy pets. Journalist
Alex Witchel has the hottest novel on the Biddy circuit: Me Times Three , blurbed by Ms. Wasserstein and sexy Biddy Sarah
Jessica Parker. Publicist Peggy Siegal is destined to become a Biddy. The
recently departed Pauline Trigère was one of the original Biddies. Tina Brown
was an alpha girl, but if she wants to-which she may not-she’ll be reborn as a
Biddy. Lincoln Center chair Beverly Sills was a Biddy who is looking more and
more like a sputtering alpha girl.
Male biddies? New York’s got ‘em. Phi Beta charmer and Sony chief
executive Howard Stringer is among the most successful male Biddies. So is
Barry Diller, as long as he’s not screaming at someone in the office . Vanity Fair editor in chief Graydon
Carter is a north-of-the-border Biddy. Mort Zuckerman is a Biddy, too, although
he dreams about being an alpha boy. And
the city’s new Mayor? Well, he does have Biddy tendencies.
Biddies love to socialize, giving lie to the old Mark Twain adage
that the wonderful part of old age is that you don’t have to go out. But then,
as Ms. Allen said: “Liz may not have a clue how old she is.”
Their stomping grounds include the Four Seasons, Le Cirque,
Daniel Boulud’s uptown restaurants and Elaine’s, run by Biddy restaurateur
Elaine Kaufman. And on March 2, Ms. Walters and Ms. Adams shared a quiet Biddy
dinner for two at the Monkey Bar.
The patron saint of Biddyhood is Clare Boothe Luce, the author of
The Women . Ms. Stritch-who’s a
Biddy-starred, along with Gloria Swanson, in a version of the play from which
she was expelled in Warren, Ohio, and she’s got a hilarious Biddy-laden story
to tell about that experience in her show.
For some time now, the Biddy Empress has been Ms. Walters,
although she would never admit it. Through a spokesman, she declined to be
interviewed for this article-which, to be fair to everyone who did talk to us,
was characterized as a piece about grown-up women and power, not a feature on
Still, more than one person interviewed by The Observer recalled a 1996
New York Times piece by Judith Miller which intimated that Ms. Walters
could eventually become the doyenne of New York society when Mrs. Astor
relinquishes the role. The notion that Ms. Walters-who does precious little
charity and board work because it might conflict with her reporting
duties-could unite a modern social world that boasts as many niches as Time
Warner’s DTV has channels is a sign of how masterfully she wields her power.
And, well, Ms. Miller certainly turned out to be prescient when it came to
The Biddy Nexis
Ms. Walters’ refusal to talk about her power is a key Biddy
trait. “I never think of exercising any power,” said Ms. Mehle.
But somehow the word gets out.
Often it has something to do with Ms. Smith, who functions as the
Biddy Nexis in this town. The existence of a Biddy network-Biddyocracy, if
you’d like-is a closely held secret, even more difficult to prove than the
goings on at Skull and Bones ( paging Ron
Rosenbaum! ). But for those who want to keep track of the city’s Biddies and
their interests, Ms. Smith’s column is a must-read.
Of course, Ms. Smith denies the existence of any network of
like-minded people. “You mean where people are aware? Nooooooo !” she said over margaritas at one of her haunts, El Rio
Grande (which is, by virtue of her presence, a Biddy hangout).
Yet go to Ms. Stritch’s show: Right after she thanks her
hairdresser, Mr. Vincent, you’ll hear her give heartfelt kudos to Ms. Smith
“for making the world think I’m far more famous than I could ever be.”
Ms. Smith doesn’t deny that she writes about her fellow
Biddies-our term, not hers-whom she calls her friends, but she says they don’t
facilitate her need to feed the beast. “I don’t get much gossip from my friends,”
she said as she sipped her frozen margarita. She wore a crisp, pink Oxford
shirt open at the neck, its collar hugging the lapels of her dark suit. Her
blond flip had just been coiffed for Helen Gurley Brown’s 80th birthday
celebration. “They’re too important. If I want to write something about Sony
and I go to Howard Stringer, he’s almost too powerful. He’d probably try to
talk me out of writing it. So I sort of do end runs around all of them-and very
much around Barbara, because she’s very sensitive about people thinking she
would give me something. Actually, she doesn’t tell me much of anything.”
Further proof of Ms. Smith’s place at the white-hot center of the
Biddyocracy arrived in the mail a few days after drinks. It was the invitation
to this year’s gala for Literacy Volunteers, a charity that Ms. Smith
co-founded with designer Arnold Scaasi and his companion, Parker Ladd.
The best invitations are anthropological treasure maps, and the
one for Literacy Volunteers was a keeper. First of all, it was a veritable
circuit diagram of the Biddyocracy. Ms. Smith, along with another couple of
Biddies, Mr. Scaasi and Mr. Ladd, are the chairmen. Sir Howard Stringer is
among those being honored. Invisible Biddy Anne Eisenhower Flöttl is one of the
gala vice chairmen; Vanity Fair ‘s Mr.
Carter and Mr. Diller are among the corporate chairmen. Benefactors include the
Biddy TV network, ABC, as well as Biddy laureate Joan Ganz Cooney and her
husband, Blackstone Group chairman Pete Peterson, who isn’t a Biddy himself but
lives with one. And the charity’s Council for Literacy is a veritable
Biddypalooza that includes Mrs. Astor, socialite Anne Bass, Annette de la
Renta, Louise Grunwald, Viking publishing scion Thomas Guinzburg, Patricia
Kennedy Lawford, CBS News anchor Dan Rather (who’s Biddier than a domesticated
coyote), Ms. Sawyer, Mr. Stringer, Mr. Zuckerman and Ms. Walters.
It’s a striking diagram of how the Biddyocracy is wired into the
culture at this moment. The event will take place on May 6 at Lincoln Center.
Readings will be done by authors Jonathan Franzen, Margaret Atwood, David
McCullough and West Coast Biddy Julie Andrews. Special guests include First
Biddy Laura Bush-whose predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton was not a Biddy as
First Lady, nor as U.S. Senator-and First Biddy of New York Libby Pataki, as
well as (surprise, surprise) Mr. Bloomberg.
At El Rio Grande, right before Ms. Smith dumped half of her
margarita into my glass, I had mentioned to her that she’d helped give Mr.
Bloomberg some social juice.
“You know what ?” (She
wrapped her Texas roots around that last word, making it sound as if she was
discussing electrical usage instead of the city’s new Mayor.) “I wrote about
him strictly because I wanted him to give me money for Literacy Partners,” she
said. “Had he just been a dull tool, I wouldn’t have written very much-because
when I met him and I asked him if he would underwrite the thing, he immediately
said he would. He said, ‘I’ll do this because Barbara Walters says you’re
really a great human being.’” There it was-the Biddy Handoff! But it was up to
Ms. Smith to close the deal.
“Then we had lunch together, and we had a lot of fun,” Ms Smith
said. “He’s very flirty, and it’s easy for guys to be flirty with old women,
because they aren’t in danger.”
Flirty, Fun Females
“I was telling someone how hard it is to talk to Bill Clinton
socially. I finally figured out why,” Ms. Smith said. “You don’t dare flirt
with him. Even if you’re my age, you just don’t. Because it would sound
inappropriate, like you were referencing back to Monica or something. So when I
try to talk to him, I’m just real tongue-tied, and I realized how much a lot of
my allusions are flirtatious or sexual or at least dirty jokes or something.
But with him, you can’t bring any of that stuff up, or it would be like you’re
“I really feel sorry for him,” Ms. Smith said. “I think if you
lose the chance to be friendly, warm and flirtatious with people, you’ve really
lost something …. You never get to a level where you move your relationship to
a better thing, where you’re more intimate with someone.”
Seventy-nine-year old Liz Smith lowered her eyes and flashed a
wry smile. Couched in this mixture of Texan honesty, flattery and
self-effacement was a lesson in power that somehow has been lost on the
kick-boxing alpha girls of modern New York.
Ms. Smith may want the world to think she’s no longer dangerous,
but truth be told, the benefits of her courtship of Mr. Bloomberg are still
Last year, the media mogul not only became involved with Ms.
Smith’s charity; at her Literacy Partners gala in May, he gave her-Ms. Smith
has characterized the act as “let it slip”-a scoop. Mr. Bloomberg told the
columnist that he was indeed going to run for Mayor.
Eleven days after she ran with the item, she wrote in her column
that by printing his comments, “I may well have fractured our friendship.” But
how could Mr. Bloomberg stay mad at Ms. Smith, who makes him feel sexy in
person and interesting in her column? He can’t. And not only is he a special
guest at this year’s gala, but his company is underwriting it-which, with Mrs.
Bush’s appearance, is not going to be cheap.
Though Ms. Smith is, without a doubt, the public face of Literacy
Partners, she is typically modest about her involvement. “I’m sort of like a
wind-up toy. They wind me up and I go out there. They say, ‘Write a letter to
…,’ or they say, ‘Go to Michael Bloomberg and ask him if he’ll …. ‘” And so I
do have a little clout, in some respects.”
If you cross-reference Ms. Smith’s column with the people she
counts as friends as well as the work she does for charity, it’s possible to
see that she’s achieved something quite rare -especially for someone in the
field of journalism. She’s managed to orchestrate a kind of harmonic
convergence that has garnered her an impressive amount of access, respect and
power, even when it didn’t always make her a lot of money.
She’s gotten a lot of guff in the past from other journalists
(including this one) for promoting her friends too much, and she was guilty-but
she’s beyond that now, a member of the Biddy Pantheon, which is now as close as
anything else to the permanent power structure of this city, and endemic to the
age. With the benefit of a little perspective, it’s also possible to see that
Ms. Smith was really just investing in the occupants of a town that she loves,
and trying to make sure that they had a reason to be invested, too.
When, on Feb. 25, Drama League president Patricia Follert thanked
Ms. Smith-who was literally radiant in a long spangled ivory dress-for agreeing
to be the guest of honor, she said, “You’re the most popular woman in New York.
And it is through many of your friends that are here tonight that you’ve been
able to make the Drama League coffers absolutely full.”
The question is, who will succeed the Biddies when they decide
they’ve had enough? “The hard job you have is that these are the names that
come up again and again,” said Ms. Smith’s friend, Louise Grunwald. “You need
to find the new Liz Smiths and Barbara Walters, but the problem is there aren’t
Ms. Smith wasn’t worried. “Oh, there will be” a succession, she
Besides, the Biddies aren’t going anywhere. “What shall I do,
stay home and put bananas in the Jell-O?” said the Post ‘s Ms. Adams. “I have everything I need,” she added. “But in
New York, your currency is your currency.”
Ms. Smith put it another way after the Drama League had fêted her
with a production that included Biddy Kaye Ballard, a bunch of blond chorus
girls wearing Ms. Smith’s hairdo and singing the Kander & Ebb–written tune
“Natural Blonde,” and a group that included
60 Minutes correspondent Mike ( Nightbeat )
Wallace and actress Stefanie Powers doing schtick between verses of a song
called “Give It to Liz.”
Later, Mr. Wallace-not a Biddy, but with the longevity of
one-recalled that he knew Ms. Smith for so long that she once secured an
interview with Eleanor Roosevelt for his radio show.
Anyway, Ms. Smith eventually walked onstage and told the crowd:
“Let me just leave you with a few immortal words that could have been uttered
by the likes of Eleanor Lambert or Ruth Gordon or Al Hirschfeld, by Katharine
Hepburn, Irving Berlin, Kitty Carlisle Hart” and “Pauline Trigère, who bought a
ticket to this show but is now at the big picture show in the sky. I’ll add
Brooke Astor to this,” Ms. Smith said. “But it’s our motto: ‘Fuck old age!’”