The Old Girls’ Network

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

again.

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

Stuff.

“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,

plastic surgery.

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

Biddy City.

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

anthrax.

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

trying him.

“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

accruing.

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.

Wind-Up Liz

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

any.”

Ms. Smith wasn’t worried. “Oh, there will be” a succession, she

said.

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!’”

Everybody rose.