Though the traditional notion of New York society has become an increasingly quaint concept in this age of branding and classless celebrity, it has clung to life in the pages of The Social Register , that 115-year-old semi-annual compilation of America’s ruling class that, since the late 70′s, has been published by the Forbes family.
But the sudden-and quiet-departure of Tom Jones, the company’s director of special projects and the man who presided over the Register during much of the 23 years he worked at Forbes Inc., has thrown the publication’s already dim future into question.
Though there has been some speculation that Mr. Jones was edged out at the Register , both he and Forbes management insisted that Mr. Jones resigned. “I have decided, basically because of Sept. 11 and reaching an advanced age and wanting a quieter life, to tone down my responsibilities,” said Mr. Jones, who is 57 years old. As a result, he said he will continue to serve as a consultant to the Forbes organization and to write restaurant reviews for Forbes magazine.
Mr. Jones spoke with The Transom on June 4, and at press time on June 11, Forbes had yet to appoint a replacement, although there has been some speculation that the job may go to Sabina Forbes, the daughter of Forbes editor in chief Steve Forbes who works in the company’s publicity department, or possibly Mr. Forbes’ other daughter, Moira Forbes, who works for the family business in London.
Forbes Inc. vice chairman Christopher (Kip) Forbes, who is close to Mr. Jones, called him “irreplaceable” and said: “We will painfully try to find somebody or, probably, several people to take over the functions that Tom did so brilliantly.”
Asked if his brother’s daughters were under consideration, Mr. Forbes-who spoke by phone from the Forbes annual sales meeting at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia-said, “Absolutely. As my father used to say, ‘At Forbes , we don’t preach nepotism, we practice it.’”
Since Sept. 11, Forbes, like a lot of media organizations, has also been practicing cost-cutting, and some question whether The Social Register , which is aimed at a narrow, waning niche, can be seen as a viable proposition at a company that’s operating in lean-and-mean mode. Last fall, sources familiar with the situation said Forbes Inc. staff was cut approximately 20 percent overall but that Mr. Jones’ division took an even deeper hit. Kip Forbes called the 20 percent figure “an exaggeration,” adding: “It wasn’t that much, but it hurt.”
And the summer edition of the Register shows evidence of those cutbacks. Eight years ago, Mr. Jones oversaw the creation of The Social Register Observer , a quarterly, advertisement-accepting companion magazine for the Married Maidens who subscribed to the Register. But, as recipients of the summer edition of the Social Register will find, the Register and the Social Register Observer have now been folded together.
There are other factors that don’t exactly bode well for the Register ‘s future. In the past, Forbes family members have not exactly trumpeted their ownership of the directory, which has excluded Jews, blacks and other racial and ethnic groups-an issue that arose when Steve Forbes ran for President in the 90′s.
And then there is this. “I never hear anybody talk about it anymore. It’s just not cited anymore,” said Tom Wolfe, author of The Bonfire of The Vanities and a journalist who has dissected society in America. “This is off the top of the head, but I think that that world of social luster has been so overshadowed by celebrities that it doesn’t have any kick anymore.”
Mr. Wolfe added: “There was a time when a girl of the year-that term was first applied to a debutante; Brenda
Frazier, I believe-and newspapers would send reporters down to the docks when people like that came in on a ship from England or France. That just doesn’t happen anymore, unless the socialite has either done something notorious or something completely outside of the world of social distinction.”
When The Transom asked Mr. Forbes if there was “no chance” that The Social Register might cease to publish, he replied: “Not no chance. Sadly, anything can happen, as we saw on Sept. 11.” But then he added: “We are putting it in shape so it can survive another 113 years.”
Mr. Jones said The Social Register was first published in 1886 “as an extension of a visiting list-a Victorian conceit where people kept lists of whom they’d have in their houses and whom they would visit.”
“It was basically a list of one network of people,” Mr. Jones said. “The first issues were descendants of the old English and Dutch families that settled this country.” Later, it was “continued to include others who are part of that set.” Mr. Forbes said that who does and does not make the cut was determined by Mr. Jones working with “an advisory committee,” although there are some observers of the social world who are as skeptical of that advisory committee as certain New York restaurant goers are of the Zagat guide’s voters.
By 1918, there were reportedly 18 volumes of The Social Register representing 26 cities, but as the celebrity culture waxed and society waned, those editions were eventually shrunk down to a single volume.
The Social Register ‘s archives represent a rich chapter in American history, and some observers of the Forbes family say they could represent a handsome tax write-off if they were donated to a university or museum.
Mr. Forbes denied that this might be in the works. The archives, he said, are “still used on a regular basis.” But he did admit that the company is “looking at a less-cost-per-square-foot place to put them.” Currently, the Register ‘s offices are housed at 381 Park Avenue South.
The next edition of the Register is scheduled to be published in November and, according to Mr. Forbes, will need to go to the printers at the end of October. Mr. Jones will be helping with the transition.
As for the transition that society is undergoing, Mr. Forbes said:
“It’s changed, but it’s certainly not diminished. Defining society and remembering what it was-there has always been a demand for it. Its obituary has been written many times, and somehow it keeps rearing its head.”
Then Mr. Forbes said he had to go. “I’m here at our annual sales meeting,” he said. “I want to go downstairs and make sure there are going to be more.”
Hitch & Howell
“This is an all-star cast,” paper-thin socialite Nan Kempner said as she surveyed the packed front room of Swifty’s, the Upper East Side eatery, on the night of June 10. Ms. Kempner had come to celebrate her friend Jane Stanton Hitchcock’s new mystery novel, Social Crimes , which will be published this month by Talk Miramax Books.
Ms. Stanton Hitchcock, friend of the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, mystery writer and wife of Washington Post writer Jim Hoagland, usually sets the scene of her novels among the inhabitants of New York’s highest tax brackets, and that night she’d managed to rope in an impressive number of its preternaturally preserved representatives. Designer Mary MacFadden came by, as did Republican fund-raiser Georgette Mosbacher, former Talk editor Tina Brown with hubby Harry Evans, Daily News publisher Mort Zuckerman and Vanity Fair writer Marie Brenner all contributed to the crush.
ABC’s Barbara Walters, impeccable amidst the throng in a lilac-colored suit, had read the book and bought extra copies for a couple of friends. “It’s a very small part of New York,” she said of the characters that people Social Crimes . “But people always like to read about the rich, and they always like to know the rich have troubles.”
In this latest work, Ms. Hitchcock’s main character is Jo Slater, a New York socialite whose billionaire husband ditches her for her best friend. It’s a familiar plotline in real-life New York, but Ms. Hitchcock, who wore a fuchsia get-up and a string of pearls around her neck, claimed that “all the characters in the book” were based on “me.”
Society, Ms. Hitchcock said, is fertile terrain for fiction, because “beneath those smiles there’s always something different, and that is so intriguing.” Right then, Liz Rohatyn and husband Felix walked in. “What a great article from Mr. Norwich!” Ms. Rohatyn immediately said, mentioning the large 1,965-word New York Times story about Ms. Hitchcock that had appeared the previous week.
“I don’t believe it!” Ms. Hitchcock shrieked. “Can you believe this is happening?”
More cynical observers would have answered that yes, they could believe it-at least in regard to the Times story. Ms. Hitchcock is a longtime friend of The Times ‘ new big foot, managing editor Howell Raines. She was even romantically linked to Mr. Raines-who got his own extra-grand profile in last week’s New Yorker -before she married Mr. Hoagland.
Asked about the connection, Ms. Hitchcock said that although she was thrilled about the piece-”it was the best thing that ever happened in my professional life”-she hadn’t given a thought about her connection to the head of The Times .
“I understood from Billy that he loved the book and it was a totally professional decision on Billy’s part and The Times ‘ part,” she said. “Certainly, Howell and I are friends, but I didn’t think about it, to be very honest. I think that everyone is professional enough.”
According to a Times spokeswoman, “Howell was not involved in the article at all and his relationship had no influence on the conception of or the editing of the piece.”
Foer + Krauss = ™?
At the Border’s bookstore on Park Avenue and 57th Street, 25-year-old Jonathan Safran Foer’s critically successful novel Everything Is Illuminate d is prominently displayed just below the work of New York’s newest literary Wunderkind, 27-year-old poet Nicole Krauss, whose first novel, Man Walks into a Room , has just been published by Doubleday.
According to sources familiar with the writers, their display-floor proximity accurately reflects Ms. Krauss’ and Mr. Safran Foer’s current romantic situation. Sources familiar with the couple say they’ve been dating for several months, and were “cozy” at the after-party at restaurant L’Acajou following Mr. Safran Foer’s recent reading at the Chelsea Barnes & Noble.
Representatives for Ms. Krauss and Mr. Safran Foer did not return The Transom’s phone calls.
Everything Is Illuminated interweaves a fictional account of a young man’s journey to uncover his family history in the Ukraine with a magical tale of his grandfather’s imagined village.
Ms. Krauss’ Man Walks into a Room is about a college professor who has irretrievably lost his memory. Ms. Krauss’ grandparents are also Holocaust survivors. She lives in Manhattan. Mr. Safran Foer lives in Queens. Given the commute, things must be fairly serious.
Crazy Like Cho
It was noon on June 7 and the comedian Margaret Cho was in Room 715 of the Union Square W hotel. She was there to promote her new concert film, Notorious C.H.O. , which will be released on July 3.
“It’s just a me-fest,” said Ms. Cho, who was wearing a billowy silk dress she got at the mall and sheepskin boots. “And it’s stupid. It’s like I went to this party last night and it was for me , and there’s a big poster of me, and I’m like, This is weird. It’s just this weird thing where you have this inflated sense of self-importance because people are really caring about what you’re doing or they need you for something.
“That’s why I think a lot of famous people that I know are super creepy-because they think that the whole world cares,” Ms. Cho said. “Fame is such an illusion. It doesn’t make you different from other human beings. It’s just this kind of circumstance that could be temporary, but it makes people crazy.”
Ms. Cho, 33, started doing stand-up at 16 and got a ABC-TV series in 1994 called All-American Girl , the first network show starring an Asian-American. It was also one of the first times that a network sitcom star seemed to have little compunction about admitting that she was bisexual. Actually, Ms. Cho doesn’t like that pert little label. She prefers to be called “a slut.”
After the show was canceled in 1995, she partied way too hard. Then she made a dramatic, well-received comeback in 1999 with an Off Broadway run of I’m the One That I Want , followed by a tour, a film and a book of the same title.
Her material these days is very raunchy stuff with a little motivational self-help thrown in. Ms. Cho has no trouble answering questions about the last time she performed oral sex on a woman-”Last summer!” she said-or about the same-sex relationships she’s had.
“They’ve been awful,” she said. “So heartbreaking and stupid and full of games,” that Ms. Cho claimed that when it comes to women, “I’ve had it with them!” Not that she necessarily blames the women she’s dated. “I have bad taste in women,” she said.
Now she dates a British guy in Los Angeles. “I’m a big snow queen,” she said. “When you enjoy the company of Caucasian men. I mean, I think it’s great.”
What did she think of all those white men who exclusively date Asian women who don’t speak English?
“Yeah, that’s great! It’s totally hot. I don’t know, the air of colonization is just very sexy in a relationship,” she said. “I think it serves both parties very well. [The men] get a girlfriend that’s probably, in quotes, ‘hotter’ than they would get here. There’s a kind of a social-idea stereotype that Asian women have this sexual mystique about them that is very exotic and erotic and it’s all a myth, but if it’s believed, then it works.”
So it’s O.K. for white guys to have a thing for Asian women? The Transom asked.
“I love being fetishized, I think it’s hot,” Ms. Cho said. “I think people should appreciate a good objectification now and again.” But she also pointed out that eventually that dynamic ends. “At a certain point, when you’re saying, ‘Why don’t you fucking take out the goddamn trash for once?’ you can’t be fetishized after that. Relationships become real very quickly.”
The Transom’s eggs Benedict arrived. Ms. Cho reached into a bag for her health-food lunch, which included something called a “sun burger.” She’s a clean liver (meditation, yoga, a therapist) and she has one, too: That day she was marking four years of sobriety.
Ms. Cho said that she began thinking she might have a problem with alcohol in 1995 when, while driving drunk, she hit a car full of “gangbangers” in L.A.
“All these gang members came out of the car,” she recalled. “I screamed at them for so long that they freaked out and left. I was so scary that they were like, O.K., fine, and they took off. And I felt bad, we sort of exchanged cards, and I was screaming and they were threatening me and I was screaming more, and it was just this fight …. Somehow I just talked my way out of it and intimidated them.” She ended up feeling really guilty and sent them $200.
Ms. Cho’s unfazed, extra-tolerant attitude probably comes from growing up in San Francisco, where her parents ran a bookstore and drag queens were her best friends. Was there something she hadn’t done sexually that she’d like to?
“Mummification! That’s where you get either wrapped in bandages or like latex and you’re completely covered up and then they have like a hood and then they put straws in your nose so you can breathe. Then you’re suspended-it’s kind of an extension of bondage but it’s about sensory deprivation. I’ve always thought it would be really interesting.”
Ms. Cho said she’s not “into” pornography but she watches it. Sometimes she even checks out violent porn. “There’s an incredible like rape culture in Japan, that’s really like weird,” she said. “There’s all those films like Rape Man , which are so like-have you seen those? It’s so intense. It’s just so violent, like there’s all the Guinea Pig movies, have you heard of those? They’re these Japanese films that are like snuff films. They don’t have a lot of sexual content, it’s all about straight-up violence.”
According to published reports, Japanese law-enforcement officials investigated the Guinea Pig films and found them to be made with special effects, but, just based on Ms. Cho’s description, they’re pretty disturbing.
“There’s one where they make this girl listen to music super loud!” she continued. “Then they have her drink a big bottle of whiskey and then they put her in an office chair and then spin her super fast. There’s no nudity, it’s just straight up ‘let’s just fuck with this woman until she dies .’” Ms. Cho said. “To me that kind of stuff is fascinating cause I’m like, Why is this for the general public, what is this for? I guess it serves the same function as films like Faces of Death .
And according to Ms. Cho, one of the guinea pig movies proved to be too intense for one reputed American connoisseur of porn. Guinea Pig I , II , and IV are still available, she said, but it’s hard to get Guinea Pig III: Flowers of Flesh and Blood after actor Charlie Sheen saw it and alerted the F.B.I.
“Like [ Guinea Pig III ] is just completely unavailable because Charlie Sheen was so traumatized,” she said. “You really have to do something to traumatize Charlie Sheen and make him get up and do some shit.”