When the Armory Show officially opens on Thursday, March 10, with a benefit for the Museum of Modern Art, hundreds of art collectors who have lined up in the cold clutching $1,000 tickets will find that a lot of work by the hottest artists has already been sold. How? Other collectors got there earlier-in some cases, a day and a half earlier, using varying combinations of status, connections, creative tactics and chutzpah to sneak onto the fair floor before the opening bell in order to get first dibs on the best artwork. (Some collectors have been known to pose as art installers by dressing up in overalls, wielding hammers and flashing hastily concocted installer passes.) Of course, those first looks are meant for those who pay big bucks to attend the MoMA benefit.
From big machers on museum boards with millions to spend to relative nobodies with a few grand saved up, anyone who wants a leg up on the competition tries to see the merch first. Competition is so fierce because of a long-overheated art market in which nearly every gallery exhibition sells out and waiting lists are the norm. Since the Armory Show is arguably the most important contemporary art fair in North America, there’s a lot of work that collectors might not get a crack at otherwise.
The Armory Show isn’t the only fair where collectors cut in line: Larry Gagosian flew Marie-Josee and Henry Kravis to Art Basel Miami Beach last December for a private tour while galleries were still setting up. But the consensus among art dealers is that early entry is especially endemic to the Armory Show. “The Armory does a shockingly horrible, really shoddy job of keeping out collectors during installation,” said Chinatown dealer Michele Maccarone. “Stupid and irresponsible gallerists let them in, and it totally makes for this feeding-frenzy atmosphere.” Last year, Andrea Bundonis, the head of P.R. at the blue-chip PaceWildenstein gallery, was too busy to speak with the press at the press preview, which precedes the MoMA benefit, because she was making sales to collectors who had finagled their way in.
“There’s a regular group, and it’s as if they’ve been transported inside by a Trojan horse,” said London dealer Kenny Schachter. “That’s when you see the food chain of the art world at work. It’s total Darwinism.”
One repeat offender cited by several dealers who declined to be mentioned by name is Whitney Museum trustee Beth Rudin DeWoody. “I guess it’s not something that should happen, but usually a dealer invites me in so I can see something without all the distractions. This year I’ll probably save a lot of money, since I’ll be out of town until the last two days of the fair.” Other much-mentioned high rollers who are said to practically waltz right in on the arms of dealers include David Teiger, whose name graces a gallery at MoMA, and real-estate magnate Aby Rosen. (Mr. Teiger declined to be interviewed for this story; Mr. Rosen didn’t return calls for comment.)
Smaller fish need to resort to crafty tactics. Michael Nachman, a textile manufacturer who started collecting contemporary art four years ago, convinced a journalist “from some magazine, I don’t remember the name,” to doctor up press credentials for him last year. “Once you see the difference it makes in terms of what you have access to, it’s hard to go back to starting your Armory experience at the MoMA preview,” he said. Artist Neil Frankel, who buys from such Chelsea powerhouses as the David Zwirner gallery, cops a more casual approach. “Sometimes, when they’re setting up, I might help somebody bring something there, or I might have an appointment to meet a dealer,” he said. “Then I’m in.”
But what most everybody is angling for is a worker’s pass. These allow unfettered access to Piers 90 and 92, where the fair is held, until the MoMA benefit begins. Whatever passes the galleries don’t need are often bestowed upon favored clients. “Listen, I’ve lost out over the years because I waited for the public opening,” said a venture capitalist who persuaded a rising Chelsea dealer to hand over a worker’s pass. (“Don’t mention which gallery he got it from,” the dealer added. “I don’t need a war among my clients.”)
One young collector who has an art-world job gets his worker’s pass through business connections. “I did it last year, and I’m definitely doing it again this year,” he said. “The really good stuff is so good that anyone who sees it knows to buy it straight away.”
Last year, workers’ passes were reconfigured to incorporate photo ID’s. “We’ve gotten applications where we look at the photograph and are like, ‘That woman is on our V.I.P. list!'” said fair director Katelijne De Backer.
Still, Ms. De Backer has resigned herself somewhat to sneaky collectors and the exhibitors who help them-obviously, everyone knows on which side their bread is buttered. So this year, Armory organizers are allowing each gallery to invite a certain number of lucky collectors to the press preview. “Talk about feeding the frenzy!” said Ms. Maccarone, the Chinatown dealer.
Sure enough, Mr. Nachman tried to get invites from three of his regular galleries last week, but each had filled its quota. “I called the Armory Show and said, ‘Look, I’m a collector, and I’d like to get a pass to come to the press preview,’ and they were very hard-nosed. It’s sort of ticking me off. I mean, why should others get the advantage and get the cream of the crop? I want to have pick of the litter, too.”
According to Harvey S. Shipley Miller, Mr. Nachman shouldn’t despair. And Mr. Miller should know: Having spent the past year putting together a $75 million drawing collection for MoMA, he has countless enviable connections but refuses to sneak in early. “I encourage everybody to go the last day. The Europeans especially don’t want to ship anything back, so whatever they have left-well, you do the math.”
The theme for “An Enchanted Evening,” the first annual winter gala benefiting the School of American Ballet, was the 1940’s. With that glorious era in mind, the co-hosts of the party, the luxury-goods company Hermès, transformed Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Allen Room into a “1940’s French-style nightclub in the spirit of Jean Cocteau,” according to a press release.
The men wore black tie and the women looked glamorous and “evening chic,” but in a glitzy mid-80’s, big-hair kind of way. A few managed to pull off middle of the last century, like the young lady who told The Transom that she had on a 40’s-style bias-cut satin dress with a peep-toe high-heel dorsay.
The Transom tried for the look (gray Brooks Brothers suit, white shirt by the Gap, a blue and white spotty tie, beat-up Timberlands), but no one seemed impressed. During the cocktail hour, Jeanette Walls, the MSNBC.com gossip columnist and author, helped to explain that decade’s elusive style.
“The 1940’s, in terms of fashion, in my opinion was the best period ever,” Ms. Walls said. “Because what it did was combine practicality with sexiness. It was also an era in which people were powerful: They dressed to work and also achieved. Before then, the 30’s, it was a matronly look-women were made to look very maternal and had a dowdy look. In the 40’s, it was Rosie the Riveter and working gals and these really sexy, smart outfits.”
Ms. Walls, wearing a Vera Wang dress, remarked that if there’s any benefit to life during wartime, it’s that people get more practical about fashions-and, she added, there’s fun to be had. “Live life to the fullest, because it might be the last day,” she explained, adding that that applied to New York City in 2005 “more than pre-9/11″.
She isn’t entirely optimistic these days. “I don’t think we know what’s going to happen. I’m nervous,” she said.
How has the war changed her life?
“I’ve started reading the A-section of The Times.”
John Kalymnios, a sculptor, stepped out for a cigarette on Broadway. He said he thought the scene in the adjacent room, Dizzy’s Club, was capturing the 40’s better that evening. “This party’s a bit more theatrical-let’s put it that way,” he said of the ballet benefit. “There’s a lot of glamour up there, everyone’s dressed to the nines, but there’s no smoke in the room.
“I think there was fashion [in the 1940’s], there was excitement,” Mr. Kalymnios continued. “There was this intrigue of time and space that doesn’t exist today. We’ve lost it. War is too high-tech now. We’re too saturated today with media. I think in our society, we’re all trying to reinvent ourselves. It’s a conceptual environment.”
Socialite Somers Farkas and Town and Country magazine editor-at-large Mike Cannon were on their way to dinner in the Atrium Room, which looked like the set of a Fred Astaire movie. Ms. Farkas said she felt less anxious than she’d been in 2003 and that now we’re in a postwar period. “Hopefully this will be a time of peace, most importantly-prosperity, domesticity,” she said. “The troops are coming home!”
“Prosperity and pearls,” Mr. Cannon cracked.
Seventeen editor Atoosa Rubenstein, in a stunning, extremely cleavage-friendly strapless ball gown, noted that her magazine was launched in 1944, and she’s taking it back to the ethos of that time. “It really was a moment when young women were coming into their own,” she said. “Leonard Lauder always talks about his ‘lipstick formula': that during certain times like wartime, one thing that will go up is lipstick, because women still want to look elegant and show their best face. And I think that’s certainly true of the 40’s. The women of the 40’s projected an image of being very strong and very secure in themselves during a time that was very uncertain, and we’re certainly facing those times again.”
Did she think the war’s almost over?
“For me to make a statement about that would be silly. I do think we have a new status quo.”
Hotelier Ian Schrager agreed. “I don’t think anybody thinks it’s over. I think we’re at the beginning of it-in it for the long haul,” he said.
Did Al Qaeda get lucky on 9/11?
“I do think that, in terms of the scale and its success. But there will be others ones, I’m sure.”
Mr. Schrager said that the 40’s (i.e., the big-band style and swing music) had always inspired him. “I think usually, in a bad time, people look for escape by having enjoyment, and I don’t see that now,” he said, before recalling the golden age of the 70’s, when he ran Studio 54.
“It was more mindless,” he said. “You know, sometimes you really can’t capture that splendor. I think all the forces of the universe came together then, and it was a special time.”
How’s nightlife doing now?
“In New York? It’s nonexistent.”
“What’s cool about the 40’s is high-waisted pants,” said actor Liev Schrieber, having a smoke outside. “I’m afraid we’re much less involved now than we were then. I don’t know if it’s the age of numbness-I just have the sense there was a deeper sense of identity in America in the 1940’s.”
After the suave, ageless Bryan Ferry crooned a few romantic standards (among them, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”), he allowed his conversation with writer Candace Bushnell to be interrupted for some chatter about the 1940’s. “A very good period for pop songs,” Mr. Ferry said. “A lot of the songs I do from that period were written by refugees from Europe who came to New York and embraced the town’s culture. They came here and wrote incredible songs.”
What stage were we at now?
“There isn’t a war on, is there?” he joked. “I guess living here is different from England. In England, there’s always a war going on of one sort or another.”
Are happy days here again?
“Not for me, particularly, at the moment.”
At 10 p.m., guests for the after-party-predominantly a B-list crowd who’d paid $150 to get in-passed through a “magical portal” with haze flowing around it and into the Allen Room, which looked like the set of a high-school play that was about to collapse. Not a whole lot of glamour in their midst, with the supreme exception of socialite Debbie Bancroft, who was wearing a sable fur over her long, sleeveless beaded gown, and Patricia Duff, in a chic black suit. They were talking about politics and the Women’s Campaign Fund event they’d been to earlier.
Ms. Duff said the 40’s made her think of Frank Sinatra, Betty Grable, Tokyo Rose and “drop-dead-handsome men in uniform.”
If they could time-travel back?
“I’d meet Eleanor Roosevelt,” Ms. Bancroft said.
“I’d want to be a partisan working in the underground against the Nazis … some resistance somewhere,” Ms. Duff said, adding that it felt to her like 1939 right now. “Storm clouds are approaching,” she said, citing Syria and Iran. “I hope we’re resolving things in a peaceful manner, but it could be building up to more hostility.”
They looked around the room at the kids.
“They’re not dancing enough,” Ms. Bancroft said.
À La Mode
“All this anti-French business, that’s just about politics,” huffed Mireille Guiliano, a Parisian puff of smoke and the author of a best-selling book suggesting we could all be thinner, happier, healthier, sexier-if only we acted a little more like the French. While she said this-after a reading last week at the 92nd Street Y-dozens of Upper East Side women with dark glasses down on their noses and hair tied back tight enough to render Botox unnecessary were clamoring for her autograph. What’s this? The Transom wondered as we were muscled out of the way by a woman of oompah-loompah stature but good, old-fashioned American grit. We’re trying to be like the French now?
Last time we checked, France was out, out, out: of fashion, of 1441, of the hot-food bar at the Congressional cafeteria. But all that changed, it seems, with French Women Don’t Get Fat, Alfred A. Knopf’s improbable 2005 offering to chubby women a little too sophisticated for Random House, and an unlikely answer to the Franco-American contretemps. It begins with a disclaimer: “Whatever the state of Franco-American relations-admittedly a bit frayed from time to time-we should not lose sight of the singular achievements of French civilization.”
Food, she means. Not any of those other pesky things (diplomacy, labor relations, military et al.).
“You know,” Ms. Guiliano flatly told The Transom at a reception after the reading, “we don’t like our government, either.”
Aha! Forget all the protest marches and hunger strikes, people-the message here is that, with a strict diet of leek soup, long walks, snug skirts and champagne (Ms. Guiliano is also the C.E.O. of Veuve Clicquot and a master of cross-promotion), you can be svelte and subversive at the same time. So rise from the couch, ladies! Discard those old sweatpants and go buy yourself a Hermès scarf! Et voilà: You’re 15 pounds lighter-and a socialist!
It went something like that for Mary Louise Engelhardt, a particularly vocal audience member at Ms. Guiliano’s reading. Ms. Engelhardt was clad head-to-toe in saffron-colored cable knits-remember, we like the French now-and her brand-new Hermès scarf was tied in a prim little off-center knot against her neck. Ms. Engelhardt bought the scarf a week ago but was still carrying the Hermès bag; it matched the sweater and gave off a certain Frenchness that seemed appropriate for the night, to her mind. “I lost 11 1¼2 pounds, thanks to your book,” she blurted during the Q.-and-A.-turned-A.A.-style portion of the evening, to much delicate applause. Afterward, at the champagne reception, she told The Transom that her husband is sending her to France for her birthday, in memory of the 11 1¼2 pounds.
Ms. Engelhardt was waiting in line to have the author-who was wearing the same crinkly green sweater as in her book-jacket photo-sign both a copy of the book and a restaurant guidebook to Paris. “Mostly, though, I just want her to tell me the good places to eat,” she said.
Surrounding her in the queue were women equally moved by Ms. Guiliano’s book, their husbands scattered uncomfortably around the room, drinking champagne and avoiding eye contact. Among them was Austin Noll, who said he was waiting for a guide to how French men stay so trim.
He’s been a Francophile for years, see-he has no problem imitating the French. “It’s taboo to some people, I guess, but I happen to admire the French people. I like their lifestyle, their food, their wine, and I love Paris.”
Lots of people do, said Ms. Guiliano. “It was funny, because when the book was accepted, it was, you know, the time of Iraq-anti-French everything,” she continued. “I thought, ‘Wow, I don’t know how this happened.’ But here we are.”
Here we are, indeed-at a curious crossroads of diet and diplomacy. Ms. Guiliano’s book, endorsed as it is by such varied luminaries as Emeril Lagasse, Adam Gopnik and Nicole Miller, might just be the gastronomic Yalta of our time. Leave the details to the politicians, she told The Transom at the end of the night; her plan is to solve everything “with a good meal.”
The Transom Also Hears …
As the faculty at Harvard meets twice a week to determine whether to give a vote of “no confidence” to embattled university president Lawrence Summers, Hollywood’s golden boy has tentatively jumped to his defense. Matt Damon, who dropped out of Harvard 12 credits short of graduating to pursue his acting career, told The Transom: “I haven’t read the transcript, so I’m not too comfortable giving my opinion on it. But I will say that when you’re trying to encourage 18-year-old kids to exercise freedom of thought, it can be dangerous to remove [Mr. Summers] for doing just that.” The Oscar-winner had stopped by a special screening of Non Ti Muovere (Don’t Move) on Sunday, March 6, at the request of the film’s star, Penélope Cruz, whom he met on the set of All the Pretty Horses. No word on where some of Harvard’s other well-known alumni-among them, Natalie Portman, Norman Mailer, John Updike and Conan O’Brien-stand on the future of Mr. Summers, who has been famously under fire since postulating that women may be less likely to thrive in the fields of math and science due to innate gender disparities.