Every year, as the hangovers from the holiday benefit season begin to wear off, the Museum of Natural History throws open its doors to the fluttery creatures of the junior-society set for its annual Winter Dance. The event traditionally honors some prominent staple of the New York social scene-Charles Rockefeller, Theodore Roosevelt V, Dayssi Olarte de Kanavos-but this year the committee of young co-chairs decided to do something radical. Rather than honor some pedigreed scion with an overdetermined family name, they chose a pop star called Moby.
“He’s just so kind of eclectic and interesting,” gushed Claire Bernard, the daughter of the museum’s board chairman, Lewis Bernard, and one of a small cotillion of Winter Dance co-chairs. “He seems like this downtown, cool pioneer. So how fabulous to associate that with an institution that has been around for 130 years?”
Ms. Bernard and her sister co-chairs-Tinsley Mortimer, Ivanka Trump, Olivia Chantecaille and Lauren Davis-were not the first uptown girls to have discovered this downtown vegan’s social potential. While Moby the musician peaked some six years ago with his breakout album Play, Moby the aging hipster has become a popular commodity among New York’s junior charity leaguers. Increasingly, they’ve begun recruiting him for their boards and benefit committees, and a handful of bouncy gal-pals-and an occasional boy-pal-have adopted him as a “close friend” and regular charity companion, a sort of New Society Pet.
“I think it began innocently and humbly, just by being invited to different dinners or events that went to support worthwhile charities,” said Moby, a winsome 39, in a hesitantly mumbled phone interview during his promotional tour for Hotel, which is selling well in Europe but has been a critical washout on our shores. “It’s safe to say that almost every night of the week, there’s some fund-raiser that’s benefiting a charity or good organization. So you pick and choose, and half the time you’re going because you really believe in the organization that’s being benefited, and half the time you’re going because a friend or an acquaintance has begged you to go.”
The New Walker
A quick gallop through the recent pages of the social calendar reveals Moby as quite the man in demand. There he is at the Whitney Museum’s Annual Gala after-party with Stacey Bendet, the lithe creatrix of the Alice and Olivia clothing line. There he is again, leaning in to chat with his flaxen-haired friend Celerie Kemble (a staple of the benefit scene along with her husband Boykin Curry) at the gala for this year’s “It” charity, the Moth, an “urban storytelling” collective. In December, he attended the opening of the Museum of Art and Design alongside Ms. Kemble and other circuit regulars like Shoshanna Gruss, née Lonstein. And on April 21, he’ll be one of the hosts of the Young Lions of the New York Public Library Benefit, along with Ms. Bendet, Ms. Bernard and a pride of other young Lionesses.
“Moby’s just amazing,” cooed Ms. Bendet. “I met him through my friend, and we became really, really close, and I really cherish that friendship. He’s, like, a great person to have at a dinner party, but he’s also a great person to have lecture at Carnegie Hall.
“He’s just so smart and cute and cuddly,” she added, as if describing a favorite stuffed animal.
Every few years, it seems, the well-groomed girls of the fashion-and-philanthropy set light upon some lucky young man as their new favorite mascot and B.F.F. (best friend forever). They drag him to benefits, introduce him to friends, bring him to dinners and occasionally date him-though that tends to be rare; the male mascot (or “walker,” as he was once known) is usually chosen precisely because he is unthreatening sexually: ambiguous, ambivalent or just plain gay. The late Jerry Zipkin, known as the “First Walker” because he accompanied Nancy Reagan to all her fêtes and functions, perhaps defined the role best. More recently, we’ve seen stockbroker (now perp-walker) Peter Bacanovic and dirty-dancing Fabian Basabe. And now there is Moby.
“Well, good for him,” said grande-dame society diva Nan Kempner. Ms. Kempner, who attended countless events on Mr. Zipkin’s arm (“He was my special friend,” she said), said she’d never heard of Moby, but she democratically recalled that Memorial Sloan Kettering had honored “a big rock star” at its annual benefit some years ago and that he had been “wonderful.” “It seems to be history repeating itself,” she sighed.
For the fashion-and-philanthropy crowd, the appeal of having a rock star in its midst seems obvious enough, like wearing a $10,000 designer frock that dips down to your butt cleavage. “I think for some of the uptown set, there’s a certain cool factor to having Moby come to your event,” said Meredith Melling Burke, the market editor at Vogue and a close friend of Moby’s. (She was planning to take the musician to the Young Fellows of the Frick gala in early March, but then he thought he might be coming down with laryngitis.)
“Let’s face it, he’s a big name and a real talent, and he’s also good at a dinner table,” said society photographer Patrick McMullan, who snaps Moby often alongside comely female pals. “He has kind of a nerdy look going on,” Mr. McMullan said. But “in a world where there’s such a lack of originality, Moby stands out. I think that’s part of his allure. It’s just like Henry Kissinger was sexy to women partly because the power.”
An avowed liberal (witness his attendance at many John Kerry fund-raisers), Moby surely wouldn’t relish the comparison to the grumbling Nixon cabinet member who cavorted at Studio 54. But just as Mr. Kissinger, a “presentable” Jew, became a hit in the WASP-y glam world of 70’s society, so Moby has won admirers by being a “presentable” pop star. After all, he’s no Marilyn Manson dolled up in Night of the Living Dead face paint, nor Johnny Rotten threatening anarchy in the U.K. He’s not going to arrive at the Whitney benefit with dirty nails and a dog collar or upset the flower arrangements at the Guggenheim gala. Instead, he shows up in a suit and sheepish smile and listens gamely to the ladies chatter. And when he takes his uptown pals below 14th Street, it’s to play Scrabble at his cutesy tea shop, Teany, on the Lower East Side, or to hear the faux-glam rock band René Risqué at the yipster hang-out Joe’s Pub. It’s kind of like slumming from the safety of a Hummer.
“When I first met Moby, I had assumed he was going to be this really esoteric, hermity Lower East Side D.J., and here I was-I’m from Boston, Mass., and I’m blonde and in fashion-and I thought, ‘We’re not going to have much to say,'” Ms. Melling Burke said. “And upon meeting him, I realized he was this really soft, sweet guy. I was surprised at who he was.”
Down and Out in Darien
But if Moby provides the social set with a little frisson of edge-without actually threatening to cut anyone-what’s the appeal for him? While socialites increasingly seek celebrity-with Paris and Nicky Hilton being the most extreme examples-the reverse is rather less usual.
“I think it’s a kind of social sampling, which is exactly what he does with his music,” said money manager and social gadabout Boykin Curry, a joint investor with Moby, Alexandre von Furstenberg and others in a 2,400-acre Dominican Republic beachfront property named Playa Grande, which they are planning to turn into a hotel and upscale residential community. “He’s a collector-of everything, really: friends, different types of experiences, emotions, people types.”
Moby said that his hunger for the party life was attributable in part to his being an only child. “I live alone and I work alone, for the most part,” he said. “And because I spend so much time working by myself, when I’m not working, I really do relish the opportunity to go out and be social. It’s nice to go out and actually have contact with other human beings.”
Moby, a.k.a. Richard Melville Hall (his stage name is a tribute to his great-great-great-uncle, Herman Melville) was born in New York City but moved to his mom’s hometown of Darien, Conn., after his father died when he was 2 years old. Darien, he said, is “this incredibly conservative, preppy, affluent place,” but his mother was a hippie and they were, yes, from the wrong side of the Metro North tracks. This world of well-groomed blondes in which he now traffics is thus both familiar and foreign; once remote, it is now accessible-up to a point. “Until I was 18, I was the only poor person I had ever met,” Moby said in his quiet staccato. “I think it’s always given me a perpetual sense of inadequacy. I think regardless of what I accomplish, I’ll probably feel like a second-class citizen until the day I die.”
Moby first linked up with Manhattan society in the early days of the new millennium, when he was just coming off the high of Play. He was profiled in this newspaper by Deborah Schoeneman, now a contributing editor to New York magazine, who subsequently introduced him to Ms. Bendet. By most accounts, the latter then became his Virgil through the concentric circles of the local beau monde.
“I’ve introduced him to a lot of his friends in my world, but he’s introduced me to a lot of his friends in his worlds as well,” Ms. Bendet said. “Because fashion and music have so many interesting sorts of associations and crossovers.”
It was Ms. Bendet who recruited Moby to the Young Lions special event committee. And it was she who connected him to Carnegie Hall’s “Notables” series. She was also the one who introduced him to the yoga teacher who introduced him to his favorite charity, the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function. “It’s a music-therapy program that was started by [neurologist] Oliver Sacks,” explained Moby. “We had a great event in December, and at this year’s event I got to play a version of ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ with Kris Kristofferson. That was very exciting.”
As “exciting” as this and so many other benefits were-and as genuine as Moby’s charity commitment surely is-there is also something else about these events that may have attracted him. After all, he is a single man in possession of a great fortune. “He’s said on more than one occasion he’s looking for a wife,” said Ms. Schoeneman, currently on retreat at the pop star’s country house near Kent in the Hudson Valley, working on a novel. “He wants to be married and have kids one day. So he wants to be around attractive, smart women in New York, and he’s finding them through people who are interested in the charity circuit more than they are interested in nightclubbing.”
So far, the bald-headed musician hasn’t yet found his Mrs. Moby. But the young women of the fashion-and-philanthropy circuit certainly like the dash of downtown he has brought to their world. “He’s one of the most curious people I’ve ever met, so sitting next to him at a dinner party, you’re probed by someone who’s not just trying to be polite,” Ms. Kemble said.
“He has this incredible way of being extraordinarily passionate in whatever he’s involved with, be it the fact that he’s a vegan or whatever it is, but he never forces his views on anyone,” Ms. Bendet gushed. She remembered the night when she first thought, Wow, this is going to be one of my best friends. “I was wearing a fur coat, and I was like, ‘Does this bother you?'” she said. “And he said, ‘No, it’s glamorous.'”
For his part, Moby maintains a certain innocence about his rise in Manhattan high society. “It’s funny,” he said. “I think I’m a little bit clueless, because a lot of times I don’t really know what worlds my friends inhabit-I just know I like them as my friends. I just think of them as just really smart, lovely people who I enjoy spending time with.”