For the past several years, my mother and her friends have invited me to the annual Frederick Law Olmsted Awards Luncheon held by the Central Park Conservancy, where the crème de la crème of New York society turns out in full bloom to match that of the glorious park gardens. Usually I borrow a hat from my mother, but this year I decided it was time to buy my own. While at luncheons past I sat with my mother’s friends and their daughters, most of us married with children ourselves, this year, on May 4, I’ll be sitting at a table reserved only for the daughters. I just couldn’t stand the thought of dressing up in my mother’s accessories.
So off I went to Suzanne, a cozy milliner tucked away on 61st Street off Madison. The staffers were busily creating hundreds of hats for the luncheon, having just finished a number of confections for some of Charles and Camilla’s wedding guests. I explained that I needed a fabulous hat for the Conservancy luncheon, eventually choosing a pale pink beauty with organza flowers that cost more than a pair of Manolos at Bergdorf Goodman. But walking out of the shop, I felt a familiar mix of excitement and disgust.
I grew up in a rarefied Upper East Side world: attending a white-glove dancing school after school in fifth grade and later getting presented at the Junior League, the Infirmary and the Junior Assembles balls. But though I’ve kept pictures from my “deb” days, I’m really not part of the New York society scene. I have friends from different backgrounds and interests, many of whom think it is hysterical that I occasionally go to functions like the Conservancy luncheon. I’ve been known to–– gasp-travel to the outer boroughs. My husband is a Brooklyn boy (albeit from a private school). He wouldn’t be happy in a tux, sipping from champagne flutes four nights a week, paying $1,000 a head to party with the junior associates of this or that committee. Most of our friends are smart and successful, but not what would be considered “bright young things.” Yet somehow I maintain a small foothold in the benefit world, like the intersecting circles of a Venn diagram. It can be unsettling to try to straddle these disparate groups-to meet those outer-borough friends on a Monday and party with Tinsley Mortimer on a Tuesday.
I’m not alone in my ambivalence. One childhood friend and former debutante who now lives outside New York also indulges in selective socializing, only returning for certain events-with a sense of humor. Although she doesn’t go to the Olmsted luncheon, she usually attends “The Bunny Hop,” a family Easter party to benefit Memorial Sloan-Kettering. “One child is more smocked than the next,” she remarked, and she often feels completely out of it in terms of her own fashion. “If I go to a party and I know Bill Cunningham is going to be there, I panic,” she said. “I have no idea what to wear anymore.”
As for me, I make sure and wear my irony to the Olmsted luncheon- the event of the year. It’s a must-have accessory, albeit one that clashes with my pastel tweeds and gossamer-ribboned chapeau. Every May, when I enter the Vanderbilt Gate at 105th Street and Fifth Avenue, as the crowd of resplendent ladies swarm down the steps like queen bees, I feel like a pretender. I wonder, “What am I doing here?” while the photographers elbow their way to the A-list grande dames. I’m like an extra in a movie-in full costume but with absolutely nothing to say, blending into the background. In this crowd of Styles-section regulars, I’m just another Chanel purse.
And yet there’s a rush of excitement as I delicately swoop up a crystal glass of San Pellegrino on the way in. While the gardens are dripping with daffodils and crab-apple blossoms, it’s the women who are truly enchanting to behold. Some hats are tasteful and exquisite, while others are topped with topiary-like monstrosities that even Pale Male would have rejected as bad real estate. This tradition is a lot of fun, even if it feels fusty. We can imagine for a short time that we are in another era, when the clicking of elegant heels wasn’t drowned out by the clicking of P.D.A.’s.
Once inside the tented luncheon area, I assess the enormity of this “happening,” which usually includes about 1,000 guests. It’s a kick to read who is sitting at which table-except last year, when some of the most photographed young society women in the city had their table right next to ours, with extra favors strewn around it. Trying not to feel insignificant next to these women is an effort, but when I realize that I am privileged to be at this party at all, I feel my ironic shell slowly melt into sheer pleasure at the Glorious Food–catered spread. I enjoy catching up with the women at my table, even though we haven’t maintained a real friendship throughout the rest of the year. We know that assorted notables are speaking-the Mayor, the Parks Commissioner, the honorees-but we’re usually too busy chatting and people-watching to hear a thing they’re saying. Plus, I’m very involved in my recurring role as the lone woman who actually finishes the food on her plate and eats more than one chocolate-covered strawberry. That could explain why I’ve had to let the waist out on many of my spring suits.
Taking home the gift-bag booty is always a treat. One year we received jewelry from the Joan Rivers collection, and then there are the Conservancy pens-perfect to whip out at parties when an “It” girl you’ve been introduced to thinks you’re socially invisible-and, most significantly, the Conservancy umbrella, that large dark green number with the wooden and brass handle that has become ubiquitous on the Upper East Side. Toting that umbrella around is like wearing your membership in an exclusive club on your arm. People who might normally snub me start air-kissing me when I’m holding that thing.
When the luncheon ends, I’m always a little sad. Nagging doubts resurface about my social choices. I often wonder if I should have made more of an effort to become involved with the charity circuit, with these women who seem to have such charmed lives. Not that I could keep up with them financially-but having grown up thinking I was a part of that world, I’ve never been able or willing to completely reject it. I suppose that it’s possible to “dabble” in New York high society, but it’s hard. I’m really never sure if I’m on the inside looking out or on the outside looking in. But at least I know I’ve got a great hat.