[From The Oprah Winfrey Show, May 23, 2005.]
TOM CRUISE: I’m gone. I don’t care.
OPRAH WINFREY: Are you sleeping? Are you getting enough sleep?
CRUISE: No, no, I’m not.
WINFREY: No, no, no. I heard you ….
CRUISE: No, we got here last night. We had-what is that place with the popcorn and the caramel?
WINFREY: Garrett’s Popcorn? You went to Garrett’s Popcorn?
CRUISE: Oh, my God. We had the cheese and the caramel popcorn.
WINFREY: The cheese and the caramel.
CRUISE: Then I had to have the Giordano’s Pizza ….
WINFREY: Oh, my God.
CRUISE: … and then we had to finish it off with Fudge Pot, you know, at about 1 in the morning, 2 in the morning.
WINFREY: Oh, my God. You were there?
CRUISE: No, we had-they sent it over.
WINFREY: Oh, they brought it over. O.K.
CRUISE: And we were in the hotel, you know.
WINFREY: Yeah, you’re Tom Cruise and Katie. You can get a little Fudge Pot sent over.
How badly does New York City want to host the 2012 Olympics? On Memorial Day, Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff and two of his fellow NYC 2012 bid-committee members were in Andorra la Vella-the capital of the nation of Andorra (pop. 70,000), landlocked between France and Spain, with no military, no postal system, no national airport and certainly no West Side stadium-to attend the Games of the Small States of Europe. The games, which have been held every two years since 1985, are an Olympic-style event featuring 10 sports-including swimming, sprinting, cycling, judo, tennis, tae kwon do and basketball-and about 1,000 athletes from the eight smallest nations in Europe. One of the venues seats as few as 60 people.
The nations included San Marino, Monaco, Malta, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Iceland and Liechtenstein. Each is recognized by the International Olympic Committee, so the event was sure to draw I.O.C. members. Seizing an opportunity to lobby for their cities’ bids, representatives from the Paris and Madrid Olympic committees made the short hop. But at a V.I.P. reception before the opening ceremony on Monday night, I.O.C. president Jacques Rogge spotted Mr. Doctoroff and said, “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“I’m not sure I expected to be here,” Mr. Doctoroff replied.
Since he was staying only for a day, Mr. Doctoroff would miss the other four days of action, but he agreed to chat with the only American journalist in the wee capital in the shadow of the Pyrenees. But first, he wanted to see the end of the Cyprus-Luxembourg women’s volleyball match. (Cyprus prevailed in three games.)
“I’ve met 113 of the 115 voting I.O.C. members, and everyone I saw here I’d seen at least briefly before,” he said. “Mustapha Larfaoui from Algeria, the president of the International Swimming Federation, is on the evaluation committee and came to New York. But Princess Nora of Liechtenstein I’d only met briefly in Athens [at the 2004 Olympics]. She was delightful.”
Mr. Doctoroff attended the opening ceremony, a spectacle of postage-stamp-sized proportions. The stage was a patch of grass about one-third the size of an American football field; the number of ticket holders was matched by an equal number of spectators on balconies in the high-rises surrounding the stadium. Mr. Doctoroff sat in a dignitaries’ section that was so close to the hoi polloi, it would have been possible to land a paper airplane on the head of a head of state.
The 90-minute production featured performers in what appeared to be either fat suits or space-age athletic uniforms. They acted out a drama in which a king-like character would accept some of them to be on his team; those he rejected, naturally, went on to defeat the chosen stars later, providing a moral to the tale. There was also a man doing a semaphore routine atop the roof of an adjacent gymnasium and other Lycra-clad folks soaring into taut nets, though it was too dark to see clearly, because of a lack of lighting or a start that was delayed past dusk.
“I thought it was charming,” Mr. Doctoroff said.
Apparently, not all the attendees shared his assessment. Several athletes staged an impromptu exodus before Mr. Rogge had a chance to speak a few words in Catalan (Andorra’s official language) and proclaim the games open. Unfortunately, Mr. Rogge was unable to address athletes from his homeland, Belgium, because-in a cruel demographic twist-it was too large to compete. Each nation at the GSSE has a population of less than one million.
Mr. Doctoroff stayed to witness the jubilant athletes march onto the field while the crowd roared its appreciation and children raced onto the grass to offer high-fives and take photos.
“To me, that was the most memorable part,” he said, “the connection between the kids. And these aren’t famous athletes-maybe some Andorrans are famous to the Andorrans-but they were all greeted as real heroes, and the athletes responded with real enthusiasm.”
Andorra had previously bid to host the 2010 Olympic Winter Games (awarded to Vancouver) and would like to bid again for 2014.
“I actually don’t know how they’d do it here,” said Mr. Doctoroff. “But if places like Lillehammer or Lake Placid can do it-and do it spectacularly well-who knows? It’s a very unpredictable process.”
Then, turning down an offer to see the beach volleyball match between San Marino and Iceland, Mr. Doctoroff stood alone in the parking lot for a while, trying to get cell-phone reception.
“We live in New York, and what we saw around us was basically, as the Brits would say, shite,” said Joe Pascal, 32, chairman of the Oxonian Society, over lunch recently. “The University Club, the Harvard Club, the Yale Club, the Princeton Club, the Cornell Club-they’ve become dinosaurs. I have to present an AARP card to get into these clubs. It’s more like a senior citizens’ home.”
So Mr. Pascal teamed up with two fellow Oxford alumni-self-described “chick lit” writer Louise Bagshawe, 33, and Her Highness Princess Badiya El-Hassan of Jordan, 31-and together they birthed their own Britannia-on-the-Hudson: the Oxonian Society. With social and cultural events, the four-year-old society aspires to foster an Oxonian spirit of intellectual inquiry on American shores.
“The beautiful thing about the Oxonian Society,” said Mr. Pascal, “is that you’ve got this English rose, Louise Bagshawe, and you’ve got this Jordanian princess who’s a descendant of Muhammad and who actually, you know, loves New York, and myself, who’s born and bred in New York and who loves New York.”
Oxonian members have access to a “termcard” (read: calendar) of events, including mixers and an annual gala. They’re also invited to participate in an interactive lecture series, which hosts such speakers as Tom Clancy, Dr. Ruth and Conan O’Brien.
“They walk out afterward and they feel like they’ve met the Pope, or they feel like they’ve gone to a Grateful Dead concert,” said Mr. Pascal. “They feel like they’ve connected-I don’t know how to describe it.”
Many of the speakers, however, have probably not read the fine print: Members of the Oxonian Society are not necessarily graduates of Oxford University. Some come from Stanford University, Rutgers, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Hunter College, and would probably spit out a glass of sherry were it offered to them. In fact, just 40 percent can claim to have a degree from that idyllic institution of dreaming spires. Getting into the Society requires a check, not a degree.
Equal parts pretense, populism and pluck, the nonprofit Society began with an e-mail list of founders’ friends and has grown into 3,000 dues-paying members. The annual fee is $100, with discounts offered to alumni of Ivy League schools. (“Join the prestigious Oxonian Society at a special group rate!” beckons the invitation.) Like a fitness club, members reap $10 for each new recruit.
Thanks to a persistence that has worn down the most tight-lipped of luminaries, the Society’s list of speakers is indeed impressive, including Newt Gingrich, Scott Livengood (then-C.E.O. of Krispy Kreme, since deposed) and former British Prime Minister John Major. Speakers are not paid. Mr. Pascal remembered that Mr. Gingrich initially requested a $75,000 fee. “I said, ‘Newt, our model is, we don’t pay any speaker. However, it’s an honor-the select few invitations that we give,'” he said.
The biggest coup was Wesley Clark, who addressed members in September 2003 after announcing, during a CNN interview earlier in the day, that he was a Democrat. Last month, Mr. Major-the Society’s newest honorary board member-presided over the annual gala at the 3 West Club on 51st Street, where tables ran from $10,000 to $20,000.
“Like a wave on a cliff, we keep eroding their resistance until they say yes,” Ms. Bagshawe said of the speakers. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease, as in business and as in life.” Asked which dignitaries she’d invite for an Oxonian dream team, she listed David Geffen, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and-above all-Margaret Thatcher. “Alas, since she had the stroke, I don’t think she’s doing much public speaking. She would be absolutely at the top of our list,” Ms. Bagshawe said rapturously. “In my personal opinion, she’s the greatest living Englishwoman. I just absolutely worship her.” Upcoming guests include former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, director (and Madonna spouse) Guy Ritchie, writer Malcolm Gladwell and actor Michael Douglas.
Not surprisingly, the Oxonian Society doesn’t try to enlighten those who assume that all its members are Oxford grads. The group’s logo, which appears on the Society’s e-mail correspondence and Web site, features the Radcliffe Camera, which is the famous dome on top of Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Then there’s the liberal use of words like “termcard” and a host of other self-consciously Anglicized gestures, such as presenting performances by Oxford University a cappella groups like the Alternotives and Out of the Blue. Mr. Pascal-who grew up on Long Island and has an Oxford M.B.A.-said that people often mistake his New York accent for a British one. The British-born Ms. Bagshawe refers to herself as an “old-fashioned royalist” and insists on curtsying in the presence of Princess Badiya, despite Her Highness’ protests. “Whenever I see her,” she explained, “I drop down on one knee.”
And though the Oxonian Society is affiliated with the Oxford Union, an independent debating society run by Oxford students, it has no formal ties to Oxford University. This may sound like a subtle distinction, but it’s not lost on the university’s standard-bearers.
“In English, an ‘Oxonian’ means somebody who went to Oxford University,” huffed Guy Spier, president of the Oxford Alumni Association of New York. “And it’s a slightly grandiose way of describing it, in the same way that some people would say ‘Albion’ instead of ‘the United Kingdom.’ So I would argue it’s a misnomer for somebody who’s a member of the Society, if they didn’t go to Oxford, to call themselves an Oxonian.”
In fact, Mr. Pascal used to coordinate events for the Alumni Association, but “different viewpoints,” in his words, led him to break away.
“He was frustrated. I don’t think he could do what he wanted to do,” Ms. Bagshawe said. “And I suggested to him that he found his own society.” So he did.
“There is another Oxford group, but we don’t work with them,” said Mr. Pascal of the Alumni Association. “We offered to work with them, but they have, I think, less than 25 members, and for their average events, about two people show up.”
Not so, said Amanda Pullinger, membership secretary of the Alumni Association. “Why Joe is saying that we’re very small, and we don’t do that much, I don’t quite understand,” she said. In recent months, she said, her organization sponsored an Oxford-Cambridge Alumni Boat Race on the Harlem River, a group trip to Spamalot and a lecture by the master of St. Peter’s College. “We may not do the large political events all the time, although actually the Irish ambassador to the U.N. has agreed to speak to us in the fall,” she continued. “But it’s kind of unkind of him to say that.”
And there have been a few minor fireworks within the Society itself.
“More than one member of the board of governors has left because of the way things were being run,” said a former Society member and Oxford alum who wished to remain anonymous.
Ms. Bagshawe acknowledged there’d been some turnover. “We have very highly qualified people volunteering, mostly with very senior jobs,” she said. “And as a result, just about every position has high turnover. The Society is now at the stage where it is crying out for permanent staff, and we are raising funds to try to hire them. We started by making Joe full-time, because it is now too big to be run in a few hours at the end of the workday, and we hope he can take the Society to the next level. So far, so good on that-although he’s only just started full-time this month.”
The Alumni Association would prefer, of course, that the Oxonians not reach the next level.
“You have somebody who’s claiming to be something that they’re not,” said Mr. Spier. “We don’t have the authority to make it clear that they’re doing that. The university has the authority to do that. One of the things the university doesn’t understand is how important that brand name is. If you take Harvard, for example: If you start using the name Harvard, they will come down on you very quickly if you’re trying to appropriate the aegis of the university on top of you. Oxford doesn’t do that right now. They have a bunch of professors running the university who don’t understand the importance of branding in the global education world.”
Sometimes they try. Earlier this year, Oxford University sued a British garment manufacturer, HS Tank & Sons Ltd. The company had been using the brand name “Oxford Blue,” which refers to a sporting award at the university. Oxford lost the case.
And when it comes to trademarking, said Michael Cunningham, director of the university’s North American office, Oxford has no control over the word “Oxonian.”
This leaves the Oxford faithful wringing their hands, and everyone else scratching their heads. Take Nkomo Morris, a 29-year-old Stanford University graduate who teaches at Poly Prep Country Day School and has received numerous Society solicitations to join at a 50 percent discount. Ms. Morris was amused by the group’s efforts to woo her. “If you look at the people that are there, they have these great speakers and they have these black-tie dinners and, yes, there are important people on the board, but other than that, I’m not sure how it’s much different from … what’s it called? Those ladies,” she said, pausing. “You know, the ladies who lunch? The Junior League.”
Chet Cutick, who teaches history and government at Susan E. Wagner High School on Staten Island, attended an Oxford University summer program in 1998. A year or two later, he began receiving fliers from the Oxonian Society.
“To be honest, I was a bit surprised,” said Mr. Cutick. “You know, three weeks and suddenly I’m an alumnus?” He signed up anyway, though he skipped out on the Society’s latest event in favor of a last-minute ticket to Star Wars.
Two weeks ago, around 100 members of the Oxonian Society gathered at the 3 West Club to hear a speech from Tina Brown, an Oxford alumna and the former editor of Talk, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. The podium was draped with a blue-and-white Oxonian Society banner.
Before addressing the crowd, Ms. Brown attended a sparse V.I.P. reception in the club’s Lincoln Room.
“They’ve asked me a lot to come, and I’ve never been able to do it,” she said. “For the last four years, they’ve continually asked, actually.” She recalled her years as a student at Oxford. “It was one of the happiest times of my life,” she said with a broad smile, “so nothing would delight me more than to kind of be reminded of the other Oxonians who are around.”
Did Ms. Brown know that the Oxonian Society is not, per se, an all-Oxford crowd?
“I didn’t quite realize that,” she said. “It seems that it is a kind of mixed group, or people who are friends of Oxonians. Actually, I didn’t, really-I mean, I should have done research.”
Ms. Bagshawe swooped in and gently led Ms. Brown away, whisking her across the room for a group photograph.