In the chaotic hours before Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s inauguration on Sunday, Deputy Mayor Patti Harris took a moment to walk down to the dingy basement of City Hall and visit a nondescript office that Liza Minnelli had commandeered as her dressing room.
“She’ll be right with you,” an assistant to Ms. Minnelli informed Ms. Harris, the highest-ranking woman in the history of New York City government. “She’s changing pants.”
With messy divorces, surgeries and bouts of sobriety behind her, Ms. Minnelli had been invited by the sometimes somniferous Mayor to cap the afternoon’s ceremony with her famously rousing rendition of “New York, New York.” After an early-morning rehearsal, she had spent much of the day holed up in the subterranean room. Few of the workers frantically stuffing 7,000 goody bags with bottles of Snapple water and cellophane-wrapped doughnuts had seen her. Only an occasional burst of “Honey!?” reverberated beyond the closed door.
As the minutes ticked by, Ms. Harris waited nervously, checking her watch and cell phone. Caterers inquired if Ms. Minnelli would care for “mini-baby cupcakes,” while her manager, Gary Labriola, seized the opportunity to express a grievance.
“Can I say what my one complaint is?” said Mr. Labriola. “Why is the version of ‘New York, New York’ you hear always Frank Sinatra’s? I have nothing against Sinatra. I worked for the man for 13 years. I love him. But he was L.A. He lived in L.A. The song was written for and performed by Liza Minnelli. But Steinbrenner only plays Liza’s version when the Yankees lose.”
Ms. Harris pointed out that the Mayor, a great fan, was doing his part to right that wrong and checked her cell phone several more times before Ms. Minnelli finally appeared. The pants that had kept Ms. Harris waiting were a velvety black and matched Ms. Minnelli’s black turtleneck, closely cropped hair and the inky mascara caked onto her eyelashes. Glossy red lipstick and a red swingcoat supplied a splash of color, while her eyes emitted a lunar gleam. Her speech was marked by exclamation points and a wild exuberance that raised decibels on random syllables.
“I’m so excited! I’m crazy about Mayor Bloomberg! Because he just gets it, you know? He gets the job done. He is not ostentatious about it,” said Ms. Minnelli, showing off a crystal-cross necklace that she had received for Christmas. “My holidays were fabulous. Nice and quiet!”
That’s a far cry from last year’s fireworks, after her fourth ex-husband, impresario David Gest, filed a $10 million lawsuit alleging that he suffered booze-fueled beatings and head injuries at her hand. She had also just been sued by her former bodyguard and driver, who also accused her of assault and battery, along with claims that she forced him to have sex with her. Then, to top 2004 off with a bang, she fell out of bed and hit her head hard enough to warrant a trip to the hospital.
On Sunday, she seemed more chipper and, surrounded by a mini-entourage consisting of Ms. Harris and Mr. Labriola, shuffled on false hips and a false knee down the hallway and towards the elevator. The doors slid open with a greeting.
“Liza Minnelli! Helen Marshall, Queens Borough President,” said Helen Marshall, Queens Borough President. “I love you and I loved your mother.”
“Me, too,” quipped Ms. Minnelli as she stepped in and rested against the elevator wall.
During the short ride up, she expressed bewilderment about all her upcoming projects.
“My God, I have two albums coming out. Wonderful! And I’m writing a film!” she said, though she couldn’t quite remember what the movie was about. “My brain is going crazy right now!”
While Ms. Minnelli posed for pictures upstairs, a crowd of the city’s political elite, past and present, gathered between the sweeping marble staircases and kegs of coffee in the City Hall foyer. Many of them had fond memories of Ms. Minnelli.
“During my first term, in a ballroom setting, we danced across the stage,” said former Mayor Ed Koch. “She made sure we looked good. I lived on that memory for years. I like her. I liked her mother. I liked the dog. What’s it called—Toto?”
Former Councilwoman Margarita Lopez, whose penchant for raising money from Scientologists has also earned her the reputation of a loose cannon, admired Ms. Minnelli’s moxie.
“Every time I see her singing, I hear the courage that’s inside of her. Stand up, go back, stand up—I admire that,” said Ms. Lopez. “Second to the Chairman of the Board, she’s the best choice. And, obviously, he’s not around anymore.”
Domenic Recchia, who chairs the council’s Committee on Cultural Affairs, said he was touched that, after a recent performance near Coney Island, his fellow Brooklynite rode the Cyclone. “Everyone has problems in their life,” said Mr. Recchia, waxing philosophic. “Life is a roller coaster.”
Indeed, the minutes just after the Mayor and several other city officials had been sworn in had the distinct sensation of a rickety coaster climbing to a steep drop.
“When she sings ‘New York, New York,’ she practically howls,” warned sound guy Simon Welch. “She screams the fucking thing.”
A drum roll came. The audience squirmed.
“Hi!” screamed Ms. Minnelli, pouncing onto the stage. “O.K., hit it!”
As the first swingy notes sounded, she turned her back to the audience, whipped her head around and hissed, “Yeah!” She belted out the lyrics, performed something akin to a running man, punched her fist in the air and slammed her lungs into overdrive. As her voice raced to a dizzying, cracking crescendo, Governor George Pataki looked confused, Cardinal Edward Egan looked scared and Mayor Michael Bloomberg looked absolutely delighted.
“Thank you! Keep singing!” she yelped when it was all over. Mr. Labriola helped her up the stairs back into City Hall.
“Jesus, I thought she was going to have a medical situation,” remarked one Bloomberg official.
Sometime later, a golf cart delivered a somewhat winded-looking Ms. Minnelli from City Hall to a black utility vehicle, waiting by the gates to drive her away.
“I feel great. Honey!” said Ms. Minnelli, stopping to pose for a final picture. “The audience loved it, and that’s all that matters.”
A Fake Gay Marriage
“I had a gay marriage, even though I’m not gay,” Peter Fetts told me.
“My friend Tad and I—we’ve known each other since we were 7—decided, ‘Why not?’ We had no other prospects, and it probably wasn’t legal anyway. So we went up to New Paltz and tied the knot in a brief civil ceremony. We even kissed—but on the cheek. And it was the first time we ever kissed each other, I swear! Afterwards, we went on a honeymoon in the Catskills. We’d walk into a bar, find two good-looking girls, buy them a drink and tell them, ‘Guess what? We’re married.’
“‘Bullshit,’ they’d say. Then we’d show them the marriage certificate.
“Girls would find it sexy. It turns out the best way to get laid is to marry a guy.”