Party photographers didn’t always know how to distinguish Melissa Berkelhammer. “I was once identified as a girl named Stephanie Monahan,” Ms. Berkelhammer said the other night. “I first moved back to New York, and I was at the Whitney Art Party, and it was in a magazine called Manhattan Style, which does not exist anymore, and there’s a picture of me with my gold Judith Leiber bag, which I still have, because I think someone asked me to it hold up—Fancy! Hey!—and then they, like, misidentified my name anyway. But then everyone was like, ‘Oh, like, I saw a picture of you—but it’s not you!’ That was, like, my first picture in a magazine.” This was in 2001.
Ever since then, Ms. Berkelhammer has worked away at the job of going out. She dresses up and shows up without fail, thereby eliminating the opportunities of misidentification.
On the hot evening of July 18, Ms. Berkelhammer’s driver dropped her off at Rockefeller Center. She was clad in a What Goes Around Comes Around vintage psychedelic knee-length summer dress—hot pink, lime green, geometric. “My mom has a couple of really cool vintage things, but the majority of stuff she gave away to our housekeeper,” she said.
She also wore a Cartier love bracelet, a gold enamel Hermès bracelet, a Breitling silver watch, an Elsa Peretti Diamonds by the Yard necklace and Jimmy Choo heels. She is 29, and looks something like a girl from a John Currin painting, with shoulder-length gold-brown hair, and she goes to a lot of parties. “My mom helps me get dressed sometimes, ’cause I don’t—like, if I have something difficult, you know, to put on, I don’t have a roommate and I don’t have a husband or boyfriend, so like what am I gonna do? I’m not gonna call, like, a doorman or something!” She lives on 56th Street between Park and Lexington. Her parents live uptown, in the 70’s. Her father is a psychiatrist.
That night, Behnaz Sarafpour was having a party with Target up at Top of the Rock. At 6 p.m., there was a vast still-daylight view of Manhattan. Two unlucky women wore an identical Pucci ensemble. Everyone was talking about how hot it had been and where they would go to stay cool. Ms. Berkelhammer does the Hamptons. “I think I missed one weekend so far,” she said. She stayed for 10 minutes, a single glass of champagne and a necklace-filled goodie bag. She was papped by a rosy-cheeked blonde from Paper on the way out.
Ms. Berkelhammer’s friends, she said, are in fashion public relations or, “you know, like, media.” There are “a lot of people involved in charities, involved in fashion companies, and do P.R. for stores, different stores, and then you become friends with them, you know, and then they invite you, and then like maybe a friend of a friend sees you and then puts you their list,” she said. “Sometimes you’re on people’s list and you don’t know why.”
She went to Chapin, then to Princeton, where she majored in American history. Then she went to Harvard for a law degree. “I hated it, hated it, hated it,” she said. “You kind of keep putting off your life, what you wanna do when you ‘grow up,’ so I kind of went to law school because I was putting off figuring out what I really wanted to do, in a way.” She worked for Skadden Arps, but quit after a year and a half. “It’s kind of a choice between taking the path of least resistance—meaning taking a job at one of the 10 firms that offers you a position—or, you know, pounding the pavement, going out out, and finding something different.”
Her mother never wanted her to go to law school anyway. “I don’t know that she’s necessarily proud that I quit—don’t say that—I think it’s more that I don’t think she thought it was for me. I don’t think she thought that I was the lawyer type. Like, I’m left-handed! I think she thought I was more artistic.”
And so Ms. Berkelhammer has no income of her own. “My parents enable me to live the lifestyle that I do. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with that,” she said. “I am grateful that I have the luxury to follow my dreams, which, of course, I am still trying to figure out what they are, and not work at some job that I hate because I need to support myself. Because, as everyone knows, even to live in a dump, the rents nowadays are just ridiculous!”
She is working on a number of projects and serving on benefit committees. “I’m helping a friend of mine get financing for a film,” she said. And there’s a lot to do, too, “in terms of press, in terms of events, in terms of wardrobe, in terms of everything.”
Ms. Berkelhammer next took a cab to Lincoln Center. Bill Blass—well, his designer, Jose Solis—was showing fall clothes. “The couture shit rocks,” Ms. Berkelhammer said. She used to model with Ford as a teenager, she said. “I think I started like around 8 or something and then did it till my late teens.” She was photographed on the way in. She had great seats, alongside the catwalk. Out the window at the end of the runway strip, gray-tinged Columbus Circle provided a backdrop for the show of updated classics.
There was an after-party, and there was Sarah Horne of Fashion Week Daily, a publication that Ms. Berkelhammer described as “great—it’s like a high-school yearbook for the fashion set. It’s fun to go through it and see everyone you know.” She was photographed by a fellow employed by Patrick McMullan. “Don’t say I have a crush on him,” she said. “They’re so nice—and, yes, a lot of them are cute.”
It was only 8 p.m. Amy Sacco was having a book party at Barneys. “She seems nice,” said Ms. Berkelhammer. The strict door policy of Ms. Sacco’s Bungalow 8 usually works out for her, she said. Barneys smelled strongly of cheese; the bar was hidden by a mass of people. “I do think that when you go to a cocktail party, there should always be servers by the door with wine and champagne,” Ms. Berkelhammer said. “Then you can greet people with ease and not have to awkwardly excuse yourself because you want to go get a drink. I always feel terrible when I do that. That’s why you should get one as you walk in.” Still, there was Krug on tap. “I love it, everyone’s here!” she said. She turned to speak with Vanity Fair’s executive fashion editor, Alexis Bryan.
Ms. Berkelhammer made revolutions of the room. She said hello to George Rudenauer, who co-hosted the recent Save Venice party at the Boathouse, and Delphine Rubin, the head of public relations and special events for Barneys.
Ms. Berkelhammer gave her thoughts on the current state of society. “Fashion and New York and society and Hollywood are kind of merging and becoming closer together. I think that’s largely because of the Hiltons. I mean, I think they were the first people who, like, bridged society and Hollywood—and you know, say what you want now, but now people are kinda following in that pattern.”
Dinner at Nello’s, on Madison, was on for 9 p.m., with a society journalist she’d picked up at Ms. Sacco’s party. Why had the army of photographers outside paid Ms. Berkelhammer so much attention? “They just thought I looked pretty and was wearing a nice dress.” And does that attention constitute a pressure? “Pressure to look good when you go out? It’s more like, well, you have to be careful about recycling outfits, especially if someone takes your picture at an event—which is ridiculous, because no one is about to go buy a different getup for every night, which I suppose is why people borrow clothes every now and then. Or sometimes I see my picture and I am like, ‘ Ugh, I am slouching again,’ which often happens if I am with someone shorter than me. Or ‘I should stop making that expression, or wear my hair a different way’—that sort of thing. But I have always been fine with what I inherently look like.
“That said,” she said, “I have never been one who enjoys spending half the day primping for an event, particularly a black-tie event. If you notice, I almost always wear my hair down, as I can’t put it up myself, and to me there is nothing more torturous than sitting in a chair while someone sticks pins in your hair and sprays it. I get really antsy.” Her hair is done at Louis Licari. “I just find all of that stuff, including manis and pedis, a big P.I.A.”—a pain in the ass, she meant, but put delicately—“and something that you have to do. I don’t see it as treating myself at all. I am so not a girly-girl in that way. Although I did once fall asleep while I was getting a pedi—I think it was before the S.A.B. event in February—and the woman had to wake me up. It was so embarrassing!” That time, the initials were for the School of American Ballet.
She tucked into her Paglia e Fieno au Gratin, which she called “upscale mac and cheese,” and talked about the future.
“There is the opening of polo this Saturday, which will have already been by the time this comes out, but I really enjoy it. As much as people trash the Hamptons for getting so commercial, I actually really enjoy polo, because it is surprisingly laid-back and it kind of reminds me of going to house parties back in college. Have to pray for good weather, though.” What else? “The Hampton Classic’s always fun.”
And later, in high summer, would be a party for the Philharmonic. “That should be a fun party. It’s for the Philharmonic, so it’s the junior group—I think it’s called the Young Friends of the Philharmonic, or the Young Committee for the Philharmonic, something like that—and that’s at Brooks Brothers and at the Rainbow Room, and it’s in early August. That should be really fun—that’s, like, a lot of our friends.”
And then, after that? Ms. Berkelhammer said that in five years she’d like to be married, but that she’s worried about how soon to have kids. “This is the advantage of getting married when you’re like 25 or something, which I obviously chose not to do—I would always have wanted to have, like, a year or two’s time with my husband.
“You know, the later you get married … ,” she said. She would want to spend the early wedded years enjoying a new relationship, and sex, and also: travel! “I don’t want to get pregnant,” she said, “like the second I get married. Like, I want to be married for a year.”
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