Puff Daddy's Black and White Ball '98

120406 article classics Puff Daddy's Black and White Ball '98Sean (Puffy) Combs was on the phone from a yacht in the Bahamas, and he was laughing.

“When Penny Marshall comes to my joints, she gets buck wild!” Mr. Combs said with admiration in his polite voice. “Every time she comes to one of my parties, she gets … ” he paused, then continued excitedly, “Penny Marshall stopped the music and sang ‘Happy Birthday.’ She spent the night at the house in the Hamptons the night before. I love her, man. I love her energy. You know, when I’m old, when I’m 60, I’m gonna remember that.”

Lord knows if, three decades from now, anyone else will remember Ms. Marshall’s nasal serenade of Mr. Combs, but for the next few months, they will be talking about the party where it happened.

Get past the confusion at the door and the white noise thrown up by the publicists of the celebrities who didn’t get inside. Indeed, talk to the people who attended the 29th-birthday party of Mr. Combs at Cipriani Wall Street on Nov. 4, and many of them will agree that it marked a moment in New York’s social history.

“The millennium party has started early,” declared funk artist George Clinton as he and his multicolored dreadlocks wove through the Beaux-Arts setting of 55 Wall Street, where Mr. Combs’ monogram, a merger of the letters P and D, seemed to be projected everywhere. Indeed, something more than Mr. Combs’ birthday was being celebrated on this chill November evening: While Truman Capote’s “Black and White Ball” at the Plaza Hotel in 1966 honored the crème de la crème of society, Mr. Combs was celebrating the kind of high-profile commercial success and notoriety that knows no racial or class bounds. On the night of his party, Mr. Combs attracted and presided over a group of local, national and international celebrities such as Donald Trump, Martha Stewart, Ronald Perelman, Sarah Ferguson, Kevin Costner and Ms. Marshall, who either have that kind of success, are trying to regain it, or are yearning for their first taste of it. And for at least this evening, as the television cameras caught them partying with Puffy, they caught a bit of the buzz that Mr. Combs has worked so hard to generate.

Mr. Combs is pushing for that kind of mad mainstream commercial success from a lot of different angles. “I’m in the field of entertainment,” he said. It’s a big field. In addition to performing his own material–his album No Way Out has gone quintuple platinum–Mr. Combs produces such acts as Faith Evans, 112 and Jerome for his Bad Boy Entertainment label; he is producing a film for Miramax; he has a stake in a Chelsea restaurant called Justin’s, a stake in a magazine called Notorious and, most recently, his own fashion label, called Sean John. While many of his non-music endeavors are still in the beginning stages, Mr. Combs, largely through his music work, ranked 15th on Forbes’ Top 40 list of highest-paid entertainers, with estimated 1997 earnings of $53.5 million.

Mr. Combs’ first career in the entertainment field was as a party promoter, and perhaps it was there that he learned that location and crowd mix is crucially important when it comes to flaunting one’s success. In recent years, he has made the St. Barts and Hamptons scenes, where the social wealthy are duly noted by the media. This past summer, for example, Mr. Combs got the press’ attention when he hired an ice-cream truck to provide frozen treats for revelers, who included Mike Tyson, at his Hamptons home. “He had a fabulous little season in the Hamptons,” said David Watkins, president of Icon Lifestyle Marketing, an event-planning company.

For this event, Mr. Combs’ company, Bad Boy Entertainment, hired three firms to throw the affair, which cost in excess of $500,000, according to sources familiar with the party. The first was Mr. Watkins’ company, which oversaw the design and construction of the setting, which included a bottom-lit, translucent, monogrammed dance floor, curvaceous lounge furniture and two Plexiglas go-go dancing booths. In addition to Icon, Bad Boy also hired public-relations consultants Paul Wilmot, a former Condé Nast man who’s tight with the society and fashion crowds, and Peggy Siegal, who handled the show-biz and press invitations.

Mr. Combs, however, insisted that this was not calculated on his part. “I’m very well versed. I take pride in that. I go from the Hamptons to Harlem,” he told The Transom. “That’s how wide my outlook on life is. I like a lot of different experiences. I don’t just pigeonhole myself into one type of experience.”

He added that “my life has been about breaking down barriers. Like, you know, in the Hamptons, I’m just being myself. I don’t act different with Ron Perelman than I act with Russell Simmons. I don’t act different with Busta Rhymes than I act with Donald Trump. I act the same way I act. I’m just Puff.”

When The Transom asked Mr. Combs what he considered to be his ultimate business goal, he replied, “To make history.” Mr. Combs did not necessarily equate making history with making money. Mr. Combs’ vision of making history is “in having people realize and look at people in a different way. The next time a young black kid with his hat turned to the back walks into an office, he may just be looked at in a different way because of Puff Daddy.”

Mr. Combs’ mention of fellow hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons is worth noting. Years before Mr. Combs was lounging in St. Barts and the Hamptons, Mr. Simmons was there. Mr. Simmons was a multimedia million-dollar man before Mr. Combs, and also counts Messrs. Perelman and Trump as friends. Mr. Simmons, who was at the birthday party and is a friend of Puff Daddy, sees his own and Mr. Combs’ goals as the same: “The globalization of hip-hop culture,” he said; when it comes to achieving that goal, however, he conceded Mr. Combs may have an advantage. “He’s a rock star,” said Mr. Simmons. “I’m not a rock star.”

Mr. Simmons means “rock star” in the populist sense, in the way that Donald Trump is a sort of rock star of the real-estate world, a man whose appeal ranges from Eurotrash (the kind of people who buy condos that bear his name) to hip-hop. Mr. Simmons assured The Transom that “Donald’s the shit” (which essentially has the same positive connotations as the hip-hop saying, “My shit is Trump”). Another example would be the manner in which Mr. Perelman has marketed himself as the rock star of the takeover business. Mr. Combs, who met Mr. Perelman in the Hamptons, counts himself as “a follower” of Mr. Perelman’s entrepreneurial ways and calls Mr. Perelman “one of the Great Ones, like the Donald Trumps and the Quincy Joneses,” whom he intends to study. Indeed, after our interview with Mr. Combs, The Transom heard that he is writing a book modeled after Mr. Trump’s The Art of the Deal.

As befits a rock star, the video invitation that went out to prospective partygoers featured a star-studded cast, including actor-rapper Will Smith, comedian Chris Rock, Mr. Perelman and Mariah Carey. Those who RSVP’d for the party’s location, got their tickets and made it through the line, found a three-tiered set with each tier representing a more exclusive area. The dance floor and the space that surrounded it were open to all, but then certain V.I.P.’s could climb a beige stairway (and, as Mr. Watkins told a TV reporter, it was Mr. Combs’ favorite shade of beige) and enter a lounge area. As the party gathered critical mass, that is where Mr. Perelman, Vanity Fair fashion director Elizabeth Saltzman and Ms. Marshall were gathered, along with Kevin Costner, David Lee Roth, Downtown Julie Brown, Robin Leach and Mr. Trump, who said, “I don’t give a shit about Puffy’s success. I just think he’s a good guy.”

The top tier, which could not be accessed from the lounge area, was where the D.J. booth had been set up. It would serve as Mr. Combs’ VVIP area upon his arrival.

Wending their way through the crowd and cigar smoke on the ground floor were Miramax co-chairmen Harvey and Bob Weinstein. Asked if he was “down” with Mr. Combs, Harvey Weinstein humored The Transom by saying, “Yeah, I’m down.” He then defended Mr. Combs against a recent New York Post Page Six item that said Mr. Combs had lost his role in Oliver Stone’s upcoming football film because he threw like a girl. “I played football with him in St. Barts,” said Mr. Weinstein, “and he’s an excellent athlete.”

The crowd featured representatives from fashion (Donna Karan, John Bartlett), Hollywood (Denzel Washington, Francis Ford Coppola), music (Wyclef Jean, Mase), models (Elle MacPherson, Veronica Webb), sports (Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees, Sam Cassell of the New Jersey Nets) and even young society (Serena Boardman). In the crowd, too, was Soul Train host Don Cornelius, who said that Mr. Combs had hit that “Pied Piper stride.” Mr. Cornelius explained that Mr. Combs’ presence at a party “leaves you feeling assured that you’re in the right place.” He added: “Success follows success. More than it breeds it.”

Mr. Combs would not follow anyone that night, and before he made his entrance, the D.J. began urging security to clear the crowd off the dance floor. A narrow gantlet formed, and within minutes Muhammad Ali appeared with an entourage and headed up the stairs. Restaurateur Arrigo Cipriani took the lane soon after, a nervous smile plastered on his face. Then came singer Michael Bolton, followed by Weight Watchers spokesman Sarah Ferguson–two people, if any, who need Mr. Comb’s Pied Piper effect. “Next we’ll see Kenny G,” cracked an art dealer in the crowd.

The D.J.’s voice boomed again; the sound level seemed even higher. “As per Sean Puffy Combs,” the disk spinner explained, everybody needed to leave the dance floor. Reluctantly, they did and waited until the D.J.’s voice boomed again: “Ladies and gentlemen, I want you all to show love to the man … Puff Daddy!”

Mr. Combs, in a beautiful gray three-piece suit that managed to look both tailored and slightly oversize, sauntered into the room and pumped his hands in the air. The crowd flowed behind him, and there in the crush Martha Stewart seemed to appear out of nowhere. “This is so funny!” she said.

Mr. Combs located a microphone. “All the press off the dance floor,” he said. “Leave my people alone.” The music tore into the crowd at ear-bleed levels and they began to move. A spotlight trained on the top-tier balcony bathed Ivana Trump in a white glow, and she began to gyrate to the music. There is a tendency for hip-hop videos to portray the shiny trappings of celebrity and success. Mr. Combs had managed to make his life look like one of those videos.

Although he did not acknowledge this directly, Mr. Combs seemed to be aware that the kind of barrier-toppling mainstream commercial success that he is enjoying right now can be fleeting, as Mr. Costner could have told him.

“I don’t wanna be 40 chasing around young girls and all that,” he said from his yacht phone, in what was apparently not a direct allusion to Messrs. Trump and Perelman. “I am going to have my fun right now.” Indeed, a few times during the conversation, he mused, “I’m just runnin’ through this money like wildfire.” He didn’t sound particularly worried. He said he regretted not being able to speak with his idol, Muhammad Ali, at the party, “But I have a meeting set up with him when I get back.”

He denied that the dance-floor clearing had been per his instructions. “If that’s what I wanted, I could have gotten it, but on this occasion it wasn’t,” he said. “I’m not saying I’m not capable of something like that, but who are you or anybody else to judge me? I’m not going to be exactly what everybody wants me to be. I just invited people to a party. It’s not to be judged like it was a Broadway play or a theater event. It was just a party, man. Leave the hang-ups at home. If you got in, great, it was great. If you didn’t, I’m very sorry.”

Then he laughed. Success may be fleeting, but he seemed confident there would be another party. “I know the next time, you know to get your ass there early.”