Like her business, Ms. Lebenthal’s columns for Mr. Columbia were in part informed by her social relationships. There is a couple she named Blake and Grigsby Somerset, a former Lehman exec and a socialite that used to live “bonus to bonus.” And another named John and Mimi Cutter, a hedge fund owner and a gallerist whose divorce proceedings were hindered by money losses. According to Ms. Lebenthal, these are composites.
“I used to see this man that had his own hedge fund at all the ballet benefits, and he would always be by the bathroom on his BlackBerry,” said Ms. Lebenthal of one model for John Cutter. “I thought, ‘God, this guy so doesn’t want to be here.’ His wife is sitting at the table and he’s on the phone. So I think, ‘O.K., file that away.’”
She pooh-poohed the idea that her novel might be nerve-racking to clients. “When it comes to managing people’s money, that is put in a separate box and it just has to be confidential,” she said. “I don’t want people to say at a party, ‘Oh, there’s Alexandra Lebenthal, don’t talk!’”
She joined the company when she was 24. “That was the time of Ivan Boesky and Mike Milken,” Ms. Lebenthal said. “But that was also the time of the Lacroix bubble dress, and Carolyne Roehm, who was married to Henry Kravis, was designing. There was a socialite world, Cornelia Guest was out at everything then. But I didn’t go out much.”
At 31, she became CEO. (She sold the company in 2001, but later reopened the firm in 2006 and regained control of the name in 2007.) It was during this decade that she began to pursue a certain presence in society.
Designers like Escada and Cho Cheng, always eager to outfit a wealthy charity chair with even wealthier friends, began to lend her dresses. The first time she was given a frock by Alberta Ferreti, for the Botanical Garden gala in 2004, she took it to the dry cleaner afterward. Christian Leone, then Ferreti’s head of PR, was gobsmacked.
“‘You cleaned it?’” he recalls saying. “You don’t understand, people bring it back in shopping bags with stains all over it!” Ms. Lebenthal said. “But I just thought it was good manners.”
According to Mr. Columbia, Ms. Lebenthal is rare among her peers. “She’s smart and she’s in the business, but she’s interested in social life, too. She’s just very active,” he said.
Indeed, her male colleagues at the company enjoy teasing her about the number of times her photograph has appeared in The New York Times’ style pages. “I was in a meeting with a group of men from the industry and I said we should do this event and someone said, ‘Oh yeah, you’ll be there if there’s a photographer there!’ And the whole room burst into laughter,” she said. But Ms. Lebenthal laughed too; she makes no apologies for her fizzier pursuits.
“I believe that part of a woman in business can be looking great,” she said, removing one of her heavy earrings and rolling it around in her right hand. “I love wearing big jewelry. I consider it sort of armor or part of my costume. I know people notice what I wear and I actually really like that.
“Part of the reason I like getting dressed up and going out is because my daily life is full of stress and crazy that I literally feel like I get to be a fairy princess at night,” she said. “It’s a stress reliever. And good for business.”