“It’s kind of American Psycho meets Eyes Wide Shut,” mused the DJ at Natirar, the sprawling New Jersey estate currently owned by Sir Richard Branson, when The Observer asked him to describe his musical strategy for the masquerade ball held there on Saturday night. The evening’s festivities–a high-black-tie masked gala benefiting the Susan G. Komen Foundation–were thankfully not quite as sinister as all that, but it did feel like stumbling onto a movie set. To access Mr. Branson’s mansion, one must drive up a narrow, winding private road for what feels like miles, past acres of woods, arriving at last at the opulent turn-of-the-century mansion, tucked away high on a steep hill.
Natirar’s lineage is at least as impressive as those of its guests. It was originally owned by Kate Macy Ladd, the oil-refinery heiress; the estate and its 491 acres eventually passed into the possession of King Hassan II of Morocco, then Mr. Branson, who has leased it since 2003. The décor is pure Robber Baron opulence, with Oriental rugs, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking an enormous terrace, dark wood paneling and high, intricately decorated ceilings. And art, lots of it: photographs and fantastical, slightly risqué paintings, curated by the Tony Shafrazi Gallery. Once inside, the illusion was furthered by freely flowing Champagne, intricate masks and floor-length evening gowns on statuesque female guests.
One woman who’s unmistakable even when masked, Cornelia Guest, co-chaired the event. Ms. Guest donned a plunging pink Donna Karan party dress for the occasion. To accompany the frock, she put a new spin on the masquerade look: a bejeweled pink mask painted directly onto her face, which she had done at MAC Pro. “I figured I wanted to do a change, I didn’t want to carry a mask … and so I brought in and showed them my dress. And the next thing I knew, this was on me, and I love it!”
Ms. Guest has been busy with her new vegan cookie line, but her line is just one of a number of other projects she’s juggling: “I’m writing a book,” she explained. What’s the book about? “Lifestyle, living and sort of getting rid of all the labels that we use. Just basically, it’s about good food, loving life, how I live and just very easy, down-to-earth–very basic and affordable.”
We were reminded of just how much social power Ms. Guest has when we asked about her favorite Halloween costume of years past. “One year I went as Cruella, and I had two friends of mine, and I dressed them as Dalmatians!” she said. “I think I had more fun than they had. I loved being Cruella, and they arrived in Dalmatian suits; they were like, ‘Cornelia, this is not fun.’”
Other guests at the party included supermodel Veronica Webb dressed provocatively in a spiky metal bustier that made her closely resemble a sexy hedgehog from space. Gossip Girl‘s Matthew Settle made a brief masked appearance, as did Vanity Fair publisher Edward Menicheschi.
In the evening’s most memorable moment, the Grammy-winning opera singer Nathan Gunn made it halfway through his set of eerie cabaret songs, but had to stop when a guest literally swooned and fell to the ground during a German aria. She’s fine, thankfully–but The Observer shamefully admits to wondering whether this might be the start to a surprise murder-mystery fixture at the mansion. (Just us?)
As the evening wore down, the waiters passed miniature pink-peppercorn ice cream cones and grape-and-gorgonzola macaroons. Finally, stragglers were ushered back to Manhattan secure in the knowledge that Natirar is every bit the slightly surreal palace one hoped it would be.