Affair at the Pierre: Wishing the Mission Society a Happy 200th Anniversary

Cicely Tyson and Kathryn Chenault. [Patrick McMullan]

Cicely Tyson and Kathryn Chenault. [Patrick McMullan]

Two hundred years is a hell of a long time for a nonprofit to have existed, Shindigger thought as we crept into the Pierre hotel on the chilly evening of December 12 to attend the New York City Mission Society’s bicentennial gala. NYCMS had invited an agglomeration of Harlem and uptown notables to the ever-swanky Pierre, and we were more than happy to witness it all.

Inside, past the Versailles-style rotunda, the scene was bustling with action. Caterers rushed by seating ladies in gowns with endless trains, as distinguished-looking gentlemen dutifully tripped and stumbled behind.

“Finally, real Champagne, none of that sparkling wine or prosecco,” we overheard one late arrival hiss. Seconds later we had joined the bandwagon with our latest accessory: a coup de Taittinger. It would remain oft-replenished for the rest of the night.

Amy Fine Collins, who wore a body-hugging, black-and-white Pamella Roland gown with a fox fur coat, floated into the ballroom foyer. “My neighbor Stephanie Foster put together a table,” she told us. “You know I love dressing up.”

She turned to her cadre of swans, gala chair Jean Shafiroff, Dr. Penny Grant and Patricia Shiah, for a dance at the step-and-repeat before dashing to her table.

Shindigger was a privileged guest of Ms. Shafiroff, who had carefully curated a sparkling cast of socialites that she strategically sprinkled around table No. 22.

The Louis XVI ballroom of the crown jewel of Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces had been festooned with snowy orchids, glittery pine cones and candles in a breathtaking wintry arrangement that, although exquisite, forced us to crane our necks to get a view of the stage.

“The only reason they invited me is because they know I have to get back for the 11 o’clock news!” piped master of ceremonies Bill Ritter, evening anchor of WABC-TV and a 20/20 correspondent. “It’s true, I keep things moving along.”

Finally! A well-placed gala, Shindigger thought, while catching a small glimpse of Mr. Ritter behind a particularly large pair of bedazzled pine cones.

“We need a strong middle class,” said Ms. Shafiroff at our table, speaking about the proposed federal tax hikes for the upper echelons. “The governor doesn’t want to raise taxes. We can’t be so divided.” She expressed a greater need for New York’s wealthy rulers to support their struggling neighbors and communities. “You know where I’m coming from … I’m not embarrassed.”

To Ms. Shafiroff’s left sat an earnest young aide of Gov. Andrew Cuomo whom she had invited. While not quite as exciting as the bona fide head honcho himself, the fellow sure was a tall glass of water. Shindigger had no complaints.

“What is your opinion?” we asked him.

He smiled and responded, “No comment.”

Even the cute politicians are no fun, we thought as we slithered back into our Taittinger.

Mission Society’s mandate is to provide a safe and nurturing place for
underserved youth and their families to develop life skills, as well as to play and participate in out-of-school programming. Ms. Shafiroff told us that the big push for the night was to raise funds for a new Mission Society facility. “The current building is crumbling,” she told us, poking a smoked salmon and crêpe gâteau with paddlefish roe and cucumber crème fraiche. “If it weren’t for the Mission, these kids would have no place to go.”

Lloyd W. Brown II, gala chair and board member, who is an alumnus of the program dating back some 40 years, declared this campaign to be “the most significant fund-raising event in our history.” The $20 million endowment campaign is certainly ambitious. “Thus far we’ve raised $6 million,” he said, before shifting to the focus to the honorees, causing us to shift our focus on to requesting more Taittinger. (We were taking our lead from the sartorial connoisseur to our immediate right, Iké Udé, who appeared to be blessed with a bottomless rocks glass of whiskey.)

Once guests had been served their herb-crusted filet mignon (Shindigger has a tiny fantasy that someday someone’s going to shock partygoers with herb-crusted falafel instead), onward the program leapt. Star Jones was on hand to present the Dina Merrill Hartley Public Service Award to her dear gal pal Kathryn Chenault, philanthropist and wife of American Express chairman and CEO Kenneth Chenault. Ms. Jones applauded the honoree’s efforts on behalf of young people and cultural institutions in the city, as well as her fabulous style.

“Her best girlfriends know that her not-so-secret motto is: If you really want to look your best, have B. Michael make your dress,” she cracked. The designer had dressed basically every gala chair and honoree in his dramatic confections. His aesthetic could be described as unabashedly uptown, glamorous and festive. “A black Oscar de la Renta,” offered one guest.

“Well, he made my dress,” Ms. Shafiroff purred in our right ear, straightening her posture. She wore a sweetheart B. Michael gown that cascaded into piles of tulle.

Former mayor David Dinkins presented the award to the second honoree, actress Cicely Tyson. “Everybody knows how wonderful she is and what she has done,” he began. “Not everybody knows about the wonderful school in Orange, New Jersey, that she continues to fund and show up at.”

He also praised Ms. Tyson for her career and commitment to giving back to her brothers and sisters. As she accepted her honor, Ms. Tyson spoke of her experience mentoring a Mission child.

“It takes a village to raise a child,” she proclaimed. “In this case, the village is the New York Mission Society.”

The African proverb still holds up.

As Ray Chew and his band launched into Motown hits and groovy classics, attendees abandoned their warm chocolate soufflés and fresh berry compotes to celebrate. Shindigger made the rounds.

First stop: B. Michael himself.

“It’s a small touch that my creativity can just have a small presence,” he said, “but it’s such an awesome night for the great work that New York City Mission Society is doing. Cicely and Kathy are two of my dearest friends, people that I love.”

We returned to Ms. Shafiroff before taking our leave.

“Are you exiting as well?” we wanted to know

“No! I’m going to do a bit of dancing!”

The last laugh was on us as her three-foot B. Michael train snaked onto the dance floor, her hips shaking to the beat, as we made our exit, a bit wobbly, shaking to the Taittinger beat.