Party Like It’s 1879: Lapham’s Quarterly Celebrates the Original Gilded Age at Decades Ball

Lewis Lapham with Lori Eustis. (Courtesy Getty Images)

Lewis Lapham with Lori Eustis. (Courtesy Getty Images)

The air shifted and Alec Baldwin’s face plasticized into a fixed smile as the Transom introduced itself last Monday night at the 1870s-themed Decades Ball, the annual benefit for literary doyen, Lapham’s Quarterly, which Mr. Baldwin’s foundation supports. “I am not speaking with the press at the moment,” he said, politely, cornered at the bar. He tensely ordered a soda and a sparkling water. Ice in the soda? No, wait. No ice in the water? The bartender couldn’t quite keep it straight. Mr. Baldwin was practicing patience. “It’s fine,” the star decided abruptly, ending the stilted decantation. “Could you please write that I’m trying to be accommodating?” he said, turning to us and then dashing away.

A couple of law school grads took his spot. “My dad is obsessed with Lapham’s Quarterly,” the tuxedoed Brooklyn Law alum boasted. “He goes to all the events. He and my mom are in costume,” he gestured to his mother’s elaborately bustled train. What’s his date wearing? Monique Lhuillier, courtesy of Rent-the-Runway. The magazine’s art director, Timothy Don, is enrobed in an era-appropriate suit and bowler. Where did he find it? “1876 Deadwood,” he deadpanned. Actually, a bunch of Quarterly staffers invaded Kaufmann’s Studios in Astoria.

Maggie Gyllenhaal arrived in decidedly more contemporary garb, a gauzy ruby number that skimmed the knee. She read Anna Karenina in a line-up that also included a full-throated rendition of Pirates of Penzance by Glenn Close and Jonathan Groff, formerly of Frozen fame, now of “The Normal Heart.” Did iconic SNLer Rachel Dratch practice her reading of Lewis Carroll’s narrative poem, “The Walrus and The Carpenter” before tonight? “Well, if by prep, you mean, ‘Read-it-in-the-cab-a-couple-times-on-the-way-over’ ” She recasted her meaning: “As an improviser….” The poem follows a walrus and a carpenter as they trick a bunch of oysters into serving themselves up into a meal for the sea creature and humble woodworker. “I did look it up on Wikipedia on the way here and saw that some people thought that the Walrus represented Buddha and the Carpenter was Jesus Christ. That’s fucked up. But then I read something else that said that wasn’t true.”

“The menu looks really good, don’t you think?” EIC Lewis Lapham said, wide-eyed, pausing briefly as he circulates among the more than three hundred attendees. He’ll duck away shortly for his proverbial cigarette break. “1876 is the first American Centennial,” Mr. Lapham told us. “There’s a lot of the then in the now and the now in the then. Their most pressing issue was how to keep together the American Democracy…” Ralph Nader wandered by.

“You had appalling income inequality,” Mr. Lapham continued. “You have the gentry riding around in carriages down Fifth Avenue followed in the streets by naked urchins.” He wore a smart, conservative suit with a magenta handkerchief peeking out of his front pocket. It’s a slight variation on the sartorial uniform he’s worn as a journalist, essayist, and cantankerous intellectual for the last forty years. Does he worry that the Quarterly’s rarified approach – looking at today’s pressing issues through the lens of the literary past – won’t capture modern attentions? “Speaking truth to power never has much of an audience,” he said.