All summer, we’ve been going through the motions. We still did the Hamptons and Fire Island and St. Barts, we even went to polo, but our hearts weren’t exactly in it and our heads were elsewhere. No matter how many Ketel One martinis we downed, the big questions still came up: Who am I? Why do I not have a piece of an I.P.O.? What did I accomplish in the 20th century? Where will I fit in the 21st-century food chain? Like some kind of science-fiction rip in the fabric of time, the trembling proximity of the Future-as of Sept. 8, only 115 days to go until the Year 2000!-has dulled our perceptions of the present, romanticized the past and heightened our sense of mortality. Perhaps never before has the future felt so much like, well, the future.
And wherever else the turn of the century takes place, New Yorkers will insist that it is a Manhattan millennium-not because New York is more important than anywhere else, not because the ball is here, or Rudy, or Times Square, and not because Ulysses S. Grant’s pocket watch is still ticking loudly up in Grant’s Tomb. All of that is true, but there’s something else: As the narcissism capital of the world, the Millennium must take place here first; this is where past and present have to converge, focusing and throwing light on an island that-in its McKim-Mead houses, in its state-of-the-art wired brownstones, in the old B. Altman building that has been infused with more circuitry than the space shuttle, in the commanding, cursed Condé Nast building at 4 Times Square where Nathan’s hot dogs were once sold, and Andre Balazs’ downtown hotel-of-the-future, the Mercer-is desperately trying the merge past and future into a glaring present.
So the clock is ticking, as loudly for Manhattan as the one in Captain Hook’s damned crocodile in Peter Pan, creating a crazy, frenzied social season in which the dance to the music of time becomes louder and more self-conscious, getting to the point where Manhattan not only wants to own the ball drop, but the cultural collisions as well, the past and the future, the birth and the death of it, heating up so that ordinary New Yorkers-are there any?-have a sense of their own stature at the turn of the century and can turn their own gazes upon themselves. Happy Narcissistic New Year! Just to show the new age who’s in charge as it starts its crawl.
There’s no helping it. Welcome back to school: It’s the last quarter of the last year of the century. And the weight is on the next three months to encapsulate the whole hundred years in one three-month party. And each night, the ticking gets louder.
“Because everyone’s focused on tomorrow, today has had all the energy sucked out of it,” said Andre Balazs, owner of the Chateau Marmont and Mercer hotels. Anyone who sleepwalked through the Hamptons social scene this summer would probably concur. Indeed, Mr. Balazs characterized the season as “the lost summer”-a period of time that lacked definition-until the untimely deaths of John F. Kennedy Jr., Carolyn Bessette and her sister Lauren Bessette burned the moment into the national consciousness. For Mr. Balazs, who was a friend of the Kennedys, the loss was a personal one, but he couldn’t help but notice the global reaction to Mr. Kennedy’s death. “The loss,” he said, “became a definition.”
And when we weren’t watching the media replay those home movies of Mr. Kennedy as a young boy, we seemed to be raiding our own archives.
“I have found more and more at dinner parties that people are reminiscing more than I’ve ever heard them before,” said author Dominick Dunne, who’s actually about to publish a photo-rich memoir of his Hollywood years titled appropriately The Way We Lived Then . (Mr. Dunne recounts one incident, for example, when Frank Sinatra paid $50 to a captain at the Daisy, a Rodeo Drive nightclub, to punch Mr. Dunne in the head. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Dunne. Mr. Sinatra made me do it,” the captain said before delivering his blow.)
Mr. Dunne, who also copped to having a “weird summer,” said that he, too, has been “spending more and more time alone,” staying up at his home in Hadlyme, Conn., “just thinking back.” Mr. Dunne said he has been taking a kind of personal “inventory.”
“Yeah, this is certainly a period to get rid of a lot of baggage that you don’t want to take with you into the next century,” said Mr. Dunne, with a laugh. “It’s something I’ve been doing for the last couple of years.”
“What I’ve noticed is that three or four months ago, the question was, ‘What are you going to be doing for the millennium?'” said Mr. Balazs. “Now, all of a sudden the question is, ‘Where have we come, so far?'”
This kind of re-evaluation also seems to have expressed itself in the cultural offerings of the summer. Anyone who caught Bruce Springsteen during his 15-night stand at the Continental Arena in East Rutherford, N.J., would not have come away with the sense that Mr. Springsteen was doing sort of a last big nostalgic hurrah before heading to regular Vegas rotation. Rather, the message that Mr. Springsteen seemed to be sending to the crowd was that he had revisited his back pages and determined just exactly what-such as the E Street Band-had stood up creatively over the years, and just what was worth bringing into his next period of creative growth.
One of those songs, which Mr. Springsteen performed in Jersey, was “Independence Day,” which appeared on The River album in the early 1980’s. When Mr. Springsteen sang the line from the song, “Soon everything we know will just be swept away,” the song sounded just as relevant, given the technological advances of the past several years. Those technological advances have improved the quality and safety of our lives, and they’ve given us instant access to information anywhere in the world, but that is not necessarily a heartening thing.
“Any anticipated event offers at least a brief moment for introspection, reflection, inventory-and, in the social inventory, what many people are finding is fear,” said Gavin de Becker, best-selling author of The Gift of Fear and an expert on predicting violent behavior.
Mr. de Becker points out that vehicle fatalities have dropped 25 percent since the 60’s, deaths by other accidents have been cut in half and cancer deaths for the young have been reduced by 30 percent. “And yet we are more afraid approaching 2000 than we were approaching 1960.”
“In large part,” he added, “that’s because in the satellite age, we don’t experience just the calamities in our own lives.” Via the media, especially television media, Mr. de Becker explained, “We experience the calamities in everyone’s lives. Accordingly, the index of dreadful possibilities is larger than ever before.”
“What is amazing,” Mr. de Becker pointed out, “is that this culture-more dedicated to denying death than any other-dwells on it more than any other.”
In New York, death comes in various forms, not all of them physical. And the technological changes that have preceded the millennium have shaken up so many of the financial and media businesses that dominate this city. The changes have created opportunities, but they have also left some once-secure members of the meritocracy trying to find their bearings.
“The one thing that no one wants to do is to think that he’s been forgotten,” said publicist Paul Wilmot. “People want to be vital. They want to be at the top of their game.”
The premillennial miasma may achieve solid form on one evening. On Dec. 6, if all goes according to plan, a chosen group of the city’s social elite will gather at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Costume Institute gala. After dinner in the Milton and Carroll Petrie Sculpture Court, the event’s co-chairs, Vogue editor Anna Wintour, fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger and Estée Lauder director of creative development Aerin Lauder, have arranged for a little entertainment in line with the theme of this year’s installation, Icons of Rock Style .
Deep within the McKim, Mead & White splendor of the museum, there among the old masters and the ghosts of J.P. Morgan, John Jay and William Cullen Bryant, and possibly over the prostrate, sobbing body of socialite Jayne Wrightsman, hip-hop artist Sean (Puffy) Combs-an entertainer, who, for the moment, represents the accessible and unapologetic commercialism of the digital future-is scheduled to perform a small set of his work for a crowd that will inevitably comprise a cross-section of the beautiful and the powerful.
As orchestrated by the Condé Nast machine that employs and empowers Ms. Wintour, this surreal encapsulation of past, present and future (unless Mr. Combs’ album tanks and he quickly becomes a part of the past) will be a glossy fashion-campaign approximation of the temporal hoodoo with which many New Yorkers are grappling.
Certainly, there is a sizable contingent of New Yorkers for whom the new millennium is merely a moment in time when air travel should be avoided. Even Kurt Andersen, the man who envisioned a near-postmillennial society in his novel Turn of the Century , sounds skeptical. “My sense has been, it’s sort of what I feel about New Year’s Eve in general, which is this kind of massive arbitrariness where I feel forced into a particular emotion that I almost never feel on that particular day at that particular moment. And that’s kind of how I feel about this,” Mr. Andersen told The Transom. “But I’m not saying that I don’t believe that people find the millennium pushing them toward some sense of reckoning. I just personally haven’t gotten there.”
Media mogul Barry Diller seemed to have reached a pragmatic conclusion about the coming new millennium. “It’s going to produce an awful lot of commerce and an awful lot of people who try too hard,” he said. “Hopefully, I will not be in the latter camp.”
Yet, New York’s luminescent skyline is a legacy to those who have tried too hard. Ego built the spires and the towers and strung the bridges with Christmas lights. The egos of those who sought to leave some magical, possibly indelible mark on the city. Some were hucksters who eventually left town. Others succeeded and helped make this town unlike any in the world. And there is never a shortage of those who are willing to try too hard. David Bouley will open his Austrian restaurant Danube and attempt to recapture some of the fame that has escaped him. His former partner Warner LeRoy will reopen the Russian Tea Room and attempt to do the same. Who won’t be watching and comparing? Revlon billionaire Ronald Perelman even looks like he’ll take another crack at love and marry Ellen Barkin. And Puff Daddy is performing at the Costume Institute gala, two years after Ms. Wrightsman raised a small ruckus when the idea of Madonna performing was raised.
No wonder Mr. Dunne is excited about the coming social season. “I think it’s going to get fabulous,” he told The Transom, “and I intend to be part of it.”