High Society Turns on Clintons

In this crucible of power and poverty, perfume and excrement, there’s a complex calculation that takes place before the gatekeepers

In this crucible of power and poverty, perfume and excrement, there’s a complex calculation that takes place before the gatekeepers of the city–the media and the Mayor and the titans of Fifth and Park avenues and Central Park West–decide to turn on one of their own. Considerations of wealth, influence, glamour and mutual friends are weighed. And given the knowledge that the ecosystem of power here is a fragile one, in which every action can result in an equal and opposite reaction, karma gets factored into the equation as well.

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If you listen carefully, you can hear them running the numbers on Bill and Hillary Clinton right this moment. A few hundred mental hard drives are heatedly humming out there, trying to figure out how some of the Clintons’ final acts in the White House–most notably Mr. Clinton’s pardons of fugitive financier Marc Rich and the New Square felons–will affect their social standing in this city.

Just two weeks ago, the Clintons were poised to enter this city like heroes, borne upon the shoulders of Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein, venture capitalist Alan Patricof, former ad executive Carl Spielvogel and so many other supporters. “Bill’s The $7M Man,” crowed the front page of the Daily News, with a full-color shot of Mr. Clinton, in black tie, throwing his head back in ecstasy at the monetary and cultural riches awaiting him here.

That moment did not last long. “It’s an old story,” said novelist, reporter and Clinton supporter Dominick Dunne, who’s well acquainted with the social map of New York. “Here’s this brilliant man, but there’s always dogshit on the heel of his shoe. And that’s going to ruin his triumphal entry into this city. He could have been the toast of New York, but this is going to muddy the waters.”

Mr. Dunne sounded like a lot of prominent New York Democrats when he told The Transom: “I’m a big Clintonite; I have always been, through thick and thin. But I’ve got to tell you that I am disappointed beyond disappointment. Giving a pardon to a crook who gave up his citizenship–the whole thing stinks and smells.”

Said another prominent Democrat and Clinton supporter who requested anonymity: “I have yet to find one person who can defend, explain or support what they’ve done.” The Democrat added that, right now, the anger toward the Clintons is “really quite extraordinary, actually. I’ve never seen a reaction this unanimous.”

It’s even more extraordinary when you think how close the Clintons were to being home-free. For eight years, they kept from losing purchase in the stinky muck that always seemed to be sucking around their feet. Eight years! And then on the last day, like freed P.O.W.’s stepping on a land mine as they exit the prison camp, they went down. And unlike Mr. Clinton’s recent heavily documented tumble while playing fetch with Buddy, no one is laughing.

“I’m too old to be shocked, but I’m an endless source of outrage,” author and social gadfly Fran Lebowitz, the Boswell of the Barry Diller crowd, said of the pardons. “It’s outrageous, no question. Unfortunately, it did not shock me.” As Ms. Lebowitz said later: “I have to say, although I voted for Bill Clinton twice, I never liked him. I’m just a Democrat.”

The pardons aren’t exactly commanding all the buzz. “What everybody’s really talking about is the shopping spree,” said one Clinton supporter who requested anonymity. “Especially after the $8 million book deal. That was on the edge, and they got away with it. But they always have to push the envelope. If Al D’Amato did this, they’d lock him in his home in Island Park.”

And that’s just from the supporters. “Absolutely everybody in the world that I know is talking about this,” said Toni Goodale, who was one of Al Gore’s top fund-raisers. “The people who are the Clinton haters or who have never had any respect for the Clintons are overjoyed, because it’s just another, extreme example of all the things that they disrespect about the Clintons: the lack of a moral compass, the inability to draw a line, the [assumption] of being above the fray.”

Of course, the top notes of controversy can make anyone an attractive dinner guest for a few months. After all, which member of New York’s power elite does not have some dramatic tale about the time their dirty laundry received a public airing? As Nunnally Voyd, the fictional novelist with a past, tells an out-on-bail Sherman McCoy in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities : “Welcome to the legion of the damned.” But the Clintons, unlike Sherman McCoy, are outsiders, and they must come to terms with the fact that if they are moving to New York, then they must be responsive to its citizens.

And if they need evidence, all they need to do is look at the Jan. 30 edition of Cindy Adams’ column in the New York Post . It is Mr. Rich’s ex-wife, Denise Rich, who exacerbated this story when she didn’t initially tell the truth about lobbying Mr. Clinton, whom Ms. Adams defends in her column, and not Mrs. Clinton, whom the columnist has visited in the White House. At this moment, it is Ms. Rich who is more of this town than the Clintons.

Indeed, though Ms. Rich, who’s kind of a Barbara Hutton figure in the city– extravagant and a little tragic–certainly appears to have benefited from an instance of political quid pro quo, given the more than $1 million she’s donated to the Democratic cause and the $7,375 worth of furniture she bestowed upon the Clintons as housewarming gifts, she seems to be accruing defenders right now (which she’ll need if the Republicans insist on investigating this mess). “My heart goes out to Denise Rich,” said Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic National Committee member and fund-raiser from Long Island. “She’s one of the most charitable, gracious people I’ve ever known in public affairs, and it is inexcusable to criticize her for advocating the pardon of her daughters’ father.

“I’m not defending Marc Rich or his conduct, nor am I defending the pardon,” Mr. Zimmerman went on. “But to draw any slanderous conclusions because she’s been a generous giver to the Democratic party is just McCarthyism. I don’t see anyone attacking the oil industry, the insurance lobby or the [National Rifle Association] because their political contributions rewrite the laws in this country. The issue is changing the system of campaign finance. Denise Rich does not lose her freedom of speech or her right to her point of view because she’s a political contributor.”

In other words, most people in town agree that she’s entitled. But are they?

No matter what the publicists try to make us believe, the ascent to prominence here is glacial and bloody, and anyone who achieves any lasting measure of respect in this urban food chain knows that if they intend to keep it, they must behave as if their life is wired for The Real World . Of anyone on this planet, the Clintons should understand that. And if they don’t, well, the city will be amused by their moveable feast for a little while, but then they’ll suffer the same fate as Marla Maples and Jocelyne Wildenstein. This town has never wanted for celebrities whose reach exceeds their grasp.

Monica Lewinsky, who’s trying to remake herself in New York as an Internet-savvy handbag designer–”Monica Moves On” reads the headline beneath Ms. Lewinsky and her Palm Pilot on the cover of February’s Yahoo! Internet Life magazine–seems to understand this. Monica’s mom, after all, is married to R. Peter Straus, the Macy’s heir and Sulzberger in-law, one of the great indoctrinated New Yorkers, a man who could have taught Zhao En-Lai to pass at any club in town in six easy lessons. But the Clintons, who accepted $9,683 in gifts ( including a humidor from the man who secured Ms. Lewinsky’s internship in the Clinton White House, insurance magnate Walter Kaye) sure seem like they may need someone to give them a clue.

If the Clintons do insist on indulging their self-destructive tendencies, there won’t be a repeat of the rhetorical storm that marked the Monica Lewinsky scandal. It will be much bloodier this time, because the Clintons are essentially naked in New York, without the benefit of the massive protective and diversionary apparatus that comes with a desk in the Oval Office.

As the dependable Clinton ankle-biter Dick Morris noted in his Jan. 30 column in the Post : “The Clinton formula for damage control is well known, but it can’t work when he’s out of the White House and she’s a lowly junior Senator.” And if Sen. Chuck Schumer demonstrated anything when he recently faced the news cameras and communicated his distaste for the Rich pardon, it’s that he’s going to make up his own mind when it comes to the state’s newest legislator and her husband.

Actually, the Post ‘s coverage of the pardons story has been predictable. It’s the News and The New York Times who have surprised with the vehemence of their reporting. And the News– the paper owned by Clinton supporter Mortimer Zuckerman– in particular: A little over a week after they featured the former President rejoicing on the front cover, the tabloid was giving the Clintons both barrels, notably with a breakdown of who gave what gifts to the Clintons and a Michael Kramer column headlined, “They keep taking and taking and …”

“They stripped the White House, pardoned their law-breaking campaign contributors and have generally proved anew that eight years at the tippy top in no way caused them to develop anything even remotely resembling a moral compass,” Mr. Kramer, managing editor and the ex-husband of near-Clinton Attorney General Kimba Wood, began. This from the anti- Post , whose owner, Mr. Zuckerman, allowed the paper to be the receptacle for Mr. Clinton’s near-pugilistic defense of his wife in a telephone call during the Senate campaign, an event that seemed to signal Clinton house-organ status and indicate a long love affair to come. It’s not happening anymore. News spokesman Ken Frydman replied: “We don’t care what stripe a politician wears. We would have covered the story in the same way whether it was about a Republican or a Democrat.”

Meanwhile, the headline on the editorial page of the formerly Clinton sympathetic Times read: “An Indefensible Pardon,” and the contents of the opinion piece salted the wounds of every New Yorker who’s apoplectic over George W. Bush’s win. “Bill Clinton’s last-minute pardon of Marc Rich, the shadowy commodities trader who fled to Switzerland in 1983 to avoid American justice, was a shocking abuse of presidential power and a reminder of why George W. Bush’s vow to restore integrity to the Oval Office resonates with millions of Americans who otherwise disagree with the new president’s politics.”

In Bonfire , Nunnally Voyd welcomes Sherman McCoy to the legion of the damned, because, he tells McCoy, “you’ve been properly devoured by the fruit flies.” The “fruit flies” are the novelist’s appellation for the press, and he tells McCoy: “Once they get the scent, they hover, they swarm. If you swing your hand at them, they don’t bite it, they dart for cover, and as soon as your head is turned, they’re back again.”

Well, we fruit flies have got the scent, and the Clintons should be warned that some of us do bite.

Of course, we also bore easily, as do most New Yorkers. And some of Mr. Clinton’s supporters contend that a few weeks from now, when this story has blown over, the Clintons will return to their new status as toasts of the town. “I don’t mean to be cynical about it, but two or three years from now, it will all get submerged in the fullness of their experience,” said the prominent Democrat. “In a way, this is nothing compared to other stuff they’ve done. It just happens to be the latest and an in-your-face kind of thing. How can it affect them? They’re not going to go to jail. They can’t retract it. What can they do?” That person added: “As bad as this is, how does this compare to getting a blowjob from a 22-year-old in your office and then lying about it for a year? ”

“Lying is such an important element of this story,” said the socialite-author Judy Green. “He lies, she lies, people around them lie and they all keep getting away with it. But I don’t think this one will go quite so quickly. It shouldn’t. It’s much more horrific than sex at the office. After all, 52 hostages were being tortured for 444 days in a country that was funding Marc Rich, who was funding his wife, who was funding the White House.”

“I don’t think it’s going to hurt him socially,” Ms. Goodale said. “I think that the devoted supporters of Bill Clinton or the people who seek his association for other reasons are going to still want to because this is just part of a pattern. And it’s going to calm down,” she said. “Have I heard from that group some real feelings of embarrassment? Yes. But in the end, is it going to affect his sitting next to someone at a dinner party? No.”

As for Mr. Dunne, he opined: “They still will invite him to dinner. But I think there’s a little wariness in the air.”

–Additional reporting by George Gurley

Lewinsky & Wickie Do MoMA

On Jan. 29, the New York Post ‘s Page Six column picked up an item from The Villager , a weekly Greenwich Village newspaper, that reported Monica Lewinsky’s run-in with a security guard at the Museum of Modern Art after the handbag designer had blown dust off a sculpture there. That the Post ‘s gossip column was reporting on the oral minutia of Ms. Lewinsky’s life was certainly amusing, but hardly as interesting as the author who was credited with writing the Villager piece, Wickham Boyle.

As it turns out, Ms. Boyle, whose nickname is “Wickie”, and Ms. Lewinsky have something in common: Both are bouncing back from public scandal. Back in 1993, Ms. Boyle, who was then known as the founder of the tony Tribeca-based charity, Under One Roof, was allegedly caught trying to sell jewelry that belonged to Jane Gregory Rubin, an attorney who had contributed tens of thousands of dollars to Ms. Boyle’s organization.

The jewelry had gone missing after Ms. Boyle had crashed a Thanksgiving party thrown by Ms. Rubin. Not long after the soirée, Ms. Boyle contacted socialite Joanne Leonhardt Cassullo, seeking her help in selling jewelry that she claimed her mother had given her. Ms. Cassullo, who had heard that some of Ms. Rubin’s jewels had gone missing, sensed something was amiss. A sting was arranged: Ms. Boyle brought the jewels to Ms. Cassullo’s apartment, and when Ms. Rubin and her lawyer confronted Ms. Boyle, “Wickie” signed a written admission. Charges were not pressed.

Ms. Boyle didn’t want to talk about the incident. “It’s in the past,” she told The Transom. Ms. Boyle was more interested in talking about the present. A few years ago, she married diversity consultant Zachary Minor, who encouraged her to follow her dream of being a writer. She now writes full-time. Besides The Villager , she has contributed to New York magazine and The New York Times . She also helped Larry Flynt start Code , a magazine about race and ethnicity based in Beverly Hills.

Ms. Boyle just turned 50, and she’s been reflecting on what it all means. “There’s that silly thing of ‘God closes a door and opens a window.’ But it’s true. It’s hard to say this stuff without sounding like a self-help book,” she laughed, adding, “everybody has the right to a really magical life.” That may be why her Villager piece ended with an appeal to Ms. Lewinsky: “Heck, Monica,” she wrote, “It’s a big city. If you like my style, come on over.”

– Ian Blecher

Michael Kors’ Rat Pack

On the evening of Jan. 29, as American Ballet Theater star Angel Corella twirled and leapt around a makeshift stage at Sotheby’s, performing the part of the Pied Piper, dancers scuttled among the guests assembled for the benefit dinner and dangled little stuffed rats over their heads. The puppets nibbled at the evening’s honorary chairman, Michael Kors, and the guests at his table–Anna Wintour and Shelby Bryan, Maggie Rizer and Rene Russo–before moving on to sniff around honorary chairwoman Iman, who was seated with husband David Bowie, Sandra Bernhard, Moby, Damian Loeb and Plum Sykes, and Griffin Dunne.

As the rats swarmed Mr. Corella, their red eyes sparkled like the glittering dresses worn by Mr. Kors’ loyal fans, including Muffie Potter Aston, whose hem was adorned with vulture feathers, and Nina Griscom, who later set fire to the sign at Iman’s table while Mr. Loeb hid behind a program and her friend Moby looked rather puzzled.

“The rats were awesome,” said artist Tom Sachs, wearing jeans and a ripped T-shirt. “But it’s too bad that guy wrecked it with all his mincing and prancing.”

Mr. Sachs quickly added that he was “gay O.K.” and didn’t want his comment to be taken as homophobic.

“I’m a vagitarian,” he said.

“You’re a vegetarian?” asked his dinner partner, Elizabeth Harrison of Harrison & Shriftman, the P.R. firm that publicized the event.

” Vag itarian,” repeated Mr. Sachs.

“No you’re not,” said a confused Ms. Harrison, who grew up with Mr. Sachs in Darien, Conn.

” Vag itarian. Vag !”

Soon the Pied Piper had finally run the rats out of town, but none of Mr. Kors’ pack was budging.

“I’m ready to go on a safari!” exclaimed Ahn Duong, who said her dust-colored Celine dress, designed by Mr. Kors, reminded her of photographer Peter Beard.

“I almost chose safari wear,” said Ms. Russo as she looked down at her shimmering gown. “But, I’ve got to be honest, it looks much better on her,” she said, pointing at Ms. Rizer, who was being photographed in a shiny mesh dress with a belt made of bullets.

As he mugged for the cameras with his wife, Mr. Bowie said through clenched teeth, “I’m being really good, Iman,” before retreating to a corner to recover from red eye with actors Peta Wilson, Liev Schreiber and Julie Bowen.

At 10:15, once dinner was over and the music turned up, Ms. Wintour rose and left. Mr. Kors immediately grabbed Ms. Wilson and hit the dance floor.

“Everyone runs around like a lunatic here, so it’s the most demanding customer in the world,” said Mr. Kors, who twirled and leapt as cameras flashed and the dance floor swelled into a red-eyed, shimmering, shimmying mass around him.

– Deborah Schoeneman

Bouley Bounces Back

Is David Bouley’s dream back on track? It seemed so at a Jan. 25 event at Mr. Bouley’s Tribeca restaurant Danube, where Danny Wegman, the snazzily dressed president of the Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans supermarket chain, unveiled a new in-store magazine, Menu . Mr. Bouley–who has consulted on the chain’s take-home food program–let slip some interesting news. Pointing across the street to the former Mohawk Electric building, the chef told the crowd: “I think after a meeting we had last night, everything will be back on schedule.” Mr. Bouley said that “the old restaurant,” a reference to the Tribeca eatery that once bore his surname, “will be back again in the second floor.” He added that an Asian restaurant would occupy the first floor and that a cooking school and banquet rooms would be installed in the basement. The biggest surprise? Mr. Bouley told the assembled group that he and his backer, whom he did not name–but who some suspect is Steve Roth’s Vornado Realty Trust–is looking at “building a 35-room hotel above the space.” Mr. Bouley said that “if everything goes well, we’re shooting to begin the project in July.” But when The Transom asked Mr. Bouley for more details, he declined to elaborate. Seems he’s learned his lesson about counting his organic free-range chickens before they’re hatched.


High Society Turns on Clintons