The Transom

Bill Clinton, First Laddie

“I’m filling in for Hillary,” said Bill Clinton in that breathy Southern drawl, looming close. “She had to vote tonight in Washington.”

When Hillary Clinton found out last week that she’d have to bow out as chair of Monday’s Parsons the New School for Design benefit, Oscar de la Renta, the evening’s honoree, arranged for Vogue editor Anna Wintour to present his award.

But Senator Clinton said, according to Paul Goldberger, the dean of Parsons, “I have another idea for you! I have another substitute. What if Bill did it?”

This was the first time, Mr. Clinton said, that he’d ever served as his own wife’s surrogate.

So here it was already: his first outing as First Laddie.

Mr. Clinton chuckled when asked for his thoughts on the fashion world today. “I have no opinion about what’s happening in fashion right now. You’ll have to call Hillary and ask her.”

(But does she have time to talk fashion anymore? On the docket for the Senate that night was a medical-malpractice bill; Senator Clinton showed up to vote against a motion to invoke cloture—and thereby limit discussion—on the bill; the motion was indeed rejected.)

Mr. Clinton was very kempt. His nails were surely manicured. His hair was perfectly sculpted and as white as snow. What was most striking about the black-suited Mr. Clinton was his ruddy glow of health, of fitness. He is looking so thin these days—hardly a gut to speak of—that his head a bit resembles a full moon.

Mr. Clinton was not wearing the phosphorescent blue necktie that he has favored of late. Instead, he wore a very lightly patterned silver-blue tie.

Still, he did offer one fashion-related notion. “I think,” he said, “Oscar de la Renta’s a great guy.”

So record the date: Monday, May 8, over on Chelsea Piers, marked the time and place that the Clintonian poles finally completed their drastic reversal. She was working the Hill; in her stead, he was working the fashionistas in Manhattan.

Could there be any clearer indication of where the Clintons intend for this all to end up?

Bob Kerry, the New School president and former U.S. Senator, addressed the change in Mr. Clinton’s status in a specific way. (He was then before a podium, introducing Mr. Clinton, who would then introduce Mr. de la Renta. He was very tan.) “I also know from personal experience,” Mr. Kerry said, “that when you put the word ‘former’ in front of a former title, there is a significant decline in the respect and attention that people pay you. It is a considerable change.”

And the Clintons may have completed their role swap, but remnants of the past still sometimes adhere. “I don’t have to tell all of you, but I’m going to anyway,” said Mr. Kerry. “Sometime in the 1990’s, politics began to get very ugly, and very personal, and President Clinton and Senator Clinton were the objects of much of that ugliness.”

Then it was Mr. Clinton’s turn to address the crowd. “I know him as a friend,” Mr. Clinton said of Mr. de la Renta. “He and Annette have been wonderful friends to Hillary and me, and we have vacationed with them several times in the Dominican Republic. I have had endless long talks with him about things that have nothing to do whatever with what brought him here tonight.”

(“I was quite pleasantly surprised,” Mr. Kerry said later, as the 58th Annual Benefit and Fashion Show wound down. “I didn’t know of Senator Clinton’s long friendship with Oscar, but it’s very nice!”)

But there is one thing. So far, it seems harder to objectify our potential First Fella—particularly with eyes still adjusted to him as President—than it traditionally has been the Ladies.

Vogue editor Anna Wintour, oversized sunglasses off for the moment, had been seated next to Mr. Clinton during the evening’s dinner. She agreed that Oscar de la Renta was great. And what of Mr. Clinton’s own fashion choices? “I think with the President, you tend to look at the person rather than the clothes,” she said. “As it should be.”

Even for Ms. Wintour, the primacy of fashion must end somewhere.

Bergdorf Goodman’s Linda Fargo signed on as well. “It’s the character,” she said, “not the clothes.”

Mr. Goldberger did a better job assessing Mr. Clinton’s fashion of the evening. “It was just fine, actually,” he said. “It looked great, absolutely. Nothing—it was neither too far forward nor too far back. It was exactly right.”

Outside, a drift of people were smoking. “He was never the best-dressed President, was he?” said Horacio Silva, features editor at the New York Times fashion magazine, T. (Mr. Silva wore a beautifully tailored, custom-made gray Spencer Hart suit. “The best part about this suit,” he said, pulling out the inner breast pocket, “is this little tag that reads ‘Spencer Hart sincerely hopes you get laid in this product.’”)

A conversation of Presidential style ensued among the smokers. “George W. has some nice suits,” Mr. Silva said. “But he wears loafers with them. Not a good look.”

Carl Apfel—the husband of Iris Barrel Apfel, fashion icon and collector, and sporting a modified mullet—wasn’t even as kind to Mr. Clinton. “He was an embarrassment,” Mr. Apfel said. “Bill Clinton was the only President in history to show up to the White House with [just] a suitcase. Not a spoon or a fork. Not a blanket. Nothing.” He wagged his finger. “The only President in history.”

Be that as it may, what Mr. Clinton always shows up with is That Clinton Thing.

“He has the softest hands,” said a brunette in an Hermès scarf, awash in his wake. “There’s something about him when he looks at you. And he even glanced back at me. He makes you feel like you’re the only person in the world.” Oh, you too?

—Spencer Morgan

Ballad for Americans

The green room backstage at the Apollo Theater last Thursday, the Jazz Foundation’s benefit: “So Miles called up one of those obscure ones, and he said, ‘What about this?’” Legendary jazz pianist Harold Mabern, 70, was holding forth around a folding table. “And I said, ‘What key?’ And he said, ‘I know you know how to do it.’ And I said, ‘I might not, but I can get it in about half a minute.’ It was all doobee dee bip bop bwaaa mamada dee bip bop. Bee be dee beep.”

“Yeah,” said jazz drummer Ben Riley. Mr. Riley, 72, wore a tan Lenin suit and blue leather gloves to “hold the stick.”

“No rehearsal, no rehearsal,” said Mr. Mabern. “And Johnny was like, ‘ Ba dee bip bop,’ and Miles was like, ‘No you didn’t.’ You know Miles, he was like, ‘ Ba bee dee bip bop.’”

Also at the table were Ron Carter on bass and Gary Bartz on sax. “I’m so proud to be a so-called jazz musician,” Mr. Mabern said. “It’s just that, in this day, musically speaking, the top is at the bottom and the bottom is at the top. Rappers are up here and jazz musicians are down here.” He had just returned from a gig in Tokyo, where fans paid “80 U.S. dollars to come hear one set, and we’re talking food not included. You got people over here sayin’, ‘I can’t spend no $25.’”

“All the Knickerbockers used to be in all the jazz clubs,” Mr. Riley said, “when we was on. You know, like Clyde. And that’s why they played different in those days, because they had creative music in their heads.”

“They played like jazz musicians,” said Mr. Mabern.

“These kids,” Mr. Riley said, “they’re all playing on the same beat, the rock ’n’ roll beat. It’s bap, boop, bap, boop, bap—say, man, wait a minute. Learn the game. Don’t come around just ’cause you can dunk. Learn how to set people up. They don’t even know when they got a hot man. That’s not the game.”

“That’s not the game,” said Mr. Mabern, nodding his formidable noggin.

Daryl Sheppard, 8, who had been a presenter, with Bill Cosby, earlier in the evening, was also in the green room. “I know I’m gonna be famous,” said Mr. Sheppard. Asked about his musical tastes, he said, “I like Snoop.”

When the concert ended, much of the packed house made its way out of the Apollo and down to the after-party jam session at the Alhambra Ballroom.

“Danny, what’s up, my man?” bellowed Time Warner’s dapper honcho, Richard Parsons, at Danny Glover, who was halfway out the exit. Putting his large arm around the actor, Mr. Parsons smiled for the cameras. “This is my partner, Sergeant Murtaugh. You should come to the after-party,” Mr. Parsons said. Bending down, ear-level, Mr. Parsons brayed, “I’ll be there—that’s what I do!”

Elvis Costello was lingering in a stairwell, talking to some musicians from New Orleans. Mr. Costello had just come from there, and had been horrified by the price-gouging he’d heard about while attending a town-hall meeting. “I think you’ve still got martial law. I mean, can’t you just shoot those people? I mean, you just take a shotgun and say, ‘Sorry, that’s breakin’ the law.’” The musicians, many of whose rents have doubled since Katrina, seemed to concur.

Outside the Apollo, under the klieg lights, Johnnie Mae Dunson, 85, who wrote songs for Elvis and Muddy Waters, talked with legendary blues singer Odetta, 76. The women had both performed and were now trading stories from the comfort of their wheelchairs.

“The doctors said I wouldn’t live till age 14,” said Mrs. Dunson. “And now all of them is gone—my doctor, my gram’, my mother. And I’m still here. Taking a lickin’ and kickin’.”

Odetta was listening and holding a red cane. Mrs. Dunson had decorated it herself with little plastic rubies and then given to her. “She’s precious,” Odetta said softly.

—S.M.

Musical Children

In they marched, the P.S. 102 choir—13 little girls in pinks, reds, whites and powder blue, their hair corn-rowed and French-twisted, to sing “What a Wonderful World.” It was the Four Seasons restaurant, last Friday, a benefit for Education Through Music.

“We don’t close down the restaurant for the fun of it,” said owner Julian Niccolini. “People come here to the Four Seasons to celebrate deals.” And indeed, that evening there was a sprightly auction to raise funds; the organization serves 6,000 children at 12 public schools.

“My first husband was Japanese,” said Lisa Niccolini as her 30-year-old daughter, Keiko—the two look more like sisters—successfully bid on a slim-waisted Brioni dinner jacket. Ms. Niccolini herself, despite recovering from hip surgery, looked nicely put together in a slinky Pucci number.

New York City Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum was there, but her mind was not on fashion. She was concerned that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was allowing more and more luxury housing to be built in the city. She can’t stop thinking about it! “He gets his mind made up … ,” she said, with a sigh. “It’s so much less expensive to preserve than build new.” Then, with a keen eye, she said, “Not many people know exactly what I do.”

—Nicholas Boston The Transom