Society Keens for Kippers

Ask social chronicler David Patrick Columbia to compare New York society with European society, and prepare to duck.

“The social set-up is so different over there, you can’t even compare the two! It’s just stupid!” bellowed the crotchety impresario of Fortunately, on May 15, The Observer was talking to Mr. Columbia via the comparative safety of a telephone. “It’s like comparing a Chevy to a Bentley!”

The question comes out of a growing sense that New York society—that world of gowns and clubs and causes and (during the summer months) polo!—has morphed into something very un–New York and taken on a slightly more European stench. But while imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, when it comes to imitating the social norms of our European peers, well, one cannot help but feel that we’d be better off sticking to our own territory—you know, the familiar world where bundles of cash, a button-nosed second wife and a pocketful of chutzpah propels one upward on the social scale, as opposed to class, manners and the luck to be well-born.

But New York is certainly trying awfully hard. See the increasing number of “intimate,” very exclusive but at the same neighborly eating clubs, such as Graydon Carter’s Waverly Inn and former Bungalow 8 doorman Armin Amiri’s new Socialista.

“There’s an interest in smaller and more exclusive events, which does sort of feel more European,” said Andrew Saffir, founder of the Cinema Society, which hosts celebrity-salted screenings. Mr. Saffir said that it’s no longer a matter of how many names adorn your benefit, but the “quality” of those names.

And so the pang of the not being on the list may soon be hurting those who thought they had arrived. “At this particular time, the appeal of celebrity—call it actors or royalty—is greater than it’s ever been,” said Mr. Saffir.

Textile heir Cody Franchetti said the “insularity” of the social world that dominated the city in the first half of the century is coming back.

“They want beauty, they want spirit, they want a name—everything is about the name,” said Mr. Franchetti. “When America said no to aristocracy, they said no to a whole world, but there is more and more nostalgia for less democratic times.”

Mr. Franchetti noted the increasing popularity of restaurants that don’t take reservations—a tactic that allows the owner to more tightly control who gets a table—as a return to European standards, where the euro is not almighty. “It’s all about access,” he said. “Take Bar Pitti. Of course they don’t take reservations— but when I call, I get a table.

“Even at benefits in society,” he continued, “they are starting to cut away now. They don’t just want any rich person—they want particular names. They don’t just go with sheer money.”

Mr. Saffir, too, saw some British influence in the scene offered at restaurants like the Waverly, which he said recalled the eminently exclusive Harry’s Bar in London.

(That noise in the background is David Patrick Columbia screaming. Of New York’s new eateries he noted, “They resemble the British dining clubs as much as McDonald’s resembles La Grenouille!”)

It does seem, in any case, that more and more in New York, we are living in the era of the heir and heiress. And woe betide the gatecrashers: Witness the pile-on reaction that came from the rightful gal-abouts when faced with the prospect of an increasing visible Olivia Palermo.

“It’s the nature of man—it’s survival of the fittest, its evolution, it’s the theory of Darwinism,” said the social gal Annelise Peterson. “You want to protect your assets; you want to protect what’s yours.”

Ms. Peterson didn’t think New York much resembled the scene in Europe, though she noted that there are plenty of Europeans parking their assets in town these days.

There are, among others: Margherita Missoni, Euan Rellie, Lucy Sykes, Plum Sykes, Coralie Charriol, Jacquetta Wheeler, Julia Restoin-Roitfeld Schnabels and Vanessa von Bismarck.

(Mr. Columbia: “Nepotism is not the same as royalty!”)

But can the tide be beaten back? “In the Hamptons, it’s like soon they’re going to put on little red coats to go fox hunting,” said Mr. Franchetti.

Some Europeans, however, are very happy that New York isn’t much like home.

“The difference between New York and other cities is that there are many different New Yorks and not just one,” said Lapo Elkann, heir to Italy’s de facto royal family and a New Yorker by birth, “which is in itself a huge difference.

“The energy that you feel in the alphabet district or, say, Rivington could give you a certain feeling that you can find in Berlin,” he continued. “But the neighborhood I love is Chinatown and Little Italy. I live there, I live in Solita, and every day there is a mix between the future, which is China, and the past—which, in a way, is Italy.”

Society Keens for Kippers