Consummate Hostess Susan Gutfreund Advises Wall Street Wives to Stay Home

Susan Gutfreund was a bit tired when she welcomed guests into her home for a luncheon to celebrate the new

Susan Gutfreund was a bit tired when she welcomed guests into her home for a luncheon to celebrate the new Broadway production of West Side Story last week.

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She had just returned to New York from her travels in London and Venice.  But, Ms. Gutfreund–a woman for whom a trim on a table cloth, or a well-mixed drink, is a reflection of not only her home-making abilities, but also her character, and quite possibly, her intelligence–was determined to carry out the mandatory hosting duties with her usual aplomb.

In the upstairs, baroque-decorated reception room of her stunning duplex at 834 Fifth Avenue, Ms. Gutfreund moved around in a pale green, lightweight pantsuit, making sure that Jill Fairchild and the designer Ralph Rucci were promptly served cocktails in low-ball glasses and supplied with delicate cloth coasters; that the New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg and theater producer Jeffrey Seller took in views of the park framed by burnt orange drapes and olive green-papered walls; and that actors Matt Cavenaugh and Karen Olivo signed the guest book. (A gentleman in a bow tie was planted at the top of the stairs to ensure that each of the luncheon’s 15 or so guests scribbled down something nice.)

“I was crying yesterday when I saw the show,” said the hostess, who, in her sixties, remains an attractive blond with discerning eyes. “The staging is beautiful. And I like that some of it is in Spanish reflecting the fact that, you know, most of America is now Spanish-speaking.”

Her husband, former Salomon Brothers chairman John Gutfreund, was there, too. But after one cocktail and a quick hello to producers Terry Allen Kramer and James Nederlander, Mr. Gutfreund signaled to his wife that it was time for him to scoot.

“Oh, bye, darling,” sung out Ms. Gutfreund, waving her husband off with her delicate fingers. “Thanks for coming. Do you really have to leave now?” He did, he said, and lifting up his own frail hand to wave back, allowed his wife to get back to her company.

In the ’80s, when Ms. Gutfreund, a former beauty queen and Pan Am stewardess, married the prominent Wall Street financier—his days at the once powerful investment bank were infamously chronicled in Michael Lewis’ ’89 book Liar’s Poker—evenings at the Gutfreunds became regular affairs. That is to say frequent, but by no means ordinary.

Ms. Gutfreund liked to put on a show, gaining attention for such antics as hoisting a 22-foot Christmas tree by crane into their old residence at River House, delivering invitations to wanted dinner party guests Henry Kissinger and Baroness Liliane de Rothschild by chauffeur, installing a refrigerator in the bathroom to keep her perfumes chilled and insisting that her butler answer the phone with, “The madam is in le fumar!”

But, in 1991, when Mr. Gutfreund resigned from Salomon Brothers amid a bond-trading scandal, the couple retreated from society, spending more time abroad at their Paris triplex and at their country home in Pennsylvania. Seven years ago, Ms. Gutfreund resurfaced as an interior decorator, working on her friends’ homes in New York and abroad including Gil Shiva’s dining room at the Dakota. Meanwhile, Mr. Gutfreund, who was banned from ever running a brokerage firm again, continues to work at his consulting firm, Gutfreund & Company.

“Aren’t you going to try one of my son’s famous margaritas?” Ms. Gutfreund asked a guest who was sipping a glass of sparkling water. (The couple’s son, John Peter Gutfreund, a banker, launched his own line of tequilas last year.)

“Both of us are keeping busy,” Ms. Gutfreund told the Daily Transom. “I really would not be happy sitting at home all day. But if we’re at the house, we put our feet up by the fire and watch old videos or read our books in the country.”

Then there are other nights, when they continue to host friends at their home of 24 years for evenings that are perhaps a bit smaller than they used to be.

“I’m not here that often, but I love to entertain in this apartment. I really much prefer it to going out,” said Ms. Gutfreund. “But it’s a different world. People aren’t around. With the internet, men can do their business from the ski slopes and Palm Beach so your dinner parties tend to be people who are in town at the last minute. The guest list is not set in stone the way it would have been in the ‘80s. And everything is on email so it’s become very informal. When people thank you for a meal, it’s on email!”

After a breezy cocktail, everyone descended the main stairway through the foyer where one of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies used to hang–“We didn’t have the room for it anymore,” explained Ms. Gutfreund—past the winter garden room with the chirping, caged parrot, into the airy dining room, where the blue and white tablecloths matched the blue and white porcelain china that matched the blue and white napkins. (The Daily Transom noticed what appeared to be a price tag of $879 stuck to the bottom of her porcelain water pitcher.) 

“I’d like to welcome everyone from the West Side Story to our East Side Apartment,” the hostess announced to begin the lunch. Guests were served a well-prepared risotto with spring peas, followed by salmon cakes with dill sauce and freshly baked corn bread.

In the time that Ms. Gutfreund has been absent from the circuit, she’s noticed that the younger socialites seem to have lost sight of these sorts of get-togethers, opting instead for living out their lives in public.

“I still hope the younger girls are interested in entertaining. I think there was a moment when they weren’t,” Ms. Gutfreund told the Daily Transom. “If they’re out at benefits every night and in newspapers every day, when are they ever at home?”

She continued: “I’m hoping this recession will make the younger girls aware of the beauty of their spaces, their families, their close friends and make them put some home cooked food on the table. And you can fake it! You can go to Whole Foods and buy a casserole and put it in beautiful porcelain. All people really want is a cold drink, a comfortable chair, a warm meal and they’re happy having some laughs.”

Last decade, the Gutfreunds–long believed to have inspired the Bavardages in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities–became symbols of Wall Street excess. Now, Ms. Gutfreund quietly, but compassionately, looks on as her friends and neighbors on the Upper East Side are scolded for their Hermes shopping trips and summer homes.

Might she offer some advice to the tormented Wall Street wives?

“Stay home and keep your head down,” she said. “I don’t think this is a moment for bankers’ wives. I think the public is very anti-Wall Street.”

Ms. Gutfreund still relishes the lessons she’s learned from her public ordeal, which she said could be made into a book.

“I learned that it’s very important to have close friends and edit your friends in this city,” said Ms. Gutfreund. “It’s difficult because there is so much exposure in the city and it’s very exciting and I’m a very curious person and I love people. But this town can be very tough, so you learn to edit.”

Consummate Hostess Susan Gutfreund Advises Wall Street Wives to Stay Home