Of all the dignitaries, ambassadors and titled aristocracy to fly from foreign locales to attend the 56th Viennese Opera Ball at the Waldorf-Astoria last Friday, Sharon Bush may have traveled the farthest.
Just that afternoon, the ex-wife of George W. Bush’s brother Neil rushed from customs to make sure she had time to throw on a gown. Where had she been? Oh, just touring the Holy Land with a certain world-famous megachurch preacher.
“Have you heard of Joel Osteen?” Sharon Bush asked The Observer. “He did a wonderful night of hope in Jerusalem last night, so that’s why I left this morning.”
“Have you met my daughters?” Ms. Bush asked.
We had. Lauren Bush’s charity, the FEED Foundation, was the beneficiary of the event, and sister Ashley tagged along as well.
Earlier in the evening, when guests sipped tulip-shaped flutes of Champagne at a pre-ball VIP reception, Lauren Bush walked in with her fiancé, David Lauren, a thoroughbred beauty, and of course, she was sporting that rock on her hand.
“I have never been to the ball, but I’m so thrilled they chose my foundation, the FEED Foundation, as the beneficiary this year,” Lauren Bush told The Observer. “I’m very honored. It seems like a very elegant turnout.”
Mr. Lauren, who leapt for a glass of Champagne as Ms. Bush discussed her foundation, rocked some rare facial hair among the mass of men with denuded chins. “It felt like a really warm, wintery feel,” Mr. Lauren said of his ginger-tinged scruff.
Then he pointed to The Observer’s clean-shaven mug. “You could use a little!”
The Grand Duchess Arianna glided into the VIP reception room, her neck spangled with fist-size emeralds. (Considering her reputation, an onlooker explained, this is “understated”).
We were taken with the silver chalice swaying on a chain from the Grand Duchess’ clenched hand. “Oh this?” she said. “It’s just an egg purse.”
By 8:30, it was time to head to the ballroom. The hallway, though, was blocked: A carriage pulled by two magnificent white horses was being trotted down the marble Waldorf corridor. It’s more than a little unusual to see a fairy-tale horse-and-carriage in New York’s storied hotel, and yet the carriage made another appearance during the ballet portion of the night’s entertainment, bursting onto the gold-smothered space and settling under the mammoth, gemlike chandelier.
Debutante Stephanie Nass, a sophomore at Columbia, had just three days to perfect the intricate choreography that snaked its way across the dance floor in diagonal bursts and regenerating circles, the tiaras of the debs resting precariously on the bobbing and bowing heads, each girl clutching a batch of perfect red roses.
Ms. Nass had perfected the English Waltz when she was younger but had to learn this Austrian variety from scratch. “This dance is a bit more difficult.”
“Hours and hours and hours, under a relentless Austrian eye,” one of the escorts sighed. He was referring to Heinz Heidenreich, the director of the Vienna City Ballet, who whipped the waltz amateurs into shape through five-hour rehearsals.
(In fact, one deb whispered to us that two girls broke down and cried at the first practice.)
“He does not like smiling,” another deb chimed in, about Mr. Heidenreich.
The night’s host, Alfons Haider, was required by law to smile. His globe-trotting escapades emceeing these functions have earned him the title “Mr. Opera Ball,” and he is the star of the Austrian version of Dancing With the Stars.
“I like the people here,” Mr. Haider said to The Observer. He singled out Lauren Bush—“Such a beautiful lady!”—and praised New York in general.
“This is the Big Apple,” he said, attempting to smother the German accent that nonetheless slipped through. “This is the most amazing place on earth. Anything is possible.”
The night ended for some with a midnight quadrille in which Mr. Heidenreich led the remaining men in tails and women in gowns through a fairly simple line dance that proved difficult for some patrons, their feet heavy with wine and appropriately imprecise.
But for many the evening had just begun. At 1 a.m., the Astor Room opened its doors to celebrated DJ Ted Gushue, who spun the hits as the late-nighters nibbled on Austrian snacks like bratwurst and gulash, downed beer and, inevitably, danced. (The older crowd who stuck around skewed toward the Vienna Coffee House set up in the Basildon Room, with its chocolate fountain and endless spread of pastries).
The crowd of kids in the Astor Room began to taper around 4 in the morning, and before The Observer left for the after-after-party in the West Village, we walked over to dance floor to find wilted rose pedals that had fallen from the debs’ bouquets, left on the ground as the party went even later into the night.
nfreeman [at] observer.com | @nfreeman1234