I’m not exactly what you’d call a social person. I can count the number of close friends I have on one hand, and that includes close relatives and the person I am currently dating. Which leaves three more spaces, in case anyone wants to be my buddy.
My mother once told me that I avoided joining large playgroups because I had a fear of “disappearing” into them. Apparently I was a very metaphysical child, noticing at an early age that girls who hung out together inevitably developed a sort of hive-mind mentality—dressing the same, talking the same, laughing (at me) the same.
In my recent bid to increase my social standing and ingratiate myself into a group of fancy ladies, I have resolved to hit the charity circuit. But it’s not as easy as it sounds.
The sheer number of organizations throwing fundraisers on any given night is mind-boggling, and one misstep could lead a budding socialite to donate her time, energy and money to an unfashionable cause.
As in high school, everyone wants to be part of the cool kids’ table. (Unlike high school, however, that table will now set you back $75,000.) The Frick, New Yorkers for Children, the Metropolitan Museum, City Harvest, Save Venice, The Museum of the City of New York, The Society of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, The New York Botanical Gardens: These are some of the more desirable charities, as famous for their glittery, star-studded fêtes as for the causes themselves, which are unquestionably, without a doubt, “the reason we’re all here.”
Luckily, you don’t need a million dollars in order to start your social career. Just a couple hundred to join a juniors group. These organizations are the training wheels for future socials: where young men and women learn how to plan the perfect party, fill tables and woo A-listers to show up and be photographed.
For advice on how to be chicly charitable, I turned to publicist R. Couri Hay, who has worked with most of the Hearst children, Lauren Bush, Harry Winston, Sloan-Kettering, Bergdorf Goodman and Bulgari. Mr. Hay suggested I start with museums: the Apollo Circle for the Met, Whitney Contemporaries, Junior Associates of MoMA. The biggest requirement to being on a junior board (league, committee, whatever), he said, wasn’t money but age.
“I’m the one you can blame for cutting the age limit down,” the sprightly PR machine said. “I started it years ago, when I was the junior committee co-chairman of American Ballet Theatre. I noticed that people were creeping in not just over 30 or 35—but over 40! When I was on the board for the Bronx Zoo event where we actually moved it into the zoo, I put my foot down. I was like ‘Forget it! Juniors are 21 and under!’”
In Mr. Hay’s ideal world, the drinking age would be the cut-off for Juniors; 35, for Associates and beyond. “But there was hell to pay for that, because everyone wanted the cheap tickets,” he recalled. Events held by junior committees are less expensive than their adult counterparts, and they tend to be less formal. Youthful, even. “I don’t want to name names, but I would look around a room at a junior event, and there were these very big figures who argued that they went out every night and didn’t want to pay big ticket prices.
“Plus, the old group always wants to mingle with the young,” he added ruefully.
The biggest tragedy, in Mr. Hay’s opinion, occurred when Anna Wintour took over the Met’s annual Costume Institute Gala in 1995 as co-chair and canceled the post-party dance the following year. Under former co-chairs Diana Vreeland and Pat Buckley, the after-party attracted a younger set, who could spare the $100 for the late-night dance. But under Anna, even buying a place in the Met’s $1,000-per-year Apollo Circle (age limit: 39) won’t guarantee you an invite to the Costume Ball. (Though you might get invited to their unofficial after-party on the roof of The Standard.)
Looking back, Ms. Wintour told The Wall Street Journal in 2011, “It was much more fashion industry before. When I became involved, I started to invite the Nicole Kidmans and the Cate Blanchetts, and then tried to bring in the worlds of politics, literature, painting and music.”
Today, at $25,000 a head and $250,000 a table, the gala brings in a lot more money than it used to. The problem is it’s all old money now. Literally.
“That was the Armageddon for the biggest junior party there ever was,” Mr. Hay said sadly, referring to Ms. Wintour’s reign at the Met. “She thought it was ‘unseemly’ to have her celebrities walk past these ‘freaks’ partying all night, but there really was this fabulous fashion on display. Young people cutting up their own clothes and creating whole new looks.” Besides, in Mr. Hay’s opinion, those “freaks” were going to be the people donating millions in a few years. “I always said today’s juniors are tomorrow’s seniors, and the museums have mostly picked up on that.”
So how does one get on a board? “You go to parties, you buy tickets and tables, and you spend money,” Mr. Hay explained, as if I were a small child. “It is charity, after all.”
Well, some of us have a hard time raising taxi money for the trip home to Brooklyn, let alone getting our nonexistent friends to pony up thousands of dollars to buy tables. But baby steps. What do junior committee members even do?
“For me, being on a board meant raising money, since raising money means raising awareness,” Mr. Hay said. Mr. Hay worked to rope in co-chairs with last names like Hearst, Rockefeller and Roosevelt.
“My job was to gather around me a circle of my friends whose names meant something,” he continued, “Because let’s face it, New York isn’t just one big club for anyone to join. People came to these events because they wanted to rub elbows with socially prominent young people; they wanted to gawk at them, dance next to them and network with them. And then if it was a great party, Emily Smith would write it up, and that would raise awareness.”
The nuances between different sorts of events became clear to me the other night. Clutching my invitation to the Spring Thaw party, thrown by the Young Members Circle of the Museum of the City of New York, I rushed uptown for what I thought would be a repeat performance of the museum’s lavish Winter Ball. The previous month, the Director’s Council (presided over by social arbiter Mark Gilbertson) held a dazzling fête at the Plaza for the same institution. I arrived at the Museum’s UES location, breathless in a flouncy Betsey Johnson cupcake dress, looking like a debutante in frosting.
When the doors opened, I was greeted by men and women in after-work attire. Some were in jeans. The open bar was serving only gin, wine and beer, and the food was limited to some nuts and candy. I felt ridiculously out of place—one of the first times in my life I might have actually overdressed.
It turns out the Young Members Circle is a totally different breed of junior philanthropy than its more exclusive brethren. Membership is $100, and events usually run about $40-$50 for nonmembers. Since most members are young professionals with full-time jobs, committee chairs are simply whoever volunteers, and most of the event planning is done via a shared Google Doc, according to current committee co-chair David Semanoff. Last year the group raised $40,000 for the museum, including membership fees. In comparison, the Winter Ball raised $445,000 in one evening.
It seemed clear that joining the Young Members Circle would not help me grasp another rung on on the social ladder. As my editor pointed out, I could become a member of the zoo and get a free t-shirt and parking passes, but that wouldn’t make me a socialite.
Still, as I stood around people of my own age and tax bracket (all of whom were down-to-earth, relaxed and fun—three strikes against them on the Social Register), I began to see the appeal in the Young Member’s Circle’s approach. There’s something refreshing about a charity group that openly courts new blood, whether or not it’s blue.
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