Becoming a socialite is a grueling slog even in the best of circumstances. And I’m not in the best of circumstances. I don’t really know anyone or have any money, and while I’ve gotten plenty of ink over the years, it’s not the kind on the society pages (it’s on my shoulders, calves, upper arms, forearms…).
But nobody does it alone. Cinderella had a Fairy Godmother and a bunch of little birds. I had an editor, a stylist and a photographer lending occasional advice, but it wasn’t enough. I needed a publicist. And I knew of only one man for the job: R. Couri Hay.
Mr. Hay is a press agent, but he’s more than that. He’s a fixer, a connector, a Park Avenue Tom Hagen. He has been navigating New York’s toniest social spheres since the last time they wiped down the banquettes at Studio. He’s represented Prada, Veuve Clicquot, the Sanctuary Hotel, and The Hamptons Players Club, along with movie stars, socialites, artists, and authors. Mr. Hay can trace his vast circle of New York “friends” (no one is referred to as a client unless they are in the middle of selling something, throwing a party, or beset by public scandal) back to Andy Warhol, a dozen of whose works—a Marilyn silkscreen, nude sketches of Mr. Hay and a particularly naughty phallic collage among them—are in his collection.
My first invitation to Mr. Hay’s opulent home was to celebrate the christening of his dog, Webster Westbrook Alexander Hay, a long-haired Cavalier King Charles. A few weeks later I emailed Mr. Hay and told him I needed to speak to him about a “proposal.”
“Drew,” he replied, “I wanted to extend an invite to an event that we are having tomorrow night with Janna Bullock and Jay McInerney. If you would like to stop by we can chat there.”
Now, there was no way Mr. Hay could have known that I had spent my recent vacation poring over the entire McInerney oeuvre, or that I was writing a work of fan-fiction combining Mr. McInerney’s Story of My Life with The Hunger Games. (It’s called “You Can’t Reap the Willing,” and it’s going to be huge on the Internet.)
The intimate dinner of 20 proved an awkward occasion for shop talk. I found myself seated across from the avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson. Mr. McInerney was sitting two seats away. Nicole Miller was close by. Patricia Duff was one seat to my left.
“So…what did you want to talk to me about?” Mr. Hay asked, leaning over conspiratorially, as the appetizer was served.
“Well, you know that I do this column, about um, trying to become a socialite…”
“Don’t say ‘socialite,’” Mr. Hay gently corrected. “It’s got a bad connotation to it.”
“Okay, I’m trying to become…a person…of…social standing,” I faltered, desperately trying to the think of suitable synonyms for whatever Byrdie Bell is. “I was kind of hoping you would be my publicist?”
Mr. Hay speared a piece of lobster, and smiled at a guest. “So how would that work?” he replied nonchalantly. “How would you pay me? What would I be representing you as? What would you like to learn from me?”
This guy was good.
“I can’t pay you in money,” I said, “but I can pay you in press.”
Well, that felt sleazy, but I’d finally gotten it out in the open. Mr. Hay kept eating.
“While you’re helping me advance my social career, I’ll be writing about it in The Observer. You and your clients would wind up in the column. It’s mutually beneficial.”
I couldn’t be sure, but I thought I saw Mr. McInerney snickering.
Mr. Hay smiled, and then promptly changed the subject.
The next day, the phone rang. “Drew!” a voice chided me from across the line. “It was very obvious that you did not know who Robert Wilson was. If I’m going to be helping you with these columns, you can’t be making mistakes like that!”
“Oh, good,” I began.
“And I was reading your write-up of the event last night…look, you can’t just feature whoever was the most chatty at dinner on the top of the page. It’s an insult to the bigger names.”
“Oh, but I didn’t really talk to—”
“I’m having one of my assistants send you over the guest list right now. Then I want you to change the order, and then send it back. She can print it out for me, and we’ll go from there.”
“Don’t worry,” he continued. “I know that there is a line you can’t cross. This is just how I would write it, if I wanted people to pay attention. People love reading about themselves, but it has to be the right people. Also, more pictures: people want to see photos!”
“I think that’s doable,” I said, glad to have gotten a whole sentence in.
“Great. And I have you down for the Hale event on Monday, Tuesday we have the Harboring Hearts Spring Gala and the National Lung Association thing, and then we’ll see about the rest of the week. I’ll try to get you on some boards, but these people have to like you…which means that you can’t just write mean things about them.”
Mr. Hay, who has written some columns himself, would know.
“At least, not until you’re established,” he added, thoughtfully. “And look, if I’m ever overstepping boundaries just tell me.”
Maybe a little. But did I want a pushover or a publicist? If he was half this aggressive on my behalf, I’d be golden.
Still, I felt like a sell-out, imagining myself writing glowing items about self-important people in order to maintain my precarious social standing. It would be like having two editors.
Over the next week, every day, sometimes every hour, Mr. Hay would call and check up on me, give me my schedule for the evening, and walk me through the guest list.
“What should I tell the Times about our relationship?” he asked during one call. “They’re doing a profile on me, and it could be good press for you. Also, I got you a gig as a style expert on this fashion website, so just send them your headshots, and they’ll be in touch.”
But Mr. Hay wasn’t totally a task-masker with a whip. When I balked at double-booking two galas on a Tuesday for fear of exhaustion, he took pity on me: I only had to attend one—my choice! And those spreadsheets of attendees, listed in order of importance, actually made my job that much easier. (As to which were also his clients, I tried to remain innocent.) Whereas previously I had shown up at parties and simply talked to anyone who seemed friendly, now I zeroed in on the social fixtures.
“You’re young, and you’re beautiful…you’ll be easy,” Mr. Hay had pronounced when he’d agreed to represent me. I’m still not sure if that was a promise or a threat.
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