I recently sat down with a friend of more than 50 years, Reinaldo Herrera, and was filmed by Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, also an old friend, while lunching and discussing the past. The Herrera house is a grand one, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and Graydon’s idea was to film two people who had experienced what life was like back during the 50’s and early 60’s, when manners mattered more than money, and how elegant and graceful life was for—to put it bluntly—the haves, like my friend and myself. Well, I never enjoyed a luncheon more, however nostalgic and at times sad it was to recollect friends no longer with us and parties that now, through the mists of time, resemble what pleasant dreams are made of. Basically, we talked about how wonderful it was to live in a world where manners were paramount. Yes, it was still quite snobby, and an upper-class twit took precedence over an intellectual at a lady’s lunch, but, as I said on camera, to be 20 years old and playing polo in Paris in June, with the stands full of well-dressed ladies and blazered gentlemen, beats tailgating with fat slobs at a pro-football game somewhere in America on a Sunday afternoon. By a very long mile. The editor of Vanity Fair egged us on, and the shoot, I am told, was very successful. I will let you know when it comes out, because in my not so humble opinion, it’s worth it. Worth it because young people today have no idea what they missed. I know, I know, every generation says the same thing, but in this case the facts are undeniable.
First and foremost, it was a postwar period, and after Germany, Britain, France, and Italy were reconstructed, there was a mad dash by everyone to have fun. The French aristocracy opened up their châteaux, ditto the Brits, and gave nonstop balls. Rich Argentines and Brazilians flocked to Europe, as did well-bred Americans. In one particular year, 1962, I went to the Rochambeau ball in Paris; the Agnelli ball in the Bois de Boulogne; the Rothschild ball in their family seat, Ferrières, outside the capital; the Cadaval ball in Portugal; and to a crappy little party I gave to pay back the invitations at the Tour d’Argent, the famous restaurant on the Left Bank, where the owner (with whom I played polo) made me pay only ten percent of what was consumed that night. I was 26 and having the time of my life. Two years prior, in Rome, during the Olympics, I went to probably the greatest ball ever, in the Palazzo Ruspoli, given by Dado Ruspoli, the best-looking Roman ever, and a genuine prince to boot. (Too many Italians pose as princes nowadays, so I have to make that clear.) While tripping the light fantastic, I was approached by Dado and asked if I would throw out the drummer of the band. Dado had caught the drummer kissing Princess Ruspoli during a break. I refused. Dado shrugged, and that was where it ended. I mention this because heavies did not exist back then: no black-dressed behemoths shouldering their way around, glowering. It was all very civilized. One week before, I had been in Naples, had watched the then-crown prince of Greece win a gold yachting medal in the dragon class, and had attended the “Royal Ball,” as it was dubbed by the press, because every crowned head of Europe except the Queen of England had been present. The Duchess of Serra di Cassano, in whose palace the party took place, and a lady I had only met formally once, saw me walking around the beach in Monte Carlo and asked me if by any chance I’d be in Italy during the Olympics. I mention this to show how informal and friendly formal life was back then. She knew I knew what fork to use and that I had manners, and my youth did the rest.
Compare that invitation of a young man by a duchess with today. First of all, no one gives balls anymore. Too much bad publicity because being rich is a sin, and, after all, we are all equals. Secondly, the people who can afford to give such a ball today are the types that know the price of everything and the value of nothing. (Sorry, Oscar.) Why give a ball for other nouveau riche vulgarians like yourself and pay out of your own pocket when you can charge them 25,000 greenbacks for a table and then give the proceeds to an AIDS charity or to unwed black transgender mothers and be praised for it by GLAAD?
I guarantee you will enjoy the film. I had some good wine during lunch and forgot to tell Graydon that he should call it Twilight.