June 29, 2012 |
Early editions of the Social Register inspired local versions in posh resorts
Early editions of the Social Register inspired local versions in posh resorts
Socialites Lucille Parsons Vanderbilt (LEFT) and LeBrun Rhinelander McKnight at the Bathing Corporation of Southampton
Our crowd: Debs in the 1950s
The Bathing Corporation of Southampton, another Blue Book enclave
BookHampton, one place where inquiring minds can find a copy of The Blue Book
The Meadow Club, a frequently cited club listing in The Blue Book
Lasata in East Hampton, a former summer home of the Bouviers
True blue names: Jonathan and Somers Farkas
True blue names: Wendy Carduner
Jody Donohue and Etta Froio deny producing The Blue Book
Every year around Memorial Day, BookHampton website manager Jane Cochran gets a call, as she has for more than 15 years, from a “very polite disembodied voice” telling her “they’re ready.” A few days later, some 100 copies of The Blue Book of the Hamptons arrive individually wrapped in sealed envelopes. They are stored discreetly behind the front counter, from where, like the racy books of yore, they are sold to patrons who specifically ask for them.
Clink, clink, clink-let the restrained noise of family silver tapped against wine glasses toast the 90th issue of The Blue Book, currently making its way to kitchen pantries, hydrangea-decked hall tables, and Range Rover glove boxes up and down the East End.
A royal blue cloth-covered book with gold embossed calligraphy on its cover, The Blue Book contains some 265 pages of socially prominent names. Each is accompanied by local and “winter” addresses; an alphabet soup of area club memberships, from A.B. (Amagansett Beach Association) to W.Y.S.Ltd. (Westhampton Yacht Squadron); schools attended; spouses; and “Juniors” (Blue Book–speak for kids).
This modest tome sells for an immodest $80, making it arguably one of the world’s priciest local phone books. “By Christmas they’re all gone,” says Cochran. “It’s one of our best sellers. We’re even sending them overseas.” Who’s buying? “Everyone. People who are in it. Marketers for what’s probably one of the word’s best sales lists. And probably just the plain curious.”
Beyond the price tag, the most expensive aspect of The Blue Book is the obvious net worth of its members—many of whom list enough residences in the Hamptons, Manhattan, and other bluechip destinations to inspire an Occupy Further Lane movement. But one suspects that no amount of money will buy entry into the book. One of the most striking aspects of the tome is the names that are not listed. While the likes of Combs, Seinfeld, Stewart, Spielberg, and Madonna have been dominating newsprint about the Hamptons for years, they are still not to be found between the royal blue covers. Not that the book forswears celebrities—literary brat-packer Jay McInerney is listed, though it can’t hurt that he’s married to an American blue blood like Anne Hearst.
“I’m not sure how one gets into the book; I don’t even know who is behind it,” says New York Parties: Private Views author and Hamptons contributing editor Jamee Gregory, who has been a local society fixture for 40 years. “It wasn’t until we actually bought a house here about 20 years ago that someone asked if we wanted to be in the book. I had four or five friends recommend me via mail, and that was it. Now I get a couple of subscription copies a year. It’s made life much easier, especially if someone needs to suddenly find an extra tennis partner.”
Does anyone ever get kicked out of the book? “I only know of one instance,” says Gregory. “And that was when someone was using other members in it whom she didn’t know as references.”
Not that there isn’t a small frisson among members every time a new issue comes out. Indeed, a consistent question that popped up with some members contacted for this article was, “Did you happen to see if we’re still in it this year?”
“I’ve seen people literally tear open the book wrapping in the store as if it were a Christmas present to see if they were listed in it,” laughs Chris Avena, the general manager of BookHampton.
But perhaps The Blue Book’s biggest claim as a beach thriller is the enduring mystery as to who is behind it. All of the advertisers, book vendors, or members contacted for this tale claimed scant knowledge as to who owns it and how one is selected to get in (or ejected). The only public point of contact for The Blue Book is “P.O. drawer 1210” in the Southampton Post Office, and a local phone number where a polite but let’s-not-getfriendly matronly recorded voice tells you to leave a message.
“I presume it’s some sort of committee that’s behind it,” says Gregory. “But I have no idea who it is. It’s a source of great speculation, even among those of us who are in it.”
Several fingers—including The New York Times—have pointed to a female trio of seventysomethings as the brains behind the book: public relations maven Jody Donohue; Etta Froio, a longtime power at WWD; and the late Martha Olson. Unsurprisingly, Donohue and Froio turned out to be listed in the book.
“I only take orders from advertisers in the book as a favor to an old friend,” notes a slightly bemused Donohue when reached in her apartment in New York. “But I can’t tell you more. It’s a policy of The Blue Book to not talk to the press.” A few days later, she called back and reiterated that she couldn’t speak to me—but only after discussing literature, our mutual interest in architecture, and family details. It was, without a doubt, the most considerate, polite, and classy brush-off I have ever received. No wonder this institution has thrived for nine decades.
Her alleged Blue Book co-conspirator, Froio, now retired from the fashion news world, wasn’t quite as outgoing. That is, if the elderly woman with the commanding mid-Atlantic accent who answered her Manhattan phone was indeed her. The line went blank as soon as the subject of The Blue Book was brought up.
Who could blame anyone for keeping mum about something that probably isn’t anyone else’s business anyway? It seems a thankless job, tap dancing across social minefields to act as gatekeepers to a directory that seems to belong more to an era in which seersucker was considered beachwear and thongs were worn only on the feet. “Modern social networks usually have more open ways of screening people,” says Tatiana Platt, CEO and cofounder of the social networking site famegame.com and a younger denizen of the Hamptons who, one assumes, never wears seersucker to the beach. “Although I think social hierarchies are evolving in much different ways thanks to modern media, there’s a certain magic to The Blue Book. It might seem old-fashioned in the Internet age, but I’d hate to see it lost.”
Blue Books That Came Before
Social registers like The Blue Book were quite serious affairs when they first started appearing in this country in the 1880s, inspired by Europe’s aristocrat directories such as the United Kingdom’s Burke’s Peerage. As industrializing US cities emerged from the Civil War with massive influxes of merchants, laborers, and the newly moneyed, women from established families decided to hold on to their trusted social networks by compiling lists of prominent families on “visiting lists”—friends and friends-of-friends whom one could call on locally and while traveling without fear of anyone gripping a tea cup with more than three fingers. Social registers started proliferating in booming cities like Cleveland, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and New York.
In 1976 many of the regional social registers were consolidated into Social Register, now owned by The Forbes Group and which, as a sign of the times, is now online. The “About Us” page still proclaims that membership is “drawn from the country’s most prominent families, and many of those currently listed are direct descendents of the original members.” But pint-size social registers still abound in old-school beach communities like Palm Beach, which has the Social Index-Directory, or Rhode Island’s Your Private Newport Directory.
“Each of these communities has a unique social strata, and some people use directories like this to navigate them,” says Platt, who regularly maneuvers between the Hamptons and Palm Beach. “In Palm Beach, the Index-Directory is vital for the well-established charity circuit, while The Blue Book is more for figuring out smaller dinner parties and club membership. But in both cases, they’re a lot more convenient than having to page through the local telephone book.”
Not to mention, far more entertaining. The Blue Book is sprinkled with real estate bragging rights (how many houses, mansions, and foreign schloss does a family need?), impressively complicated names (obviously The Blue Book is no longer an exclusively WASP enclave), and the occasional insider jokes among friends. Witness the Campbell family, which lists their house as “Soupçon”; or the Rathbornes, whose house “Thither ’n Yon” is on Hither Lane; or the late Thomas Guinzburg, former president and owner of Viking Press, who had an ongoing gag listing his Maltese and English Pointer as his juniors.
But for all of its fun and rainbow coalition listings, The Blue Book still indulges in one uniquely American snobbery: a fascination with European titles, no matter how tenuous. The pages of The Blue Book dance with enough self-described “princesses,” “counts,” and self-selected “vons” from long-dismantled and obscure principalities to fill a couple of Henry James novels. It’s hard to imagine one of The Blue Book’s half-dozen selfdescribed Austro-Hungarian or Russian royals boldly proclaiming their majestic titles with equally straight faces to aristocrats of current standing back in the Old World without fear of beheading.
“The European thing is something that came in the past generation,” notes one socialite who understandably didn’t want to be identified. “Most of them married into The Blue Book. They’re fun to have dinner with, but my God, they can be long-winded about their complicated family trees, not to mention slow to pick up the tab.”
Anna Lombardi, who grew up here and writes about the local scene for Guest of a Guest, says about the book, “It’s the one Hamptons bulwark anyone can’t just buy their way into. Those who are used to coming to relax with friends and families they’ve known since they were babies suddenly find themselves picking on appetizers with bloodthirsty social climbers.”
Is Lombardi in the book?
No. “And never expect to be,” she says and pauses. “I hope it stays like that for another 90 years.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY REBECCA SAHN; matthew payton/getty images (gregory); stephen rizza/southamptonpatch.com (meadow club); henry s. dzekian iii/getty images (farkas); amber de vos/ patrickmcmullan.com (carduner); fpg/hulton archives/getty images (debutantes); patrick mcmullan (donohue); scott wintrow/getty images (platt); morgan collection/getty images (pool); courtesy of bookhampton (bookhampton); courtesy of The Social Register Association (visiting indexes); bert morgan/getty images (parsons); courtesy of brown harris stevens of the hamptons (lasat