Are You a Socialite?
GLENN O’BRIEN NETWORKS THE NETWORKS
Frankly, I’m not sure if I am. How can you tell?
“Not to be confused with Socialist.” That’s what it actually says in Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, when you look up “socialite.” It adds, “A socialite is a person who participates in social activities and spends a significant amount of time entertaining and being entertained at fashionable upper-class events. According to Merriam-Webster the word was first used in 1928.”
To be perfectly honest, I do not know if I am a socialite. I’m not even sure if I’m a socialist, although I do have a pink shirt. I do participate in social activities, and I do spend a significant amount of time entertaining. And even though I have worked professionally as a comedian, I do not consider myself an entertainer, as I have never been asked to join the Friars Club. I think in this context, however, Wiki means “entertaining” as having people over for drinks or dinner. I do qualify on that score, though not as much as I used to. Getting the kid off to school in the morning kind of kills the entertaining impulse, at least on weeknights.
But I do spend a significant amount of time being entertained, which is cheaper and easier than entertaining, but I’m not sure if it is at “fashionable upper-class events.” Fashionable? Probably. Many of these events are not open to the general public, and one must negotiate velvet rope and clipboard check before entering, and I’d say that if it’s
a shindig tossed by a major luxury vendor, it must be fashionable. Not only that, I am personally recognized by Patrick McMullan and Bill Cunningham and many veteran and neophyte public relations personnel. But upper-class? That term confuses me.
According to Wikipedia, not to be confused with WikiLeaks, “The upper class is the social class composed of the wealthiest members of society . . . generally the wealthiest 1 to 2% of the population.” I have a call in to my accountant. But then it goes on to say that it is “distinguished by immense wealth which is passed from generation to generation.” This surely doesn’t fit. My eighty-eight-year-old mother recently asked me to put her in my will. My family may have come over on the Mayflower, but probably they were in chains.
I am beginning to realize that I may just be an associate of socialites, or even worse, their plaything. That’s the trouble with the United States. You’re never quite sure where you stand until you’re in the docket. I think that’s why American socialites envy Europeans. I had dinner with an expatriate artist pal last night—he’s moving from Rome to London — and he told me about how disappointed our mutual friend’s wife’s European family was when they learned that Earl was his given name and not a title.
Wiki goes on to say that sociologists class households with a net worth of $1 million or more as “rich,” whereas the top 0.9 percent are “super-rich.” It must be noted, however, that in 2011 the average Manhattan apartment sold for $1.48 million, so go figure. Essentially, New York is the place where you can be “rich” and still be scrambling.
I am not in the Social Register. Still! This has been going on for generations now! If you go into Belgian Shoes on East Fifty-fifth Street, you can look at their copy and see for yourself. Wiki says: “American socialites were originally listed in the Social Register, a list of the names and addresses of the ‘preferred social contacts’ of the prominent families in the 19th century. In 1886, Louis Keller started to consolidate these lists and packaging them for sale.”
Some might consider the Social Registerfuddy-duddy, but you don’t if you’re in it. It is very exclusive. The Social Register is on Twitter (@SocRegister), and it is so exclusive it has only sixteen followers. (One is @PlumbingNews). It is so exclusive it is only following five. (Only one of those is not a Forbes.) Well, now it has seventeen followers, because I’m following. Maybe this will be my year. I’ll check in at Belgian Shoes around Christmastime to see if I’ve been added, because now I’m beginning to think that being a socialite is the right move.
I was looking at the Web site of a very glamorous movie star who is also, I think, a socialite. It wouldn’t surprise me if she were in the Social Register, but she’s also on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter and Tencent Weibo, which is so hip I don’t even know what it is! She has 264,539 “Tencent” followers. (Does that mean she’s worth $2,645,390?) And she’s only following two! That’s class! On Twitter she has 798,001 followers. I think this is the new Social Register. You’re a socialite if you can afford an average New York apartment and have Twitter followers in the six figures.
Facebook still limits users to 5,000 friends. Some theorize that this limit was originally imposed as a matter of server engineering, but Facebook has maintained that Facebook friends should be real friends. This seems unrealistic to me, when they have made “friend” a transitive verb. I have so many friends, I need facial recognition software, and that’s just in the real world. Ironically, in the Facebook world faces are rather unimportant.
Socializing has always involved a certain amount of give and take between networking or expanding one’s social profile and delimiting it and making it exclusive. In the Gilded Age when society was under siege from new money, Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor, the wife of William Backhouse Astor Jr., along with her socialite sidekick Ward McAllister, determined to limit society to 400, apparently the capacity of her ballroom. McAllister, who penned the memoir Society as I Have Found It in 1890 (which ironically destroyed his social status), described the 400 thus: “If you go outside that number, you strike people who are either not at ease in a ballroom or else make other people not at ease.”
Presumably, those most likely to put other people not at ease were blacks, Asians, Jews, mid-westerners and, of course, the Irish. The writer William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry, subsequently published a collection of short stories titled The Four Million, suggesting that tally was closer to the true number of interesting people in New York.
Society today seems to be hung up between these opposing ideas, with society pages mixing deposed European royals with hip-hop stars. Seeing which way the wind was blowing (perhaps after hearing Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” and Bobby Darin’s “Queen of the Hop”), Queen Elizabeth II abolished in 1958 the antiquated custom of girls being presented at court. But debutantes still come out, of course, as do many young men these days. Cities across America continue to stage cotillions where young women are presented to society. In New Orleans young women are still presented around Mardi Gras time, showing off their prominent backgrounds, while other young women are exhorted to show off their prominent foregrounds.
But while high society still stages ancient coming-of-age rites exhibiting the vestigial symbolism of exclusionary elites, new forms of society based on inclusion and involvement are revolutionizing how the world schmoozes. Facebook now has 700 million users, the rapidly expanding Twitter has over 350 million users, and the way the new social networks are used is changing society itself. The pyramid is flipping, as new media replace obsolete structures. Spontaneous social networking created the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements. It also seems to be turning society on its head.
In the future, high society will be less a matter of legacy (even though money will continue to matter) than achievement. Society, and thus socialites, will likely go populist and inclusive, although through such new social media as Ancestry.com you can now try to trace your bloodline back to the grail through the Merovingians. My personal strategy now is to tweet myself to the top. Let’s try #OccupySociety. This is why my Twitter handle is @LordRochester. I have entitled myself. Duke Ellington and Count Basie knew what they were doing, not to mention Prince and Lord Buckley. From now on, if anybody asks, I am a socialite. And maybe I’m a socialist too, because A) For me, being a socialist means going out at least three nights a week; B) I think we should go single payer like Norway and Japan; and C) Anybody can follow me on Twitter.
Power to the Followers! BG
Glenn O’Brien considers his favorite socialites over the years.
GLENN O’BRIEN was thinking about socialites because he just went social networking on Twitter (@lordrochester). His book How to Be a Man (Rizzoli) is in its second hardcover printing. His web site is glennobrien.com.