Byline: Aileen Mehle
Onstage, Waltrud Meier, Angela Gheorghiu, Placido Domingo and Sergei Leiferkus were singing lyrically, silkenly, meltingly and lustily, respectively, in the Metropolitan Opera’s long-awaited, new production of Bizet’s “Carmen,” produced by Italian wonderman Franco Zeffirelli, who also directed and designed the spectacular sets. Offstage, in the center box where the swells sit, Nancy Reagan — in shimmering apple green satin and rubies — and the former Empress of Iran, now called The Shahbanou — striking in sheer black chiffon, the better to show off her beautiful back and the silver-gilt necklace bought at an Istanbul bazaar — were stealing the show. Both the former first lady of the United States and the former first lady of Iran were guests of Mr. and Mrs. Ezra (Cecile) Zilkha, who also wedged into the glamorous space such worthies as Brooke Astor in cappucino chiffon; Lady Annabelle Astor; the unparalleled philanthropists Ambassador Walter Annenberg and Ambassador Lee Annenberg (she was the benefit chairman of the evening and the Annenberg Foundation underwrote the production); Lee Annenberg’s daughter, Elizabeth Kabler; pristine blonde Mrs. Charles (Carol) Price, a former ambassadress to the Court of Saint James’s; the French Ambassador and Mme. Francois Bujon de l’Estaing; Khalil Rizk; Robert Pirie, that sort. Cecile floated about like a butterfly (if butterflies dressed in red, off-the-shoulder chiffon) attending to her guests. She is, after all, a vice president of the Met and its special events chairman, and floating about attentively and seeing that festive nights run sparklingly and smoothly is one of the things she does best. That she raises millions upon millions for the Met is another.
In surrounding parterre boxes, oozing chic, were Jayne Wrightsman in black velvet, Annette and Oscar de la Renta, Princess Laetitia Boncompagni, here visiting from Italy, Anne and Kirk Douglas, here visiting from Hollywood, Met chairman of the board James Kinnear and Mrs. Kinnear, Met president Bruce Crawford and Chris Crawford, Elizabeth and Alton Peters, Beverly Sills and Peter Greenough, Barbara Walters, C.Z. Guest, in a crystal-embroidered confection, former Brazilian Ambassador to the United States and Mrs. Walther Moreira-Salles, the Met’s general manager Joseph Volpe and Mrs. Volpe, Bootsie Galbraith, Lucky Roosevelt from Washington on her way to Europe, Janice Levin and her impossible-to-miss dragonfly, Gilbert Kahn, the billionaire John Kluge, who, among scores of others, came over to pay his respects to Nancy, Charles Ryskamp, Gil Shiva and Everett Fahy, opera lovers all.
After the dazzling performance, the dazzled guests repaired to the Grand Tier Promenade of the Opera House, there to dine, amongst the cast, on a Glorious Food menu of curried chicken vol-au-vent with basmati rice, and chocolate souffle cake with pistachio ice cream whilst quaffing wines and champagne provided by Schieffelin & Somerset. When they looked up from their plates it was to admire the centerpieces by Philip Baloun, endless deep, dark, delicious red roses springing from silver epergnes. In the middle of it all Franco Zeffirelli burst in to great applause and wet kisses. I love a night at the opera, don’t you?
(P.S. The Shabanou’s given name is Farah Diba. When Placido Domingo kissed her hand he called her “Casta Diva,” evoking the famous aria and his idea of a play on words. Is he a romantic devil or what?)
Among the other visiting firemen in New York has been the enormously rich and powerful Karim Aga Khan, spiritual leader of countless Ismailis and breeder and racer of blooded horses. Karim’s main reason for being here was to accept the Hadrian Award at a big luncheon — but what about dinner? Veronica and Randolph Hearst took care of that, honoring him with a hot meal at their Fifth Avenue spread, which spreads and spreads and spreads. Among the guests were Karim’s brother Prince Amyn Aga Khan, his half-sister Princess Yasmin Aga Khan, Pat Buckley, Jan Cowles, Lois de Menil, Laura Menzelopoulos, Lally Weymouth and Eric Breindel, Alexander Papamarkou, Liz and Andrew Tilberis, Baroness Rawlings, in from London, Carter Brown, Lord and Lady Norwich, Dr. Vartan Gregorian, David Rockefeller, Louise and Henry Grunwald, Ashton Hawkins, Alexandra and Arnaud de Borchgrave, Paul LeClerc and Judith Ginsberg, that sort. After dinner, in swept The Shahbanou, Robin Hambro, the blonde and beautiful American who married British banker Rupert Hambro, Drue Heinz and Lady Dudley with Robert Silvers. Karim was in fine fettle. That’s what love and a stableful of horses do for a man.
To get back to Philip Baloun for a minute, he also decorated the Plaza Hotel Ballroom in man-eating jungle greens and tiny orchids for the Casita Maria Fiesta. He set the tables with mango-colored cloths and three-tiered candelabra, much admired by Arnold Scaasi, one of the recipients of Casita Maria’s Gold Medal of Honor. Arnold, who forever counts the dresses he designed in every room he enters, said there were 37 of his creations there that night. Dear Arnold, and he doesn’t even have to use his fingers. Whatever, Anne Eisenhower Flottl wore his silver lace; Jackie Weld wore his black and red stunner, and Carol Mack looked lovely in his pastel chiffon. About the other 35 Scaasis, well, check them out with Arnold. Bob Hardwick and his orchestra played for the dancing where everyone on the floor tried to keep up with Lourdes Lopez of the New York City Ballet, another honoree — and failed. The third medal winner was Claudio Bravo, the Chilean artist. There were not, however, 37 Bravos in the room.
(Friday read about Alice Mason’s dinner party for Dominick Dunne with all the media that’s fit to print or light up your TV set on hand).