Byline: Lisa Bertagnoli
CHICAGO — At 3 p.m. on every Valentine’s Day, a crowd of women dressed in red descends on the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Chicago. They’re there for Payson “Bunky” Cushing’s annual Valentine’s Day tea, held for a hundred or so women he calls “my ladies.”
Wearing red is a must. “Only the people from the Apparel Center wear black,” says socialite Hazel Barr, whom Cushing terms his “archangel.” Other requirements include serious jewelry, champagne at 4 p.m. and a prompt exit at 5.
Men, however, are not required — and only barely requested. The handful that do attend are exempt from the red rule; Cushing himself only accessorizes in red, wearing a sheared mink bow tie that was a gift from Barr.
Over lunch at the clubby RL a few weeks before tea time, Cushing and Barr relay the story of how the tea came to be. It started when Cushing, a 50-year-old single man who favors bow ties and a biweekly haircut, held a Valentine’s Day cocktail party at his Marine Drive apartment in 1992.
By 1994, the party had outgrown its 50-person guest list, and Cushing began scouting out a larger venue. About the same time, he read a magazine story about a New York man who held a Valentine’s Day tea for his female friends.
“I thought it was a good idea, and February is a dreary month,” says Cushing. The following year, the tea made its debut at the Ritz-Carlton.
These days, Cushing invites about 120 women and a half-dozen men. The tea’s reputation has so bloomed that it now marks the unofficial kickoff of the spring party season.
“It’s the social event of the season,” Barr says. “People kill for an invite.”
Working with his elephantine memory and a 98-cent notebook, Cushing starts planning next year’s guest list the moment the tea ends. First-time no-shows are considered questionable. Second-time no-shows are not asked back. Ladies who don’t send a written thank you are thoughtfully reconsidered for the following year’s tea.
Anyone who misbehaves, even genteelly, risks not receiving another engraved Tiffany invitation. To spot these blackhearts, Cushing positions spies — Barr, Maureen Smith, Megan McKinney Woodfield, Zarada Gowenlock and Nancy Klimley — around the room and relies on their reports. Their word is Gospel: “If three or four ladies tell me ‘she shouldn’t be here,’ I won’t question it,” Cushing says.
But despite their power, none of these ladies vet the guest list. “My housekeeper doesn’t even see it,” Cushing says.
Who replaces the banished ones? Women who strike his fancy, such as new invitee Roni Siegel, whom Cushing met at the annual Hinsdale Golf Club fashion show. “This is a private party, not a benefit for the Lyric,” Cushing reminds.
A private party for 120 women is no easy feat for one man. “But he’s everyone’s favorite escort and he doesn’t tell secrets,” says Barr. “This tea is a love-in for Bunky.”