Byline: Aileen Mehle

In Italy they’re saying that Andrew Lloyd Webber is over the moon now that the new opera house currently under construction in Milan has announced it will present his musical “The Phantom of the Opera” during the summer of 2003 in Italian, of course, and with a full chorus and an orchestra of 80. Andrew is telling his friends that all this thrills him as much as the $3.5 billion the show has brought in since its London premiere in 1986. Well, of course — who doesn’t know that?

What New York society is, really, is one big benefit party night after night after night — with weekends off for good behavior — no matter the season. But the other night the National Audubon Society had its first benefit gala in 95 years, oh my! None of that annual stuff for the 500 bird-lovers who, dressed in black tie, came out to dine and dance to Bob Hardwick’s orchestra. It all happened at Pier Sixty at the Chelsea Piers, where three extraordinary conservationists received the first Audubon Achievement Award: Marian Heiskell, a “New York City Living Landmark,” for years of countless contributions to conservation; Roy Disney for his lifelong devotion to nature (he was honored in speech and in birdsong), and Paul Tudor Jones 2nd, the Wall Street whiz kid who took home the prize for almost singlehandedly cleaning up Florida Bay and the Everglades. Among the fine feathered friends at the party were Lucy Rockefeller Waletzky; Kimberly and Steven Rockefeller; Renee and Mark Rockefeller; John Flicker, the head of the Society; Mrs. Hank (Wendy) Paulson and son Merritt; Anne and Constantine Sidamon-Eristoff, etc., etc., etc. The Disney people flew up a bird act from Florida including a perky singing parrot doing his take on “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and a dancing vulture from Africa. Keep in mind that in Africa, vultures’ brains and hearts are thought to have extra-sensory powers and are being slaughtered to the edge of being endangered. Chin up, there are still enough vultures thriving in New York to go around. (I can hear you trying to read something into that.)

Carroll Petrie’s antiques-filled Fifth Avenue apartment was filled with all sorts of the creme de la creme the other evening including the Duke of York, a.k.a. Prince Andrew, accompanied by his equerry, who flew in to fire up the troops for a once-in-a-lifetime event benefiting the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Andrew’s favorite charity. You see, on the weekend of July 4th, two of the greatest tennis champs of all time, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg, will face off again right on the grounds of Buckingham Palace. It is said that never before have the gates of the Palace been opened for a charity event, but who can swear to that? In the group at Carroll’s, all contemplating the London trip were Gigi and Roone Arledge, Gale Hayman and Bill Haseline, Duane Hampton, Barbara and Henrik de Kwiatkowski, Barbara Walters, Lita Livanos, like that. Later the prince had dinner at Le Cirque with hosts Susan and John Hess, who are lifelong friends of Nicole Hambro of London, a great patron of NSPCC who also flew over for the occasion. Joining them were Dan Aykroyd and Donna Dixon, the John McEnroes, Bobby Kennedy Jr., Andrew’s old flame Koo Stark (oh-oh), Art Garfunkel, who will be singing at the Palace to kick off the tennis match, and Patty and Marty Raynes.

If you thought Rene Russo looked great as the Titian-haired temptress in “The Thomas Crown Affair” — and who didn’t? — wait until you see her as the raven-haired seductress, Natasha Fatale, in Universal’s live action/animated comedy, “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.” The Tony Award-winning director Des McAnuff says, “I’d never seen Rene do anything quite like this. We all fell madly in love with her on the set because she’s so gracious and so gorgeous. She’s all arms and legs, which was perfect for Natasha.” Didn’t he forget a couple of things? Anyhow, Rene, who spent three hours a day getting made up to embody the Transylvanian femme fatale, refers to it as “my drag queen look.”
Russo’s cohorts in crime are Robert DeNiro as Fearless Leader and Jason Alexander as Boris Badenov. Cute.

Lily Safra, the beautiful widow of Edmond Safra, one of the greatest of international philanthropists and a famous financier, flew in from Europe to be at the United Nations for its 23rd Anniversary International Awards Gala celebrating her husband’s legacy and vision in educating an entire generation of bright young Israelis. The ISEF Foundation and Dr. Yehuda Lancry hosted the evening, and among those seated at Lily’s table were the Brazilian Ambassador to the U.S. and Mrs. Rubens Barboza, whose father, Sergio Correra da Costa, is a former ambassador from Brazil to the U.N. and whose maternal grandfather, Oswaldo Aranha, was Brazil’s eloquent and persuasive voice of reason for the U.N. in the Forties. For her good works, the chic Mrs. Barboza took an ISEF award back to Washington with her. Her acceptance speech was perfect. “Thank you very much for this great honor,” she said. And sat down.

(On Friday: The Three Tenors at the Metropolitan Opera House and the party after in a magnificent tent with chairman Cecile Zilkha turning heads in yellow chiffon a la Mme. Gres and Mrs. Conrad (Barbara) Black looking like a movie star should in an alluring black Saint Laurent that showed off a lot of alluring her. Also, the Society of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center’s Awards for Excellence gala dinner at the Rainbow Room, where Avi Adler decorated the premises in shimmering crystal. Avi, the new wizard at party design, is New York’s answer to Paris’s great designer Pierre Celeyron these nights.)