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Photography by Dafydd Jones

Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald famously noted, “the rich are different than you and me.” And evidently, their pooches are, too. In one of the more memorable shots from photographer Dafydd Jones’ new book, New York: High Life, Low Life, two tiny pups held aloft by philanthropist Brooke Astor and archeologist Iris Love are caught on camera fighting over a plate of canapes at the restaurant Barbetta. The hilarious scene offers an unfiltered glimpse into a period of time in New York City when feeding certain well-heeled doggos canapes on a silver platter seemed more funny than obnoxious.

The decade turned out to be the swan song for Manhattan’s high society, the term used to define the most powerful and privileged folks in town, a latter-day version of the coterie tagged “The 400” in HBO’s The Gilded Age. Distinguished by their wealth, galas and neighboring addresses (everyone lived between Park and Fifth Avenues on the Upper East Side), these best-dressed A-listers were influencers long before there was social media, regularly appearing in the popular gossip columns of Liz Smith, Cindy Adams and Suzy (Aileen Mehle) as well as the weekly party pages of The New York Times, Women’s Wear Daily and The New York Observer. And no one captured their glamour, antics, excesses and guiltlessly indulgent ways better than Jones.

First gaining notoriety as the photographer for London’s Tatler, Jones was brought stateside by the editor Graydon Carter, initially serving as staff photographer for him at The Observer. When Carter took the helm at Vanity Fair, he brought Jones with him. “Most social-scene photographers would band people together for posed shots,” recalls Carter, who founded the digital weekly Air Mail in 2019, “but Jones has the ability to fade into the background and capture people in an unguarded way, giving us a greater sense of the energy at each event.” As Carter writes in his foreword to the book, “He would have made a great spy.”

“As a group, this crowd liked being photographed and enjoyed living in their own special world,” says Jones. “Many of them wouldn’t know how to get to Brooklyn Heights. But they loved showing off their access.” Included in this rarefied Rolodex were a sprinkling of “old-money” doyennes like Astor and Judy Peabody. Interestingly, however, the majority of the women Jones shot wafting through the annual Met Gala or seated prominently at haute couture shows — including Pat Buckley, Nan Kempner, Betsy Bloomingdale, Gayfryd Steinberg, Blaine Trump, Evelyn Lauder, Anne Bass and Carolyne Roehm — did not hail from patrician ancestry. According to Carter, their ascension through the ranks of society was “contingent solely on income, regardless of how their husbands had acquired that income.”

Just as Auntie Mame saw money as like manure — it wasn’t any good unless “you spread it around” — these women spent lavishly on their wardrobes, their homes and especially their parties. But the photos often obscure the fact that there was more than just a display of wealth going on. Unlike the insular high-society clique depicted in Feud: Capote vs. the Swans, Jones’ subjects were on a constant mission to raise money. “The enormous philanthropy displayed by these women has been unappreciated,” says Blaine Trump, long regarded as the godmother of the AIDs-related charity, God’s Love We Deliver. Kempner raised millions for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Peabody dared her friends — and everyone who wasn’t gay — to take on caring for AIDS victims through her tireless work with Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Mrs. Bloomingdale’s nickname was “Good Queen Betts.” Bass helped make the New York City Ballet financially solvent. Lauder almost single handedly raised awareness about breast cancer. And long before Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour transformed the Met Gala into the East Coast Oscars, Buckley made sure the annual event was a must-attend soiree for anyone who was anyone in New York City. “If you were an architect, lawyer, novelist, politician, author or restaurateur in town who mattered, you were there,” claims veteran journalist William Norwich. “Now it’s about stars in costumes on a staircase, though I can’t deny the money raised.”

Given the degree to which these socialites supported clothing designers, it’s no surprise that they were deeply embedded in the fashion world. Bill Blass, Geoffrey Beene and Oscar de la Renta frequently dined with them at Mortimer’s, the Lexington Avenue restaurant that served as their unofficial clubhouse. Out-of-towners like Valentino, Gianni Versace and Karl Lagerfeld were feted with dinner parties or entertained as coveted weekend guests. A new breed of supermodel like Naomi Campbell, Carla Bruni and Claudia Schiffer added sex appeal to their tables. Jones’s book captures them all.

So, why did this hallowed echelon lose its luster? The September 11 attack on the World Trade Center not only eviscerated the city’s celebratory air for years: it made ostentation appear tone-deaf. The crisis didn’t just flatten the hierarchy, Norwich notes. It also sent wealth out of New York. The Hamptons, Palm Beach, Aspen and Dallas all witnessed a swift migration of moneyed New Yorkers in the wake of the attacks. And, with the rise of celebrity magazines like InStyle, the culture increasingly valued star power over financial privilege.

Today social media can turn anyone into an icon, no social register or prodigious checkbook required. Surveying the Met Ball’s current roster (Wintour’s co-hosts this year included Zendaya, Jennifer Lopez, Bad Bunny, designer Jonathan Anderson and Shou Zi Chew, the CEO of TikTok), Jones says, “It’s a new iteration of [power and social standing]. Some might say my book chronicles the last gasp of high society. I like to think of it as ‘the last hurrah.’  Because, let’s face it: these people really did know how to have a good time.”

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.

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