America may be a republic but it has an aristocracy - the tiara- toting, social-whirling queens of Beverly Hills. Andrew Gumbel is granted an audience. Photographs by Robert Yager
ife's hard when you're a social butterfly in Beverly Hills. All those luncheons, all that charity work to slog through, all those premieres and balls, all those manicures and leg-waxings. For women of a certain age, it's really quite exhausting. Which might explain why a select group of "the girls" decided a few years ago to take a break from their daily travails and have a bit of fun for a change.

Instead of just acting like royalty, they thought, why don't we dress that way, too? Thus was born the Crown Jewels, a social club dedicated to the notion that life is twice as enticing if you wear evening gowns and tiaras. The idea started as a twinkle in the eye of Gail Dauer, a real estate baroness of the non-aristocratic variety, and her equally well-heeled pals Eleanor Vallee (widow of crooner/actor Rudy Vallee), Shana Forman and Marci Weiner (active participant in, and chronicler of, the Beverly Hills social scene).

In no time at all the gold-bordered stationery was ordered, the embossed invitations were sent out and bevvies of neighbourhood hostesses and socialites were clamouring to be admitted to the genteel swirl of tea-parties, themed costume dinners and - highlight of highlights - the annual ball.

"A tiara sounds so ultra swell to me," one would-be member, Marilyn Lewis, wrote enthusiastically. Who could resist the fun of piling into the ladies' room at some swanky restaurant or hotel and helping each other into scarlet gowns hired from a theatre company or snatched up at a thrift store? Isn't it fun to bow and curtsy and call each other silly names?

Ah, yes, the names. In a ritual familiar to anyone elevated to the peerage, the Crown Jewels all have to pick suitably eminent titles. Gail Dauer chose Duchess Dauer of Dusseldorf - as much for the alliteration as any attachment to Germany. The other founders became Marquessa Marci d'Milano, Princess Ellie of the Vallee and Princess Shana of Punumsville. "My husband used to compliment me on my beautiful punum," Shana explains. "He's Jewish, and punum is Yiddish for face." Some of the punums, it must be said, owe rather more to the twin miracles of make-up and plastic surgery than they do to fresh, youthful beauty.

Among the "Ladies of the Royal Court", as rank-and-file members are known, are a Princess Dye of Windsor and a Baroness Barbara of Seville. In real life, the ladies own restaurants, yachts and other such baubles. "Hosts extravagant parties around the world," reads the CV of June Winkler (Lady June of Wailea). "Has Foundation which donates millions every year to charities," is the description of Cynthia Gershman (Lady Cynthia of Trousdale). The restaurant owners, of course, come in handy when deciding on a venue for the social events.

As for the all-important jewellery, some of the ladies picked up custom- made tiaras in London or New York, though most - regrettable but true - were kitted out by a discount store in downtown Los Angeles. "Please don't put that in your piece, it'll make us sound so cheap," pleads Duchess Dauer, a woman with quite extraordinarily long bright crimson fingernails who, as president of the club, is also known as the Keeper of the Accoutrements.

At a gathering at the Four Seasons Hotel (owned by Beverly Cohen, aka Duchesse Beverly des Quatre Saisons), Duchess Dauer wears a long, royal blue, two-piece suit - "off the rack from Las Vegas, my favourite place to shop" - and twirls a crystal-studded sceptre most definitely not from a discount store. "Sceptres are optional," Marquessa Marci chimes in, obviously a little jealous at the attention her friend's adornment is attracting. "But aren't the tiaras lovely? They're so in fashion these days." The Marquessa hands me a large leather-bound cuttings book featuring entertainment-magazine articles on the desirability of royal headgear.

The Four Seasons get-together is an occasion to try on some new costumes specially made for the girls by the neighbourhood fashion designer Ricco Antonio. There is much toing and froing as the ladies of the court wobble along in their high heels and adjust the stiff brocaded fronts of their ball gowns. "Darling, you look like an hour-glass, you're so lovely," says a voice of pure affectation. "Were you at the reception last night?" cries another, launching on a quite different conversation. "The place was sardines!"

An actress from the hit daytime soap opera The Young and the Restless, Sharon Farrell, has turned up in the hope of applying for membership. Anxious for someone to recognise her, she clutches a stack of CVs and publicity photographs. (Sharon, according to the blurb she touts, was nominated one of the most promising young actors of her generation, along with Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Steve McQueen and Warren Beatty - whatever can have gone wrong?)

But Sharon doesn't get much of a look-in as the ladies are totally absorbed by the photographer snapping them in their new outfits. They love the camera so much they are virtually eating it. "I'm a movie star!" comes a cry from the line-up. The others titter as they rearrange themselves for the next pose.

Movie star? If only. But, with their faces a smear of rouge and lipstick, their hair set like sculptures of icing sugar and marzipan, the Crown Jewels have created a fantasy world of stardom. Their cuttings book may hold the odd showbiz magazine piece, but is overwhelmingly made up of pictures of the Crown Jewels themselves. These women are in love with their own silly idea.

Ah, but time strides ahead and lunch is pressing, courtesy of Beverly Cohen and the Four Seasons kitchen. The ladies retire to the powder room to put their Chanel suits back on. One worries she has lost her valet parking stub. Another rushes off to the lunch room shouting: "Somebody left their crown in the bathroom!" Sharon Farrell fishes about for a lunch invitation, but when it fails to materialise she announces she has an important meeting with her agent and vanishes.

Over chicken Caesar salad, Marquessa Marci and Princess Shana explain the club's philosophy. "It's a bit of fun. Anyone can join as long as they have a sense of humour - and the $300 initiation fee. This is not a charity, but we all work for charities the whole time - breast cancer, battered women, children at Cedar-Sinai hospital. We just feel we should take a break four times a year."

Four times a year is how often the full club formally congregates. Informal meetings, one senses, occur about once a day. Shana starts getting nervous about a dental appointment, which makes Duchesse Beverly remark that she has a reception to attend at five for "someone who has found a cure for Alzheimer's".

The conversation moves rapidly through the social high points of the past few days. Someone brandishes a book called God, Sex and Women of the Bible, picked up at a launch the night before, which apparently explains how religious meditation can be very sensual if you only know how to use your fingers the right way.

Someone asks if I've met Audrey. "Her husband's a choreographer, you know. He wrote the music for Titanic." "Isn't choreography something to do with dancing?" inquires Marquessa Marci. Audrey points out that indeed it is. And her husband didn't write the score for Titanic, he just collaborated on it. Duchesse Beverly announces with pride that Pascale Regan, the artist, is lunching in the very next room. "You should really go up and introduce yourself to her," she says. "Her art is in Europe. Her art is in the Louvre!" "Didn't she marry a priest?" inquires a voice from the other end of the table. "She married an archbishop," comes the response. "He left the convent to be with her."

A selection of cream cakes arrives, and we are all encouraged to take a bite of each one. Not very ladylike, but there you are. Beverly launches into the wonders of Hawaii, which she recently toured on her 120ft yacht, called Pzazz, moored in Newport Beach, where the Duchesse spends her weekends in John Wayne's old house. Questions waft across the coffee cups about the mystique of the Duke, but alas it is time to go and the ladies bid each other a fond farewell. One senses that they don't have to do a lot of play-acting to take on the trappings of royalty. The inane upper-crust conversation, the endless social whirl, the ritual talk of trips to Palm Springs, Las Vegas, Hawaii - all this would no doubt more than qualify them for a seat at the table of the Windsors or Grimaldis.

Hollywood, after all, is rather like an unanointed aristocracy whose members fill the glossies much as the Royal Family did a generation ago. And the ladies of Beverly Hills are not unlike the broad-brimmed crowd that turns out to Ascot and Henley every summer.

One parting question for Princess Shana: isn't life in Beverly Hills, if anything, more royal than the hallowed corridors of Buckingham Palace and Sandringham? She pauses for just a moment before answering with great confidence: "Yes. It is"