Gatecrashers: Gift of the blag

The American couple who bluffed their way into the White House are not unique. David Randall divulges some trade secrets of the serial ligger
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The Independent US

To those of us of an anti-social nature, the main problem with parties and receptions is not how to get into them, but out of them – either in advance, with the death, yet again, of Aunt Edith; or once there, as we gaze longingly at the exit and wonder if anyone will notice if we slip away. And that is why there seems something almost heroically insane about the Salahis, the Virginia couple who made quite a stir last week when they gatecrashed a formal do at the White House.

There are many things most of us might want to do with a spare Tuesday evening – macramé, perhaps, or snuggle under a rug with a good book – and attending a reception for the Indian prime minister is not one of them. Michaele and Tareq Salahi are different. With a Facebook page to fill, the wannabe socialites decided that it was worth the candle to blag their way past security, work the room, grin to the cameras, and collect a ton of photographs for their website.

Among their dupes (apart from the entire anti-assassination apparatus the world's most powerful nation has in place), were Barack Obama himself, Vice-President Joe Biden, White House Chief-of-Staff Rahm Emanuel, and TV news anchor Katie Couric – all of whom posed for pictures with the interlopers. The Salahis, whose motive is alleged to be winning a spot on a reality TV show, may face criminal charges, always a risk when you humiliate White House security.

In a way, their adventure was rather uplifting. Gatecrashing has got something of a tarnished name lately, what with weekly reports of some poor parents' Mon Repos being trashed when young Melissa puts her "A-Levels Are Over!" party details on MySpace and every Asbo holder for miles around arrives to wreck the place. (Although the parental worm is perhaps beginning to turn, one spirited father in Sydney seeing off revellers with a whip.)

True gatecrashing is not like that, being best conducted as a lone mission, and a guiding principle of it being that setting fire to the carpets, using heirloom paintings as dartboards, and barbecuing the resident guinea pigs will attract undue attention. My own ventures in it are so modest as to be pitiful. As a teenager, a friend and I would, of a socially and sexually desperate Saturday night, tour the suburban streets near Epsom, each with a glass in hand. A sudden clutch of parked cars would alert us to the likely presence of a party, and, if sounds of jollifications came from within, we would knock at the door, and claim, once it was opened, that we had been locked out.

It rarely worked, one of the few occasions when it did was at a church group's cheese and wine, which turned out to be populated by women of a certain age rather than the lovelies from Roseberry School for Girls that we had anticipated.

I soon realised we were mere stumbling amateurs, lacking guile, ambition, and the dress sense to carry off any serious infiltration. Grown-up gatecrashers aimed high, wore expensive clothes, had the cunning and nerve of an undercover agent, and possessed that remarkable chameleon ability to blend in. People, in other words, like Nicholas Allan – best-selling children's author, and such a pearl among contemporary London gatecrashers that he wrote an instructional book about it. A breezy confidence and a £1,000 black Armani suit were his secrets, plus the nerve to brazen it out with the doorman when his name was bafflingly absent from the guest list.

If you're planning to imitate him, book launches, once mildly exclusive, are now very different affairs, and eminently crashable. The purpose used to be the lushing up of book reviewers, and free copies were handed out like vol-au-vents. No longer. These days the average book launch has in the corner a large table piled high with volumes, behind which sits some publisher's nark and their credit-card swiping machine. You go, you pay. It can only be a matter of time before they start dragging in passers-by.

And then there are those for whom parties are not enough. The late Lord Kilbracken, for instance, set his heart not only on being at the 1957 Red Square Parade in Moscow, but appearing in it. He decided his best bet was to pose as a worker, and so he sallied forth from his hotel with a fur hat rammed down over his ears, the tie of Leander rowing club round his neck, and, for that authentic proletarian touch, his trousers on inside out. Once free of his minder, he wormed his way to the front of the crowd, and then, as the civilian comrades brought up the rear, slipped in among them, and marched past the rostrum. For his next trick, he passed himself off as a photographer, inveigled himself into a reception at the Egyptian Embassy, cornered Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, and talked to him for half an hour.

Kilbracken's stunt was a one-off, but there are those for whom turning up uninvited to an occasion becomes something of a ruling obsession. For some reason, funerals can have that effect, the record being claimed by one Mijo Tkalcec from Croatia, who claims to have attended more than 2,000 in recent decades. His record may now have been beaten by a Brazilian called Luis Squarisi, who was so addicted to funerals that he gave up the day job to avoid missing one. He said: "The first thing I do every morning is to turn on the radio to find out if anyone has died. If I don't hear about it on the radio, I call the hospitals and the local funeral home." In the end, mourners in his home town were apt to be rather miffed if Luis wasn't there.

But real gatecrashers direct their talents to more glittering occasions than cremations in Sao Paulo. And the king of them all was Stanley Berman, a New York taxi driver who styled himself, with no mean justification, as "The World Champion Gatecrasher". In a 20-year career cut short by his death at age 41, Berman wore out three tuxedos with his illicit attendance at more than 1,000 parties and 1,200 official receptions. He often styled himself Charles du Pont III, in spite of a strong Brooklyn accent.

Berman began in the mid-1940s, when he talked his way into meeting President Roosevelt (one of seven White House incumbents he was to meet socially). He then moved to Hollywood, where he would shin over studio walls and try to appear in crowd scenes. By the time he returned east, he was a practised gatecrasher, and in 1962 made one of his cheekiest forays, at the wedding of TV star Lucille Ball. As her limo drew up outside the church, the tuxed-up Berman leapt out, opened her door, and said: "I'm your bodyguard, come this way." She did, and whispered to him as they left the church after the service: "Check the guest list for the reception. Make sure no crashers get in."

His crowning achievement was to insinuate himself into President Kennedy's Inaugural Ball. There the tuxedoed Berman was, according to a subsequent article in Life, "standing in the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel, when he spotted a ticket to one of the inaugural balls lying on the floor." He used that to attend first one, and then another, where he met a woman member of the ball committee, who "assuming he was a bewildered dignitary, motioned him to follow her. The next thing he knew, he was standing next to the presidential box, and the band was playing 'Hail To The Chief'. Naturally, when the presidential party sailed in, Stanley piled right along with them, settling himself next to the president's father in the chair reserved for brother Bobby."

Final words should go to Matthew Bell, the Independent on Sunday diarist, a man of many party ruses, most of which work. He says: "The easiest way to gatecrash a party if you suspect security is going to be tight is to find an alternative entrance – the back door, the kitchens, the staff entrance etc. For example, at a recent party given by The Sunday Times at a top London hotel I noticed a great clump of doorstaff, with clipboards, outside the main entrance to the large ballroom-type area where the party was, but obviously big rooms have more than one set of doors, so I walked along the corridor to the next set I could find and slipped in. The mistake was later to admit my identity in conversation with the editor who didn't recall inviting me, but by then he was merry enough not to care. It's much more embarrassing for someone giving a party to throw someone out than it is for the gatecrasher to be spotted.

"But there are limits as to what parties should be crashed. Most London parties are fair game as they are usually promoting something or funded by big companies who can afford a few extras. But weddings are out of bounds, although I know one woman who couldn't bear to be left out and on one occasion drove to a wedding in Scotland despite not having been invited. She had come so far they could hardly turn her away."

Not on the guest list: Great gatecrashers of our time

Fetchingly attired in a false beard, turban and pink dress, Aaron Barschak stormed Prince William's 21st birthday party in Windsor Castle in 2003 as the "comedy terrorist". Police arrested him only after he attempted to storm the stage while the prince was making a speech.

David Hampton claimed he was Sydney Poitier's son, David, in order to gatecrash a string of parties and scrounge free meals from celebrities including Melanie Griffiths and Calvin Klein. His story was later made into the film Six Degrees of Separation.

Notorious prankster Karl Power, otherwise known as "Fat Neck", managed to pose for the team photo with Manchester United ahead of their European Cup game against Bayern Munich in 2001. Later he walked out to bat for England at Headingly in full whites, but was recognised as soon as he removed his helmet.

Jarvis Cocker may have been on the guest list for the 1996 Brit awards, but he wasn't meant to cavort across the stage as Michael Jackson performed. The Pulp singer jumped on to the platform throwing dismissive hand gestures in protest at the singer's messianic pose amid a group of adoring children.