David Usborne: Our Man in New York

Our party in the outdoor lounge, complete with two batty dames and their dinky dogs


In a rush of blood to the head, I recently took on the task of organising a joint birthday party in New York for two of my closest friends. Both were turning thirty and expectations were high. Cramming 50 friends into my apartment with tepid sushi bites and cheap white wine wasn't going to fly.

Two weeks before the agreed date and nothing decided, panic began to descend. This was Manhattan and the season was summer. Two things were obvious. I needed a venue that was outdoors since the guests, I knew, would predominantly be smokers, and at least a little bit glamourous. I would worry about all the other details - buffets, booze and beauties - later on.

Al fresco in Manhattan usually means one thing, a roof top with perilous parapets and rolled asphalt that turns sticky underfoot under Manhattan's monsoon sun. What I wanted was a garden, but there just aren't that many empty lawns on this overstuffed island, let alone ones available for rent. The British Ambassador has a splendid garden on the East River as does Mayor Bloomberg. Somehow I didn't expect them to help.

Fortunately there are folk in this town who make their living organising such theatre. My first call was to Zoe, who has long worked for Nadine Johnson, the undisputed queen of all things PR in Manhattan. Nadine knows more about throwing a good party than Tom Cruise knows about acting (or religion or women's hormones). Zoe puts me in contact with Stephanie at a competing PR firm, who in turn passes me on to Bridget at yet another, called Syndicate. And Bridget - bless her - comes up with the goods.

Feeling quite puffed up, I informed the two birthday boys that they could at last issue their invitations. Their party was to be at the cutting edge of this summer's hot new trend in New York entertaining - it would happen in what they are calling, slightly preposterously, an "outdoor lounge". Ours for the night was the newly opened Yard at the swanky Soho Grand Hotel. There would be a bar on wheels, music piped through speakers, ship's deck furniture, blankets on the ground, and, best of all, the guests could come barefoot. Yes, we would be celebrating on real grass.

Trashy babes

That settled it was time to ring Nadine - a tall, gritty-voiced, blond Belgian native (via colonial Congo), who is vaguely terrifying to all but the most alpha of males - for some additional handy tips. Fabulous parties of hers that I have attended include the launch of now-defunct Talk magazine on Liberty Island six years ago, where guests included Madonna and Robert DeNiro, and a Halloween bash last October in the former home of Gianni Versace on Miami's South Beach. What were her secrets?

The key to any New York party, she began, is a "great venue, a great reason and great guests". So far, so good, I reasoned, even though I didn't have Madonna's address. It is always good to have a "babe du jour" on hand, she added. (At the Talk do it was Kate Moss.) "Also, the guest list should have a mix of hi-lo. You have to throw in a tart or two, some trashy babes." You need door control to keep out the paparazzi and the interlopers and, hopefully, a decent budget. And finally, of course, in Nadine's business it's usually good - but very occasionally not good at all - to get some press coverage of the night.

Well, the party is done now, on the last Friday in June, and I reckon we did OK. I won't comment on who the babes and tarts were. The hotel threw in a disc jockey as a birthday surprise. We even had the requisite gatecrashers, two batty old dames from the Upper East Side who pottered on to the lawn with a trio of dinky little dogs on tartan leashes. Rather than throw them out, we provided a dog bowl with champagne. They stayed an hour, chatting with bona fide guests and the dogs did nothing on the lawn to make us put our shoes back on. We even, rather bewilderingly, attracted the press - a reporter and photographer from The New York Times preparing a piece on, of course, the new, super-hip, outdoor lounge thing.

But never mind all of that. Only one thing mattered at the end of the night (actually it was well into the next morning) - that the birthday boys had an evening to remember.

Plinth charming

Nadine has a computer database of potential guests to her parties, tagged with secret codes. There are codes for trollope and troublemakers and for journalists with the potential to produce half-decent feedback in print. I trust it is the latter that is attached to me, since her invitations are still coming in.

Among her most recent events was a premiere party for a miniseries on the TNT cable channel executive produced by Steven Spielberg called Into the West, which purports to tell the "true story" of the white man's stampede across the continent in the last century for gold and for Indian and Mexican territory.

Whether or not the series achieves historic authenticity I cannot say, but the party seemed to have all of Nadine's ingredients - good reason, interesting guests (I was seated next to the film's cultural advisor, Charlie White Buffalo) and a great venue. We found ourselves sipping pre-screening cocktails in The Hall of the Northwest Coast Indians in the American Museum of Natural History as eerily life-like mannequins of Indian warriors surveyed us from their plinths. Who knows what they were thinking, but the setting was party-making genius.

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