Getty Images News/Matthew Lloyd Getty Images News/Matthew Lloyd
By Amy Phillips Penn
“A great social success is a pretty girl who plays her cards
as carefully as if she were plain.” 
– F. Scott Fitzgerald


To climb or not to climb…is that a question?

Exactly what is society and why do so many of us long to “belong” — or at least get a well polished nail inside all the frou frou?

Lists and numbers work their magic in creating intrigue from titles like “Twelve Painless Ways to Get your Man to Propose” to the legendary “Astor Four Hundred.”

In the late 19th Century, the Gilded Age glistened in, with Caroline Astor as the self-declared Queen of New York and Newport society. Aided by Ward McAllister, she hosted her elite Patriarch Balls.

Her ballroom could haughtily host four hundred guests, yielding the name that wouldn’t take a bow or curtsy, acing the endurance test of time: the “Astor Four Hundred” was immortalized in the New York Times and sashayed on.

Here was the New York royalty, from railroad kings to robber barons, or a less than subtle blend of both. The words nouveau riche need not apply; the gush of new money was glorified and crowned.

Flash forward, way forward.

I’m at a polo game in Bridgehampton. A woman in britches is coming our way.

“Do you know who that is?” my friend elbows me with her voice.

I’m clueless, but I knew that I was not looking at an Astor.

“She’s a star on New York Housewives,” she informs me.

I can’t tell if she’s impressed, but I know that I’m not.

For those who care and dare to climb the social rung, here’s a few do’s:

1. Make sure that your child goes to one of the more prestigious private schools (No one said that this would be easy).

2. Volunteer for school outings, charity committees, and make sure that your summer home is on “the right side of the highway.”

And some essential don’ts:

1. If you are extremely wealthy don’t flaunt it.

2. Do not talk about money.

3. Don’t drip or drop names — especially if you don’t know the subject of the drop.

4. Do not make up any nonexistent fancy relatives, homes or polo ponies; the truth usually comes out, and down goes Humpty Von Dumpty before his fifteen minutes are paroled.

When I covered society for a New York paper, a few people stood out, mainly because they all but ran me over. One of the ladies married a major catch. Apparently this kind of aggression said sexy to someone.

I was grateful that she no longer felt the need to mow me down. She had made the kind of name that she had aimed for: society columns and at least “B” list party invitations.

At a polo game, this time in Wellington (Palm Beach for those who prefer the misnomer), another renowned socially ambitious woman came up to me.

“I would invite you to my house, but it’s not officially open yet. The furniture is still covered from last season.”

It turned out that she didn’t even have a home in Palm Beach.

She married a man with an impressive last name and bank account. Now she could take the covers off the furniture and be the hostess to her husband’s built in guest list.

His daughters were appalled.

“It’s so embarrassing that our father could have been taken in by that awful woman,” said the youngest daughter.

Sheer ambition boasts venerable hooks and claws, swathed in haute couture.

One of my favorite male friends’ father managed to wiggle his way up, and has no desire to straddle that ladder.

“I was so popular that I could have run for mayor of Southampton,” he says.

“It’s like peeling an onion, the more you peel, the more onion you get,” he says.

Be careful what you climb for, you might just get it.


“Socialites kid each other, their way of life, their friends; and I kid the whole setup.”
— Aileen Mehle, a.k.a. Suzy Knickerbocker, society columnist supreme

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