NEW YORK — “I definitely didn’t RSVP for this,” said a woman, rather loudly, as she walked into an already-raging Pennsylvania Society party at about 10:30 Friday night. Another variation of the same sentence came from a partygoer I overheard later, above not just a din but a roar of people conversing at the Waldorf Astoria.
I sort of snuck in, too. I had spoken with political consultant Larry Ceisler, host of the party, earlier in the week, and he had mentioned I could come. But when I said “Dent” to the person checking names the only “Dent” on the list was Charlie. Before finishing my explanation that I wasn’t a 55-year-old U.S. representative but someone who knew Ceisler, I was being waved in, whisked into a sea of beer, wine and politics.
This was happening in the Louis XVI Suite (Louis XVI=last French king, executed by guillotine). It was at an event called the Governor Mifflin Society Reception (Mifflin=first Pennsylvania governor, not executed). Well over a hundred people, some darting back and forth from a “dessert” party hosted by lieutenant governor Mike Stack, packed into the suite, many of them on the list and, apparently, many of us not.
Some people have compared Pennsylvania Society parties to raves. That’s a little outlandish. First of all, no way in hell anybody is listening to Skrillex at Pennsylvania Society. The party really wasn’t unlike something you’d see at a popular bar. The differences were the beer was free, people made advances toward power brokers rather than toward prospective hookups (but those happen too) and many conversations steered political while keeping a hint of rowdiness. For instance, I overheard this line while scanning the room shortly after I got in: “Jimmy Carter is the greatest president of my fucking lifetime.”
Yeah, I eavesdropped. I chatted up plenty of people I knew and made connections with a few newbies but did plenty of overhearing and observing. I wanted to see how the other half lives during this famous weekend. Media cover this thing every year, but they generally return without sharing the real details. We might hear some gossip, ideas for legislation or news of future campaigns, but what about the atmosphere? What really happens at this 117-year-old annual and what keeps it going year after year?
Many people, whatever they know of the event, might have already made up their minds about the Pennsylvania Society. It doesn’t take much to see people criticizing it or defending it. The weekend certainly has its contradictions. The Pennsylvania Society, after all, came into existence as a party for executives to unite “all Pennsylvanians at home and away from home in bonds of friendship and devotion to their native or adopted state.” They set out to achieve this goal of uniting Pennsylvania by feasting on Delmonico steak and oysters in New York City while, I assume, wearing monocles, top hats and carrying watches in their pockets rather than wearing them on their wrists. So to sum up: They wanted to help Pennsylvania, and they wanted to do it by throwing the greatest kegger the Commonwealth had ever seen but couldn’t actually see because the kegger was taking place in a different state. It was a noble goal with an odd strategy.
So I came to New York to step into another culture, meaning to drink free alcohol under art-covered ceilings and to wear a tuxedo for the first time since senior-year prom.
New York’s finest addresses
I stayed about 15 blocks away from the Waldorf Astoria, Pennsylvania Society’s HQ, but thousands of miles from its lavish atmosphere: on a couch in my sister’s apartment. A few blocks away, the gilded age awaited. The Waldorf Astoria is a five-star hotel. It’s where Sinatra and General Douglas MacArthur once lived, where a suite is named for Elizabeth Taylor and where every president since Herbert Hoover has stayed, including Obama until the Chinese bought it, and he worried foreign spies (!) might disrupt his sleep or something. The lobby stretches from Park Avenue to Lexington Avenue, a golden hue emanating from the walls and ceilings. A grandfather clock encrusted with bronze portraits of American presidents stands in the middle. Its in-house restaurant is called Peacock Alley. I felt like I was going to break something expensive every time I took a step.
Hang out in the lobby at the right time, and you’ll see everybody pass through. Friday evening before dinner, I camped out on a seat in the lobby’s Park Avenue side. The first well-known politician I spotted was Ed Rendell. He walked in wearing a full suit — with gray New Balance running shoes. Braddock mayor and U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman entered moments later in jeans and a short-sleeved black-button down over a tuxedo t-shirt. I walked to the other side, and there was Tom Corbett. He wasn’t wearing anything cool. Sorry Corby. Back on the other side, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson had entered. It takes people like them several minutes to cross the lobby and get wherever they’re going. Everyone wants a handshake and a quick word. Later, I saw U.S. senate candidate Katie McGinty headed for an elevator, and she stopped several times in a matter of feet for handshakes, hugs and quick conversations.
It seemed like at this time of night, in the lobby, the energy picks up. The day is subdued, when invited and uninvited guests gather for receptions at some of New York’s most exclusive addresses. Some of the notable venues for events over the weekend that most of us will never get to see: The Yale Club, Loft & Garden at Rockefeller Center, Plaza Hotel Grand Ballroom.
I went to an event Saturday morning at the Metropolitan Club, which J.P. Morgan created out of spite to piss off other wealthy clubs for not letting him in. It is so ornate it makes the Waldorf look like a rowhome. Marble is everywhere, inside and outside the building. This is the best picture I could take very quickly so as not to appear as a gawky tourist or perhaps break some rule forbidding photography (I wouldn’t be shocked if a team of Metropolitan Club high-powered attorneys immediately send me an email with “please cease and desist” in the subject line).
It’s no wonder these politicians and industry leaders hold events at buildings made for Greek gods and goddesses. You need some good scenery to break the monotony (as every one of these receptions is pretty much the same) — and to fight the hangovers (the receptions start at 8 a.m.). There were about a dozen on Friday and Saturday. The people who get invited wear name tags and the people who crash don’t. The event usually comes with lunch or hors d’oeuvres, alcohol if it’s later in the day, juice (and maybe alcohol) if it’s in the morning and a speech or discussion from a prominent leader. I was told Senator Pat Toomey gave nearly the exact same speech at a Friday event and at the Saturday event at the Metropolitan Club. Fetterman told me of the myriad receptions, “Everybody is kind of doing the same dance.”
Behind the scenes at the Plaza
Trumpapalooza was the exception. It was held at the Plaza Hotel, which, for the record, looked a little more majestic when I saw it the first time in “Home Alone 2” at age 8 but still pretty cool, especially during Christmas season. Guests of the Plaza were also kept under close surveillance (sadly Tim Curry as concierge and Rob Schneider as bellboy weren’t doing the watching). Republicans were. With about a half-dozen suited Pennsylvania GOP staff acting as makeshift security, the Donald Trump luncheon was probably the only place somebody couldn’t get in without an RSVP (I saw a couple of these Republican guards at the Governor Mifflin party later. AWKWARD).
These guys reminded me of the Queen’s Guard in England, devoid of emotion and mostly unwilling to chat. I can’t totally blame them for the cold shoulders. They had to deal with reporters ranging from Pennsylvania outlets to national outlets like “Inside Edition,” trying to burst through the GOP DMZ to catch a glimpse of the Donald’s greasy, golden mane. I did my best to disguise myself as a normal human being instead of a reporter and made it to the third floor at one point but was way too early. Up there I found a couple of metal detectors and a possible ally — a fan of Billy Penn! Maybe, just maybe, he told me, I could at least watch Trump walk in if I returned later. Alas: I was intercepted by another Republican security dude on the second floor when I tried to return.
You might’ve heard what happened at the luncheon. Protesters interrupted his speech but didn’t stop the words from spilling out of Trump’s mouth. Many people I talked to throughout the weekend brought him up, unsolicited. His presence overshadowed the weekend, already lacking some of its usual starpower due to the lack of Governor Tom Wolf and most legislators who didn’t want to be seen guzzling champagne while the latest budget proposal sat on their desks unread.
At the main event, Saturday night’s reception and dinner, about 1,400 people came. That number is smaller than recent years. The reception was so crowded you could barely turn around without spilling a drink on somebody, but at the dinner several tables were half-empty or worse. The coolest part was probably the announcement and ovation for 104-year-old Ray S. Walker and the mentioning of the fact that he received a speeding ticket at age 102. And the food, of course. Steak and vegetables and chocolate mousse cake and ice cream somehow packaged like a tart and drizzled with chocolate sauce. Complimentary wine and champagne were served at each table, but guests could also purchase other liquors from a menu, including $750 bottles of Johnnie Walker Blue Label.
Being whoever you want
Seeing the empty tables, I got to thinking about the purpose of this institution. If the main event is skipped by so many prominent people — and not just during a budget impasse –, why has this bash continued year after year?
The reason for Pennsylvania Society struck me on Friday night, when people got away from the formal stuff and went to the Governor Mifflin party. It was open, inviting of everyone from the woman behind me who didn’t RSVP to the unfortunate souls who had to be part of the Republican guard earlier in the day to established leaders.
You could tell who they were. Some of them looked distinguished because they had white hair or no hair at all. Others because — like Rendell or Corbett in the lobby — they had a circle around them and others on the periphery looking for an opportunity to break in. Most of the partygoers at the Mifflin, though, were doing the circling.
Bob Jubelirer, whose little hair that he has is very white, started coming to Pennsylvania Society in the late 1960s, before he was a state senator or the lieutenant governor. He was a lawyer trying to make his way. In describing Pennsylvania Society, he said it was overwhelmingly social and interesting for the ease of which you can find yourself surrounded by so many people you might never otherwise see.
“You get to interact with the hierarchy,” he said.
You can walk into a room and take a swing at being whatever you want to be in the future. Do it often enough and do it just right and perhaps you can become one of the lucky ones who can’t finish a beer or walk across a hotel lobby without shaking five different hands.
I only wanted to be someone else for a night or two. I left the Mifflin party to head to my sister’s apartment at around 12:30. The scenery got gradually less opulent the farther I walked toward home. First I was under the Waldorf’s chandeliers. Later I was looking at a line of drunks who for some reason were wanting get inside of a McFadden’s. Finally, my sister’s couch where I passed out.
Pennsylvania Society is fancy and ornate but open and approachable and, in the end, whatever you make of it. Not debatable is the toll a day of reporting, schmoozing, boozing and wearing a suit and tie and dress shoes takes on a body used to slumming it in jeans and sneakers. Partying like a 19th century magnate is exhausting.