In the early 90s, I was invited to a dinner at the Metropolitan Museum of Art by the the fabulously wealthy Barbara Lee Diamondsteen Speilvogel . Barbara Lee had come to one of my rehearsals at the Joffrey and had expressed interest in my work. She had donated $100,000 to the Met that year and her husband, Carl, couldn’t attend the patron’s dinner so she asked me to go.
My relationship to people with money at this time was difficult. I was around affluent patrons all the time but I was poor. I lived in a 5 flight walk-up and was always in a desperate scramble for cash. To support my work, it was necessary to reach out to individuals with resource but while I did my utmost to curry favor with those who might support me, below the surface I maintained a boiling, low grade resentment. When Barbara Lee called, I had my usual mixed emotions. It was an opportunity for potential bucks but would require a good deal of ass licking.
We arrived at the Met in Barbara Lee’s limosine and wandered up a red carpet to the second floor. The patron’s dinner was a top tier affair with an elite group of movers and shakers noshing and hobnobbing together. The Ambassadors to Japan and Argentina were there. Henry Kissinger was stopping in later for dessert. Philip de Montebello, the then director of the Met, regaled the assembly with the perfect combination of insider knowledge and old world manners . He was an amazing raconteur…one moment talking about the sex life of Michelangelo, the next describing his love of ping pong . He combined perfect social skills and the “just right” playful tone.
The dining tables had been set up inside the museum in front of a grand Spanish sacristy. Wine flowed. People got loose . I did my artist thing – talking to as many people as I could. Eventually dessert arrived – architectural towers of chocolate and iced cream with raspberry sauce, all held in death defying stacks with clever sugar ornaments and nougat skewers. Next to me the wife of the ambassador to Japan began cutting through a crunchy layer of meringue when her fork slipped and her entire dessert plate went ass over tea kettle. It performed a perfect double rotation before landing with a wet smack on the lap of the woman sitting next too her – the Chairwoman of The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. The bodies around the table froze as the poor woman stared down at her $50,000 couturier dress, now slathered in raspberry sauce. In that moment, I felt an evil thrill. I was hoping in that the group would cringe in unison and pull back in horror – that they would be embarrassed, awkward and that the woman herself would be humiliated. “Take that rich people!”……but nothing of the kind happened. As the waiters rushed in for damage control, the Chairwoman let out a laugh of pure magic. The financier sitting next to her said – ‘The same thing happened to my bank last week’. Everyone hooted and yelled in appreciation. The women of the group shuffled protectively around the Chairwoman with napkins. They were warm, self effacing and humorous. Philip de Montebello stood up and said – “Now we really have a party!”. He called for more champagne – then led us up a flight of stairs to the Velasquez exhibit where we took off our shoes, smoked cigars and sang until 5am.
I turned down a ride with Barbara Lee and walked home mulling over how disappointed I was that rich people seemed so skillful, so well adjusted, so happy – and that I felt so poor so needy so awkward……..
It wasn’t until many years later, after much more life had passed that I realized that no matter what socio-economic status someone has, everyone suffers. We are all subject to the same humanness. No one escapes from suffering. It takes different forms for each of us. We all live and we all die.