NEW YORK – The countess stayed seated, but her gentleman companion chivalrously rose in his tuxedo to receive us. “Good evening,” he whispered with a continental bow. Uncertain how to answer him, I moved my head as he had, but didn’t really manage it as gracefully. While our tablemates looked on, he took a step behind me and kissed my girlfriend’s hand.
And so we arrived at the Petroushka Ball, one of the more elegant occasions in the New York social season – and an event at which neither of us ever thought we’d find ourselves until a recent Friday night. With a swirl of polished silver, we were swept into our seats as a liveried waiter rushed to pour our wine. I turned to raise an eyebrow at my date who, as it’s said, looked smashing in the red gown she had leased online from Rent the Runway. She was fiddling with her iPhone under the table. “Sorry,” she apologized, “but I just Instagrammed the water glass.”
Some men are born into society; some gain entry by way of their achievements. But then others, confused by how they got there, have it thrust upon them by their name. That name, my name, was in fact the only reason we had found ourselves that night in a ballroom at the Plaza, with big-band music drifting past the centerpiece displays and men in bow ties spinning skinny women on the dance floor. Or more precisely, it was not my name alone that had earned us this exclusive invitation. It was, rather, the coincidence that I shared it with a member of society, a friend I’d come to think of in the course of our acquaintance as “the other” Alan Feuer.
This is a story I’ve now told twice. It started three years ago, when I wrote an article for the New York Times recounting my relationship with Alan, a waltzing-class grandee I had met by chance at the turn of the millennium when I began to get his calls, most from East Side social clubs and lock-jawed girls named Muffy. An unexpected friendship emerged from this mistake of fate: Despite our different backgrounds, Alan and I would occasionally sit down over dinner, and he’d regale me with tales of debutantes and duchesses at soirees like the Viennese Opera or the Quadrille Balls.
Then one day in mid-2012, I received an email from his family informing me with great regret that he was dead. Alan’s passing led to yet another article for the paper, this one describing my discovery that my allegedly aristocratic namesake was not, in fact, the Austrian patrician he had claimed to be, but instead a Gatsby-like figure, dressed in spats and an ascot, born in the suburbs just north of the Bronx.
My follow-up – depicting, as it did, my double’s double life – didn’t quite sit well with some of Alan’s social chums, many of whom wrote to me in person or by proxy, expressing their displeasure. I was told I was a snoop, was asked how I would like it if some meddlesome reporter aired my deepest secrets. I found myself accused of society’s greatest crime – revealing someone’s private life – which is why I was surprised last fall when, out of the blue, I got an invitation from a military charity that Alan was involved with, requesting my attendance at its ball.
It was at this point, I’ll confess, that my own private life came into play. Even as the textured envelope appeared at my apartment, I was going through the final stages of a difficult divorce. There are few experiences less enchanting than arriving at the end of a marriage, and while I had no intrinsic interest in society events, the sudden prospect of an evening in tuxedo, in the glamorous surroundings of a ballroom, didn’t sound too bad. So, I sent back the response card and then dashed off a text to the woman I’d been seeing. And one night in October, we found ourselves at the Pierre, sipping champagne cocktails in a marbled hall with the Duke of York.
Did I realize my society debut was little more than a novelty act, a gag of sorts based solely on the accident of my name? Of course, I did. But then it hardly mattered when the people we met were friendly and intriguing, and the ambience of cummerbunds and charger plates was transportingly exotic. When, a few months later, an ornate Save the Date card, announcing the Petroushka, mysteriously showed up in my mailbox, I felt it my destiny to go. If the actual Alan couldn’t, then perhaps his doppelgänger could. What the hell, I thought, I would do it for him and for myself. I would do it for us both.
The trouble with your destiny, of course, is that not everybody shares it. And as Cheyne, my date, and I settled into place two weeks ago and introduced ourselves to the countess and the others, my name in particular provoked a quiet gasp. “Ah,” the fellow to my right said, “so you’re the one who wrote that – story.” I uncomfortably admitted I was. “Well,” he said, “I can’t say I entirely enjoyed it. Alan was a friend.”
But then the evening lengthened, and the band played on, the steaks were served with another round of red, and gradually the awkwardness diminished. In time, we found ourselves commemorating Alan, our sixth degree of separation, remembering his joyfulness in life and the courage that he showed confronting death.
“Not to quibble,” said my critic, now my friend, “but I wouldn’t say courage, I’d say dignity.” He hung his head and touched a stoic finger to his cheekbone. Dignity, indeed.
By the time dessert arrived, we had made our way into an airier, albeit unfamiliar, conversation. The Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow was said not to compare to the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg. The merits of the Graff Diamonds store on Madison Avenue were discussed. Did my lovely date and I think we might be headed to Palm Beach for the season? “And what about the Nobility Ball?” a man named John inquired. “Will you be going?” Not missing a beat, Cheyne said we would love to go. Perhaps John could assist us with a ticket.
If we do show up at the Nobility Ball, I won’t be writing a story. I have tapped this vein too often, and besides, as Alan always said, his “kind of people” appear in the news on only three occasions: births, deaths and weddings. But if we don’t show up, what difference does it make? We have already had our moment dancing to the Lester Lanin Orchestra, already had our taste of another man’s champagne.
“Splendid” was another thing Alan always said: The food and wine were splendid. It was splendid to see you, my boy.
So no matter what happens, I owe a debt of gratitude. Thanks, my friend, for a pair of splendid nights.