At Central Park Ladies' Luncheon, All Attention Is on the Hats

By Ted Kruckel May 11, 2010, 5:00 PM EDT

The flock descending the stairs at the Central Park Conservancy's Frederick Law Olmstead awards luncheon

Photo: Nick Hunt/PatrickMcMullan.com

When it comes to throwing a successful fund-raiser, the secret is knowing what your target audience really likes. And if your event is held in the spring and your target audience is ladies, well, one thing ladies really like in the spring is to get dressed up and wear big showy hats.

That’s the simple formula the Central Park Conservancy has hit on for its annual Frederick Law Olmstead awards luncheon, held at the Conservatory Garden this year on May 5.

From the stairs overlooking the gated entry at Fifth Avenue and 105th Street, I put the percentage of women wearing hats at better than 80 percent. With 1,200 guests, that’s about a thousand ladies’ lids. It really is a sight to behold, almost like an exotic bird convention, where each flock has sent its most resplendently plumed member with instructions to strut the grounds and show off.

Because wearing a hat is all about showing off. You know that, right?

It starts a few blocks away, where the elevated tracks on Park Avenue, combined with the lane closures on the park for this event, create a weird one-way traffic loop. It takes 20 minutes to go the final three blocks. That’s because the lion’s share of ladies like to be dropped off right in front of the gate, so that they can make an entrance—which they all kind of do. They get out, turn left, then right, and then invariably turn and look into the window of the automobile from which they’ve disembarked, checking the attitude of their canopy with a nearly indiscernible touch of the hand, as if the last tiny adjustment were the most important of all. 

You also know that at a hat party it is expected you pay a compliment to every single lady you meet about their hat, don’t you?

To not do so would be to crush the secret hope of every hatted partygoer: that their hat is the most exotic, chic, colorful, lush, pink, witty, ornate, intricate, elegant, urbane, inspired… the list goes on and on. All of these women secretly hope that their hat stands out and gets the most attention for whatever attribute they chose it.

“It’s not about being sexy,” explained Corinne Keller, whose foot-high and just about as wide navy Eric Javits straw hat was purchased in East Hampton at a store called Blue & Cream. (Ladies like it if you ask where they got the hat, too—as if you were going to jump in the car and go there, and as if the same hat would ever be available, for, as best I can tell, the secret to being a prosperous milliner is to never sell the same creation twice.) “Wearing a hat is about getting dressed up…about getting as clean as you can. And then you put your hat on and it’s fun, it’s festive.”

I learned that asking how much a hat costs is a tricky game—not for the faint of heart.

One attendee, whose topper had the largest brim width at her table (in hats, size matters), was delighted to tell me all about her hat. She had bought it that very morning. (You’d be surprised how many ladies put off this important purchase until the last second. A smart entrepreneur would set up a street kiosk right there on Fifth Avenue next year.) After giving me her name, she told me she had marched into a store on Third Avenue and 79th Street called Kino and spoken directly to the hat designer. “I told him, ‘Keep it in three figures.’” 

Later, the same lady found me, nervous and teary-eyed. “I must ask you not to use my name. What with the economy and all, I would just hate for people to think that I was wasting money on a hat.” After assuring her that I would run the quote as a blind item, shaking her hand and giving her my word that her name would not appear, she asked, “Do you mind if I ask you to find my name in your notes and cross it out?” Okay, lady.

On the opposite end of the cost spectrum, Lisa Scanlon wore a cloche with a green ribbon. “I got it at Jazz Fest for $25,” she said proudly. But when I complimented her on having the least expensive hat of the day, she had to add, “Well there was the added cost of flying to New Orleans.” Sorry.

Never tell a lady her hat was a bargain.

Some ladies prefer to make their own. One woman had an enormous cover that was furiously festooned with inexpensive-looking fake flowers attached with some sort of netting. She was a small, thin, pale woman, heavily made up and barely ambulatory under her ballast. She told me it had taken her six months to make her hat. I guessed it would take her that long to make it to her seat.

Another lady had on what looked to be a giant black spider, and sure enough she was also a self-hatter. Her name was Marie Samuels, and she’s an accessories designer. She also asked me to plug her annual Palm Beach hat event, the Mad Hatters Tea Party. It’s in March. There you are, Marie.

Most women get a new hat every year, which made me wonder what happens to the old ones. I thought of the Velveteen Rabbit, left alone in tatters after an all too brief shining moment as the favorite toy. All those hats, forlornly sitting on shelves, wondering “Will I ever see the Upper East Side again?”

But I’ve got to say, these hat ladies mean serious business. This event was started 28 years ago by 75 ladies who lunched at Tavern on the Green. They wore hats to garner media attention and draw awareness to restoring the park. The group included Betsy Barlow Rogers, who is still donning her bonnet for the cause. This year, the event raised $2.4 million. The Women’s Committee who runs it furnishes 20 percent of the Central Park Conservancy’s annual budget.

One of the ways they do that is by keeping the event simple. Flowers were by Andrew Pascoe of Oyster Bay, whose work I have liked before. The catering by Abigail Kirsch was efficient. I noticed that the tent was lit with rose-gelled lighting that flickered on and off, which I thought were superfluous. Maybe they can skip that next year and pocket the dough.

The ladies who run the event are also proud of their “no nonsense” approach and claim that all the money raised goes straight to the park. At my table, Catherine Parry reminded me how far the park had come, and the work that it required. She was wearing a glazed cotton chintz skirt and matching bag fashioned from a previous luncheon’s tablecloth, which was donated by Mario Buatta, mais bien sur. She and her now-deceased husband, George, were park lovers and volunteers, and they took on the job of scuba diving and documenting the contents of the Central Park Reservoir in the ’90s. She told me they found all sorts of stuff, including a baby’s high chair. Diving with lights, they found a segment of the old fence that pre-dated the hideous chain link fence and salvaged it. They presented it to the Conservancy, where it served as a model for the nice fence installed about 10 years ago.

So if you’re a Central Park Reservoir jogger, tip your hat to Catherine.

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