George Trescher: A Party Man Who Moved the 'Furniture'

George Trescher

George Trescher

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THE vast dining table in Brooke Astor's Park Avenue duplex was covered with seating charts on a crisp spring morning in 1987 as George Trescher, Mrs. Astor and I mused over the placement of some 400 guests for a gala dinner honoring a bevy of Nobel Prize winners that was to take place the following evening.

Suddenly Mr. Trescher grabbed a place card. ''You can't possibly seat him next to her!'' he announced. ''Don't you know he's sleeping with her husband?''

Mr. Trescher's familiarity with the sleeping arrangements of New York society was just one weapon in his sophisticated arsenal as a fund-raiser par excellence. A half-Irish, half-German native of San Francisco with a fiery temper and the soul of an unrepentant New Yorker, Mr. Trescher died of emphysema on June 5 at 77. On Tuesday night he will be honored at a $1,000-a-person fund-raiser for the Municipal Art Society at Capitale, and will be posthumously awarded the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal for his contributions to New York City.

The consummate ringmaster in the giddy triple-ringed circus of social life and philanthropy in Manhattan for more than three decades, George Trescher was also my first real boss. In 1985, fresh off a 747 from London with a degree from Cambridge, I stumbled into a job at George Trescher Associates as a fledgling fund-raiser, party planner and public relations flack for worthy charities. I was immediately dazzled by George's encyclopedic knowledge of the peccadillos of the city's most prominent citizens: the stodgy old guard; socialites wielding their husbands' newly minted fortunes in a frantic quest for acceptance; celebrity decorators; helmet-haired grandes dames who lunched at Mortimer's or Le Cirque; and corporate chieftains who rode around town in traffic-clogging limousines.

George had a devastating shorthand for each offender. Self-important ladies and gents who lacked the crucial ingredient of charm were derided as ''heavy furniture,'' doomed to be seated near the kitchen next to some thrifty plutocrat who ''wouldn't give you ice in winter.''

Brooke Astor with George Trescher. Photo: NewYorkSocialDiary

Brooke Astor with George Trescher. Photo: NewYorkSocialDiary

I was a mere minion in his little empire; still, the view couldn't be beat. On the day that he was bickering with Mrs. Astor about seating, for example, that 85-year-old reigning doyenne of New York philanthropy had descended the stairs in a short black leather skirt, declaring that she had just finished a workout with her personal trainer.

On April 26, 1986, I handed out the place cards at the wedding of Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was then riding high on his cinematic triumph as ''Conan the Barbarian.''

George was a stickler for timing and propriety. White stretch limos bearing the wedding party were just starting to arrive when we spotted a couple of guys in Austrian national costume struggling up the hill toward the cocktail tent carrying what appeared to be a large coffin. ''Get out of here, you idiots!'' he yelled, chasing them away.

During lunch, Mr. Schwarzenegger revealed the contents of the ''coffin'': a life-size statue of himself dressed as Conan, holding Maria in his arms, action-hero style. ''This is a gift from a great man who will be the next president of Austria,'' he announced gleefully. ''Kurt Waldheim!''

The bridegroom's body-building confreres applauded wildly. The bride's Kennedy cousins seemed less enthusiastic (at the time, Mr. Waldheim was denying accusations that he had concealed knowledge of war crimes committed by his German Army unit in World War II).

Three months later, on July 19, I found myself doling out the place cards again -- this time at the nuptials of Caroline Kennedy and Edwin A. Schlossberg on Rose Kennedy's lawn in Hyannis, Mass.

On that occasion, a spectacularly naked John Kennedy Jr. streaked across the lawn after taking an early morning splash in the sea, his towel draped casually around his neck.

George, the soul of discretion when it came to his clients, issued an edict that no one was to breathe a word of their glimpse of Mr. Kennedy's attributes. And we were forbidden to do anything so vulgar as to leak any news to the press.

George Trescher and Liz Smith. Photo:

It was a roller-coaster education in the arts of planning, coordination and public relations that Elizabeth Rohatyn, the philanthropist and the wife of Felix G. Rohatyn, the former United States ambassador to France, once described as George Trescher University. (For fun, T-shirts were printed up bearing the name of that imaginary institution for its multitudinous alumni.)

I was hardly a grade A student, but I learned some invaluable lessons: how to cajole liquor companies into donating wine and Champagne for a worthy charitable cause; how to ensure that the iceman cometh an hour before the waiters arrive to set up the bar; how to write solicitation letters; and how to sign them, as I was asked to do on one occasion, faithfully forging the signature of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis a thousand times on missives addressed to prospective ticket takers.

Unlike social life in other cultural capitals around the world, New York's has long revolved around philanthropy, which made George an often-crucial cog. He counted Mrs. Astor, Mrs. Onassis and Liz Smith, the syndicated columnist, among his closest circle of friends, and they were devoted to him. His firm was hired to organize Mrs. Astor's 90th birthday party, a benefit for 930 guests. ''My mother was very fond of him, very fond indeed,'' said Anthony Marshall, Mrs. Astor's son, ''and she relied upon him for the organization of events. Not only personal, but events down at the New York Public Library, or wherever else.''

To some observers, George was a puffed-up, name-dropping ''special events'' planner with a fancy Rolodex. Or worse, just a party planner. ''George hated to be called a party planner,'' Ms. Smith said, ''because he was so much more well-rounded. He understood that the party was just the vehicle for raising money. And he was looking to the future. He was really very smart about how to raise money, and how to fund things and get people involved. He did everything. The party, the money, the tickets, the lists.''

George's romance with New York began in 1945 when, as he liked to say: ''The Navy dumped me in Bayonne, N.J., and I saw the skyline of lower Manhattan slowly appear like a mirage as the fog rose off the upper bay. I knew I'd come home.'' He spent his first 19 years in New York working for Henry Luce at Time Inc., first in a junior position at Life and later as the promotion director for Sports Illustrated.

He then left to mastermind the 18-month-long centennial celebrations for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he started the museum's fund-raising department from scratch. He raised some $5 million to defray the prodigious expenses of the centenary celebrations, and used the exercise as an opportunity to discover what he called ''new checkbooks.''

In 1972, he hung out his own shingle and single-handedly altered the course of charitable fund-raising in New York by hiring high-end caterers, florists and popular entertainers, and by devoting endless hours to seating arrangements.

''George took parties out of the horrible world of chicken and peas at the Hotel Biltmore into events that made sense, and were more focused, that people didn't hate going to,'' said Kent Barwick, the president of the Municipal Art Society.

The results were good news for the charities who engaged his services. ''Of course, in making better parties, we were able to charge higher prices,'' George told W magazine.

To the bewilderment of his wealthy, pedigreed friends who owned mansions in Southampton and East Hampton, George insisted on renting a house in the more downscale Hampton Bays. He summered there for five or six years, beginning in 1986.

''He called it Quogue,'' a friend said, giggling. ''But it was really Hampton Bays.''

Thrifty by nature, George abhorred the notion of renting in the smarter Hamptons, where, he complained, stores charged $12 a pound for potato salad. ''That drove him crazy,'' said Robert Isabell, the florist, with whom George worked closely for more than 23 years. ''His face would turn red, he'd get so mad. Every time I see potato salad at Loaves and Fishes for $18, I think of him.''

But George would never skimp on service. ''Success or failure occurs in the first 10 minutes,'' he told W magazine in 1995. ''In that length of time, if you can arrive, get out of your car, come through the door, surrender your coat, pick up your escort card, go through the receiving line and pick up a drink, then the party has a chance of success. It's like a hard-boiled egg -- every minute after that, the party is harder to retrieve.''

''It's a combination of show business and a military maneuver,'' he said. ''Someone asked me, 'Why do you constantly use warlike terms to discuss a party?' Well, as far as I'm concerned, it is war; separating people from their money is a battle.''

George inspired devotion even from those who were on the receiving end of what Ms. Smith called his ''black Irish temper.'' Paul Gunther, the president of the Institute of Classical Architecture, recalled receiving a sharp rebuke when he first went to work for George in 1982. ''I had never figured out how to tie a bow tie,'' the Yale-educated Mr. Gunther said. ''When we went into the men's room to change into our tuxedos, George screamed at me because I was fumbling with my tie.''

''In five minutes I learned,'' Mr. Gunther added, laughing. ''I was so scared. If there was any doubt about the role of fear in education, it was disproved immediately. George was very demanding, and he had very high standards.''

Weakened by the emphysema that eventually killed him, for the last year of his life George was obliged to wear an electronic device that supplied a steady flow of oxygen into his nostrils.

''It obviously irritated him to no end,'' Peter Rogers, an old friend, said. ''But it did not keep him at home. He did not miss an opening or a closing. And he had it right there as if it were a Judith Leiber bag.''

Paradoxically, one of the most accomplished and imaginative event organizers of all time was adamant that he did not want a funeral or a memorial service in his honor.

''George didn't suffer any of us for long,'' Kent Barwick said. ''He thought that brevity was the soul of wit, and the idea of his friends, after a couple of drinks, intoning for hours the virtues they were manufacturing I think just offended his whole sense of theater and promptness.''

''I think he really wanted to spare everybody,'' he added.

Published in the New York Times, September 28, 2003

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Christopher Mason