The Secret Life of a Society Maven (Published 2012) (2022)


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The Secret Life of a Society Maven (Published 2012) (1)

By Alan Feuer

THERE are certain stories that begin in earnest only when they seem to reach an end. It turns out, I wrote one last year.

The story told of a friendship I had struck up with my New York doppelganger, a man who shared my name and whom I came to think of, with congenital self-absorption, as “the other” Alan Feuer. I had, for years, been getting Alan’s phone calls — from the Metropolitan Club, from well-mannered girls named Muffy — until one day, feeling curious and crowded, I looked up my double.

I’m glad I did, because we met and had a drink, and then, to my surprised delight — mysterious New York! — embarked on one of those unique relationships it seems only the city can provide. Alan, I discovered, was a society man, a gentlemanly figure who frequented affairs like the Petroushka Ball at the Waldorf and the Military Ball at the Plaza. He was an expert waltzer and a wearer of white ties who spoke with an accent — the Palm Beach Lock-Jaw — I had heard only in Preston Sturges films.

Beyond our name, we had nothing in common. He lived on the East Side; I lived on the West. He wore top hats; I wore baseball caps. When he asked about my family, I told him I was from Romanian Jews, most of whom fled Europe after World War II. Alan told me that he was from a family of Austrian bluebloods transplanted to New York. There had been, he said, a family fortune once; but, he added wistfully, “Mother lived too long.”

Last month, this story — our story — came to an end. Alan, who was 70 and had cancer, died at Bellevue Hospital Center. I learned about his death while on vacation in a small fishing village on the eastern coast of Mexico. Every morning I would pedal into town to get breakfast and dutifully check e-mails on the cafe’s touchy Wi-Fi.

One day, 20 messages appeared in my inbox: notes from Alan’s friends, who had seen my piece last spring and were writing to inform me of “his passing.” There were links to Alan’s Facebook page and to a guest book on There I found my counterpart passionately praised, in dozens — hundreds — of posts as “the last true society gentleman,” “the Grand Patriarch of New York City balls,” “the Oscar Wilde of our time.”

“Alan,” someone wrote, “your Waltz will be danced forever in the lives of all those you have touched with the love of White Gloves and White Ties. Rest in peace, dear friend, and save a dance.”

At last, there was only one unopened message in my queue. Saddened, I clicked it. This is what it said:

Dear Mr. Feuer,

Ever since reading your article about the other Alan Feuer, I have thought about writing to you. I had no desire to disrupt his life while he was alive, but since he has passed away, I am wondering if you would be interested in learning the truth about his background.

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The writer, I was shocked to find, was the other Alan’s stepniece; she told me she had known him since she was 5. Her letter laid out the family’s relationships — I knew that Alan was estranged — and then concluded on a melancholy note.

While the adult life he described to you was certainly true, his background was far from the one he claimed. If you would be interested in further information about this sad and, I think, somewhat troubled man, please feel free to contact me.

Needless to say, I did.

JUST north of the Bronx, in the suburb of Mount Vernon, a brick row house sits on a side street, indistinguishably fastened to its neighbors. It is plain in every way — from the single-car garage to the old stone staircase leading to its door. A Metro-North train yard hulks two blocks away.


Alan Z. Feuer moved here in 1952, when he was 11, possibly from Brooklyn — the documentary evidence is thin — with his twin, Stephan, and his parents, Emma and Nelson. Emma Feuer was a secretary at Mount Vernon City Hall. Nelson Feuer had a law degree, but according to the family, his main source of income was a liquor store he owned. He died in 1960, when Alan was 18.

Nelson’s father, Samuel, had, in fact, come from Austria, as Alan claimed, although clearly not as a blueblood: the 1910 census lists his address as a tenement apartment at 88 Sheriff Street, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. His occupation was recorded as “saloonkeeper.” Though Samuel’s situation gradually improved — 20 years later, he was a “realtor” and owned a house in Brooklyn worth $20,000, not a trivial sum — he did not forget his roots. When asked by the 1930 census what language he spoke before arriving in this country, Samuel said: “Yiddish.”

I never asked Alan if he was Jewish; frankly, it didn’t occur to me to ask. Though he never — and I’ve thought about this since — explicitly denied being Jewish, he did communicate a kind of Episcopalian aura through some unspoken alchemy of his social ties, old-world manners and Anglophilic accent.

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“Let’s put it this way,” said Neil Teicher, Alan’s stepbrother, whose father married Alan’s mother in 1964. “I was very bemused to see his memorial service was at the Church of the Incarnation on Madison Avenue.”

In 1963, Alan graduated from Ohio University, and a few years later, during the Vietnam War, he enlisted in the Air Force. He was stationed in England, and when he returned, in 1968, he was — to his family’s astonishment — transformed.

“He had turned into a kind of English fop,” Mr. Teicher said. “He had that accent, and was wearing an ascot and carrying a walking stick.”

These affectations were apparently not only for public consumption; Alan kept them up at family dinners in Mount Vernon. In 1969, Mr. Teicher briefly moved to England, and Alan went to visit. There he was, in Swinging London, with his canes, cravats and long, skinny filters for his cigarettes. “He was the parody of a British aristocrat,” Mr. Teicher said, “but among real British people.”

All I could think of upon hearing this was that vibrating moment when the young Jay Gatz, not yet Gatsby, sees his future arrive in the guise of a yacht dropping anchor on Lake Superior. Alan, too, must have had a moment, one in which my second self, catching sight of his own second self, let go of Mount Vernon and grabbed the hand of the beckoning Edwardian.

I never found that moment. One of Alan’s Facebook friends, an Englishwoman, posted that she remembered him fondly in England during Vietnam, but didn’t respond to my many attempts to reach her. Because I was not his relative, the Air Force wouldn’t tell me at which English base Alan served. His real family didn’t know.

A society friend, Richard Rabbito, wondered whether it was truly unhappiness that had caused the metamorphosis, as the stepniece suggested. “Alan had a culturally rich perspective just waiting to be harvested,” Mr. Rabbito said. “I don’t like the phrase ‘reinvent yourself.’ I think what really happened is that when Alan got to England, whatever he found there allowed him to discover who he already was.”

Mr. Rabbito, a private-equity consultant with a Continental background, met Alan in 1974, through a mutual friend at the English Speaking Union in New York. Alan was at that point working at S. Wyler, an East Side dealer in antique English silver. In 1975, Mr. Rabbito sponsored Alan at his first society ball, the Quadrille Ball. “He took to it like a butterfly leaving the cocoon,” Mr. Rabbito recalled. “It was his stage, his Broadway. It was like he had found his North Star — his bliss.”

Soon, there were invitations to the Russian Nobility Ball and the Viennese Opera Ball, so many that Alan made a list of them with the image of a couple dancing on its cover, like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. He enmeshed himself in the life of these events as a planner and a mentor to the young. “Patiently and lovingly, Alan guided generations of young Quadrille Ball dancers not only in the art of the quadrille dance,” its organizers wrote in a tribute, “but also in civility and etiquette, thereby helping them to appreciate the timeless values for which he stood.”


When I met Alan, this was his occupation: teaching protocol, organizing table cards, finding deep pockets for charity affairs. It was unpaid work, and I wondered how he managed. His apartment, on 65th Street near Second Avenue, could not have cost him much: it was a dark cave filled with knickknacks. Mr. Rabbito, repeating what I heard from many friends, said, “Alan always told us he had a modest inheritance.”

I asked him if he had ever doubted Alan’s story. “We knew or we suspected — or some of us did,” he said. “But we didn’t care.”

He continued, misquoting Thoreau: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and die with their song still inside them. Well, Alan’s song came out.”

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Still, I had to wonder if his “inheritance” was the $1,000 that Mr. Teicher said Alan got each month from his mother. Alan worked only occasionally. Beyond S. Wyler, he held jobs at an antiquarian bookstore and a couple of brokerage firms, but none panned out.

“Over the years,” his stepniece, Merrie Lipton, told me in a follow-up note, “he became more contemptuous of his mother, although I am sure on some level he loved her. When he told you, ‘Mother lived too long,’ he undoubtedly meant that, though certainly not because she had gone through some imaginary fortune.”

When Alan’s mother died, in 2000, he refused to put a death notice in The New York Times. “We were all at the house composing the obituary, and Alan went crazy,” Mr. Teicher said. “He was shouting: ‘You can’t do this! Over my dead body!’ He obviously wanted the secret to remain in Mount Vernon.”

Perhaps, I thought, Alan’s brother, Stephan, could help me see the bottom. Stephan was living in Mount Vernon, in his childhood home. I called him one night.

When no one answered, I left a message with contact information for my office and my cellphone. Seconds later, using caller ID, Stephan called me back.

He was as rough as Alan was polished. The first words out of his mouth were “What do you want?”

I told him what I wanted: to know why Alan had felt compelled to reinvent himself.

“I know exactly why,” he said, “but I’m not saying nothing. And it’ll stay that way till my grave.”

Taken aback, I said tactically, but truthfully, that I also felt responsible for having helped perpetuate a story that wasn’t true.

Stephan surprised me with his sensitivity, his protectiveness of Alan.

“Listen,” he said, “you didn’t perpetuate nothing that wasn’t true in my brother’s eyes.”

EARLY in all this, one of Alan’s closest friends said, “He lived in a fantasy world.” Then again, the longer I spent in Alan’s world, and the more I spoke with members of his social set, the more I came to suspect that, if his world was a fantasy, it was one residing in the larger fantasy of New York society.


I talked to experts, and they told me the same thing: Alan’s world of Austro-Hungarian dance steps and small, unheard-of charities was genuine and pleasant, but it had no gravity in New York; it was not, say, Ronald Lauder’s world of rich industrialists supporting the opera or Save Venice Inc.

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“These are social events, but not necessarily society events,” said David Patrick Columbia, proprietor of the online New York Social Diary, which chronicles the city’s megawealthy. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that. They may be obscure to someone like me, but they’re certainly not obscure to people who attend them.”

I tried to picture Alan, in his tails and top hat, among the truly, if crassly, powerful hedge-funders at a soiree for the Costume Institute. Most likely, he would have been laughed off the dance floor. But, of course, he preferred soirees where the dress and etiquette looked away from the crass present toward some antiquated European past. Why? Because he found it more authentic? Because he had mastered, and thus could hide within, the ornate folds of its chivalric code? Because, as Mr. Rabbito said, balls were Alan’s bliss?

I didn’t know, but I was told that the person I needed to see was Ivan Obolensky, the one, true society don of Alan’s world. Mr. Obolensky, to use the scientific term, is the real deal: the sixth prince of the Obolensky-Neledinsky-Meletzky family and a grandson of John Jacob Astor IV, who died on the Titanic.

He suggested a drink one evening at the New York Yacht Club. I arrived in a tie and blazer, but unfortunately also in what the maître d’ sniffingly referred to as “denim trousers.” I ran, literally, down the block to Brooks Brothers, where, for an exorbitant price, I obtained the world’s fastest pair of ready-to-wear gray slacks.

Mr. Obolensky, 86, was waiting in the bar with a vodka. We talked about him for a while — his Navy hitch during World War II, his amateur boxing days, the preposterous burdens of his name. “It still shocks me,” he mused, “that whenever I go to England, I’m seated at the right hand of some Lady I’ve never even met.”

When the conversation turned to Alan, he said, “Ah, yes, Alan lived by his wits.” I asked what he meant. Well, Mr. Obolensky told me, it was common knowledge that Alan wasn’t rich — “I heard he had a small trust fund” — but he nonetheless always found a way to attend society balls. Once inside, he added, “Alan was the man right at the door, greeting everybody, even though he didn’t have a reason to be greeting them.”

The old social nose had detected something “studied,” something “roguish.” Alan, Mr. Obolensky said, was a great lover of women and was always, without permission, rearranging table placements as favors to his lady friends.

Still, Mr. Obolensky told me, Alan could be “useful.”

How so?

He presented a scenario: Say some “businessman from Podunk” arrives in New York as a chief executive and has to attend a function at the Pierre. “He doesn’t know bags from beans — he’s a fish out of water,” Mr. Obolensky said. “Alan was brought in as a consultant. Someone would send him over, and he’d whisper in their ear: ‘Go to such-and-such a store. Do this, do that.’ He gave them comfort; he provided ease.”

There seemed no better moment to ask Mr. Obolensky if he knew about Alan’s history.

“Oh no,” he demurred. “I don’t ask about lineage. It’s not done.”

“Well,” I said, “what if I was to tell you. ... ” And I told him. Everything.

My host sat back in his club chair, silenced, and I worried for a moment that I had made a terrible mistake. But then a look of wild delight sprang into his eyes — the look, I thought, of a man who hadn’t been surprised in 40 years.

Slowly, Mr. Obolensky said: “God bless him. That’s fantastic. Some people just need to be on deck, don’t they? There’s nothing wrong with that.

“No,” he continued, smiling now, shaking his head. “There’s nothing wrong with that at all — with being a character.”


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