Towards the end of her life, rather than grow old, my mother crashed parties. She was a pretty woman, tiny, dark and lively, with a dazzling smile and great legs, which, as Marlene Dietrich told us, are the last thing to go. She was as savvy as she could be engaging, so she would study The New York Times for coming events. When that information was not specific enough, she would study gossip columns as astronomers did the stars.
Usually one of the wags would brag about all the places she had been and what was coming up of particular note that she, as a stellar being, was invited to. So my mother, feeling every bit as stellar, had cards printed up with her press credentials, which were, in fact, non-existent, and would call ahead to announce that Helen Schwamm would be attending. Sometimes she would say she was with Gannett Press, sometimes with DiplomaticWorld, legitimate publications with which she had absolutely no connection. When she would arrive at the celebration of this and that, her name would be on the list. And if there was any question, she looked so good and was so quick-thinkingly charming, that no one stopped her. Thus it was that when New York celebrated its two hundred most important citizens, my mother was among them.
She was not without money, but as she had grown up in the Depression, she lived in fear of running out, and so denied herself certain luxuries she loved, like smoked salmon. But “No one need go hungry in New York,” she said to me;” there’s parties from morning to night.” So she had all the smoked salmon hors d’ouevres she wanted, and, depending on the lavishness of what was being passed, sometimes even caviar. If the event included dinner, she would wait till everyone was seated, and look for the unoccupied chair. Sometimes if she was feeling particularly social, and had found nothing in the press, she would check the reader boards in the lobbies of the Plaza or the Waldorf, check what was happening there, and attend.
She was never caught, and never embarrassed. “What if they want to know who you really are?” I asked her once. “How many people in life ever know who we really are?” she responded. “Every building in New York has a façade, and so do most of the people.”
As for her personal entertaining, she had a studio apartment at a nice address, but her quarters were small. So when she wanted to reciprocate for an evening she had actually been invited to, she would invite her friends to meet her at the U.N. for one of their receptions. It was before the days of heavy security, the guards all knew her(she had given them little gifts to thank them for their kindness), so they would let her and her tiny entourages in. She saved her key invitations for Korea. “They have the best ribs,” she said.
I knew all her stories, and marveled at them, but had never seen her in action. So on one visit to New York, I asked her to take me along. The event was the 25th anniversary of the National Review. “Avoid eye contact,” she told me by way of preparation. “Keep moving with great assurance, and let me handle everything.” We went into the lobby of the hotel where the party was being held. Not content to gain easy access, she sailed up to the security guard and asked to be directed to the VIP room. He pointed, unquestioning.
We were seated at a table with Henry and Nancy Kissinger, Clare Booth Luce, Roy Cohn, and the Baron and Baroness dePortanova. Mother introduced herself as Helen Schwamm as though it were a name Mrs. Luce should know, and told her that her daughter, pointing at me, was also a writer. The Kissingers had recently moved to Connecticut, and Nancy Kissinger, during a lull in the conversation(there are many with Conservatives) said “My friends can’t believe I’m content to live so quietly.” Without missing a beat, my mother said “My friends feel the same about me.”
She is gone now, and I really miss her. And from what I’ve observed, so does New York.