While it may not officially be summer yet -- as a friend gently reminded me earlier today -- by all accounts, the post-Memorial Day "unofficial" summer has been largely a washout. That doesn't often bode well for many of the year-end charity galas that are set outside or that are weather dependent in some way. And for the attendees, an umbrella suddenly becomes the all important accessory. It dampens the glamour a bit -- pun intended -- but New Yorkers are a resilient bunch.
Last Thursday, my plan was to stop by Sabine Ghanem's fine jewelry debut at Fivestory, the limestone mansion on East 69th street that houses a carefully curated boutique. From there, I was going to walk to the Wildlife Conservation Society Gala, a mere few blocks away at the Central Park Zoo. However, a recent move coupled with the inclement weather put a (ahem) damper on that plan, and instead I headed directly toward the Zoo, catching the tail end of cocktails.
As I walked down the slightly slippery steps, coordinating my slight train with my umbrella, I was greeted with an instant pick me up: a life-sized Bengal tiger made entirely of bright red flowers. Indeed, the theme of this year's gala was "The Wonders of Southeast Asia," and Preston Bailey -- fresh off Sean Parker's multi-million dollar wedding -- produced the event for the fourth consecutive year, using his extensive travels through places like Thailand as inspiration for the decor and design.
It was all uphill from there. The event was tented, of course, and I grabbed a cocktail and surveyed the crowd -- and of course the dresses. Philanthropist Jean Shafiroff was, as usual, a standout in a frothy pink Zang Toi. Other boldfacers who were mixing and mingling among the philanthropic set were Katie Couric and John Molner, Muffie Potter Aston, Nicolas De Bentencourt, Jennifer Gould Keil, WCS board members Stephanie and Fred Clark, Caroline Hirsch and Sasha Cohen.
Before long, we were being ushered to our dinner tables, where our three course Asian inspired meal began with a traditional Thai blessing. This year's honoree was Ward Woods, Chair of the WCS Board of Trustees, for his dedication to and support of global conservation spanning several decades. After a fawning introduction by WCS President and CEO Cristian Sampre, Woods took to the podium in typically self-deprecating fashion: "I barely recognized the man he was just describing." The honorary chairs of the evening, who were likewise singled out for their dedication, hard work, and of course fundraising abilities, were Amie and Tony James, Lisa and David Schiff and Mary and Howard Phipps, Jr.
For the past several years, the dinner portion of the gala has been followed by an after-party, where a younger crowd (many straight out of college) takes over for some dancing, cocktails and overall socializing. This after portion actually used to be held on a separate evening, and is still billed as "An Evening at the Central Park Zoo." In fact, this is one of the first charity events that I attended after college, and I was at the WCS Junior Board meeting when we voted to merge the two events. No one was certain that the shift in format would work at first -- and some sentimental attachment to the original event remains among some supporters -- but financially, it makes sense. More tickets get sold this way and most everyone still has a ton of fun. It girl, Chelsea Leyland, took the DJ reins this year.
And there are also a good number -- what I would deem a sizeable minority -- of young supporters who attend the entire gala. As someone who has supported WCS for many years, it's always interesting to meet some of these people. For some time now, there has been a large contingent of supporters from Trinity College, which is how one recent graduate and first time attendee, financier Natasha Das, was "recruited" for the evening's gala. Indian by birth, she also had a more personal tie to this year's theme. She visits her homeland yearly and was "sad to learn that the wildlife preservation rapidly deteriorates each year." Further discussing her passion for conservation, she quipped, "my parents often joke that instead of joining a hedge fund, I should have become a Zoologist!" Instead, the budding philanthropist just got her graduate degree -- in Mathematics of Finance -- from Columbia, where we learned that Sasha Cohen is currently taking finance classes. "I recommended a few courses to her and wished her the best with her new career choice," Das explained.
The after party was in full force during our protracted conversation, but it had been a long evening, so the two of us decided to brave the weather and call it a night. Mother Nature may not have cooperated that evening, but WCS supporters can rest assured that they did their part to help preserve what we do have -- on a global scale -- for generations to come.