Swelter 37

Actually there were just a few of us in town for the holidays, going from party to party. Sylvester Stallone. Madonna. Emilio Estefan. Ingrid Casares, always in the right places. Daisy Fuentes and her floating house of discord. Gianni Versace, traveling with sister Donatella, her husband, Paul Beck, and the unflappable Antonio. Alina and Anthony Shriver in a shades-of-Camelot number, Eunice Shriver flying in for added punch. Robin Byrd, the first lady of porn. Carol Channing. The former Prince, still lonely at the top. Everyone was there, and then of course, there we were, the Zelig of Miami, popping up in the darnedest places.

Countdown to Casa Casaurina, the frenzy mounting for Gianni Versace's first public unveiling of his Miami Beach outpost, the Best Buddies International cocktail benefit setting the proper tone for another night's revel. A great cause and an interesting evening, the Miami-based charity -- spearheaded by Anthony Shriver and featuring an assembly of civic heavyweights -- working with the mentally disabled, providing jobs, education, and support systems of care and friendship. Something of a familial effort, given Eunice Shriver's pioneering efforts with the Special Olympics and the plight of her sister Rosemary Kennedy, lobotomized by doctors in the 1940s. The charity, quite rightly, putting the disabled into the cocktail mix, everyone -- from the rich to the retarded -- talking endlessly of the house. Even the rarefied hothouse flowers of the design world, who never really like anything, rhapsodizing madly about the new God of Miami: "In this place, even I'd be happy -- just think of the social possibilities."

Lots of happy money and quasireligous fervor on hand, Versace turning a historic apartment building -- a much-beloved bastion of old Beach eccentricity -- into a palace befitting a king, the adjacent Revere torn down for an opulent garden and swimming pool, straight out of Fellini Satyricon. A controversial project, to say the least. In the open central courtyard, a chamber group plinking away under the stars, the $250 dollar-a-pop guests poking through the public rooms like tourists at Windsor Castle, gaping at Versace couches and pillows in cozy parlors, Versace linens on ornate beds, and gold bathrooms equipped with alarms noting the occupancy levels. Outside, a stairway made for grand entrances, leading down to a patio of fanciful tilework, luxurious chaise lounges and white table umbrellas. The pool backing up into an enormous stone edifice, three wall-mounted fountains, renderings of noble gods, spewing water into the pool. Behind the wall, a row of major palm trees, screening out the squalor of the streets.

All of us peering through locked French doors, attempting to take in more rooms: Versace's office/dining room -- sliding panels covered with tapestry fabric, candelabras, lush-life books piled atop a massive table, an open dome giving a glimpse of the upper floors. In the corner of the garden, a vast marbled shower area, the ubiquitous Versace towels resting in a free-standing urn. Patsy Cline playing over the sound system, attorney Roy Black -- who'd been so helpful during the William Kennedy Smith trial -- wearing a Versace tie and speaking Truth to a colleague: "Of course you feel like an orphan with your nose pressed against the window -- that's what we're doing." Falling in behind Black and company, obliviously heading upstairs through a temporarily unguarded doorway, the assault suddenly thwarted by a court guard.

Back to the bar, Versace being amusing in the courtyard: "This is my first -- and maybe last -- big party. I prefer small things, but seriously, anything for Anthony." A cloud descending over his cultivated brow with our foolish query A when's everyone coming? A meaning, of course, Madonna, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Cole Porter's ghost, maybe even the real God. Versace swiftly regaining composure, gliding on to more fruitful fare with a breezy rejoinder: "What do you mean? We're all here." Properly chastened, fairly certain that the golden door to Gianni-land might never open, the hoped-for invitations to the universe of international chic.

Versace, in a curious way, bringing everyone together, slaves to fashion and finance. Big-deal models in theme attire, Palm Beach matrons, major Big Buddies benefactors like Ron Collins and Mike Abrams, Turnberry socialites, shameful Beach politicians, eternally rooting after Miami's mysterious strangers. A gender-to-be-named-later jet-set type, perfect for a bit player in Pret-a-porter II, bouncing around and charting Madonna's moves: "You know her, she's so crazy, so chic, she stay in L.A. and miss the party tonight." Thomas Kramer cutting to the heart of fun with a somewhat less social developer: "Of course we never see each other -- I'm never on the construction site, and you're never out." In the midst of the international melee, Eunice Shriver, thin and stylish in a black evening suit and dark sneakers, just off the plane from Washington. Shriver looking forward to seeing her newest grandchild for the first time, talking of the importance of family -- big families -- and staying close. The subject of sister-in-law Jackie, unfortunately, never coming up. Everyone piling out to the pool area, Anthony Shriver hushing the crowd with a speech about the circles of life, loved ones, and friends, the mentally disabled unable to draw on the everyday connections of the healthy and privileged. The benefit auction of Versaciana commencing, all the Silver Medusa purses and the trips to the winter shows in Milan, the auctioneer's feverish patter clashing with the tony surroundings, the "how low do you want me to go" exhortation striking a deep chord of personal resonance. A welcome tone shift, the Miami Choral Society singing Christmas carols from an upstairs balcony, the blessed happy and content. At long last, we'd all seen the house.

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