Food and Fundraising

For Miami's social elite, high-end galas are high-calorie affairs

Standing inside Bal Harbour's Neiman Marcus, Michael Musto was far from his usual downtown Manhattan stomping grounds, and even farther from the usual fodder for his long-running Village Voice nightlife column. There were no Hollywood celebs behaving badly, no catfighting drag queens, not a single club owner with an underage model on his arm. Instead last month's "Destination Fashion," a fundraiser for the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis that commandeered the entire Bal Harbour Shops, was filled with the city's foremost socialites and ladies who lunch, the kind of well-heeled gals on a first-name basis with the sales clerks inside Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent. Musto, flown in by the benefit's organizers to cover their event, quipped that he was feeling a bit like the frumpy heroine of Georgy Girl: "I don't think they realize most of my readership shops in thrift stores."

Still while a gossip columnist may have come up short, there was plenty in the way of social observation as this city's true movers and shakers met in the type of forum all too often overlooked by reporters focused on the corporate boardroom. And not least, amid all the schmoozing moguls and their spouses, was some good eatin': Barton G rolled out an internationally themed tasting session. Neiman Marcus was remade as "Asia," complete with trays of sushi, Japanese ceremonial drummers thundering away, and female samurai warriors whipping swords over their heads while leaping around the menswear department -- shades of Kill Bill, or at least Kill Bill Blass.

Throughout the rest of the Bal Harbour Shops (the word mall just seems so ... gauche) Barton G continued to dazzle. No giraffes or elephants, featured at his past hosted openings, but the "Russia" area was graced with a bear -- in the form of an eight-foot-high ice sculpture being meticulously carved by a chain saw-wielding artisan. As the shards flew, fur-coated women (it was, after all, an oh-so-chilly 65 degrees) sampled caviar while one husband tested the limits of Barton G's ethnic authenticity. "Where's the vodka?" demanded our thickly accented Slavic gentleman. "How can you call this a tribute to Russia without serving shots of vodka?" The bartender chuckled in response, then spied the growing number of Eastern-bloc men nodding their heads in serious assent, and scrambled for the Grey Goose.

Drawn by a sudden surge of energy, folks began pouring into Saks Fifth Avenue, where women in Mummers headdresses were handing out little American flags and ushering people to the "USA" eating station. And the culinary evocation of our nation? Dessert!Long tables were piled high with chocolate cakes, cookies, and ice cream bars. Turning away offered little hope of escape, only more tables covered with jars of M&Ms, jelly beans, and Gummy Bears.

Some other journalist might have chosen that moment to deliver a sermon on American culture and its respective symbolism to the global community. But faced with a night that served a worthy cause -- not to mention 30 feet of gooey chocolate chip cookies -- Kulchur decided to simply shut up and chew. Silence also allowed for eavesdropping on the defining conversation of the evening:

"Have you seen my wife?"

"I just saw her shopping in Valentino."

"Oh God, not again!"


High fashion was equally in evidence at the following evening's annual Wolfsonian-FIU dinner, though in keeping with its "Prohibition" theme, any local gangsters in attendance traded their black Armani outfits for vintage pinstriped suits, accessorizing with suspenders, spats, and appropriately decked-out molls on their arms.

Perhaps it was the Halloween atmosphere of the costumes -- an abundance of white Gatsby tuxedos and flapper gowns. Perhaps it was the band -- the swing sounds of the Peter Duchin Orchestra, smoky torch singer and all. Or maybe it was just the surroundings -- the towering ceilings and swanky Deco décor of downtown's forgotten Alfred I. Dupont bank building. Regardless, the Wolfsonian's unique shindig was one of the few galas in recent memory at which Miami's power elite genuinely seemed to be having fun, packing the dance floor, table hopping, and bellying up to the dessert buffets to ladle out huge spoonfuls of chocolate mousse. (Yes, Kulchur has put on a few pounds of late.)

Flitting around the room was Wolfsonian founder Micky Wolfson, making introductions among the diverse crowd, matching the city's leading architects and artists with congressmen and European dignitaries. "I'm a hunter-gatherer, not a hoarder," Wolfson explained to Kulchur. "It amuses me more to find objects than to store them away. What people choose to do with them then is up to them." It's a philosophy that seemed to apply as much to the guests gathered here as to the rare propaganda curios he's collected for the Wolfsonian museum. To that end Kulchur barely had a chance to scribble in his notebook before Wolfson grabbed his arm and began dragging him away: "Come and meet the head of the Louvre!" Why not?

Kulchur soon collided with developer and Wolfsonian board vice chairman Craig Robins, visibly enjoying his return to Miami's most-eligible-bachelor list. Indeed tonight would not be an occasion to talk business. His biggest fear, Robins joked, was that he'd start believing the reams of glowing press his real estate projects have been garnering. And his new status as a nationally known art collector, his purchases closely monitored by the Wall Street Journal for market indicators? "I think I'm equally inept in both spheres of my life," Robins retorted with a grin. This was going nowhere.

If you owned the Alfred Dupont building, how would you redevelop it?

Robins didn't miss a beat: "I'd try to get the Wolfsonian to have a party in it."


The fallout appears to continue from Miami Beach Commissioner Matti Herrera Bower's tangle with the city's Cultural Arts Council (CAC). Donna Shaw, the Beach's director of tourism and cultural development and the overseer of the CAC, abruptly resigned her position after only a year on the job. Shaw's departure follows a bitter dustup between Bower and much of the local arts world over the direction of the CAC and its grant recipients. Bower argues that the once-predominantly Anglo board desperately needs more Hispanic faces -- and their less "elitist" perspectives. She rejected the bulk of the CAC's own recommendations for its new board members -- a pool of applicants that had been carefully vetted by Shaw. Bower's critics see this move as political cover for creeping patronage and a lowest-common-denominator approach to the arts.

Shaw called the ongoing CAC controversy "very sad," but declined to elaborate to Kulchur. The choice to leave city hall, she continued, was "absolutely" her own. Shaw was previously vice president of Chicago's Custom Marketing Group, concentrating on national travel campaigns. Prior to that she spent eight years heading Illinois's bureau of tourism and film -- qualifications that led her to beat out 59 other nationwide finalists to become the Beach's cultural czar in February 2003. "I simply am returning home to the city of Chicago, where I am from -- and that would be my comment," she tersely concluded.

CAC member Nancy Liebman was less circumspect. "She was frustrated by the complete lack of support from the city manager's office," Liebman said of Shaw's unrealized vision. Liebman also blamed the city commission's unwillingness to pony up more arts funding.

Those with sharper interrogation skills than Kulchur may want to stake out Lummus Park -- Shaw is in little hurry to repatriate to the Windy City before its spring thaw: "I'm taking two months prior to starting my new job to enjoy Miami. I'm running on the beach, having a fabulous time playing tourist."


The O'Franken Factor? Best-selling author Al Franken's radio show is still unnamed, but it -- and the rest of Air America's "liberal" talk radio network -- hits the Miami airwaves as early as March 31. And, as reported previously by Kulchur, lefties excited at the prospect of Franken's daily noontime face-off with Rush Limbaugh have former Radio Unica president and current county mayoral hopeful José Cancela-- or at least Cancela's failed business plan -- to thank. It was the October 2003 bankruptcy sale of Radio Unica's fifteen stations that is providing the backbone of Air America's coast-to-coast affiliates.

An Air America spokesman declined to comment, promising an official lineup announcement next week, but detailed schedules have already leaked: Miami's WNMA-AM (1210) is one of the stations on board, while West Palm Beach-based host Randi Rhodes is already crowing to her local listeners of having signed a contract to follow Franken every weekday at 3:00 p.m. Comedienne Janeane Garofalo anchors the evenings.

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