In our long and not especially illustrious career of social reporting, the rich and famous have always proved to be something of an enigma. Once removed from the trappings of privilege, they are often unimpressive and even patently ridiculous, resolutely banal in their thinking. Their grand palaces are all quiet bad taste and television culture, equipped with every possible creature comfort, but they still go out constantly anyway, inflicting themselves on ordinary people. The powerful commit ugly sins and foolish crimes, drink too much, make insipid conversation about nothing at all. Many are certifiably insane. But then, madness has always been the wellspring of great action. And yet they prosper, flying in the face of probability and reason, blundering and stumbling to success.

Their particular strain of madness, of course, is subject to the workings of snobbery and greed, mysteriously rewarding in some circuitous fashion. A curious case of the American comedy revealed in an interesting chain letter circulating among the celebrated, the correspondents taking a heartening cue from the ever-hopeful masses. The actual letter nothing unusual, although obviously geared toward an upscale chump pool: "The one who breaks the chain will have bad luck. Do not keep this letter or send money. Have a wonderful efficient secretary make four additional copies and send it to five of your friends. This is not a joke." After a tepid start in the Netherlands, the epistolary missile traveled through Europe and the entertainment industries, gathering strength as assorted luminaries A using corporate letterhead stationary A bit on the whimsical little folly, covering their asses against the forces of fate, status, and financial superiors. It's as if Barry Diller flicked on QVC in his limo one day and suddenly decided to become an overextended housewife, taking a flyer in cubic zirconian jewelry and faux chinchilla.

Europe, as ever, hewing to the philosophical high road, Yves Lombard of Chorus Films weighing in with a dollop of French existentialism: "On ne sait jamais, qui sait? We never know, who knows?" In late 1991, Jeffrey Katzenberg of Disney ("Who am I not to believe?") launched the seven-degrees-of-weirdness chain into the big leagues, his friends featuring Bette Midler and Steven Spielberg, having a virtually satanic career year. Midler sent her copies along with a cheery salutation ("In this business, we need all the luck we can get -- thinking of only you!") to several directors, most notably Arthur Hiller and Francis Ford Coppola. No deals as yet with Coppola, although Miss M is making a beautiful dollar lately. Hiller's colleagues A Carl Reiner, Norman Jewison, et al., A received an equally perky note ("Feel free to send an apology for the thoughts you're having about me now"), Sydney Pollack keeping things short-and-sweet: "I can't take a chance." Sally Field aiming high and low on Fogwood Films stationary, her sober heading ("RE: Chain letter") crossing the desks of Whoopi Goldberg and David Geffen, a man who's already had far too much of everything. Keith Barish of Planet Hollywood ("Who knows, but just in case...") connecting the dots with Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Terminator breaking the circle and going on to the disastrous Last Action Hero.

From there, a brief detour into the middle ranks: producer Lawrence Turman pitching Henry Mancini ("I just wanted to impress you that I'm on the same list with all the other heavy-hitters"), Ken Nakamura of Dai-Ichi Entertainment working the short-term angles: "I need to make money on Die Hard 3!" The Hollywood mystic set then stepping in for a time: Cheryl Checcetto of Sequoia Productions commenting that "one is in charge of his/her reality"; another writer handily summing up the entire course of American spiritualism, "To want it is human, to get it is divine." Back on track with the old-gal network, one list featuring the Dinah Shore, Barbara Sinatra, and Cyd Charisse: "Such fine friends, who are also a bit crazy! I know it's silly but..." From Charisse the ring of desire touches Georgiana Montablan ("With this luck and some prayers..."), the net widening to other Hollywood wives A Barbara Rickles and "Loni Anderson Reynolds", Loni going astray shortly thereafter with Burt Reynolds. Ignore the chain and run the chance of losing a spouse. Or worse yet, a deal.

Typically enough, the world of publishing latched onto a fashion trend late in the game, Jacqueline Leo of Family Circle ("Better late than never lucky") dragging in Graydon Carter, Marie Brenner, and John Mack Carter of Good Housekeeping: "Even I A the weakest link A surrender." Carter's pals apparently including Betty Friedan and Liz Tilberis of Harper's Bazaar, all editor-in-chief efficiency: "I have never done one before, and I will never do one again." Tilberis friend Billy Norwich, the steadily tricking-up society writer, taking loads of time with a Jamesian opus on Vogue stationary: "Such a fancy chain letter this, a veritable and the guests included list. Why am I sending this to you, dear friends? If you had this job, this job of diarist as bulletin board, you would receive a lot of chain letters. This one sort of sang to me.... You do with it, and me, what you want." Norwich's finely honed tone poem falling into good hands, the avowedly over-it-all boy reaching out and touching editors Patrick McCarthy, Gabe Doppelt, and the miraculous boy wonder James Truman, now a very big cheese at Conde Nast A either a pact with the devil of glamour, or plain dumb luck.

A notorious glamour girl, spanning the intersecting worlds of magazine trash and high finance, casting her net into the land of fun and money: rap mogul Russell Simmons, one of our more connected friends, and Ronald Perelman, last spotted locally with Claudia Schiffer at a Revlon reception. ICM agent Martha Luttrell ("I rely more and more on good luck!") lobbing the ball into an even headier arena with Michael Fuchs, Sherry Lansing, and Mort Zuckerman. The noted publisher/developer/celebrity comptroller doing a Horatio Alger number ("Luck is perspiration. Keep at it until you sweat!") on his chic cohorts: Diane von Furstenberg, Jann Wenner, and actress Blair Brown. Back on the Coast, the star quotient escalating with Jane Fonda ("I'll do anything out of fear"), her effort reaching Frank Wells, Michael Ovitz, and Melanie Griffith, now living out yet another Star Is Born remake with Don Johnson. Ovitz, the warrior king of Hollywood, sending the circle of ambition back downstairs, delivering a cryptic lecture to a series of lesser players: "I do not work under fear, and as for the waste of paper, it is very regrettable." Up or down the chain of life, the eternal boss -- joyless and omnipresent -- remains forever prepared to spoil a good time.

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Tom Austin