George Marks/ Hulton Archive/ Getty Images George Marks/ Hulton Archive/ Getty Images
By Amy Phillips Penn

“Writing a column is like riding a tiger, you can’t get off,” roars columnist Liz Smith.

“The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.” – John Updike

There you have it: the New York Society column.

I never expected to write a society column, much less one for the New York Post with close to a million readers, laced with a breezy be-jeweled Palm Beach syndicate.

I look at society somewhat satirically. Those whom I’ve written about may disagree.

In the years when Eugenia Sheppard, Suzy (Aileen Mehle) and Liz Smith ruled, it was a privilege, a cachet, a rung in the ladder in social climbing or insurance to be in their columns: that is, if the news was flattering. Hire your PR conduit, better yet, make friends with a columnist or two and hope for the best.

This doesn’t always work.

One arriviste was thrilled to be featured in W, when to her horror, the article went into her past loves, and how she was supported financially.

“OW” with a capital “W!”

She and her husband saw to it that every remaining issue was bought off the newsstands, but then there were the subscribers… the people most likely to know her.

I skidded into the world of society columnists without even navigating.

I was working in a PR office (Calisch and Associates), when Eugenia Sheppard found herself without an assistant for a week. She called Budd Calisch.

He sent over a different employee each day.

I was one of them. She lived in the Dakota then. When I rang the bell, I took an awe-inspired breath.

Eugenia was a legend in the society and fashion world, and was syndicated in over one hundred columns worldwide.

This tiny woman, with perfect curls and blurry eyesight, opened the door. So began my adventure with Eugenia Sheppard.

Years later, she died, leaving a crater crammed with wannabe columnists.

I was her assistant at the time, and I loved my mentor.

It was a relentless rainy day, cabs and upright umbrellas were nowhere to be found, as I left my friend at a hospital.

I had lost my mentor. Would I have a job tomorrow?

When I came home, the message machine was on overtime.

The news reports highlighted her life and death. She was a legend.

I called my editor and asked what to do.

She was clueless, but suggested that I go to my office the next day and be prepared to write a column.

When I arrived at my desk, Eugenia’s home was filled with relatives whom I had only heard about.

Earl Blackwell, famous for his celebrity register, asked my opinion on which dress Eugenia should be buried in.

We had a funeral to plan, and I had a column to write, which may or may not have been mine the next day. Rumors were sinewing and hissing: there were thousands of people who wanted Eugenia’s column and they were ready for all’s fair in bylines and society columns.

I sat down to write a column.

I couldn’t make it about Eugenia; the New York Post had splashed her life and death onto the front page: “Eugenia’s last column!!!”

Soooooo New York Post!

I stared at a blank page, with an erased mind. What was I going to write about today?

The phone rang, and I picked it up expected another condolence swathed in “who was continuing the column?” attire.

It was an old acquaintance, my only one who actually spells her first name with an apostrophe.

“I don’t know what to write?” I told her.

Between the calls about the funeral, the relatives, and rumors about “guess who was lined up at the Post?,” it wasn’t easy to embrace clarity or sanity.

“Call your friends,” said apostrophe. “Tell them you need news now.”

I wobbled through that column.

The next day my phone rang earlier than usual. It was Budd Calisch.

“I was so proud to see your byline on Eugenia’s column,” he said tearily.

My byline? I looked and it was there.

What a way to get a break. Not.

It wasn’t over yet, not by far. The funeral was ahead, and the society vultures were out and about, pecking and flapping each other.

The real estate predators were clamoring for exclusives for her rent-controlled apartment that was said to have once belonged to Barbara Walters.

Quelle provenance: the society column and the apartment.

And then, there was me.

To be continued…

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