Wine glasses crashed periodically to the floor. An Episcopal priest said he felt like it was a rush-hour subway. One guest came as Scarlett O'Hara because she was on her way to a roller-disco costume party.
And in the middle of it all, among palms and paintings of peasants, sculptor Louise Nevelson celebrated her 80th year.
"I don't know whose this is," she said, gaily grabbing an anonymous, half-finished glass of champagne. "But who cares?"
The Municipal Art Society, a New York preserve-the-arts organization made chic locally with board members like Jacqueline Onassis and Lily Auchincloss, gave a birthday party and award dinner for Nevelson Monday night. Onassis wasn't there (namely the newly renovated German restaurant called Luchow's near New York's Union Square), but Auchincloss was. And so were co-hosts architect I. M. Pei and arts consultant Barbaralee Diamonstein; Marion Javits, Blanchette Rochefeller, and unofficial U.S. Senate candidates Bess Myerson and Manhattan Borough President Andrew Stein.
Also around was Mayor Edward Koch, but he was late. Not too late for dancing, though. "I can't do disco," he apologized. "But I'm a terrific foxtrotter."
So there were the mayor and Nevelson, the traditionally avant-garde sculptor who for years has shunned the social status quo, fox-trotting. And fox-trotting with traditional arts patrons in New York. New Friends, perhaps?
"They aren't concerned, sweetie, about me," said Nevelson, who calls everyone sweetie if she doesn't call them "dahling." But they are concerned about what I represent.
"I don't know all the people," she added. "But I do fell that, somewhere, there are people here this evening that are interested with me. And you know, dahling, if you're an artist, you find you can blend many colors to make a great harmony. This is a great harmony this evening."
Well, the colors certainly were there. Besides the woman in Scarlett O'hara purple and the priest in basic black was restaurateur Warner LeRoy, who had a plum velvet dinner jacket, a gold sequined tie and the usual New York war stories about life on the urban battleffront.
"Last week I had my car stolen," he said. "Then I rented a car and it broke down. So I got my jeep out of the garage, drove it on the beach, and it got stuck. Now I'm walking."
Standing nearby was semi-retired Wall Streeter Wilson White. He wore Chinese cherry beads. "Fifty cent a touch, 25 cent a look," he said.
Nobody wore jogging shorts, but that didn't matter. Talk of the New York Marathon, a good week and a few days old, was still highly acceptable. Well, maybe not to wives it wasn't.
"The best my husband's done is run the marathon," said Dahlia Leeds, wife of Larry, a New York manufacturer. "But I left him over there because that he's talked about."
All this meaningful conversation was occurring among some 400 people, most of them art dealers, socialites and museumites. They squashed into the bar at the before-dinner reception where moving without getting an elbow or a salmon canape in your midriff was difficult.
And then, disaster struck. The lines backed up to the bars. "For $175," said Jane Clark Chermayeff, a museum education director who was referring to the price of a ticket, "you should be able to get a glass of wine."
Nevelson, who stood off to the side at safe distance from the elbows and the salmon, wore black silk, black tulle, a black riding hat and her trademark black false eyelashes. Everybody kissed her.
Bess Myerson missed the reception but arrived in time for dinner which consisted of pike mousse, beef rouladen, watercress salad and raspberry souffle. Asked what she was doing there, the rumored-to-be Senate candidate replied: "This city is my city, Union Square is my square, this restaurant is my restaurant. This is all mine, mine, mine. I'm feeling very possessive tonight."
Stein, one of her rumored-to-be opponents, offered this: "I'm gonna beat her, I guarantee it." Earlier Stein handshook his way around the room, flashing his nice even teeth and greeting guests with a Ted Kennedyesque "nice to see you."
After dinner there were after-dinner speeches that were supposed to be brief but weren't
Anyway, after Society chairman William Bernbach had explained that the society was giving its president's medal to Nevelson or her sculptures, which sit all over Manhattan, and after a few more people had said a few more things, the dancing began.A pretty big herd made for the doors but some, like Nevelson, stayed.
Incidentally, Monday, Oct. 29, was not her birthday. She's not sure when it is -- the fault of her native Russia, which didn't keep track of such things.
But she says is more sure of the next 20 years and most sure of the 100th. "At the end of 20 years," says this woman who has preferred to be married to her work for the first 80, I'm going to get married to a young man. A man as young as he'll come."