Photographers were having a hard time keeping up with Erte.
The costume designer and last of the great Art Deco artists was celebrating his 90th birthday. He darted around the room greeting old friends, in a black leather tuxedo jacket with reptile lapels, gold silk shoes, his usual gold glasses on a chain and gold Faberge' cigarette case in his pocket. Brooke Shields was the only guest who brought a gift . . . a Brooke Shields doll wrapped in foil.
"My God, is he still alive?" teased designer Bill Blass as he arrived with Gloria Vanderbilt at a gala preview of an Erte exhibit at the Dyansen Gallery in Soho tonight.
Hours before the party began, a crowd collected outside the gallery to catch a glimpse of their hero. Inside, where Erte's works, including the well-known drawings he did for Harper's Bazaar, the alphabet and numbers series, sculptures, costumes and tapestries, were on exhibit, the glitterati were no less in awe -- including Halston, Lee Radziwill, Marisa Berenson, Pat Buckley, Pat Kennedy Lawford and Henry Geldzahler.
Gloria Vanderbilt and Diana Ross were pinch-hit hostesses for fashion doyenne Diana Vreeland, who did not feel well enough to attend the dinner she had organized down the street at the Greene Street Cafe after the preview. In the converted garage among the ficus trees, more than 200 guests dined on roast boneless breast of pheasant and pheasant mousse with truffle sauce. There was one sparkler on Erte's cake.
"When I was in high school, we had to copy his things in costume design class. Do you know how hard it is to get all that detail? How I suffered!" said actress Claudette Colbert.
For Paloma Picasso, it is the detail of Erte drawings that fascinates and, she believes, has caused the resurgence of interest in his work. "It's always a happy fantasy. He was the Walt Disney of his day," she laughed.
Erte, who got a set of barbells for his birthday, keeps in shape by exercising and taking long walks in the Bois de Boulogne, on the beach in Barbados or wherever he happens to be.
"He walks for a full hour and very fast," says Colbert, whose home is next door to where Erte visits when in Barbados. "I couldn't possibly keep up."
"I'd really like to wear that," said Diana Ross, as she pointed to a tapestry done by a young Russian from an Erte design called "Autumn." In it, the figure was mostly bare with her legs developing into an animal form. Erte gave Ross an approving look.
Ross currently is producing and starring in the film of the life of Josephine Baker, whose costumes were often created by Erte. She said she's not sure how she'll show as much bare skin as was Baker's signature. "We'll find a way, I guarantee," she said with a grin.
Brooke Shields, who was wearing a Hanae Mori gown with beaded bodice and chiffon petal skirt, told her mother, "He said my dress is really pretty."
"Too bad you can't keep it," Terri Shields replied without further explanation.
Brooke, who is filming a movie called "Sahara," which takes place in the '20s and '30s, an important time for Erte designs, spotted a cast bronze figure wearing a flapper dress she thought might be appropriate for the film. "It couldn't be so low cut," warned her mother.
Among the most unusual things in this exhibit is a gold lame' costume Erte created and wore to the Paris Opera Ball. When he wore it, he lined it with real flowers. "Men are usually so dull. They all look like penguins," he said, glancing around the gallery. "Women can express themselves so much better in clothes."
The earliest works in the current show are from 1912 and are signed "Romain," from his real name, Romain de Tirtoff, which he gave up when he left St. Petersburg for Paris in 1912. Another drawing is signed with his nickname "Pitch."
Erte actually celebrates two birthdays: Nov. 10, which is the date in his Russian passport, and his real birthday Nov. 23, which he will celebrate in Los Angeles. The difference in the Russian calendar at the time of his birth made the disparity in dates, he explained. "I love two birthdays. I get twice as many gifts," he said.
"Ninety is really not so old. It's important to go on living and not feel old," said Paloma Picasso. Her father, Pablo Picasso, lived to be 92.
Erte says, "My art is my children," and because of that he "has no favorites among them."
He is happy not to have children. "They would be looking for my early death to inherit my things," he said.
Erte has much too much to do before that time comes.