It is one of those crystalizing moments when the neuroses and status anxieties of upper-class Manhattanites are laid bare. A plutocratic telecom analyst decides he must get his twin daughters into the right Upper East Side preschool and so turns to Sanford Weill, chairman of Citigroup, and asks:

Can you help my daughters get into the 92nd Street Y Nursery School?

Weill is happy to oblige. Calls are made and the daughters are admitted. But not before the star analyst, Jack Grubman, apparently agreed to recommend that investors buy AT&T stock (Weill is an AT&T director). And not before Citicorp pledged $1 million to the 92nd Street Y.

Such is the Darwinian admissions derby for Manhattan's finest private nursery schools. The tykes face the fiercest odds -- 15 applicants for every slot is about average. Their parents are people unaccustomed to losing anything, and the search for an edge is ceaseless. The 4-year-old hones his violin method, the 3-year-old struggles with Japanese, and the world-famous CEO stands ready to make a call or two.

"Getting a child into a Manhattan private nursery is like getting a box seat at the Knicks game," says Emily Glickman, an educational consultant who works with parents of children entering private elementary schools. "It's just another way of taking care of a favorite client."

The 92nd Street Y is no ordinary nursery school. It's a temple des e{acute}tudiants, with a rooftop playground and two outdoor terraces, and well-mannered teachers trained in the best ways at the best schools. A Y-nurtured child's progression to the best and most exclusive kindergartens and elementary schools is seen as inevitable.

And so on and so forth until one day the little darling puts head to pillow in the freshman dorm at Harvard.

"In New York, we've redefined status distinctions to the pre-K level," says Mitchell Moss of New York University's Taub Urban Research Center. "The search for distinction starts in the womb."

None of this comes cheaply. The price tag for the 92nd Street Y Nursery School is $11,800 for a 3-year-old, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. for the academic year. The price jumps to $14,400 for the 4- and 5-year-old set. There is, too, the matter of the parting donation -- perhaps $20,000, and perhaps so much more.

"A parting gift is considered de rigueur," says Catherine Hausman, author of "The Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools, Fourth Edition." "You are making an investment. The better private schools will compete for the philanthropic families."

At this point, disclaimers are needed.

Grubman says for the record that his e-mails describing his agreement to push AT&T stock in exchange for Weill's intervention were idle boasts meant to impress a friend. Weill says Citigroup's donation reflected only his great admiration for the 92nd Street Y.

And a spokeswoman for the 92nd Street Y says they think only of the children.

"We analyze their motor and language skills, and if they play nicely with others," says Alix Friedman. "Every single child goes through the same careful, thoughtful admissions process. Period."

But as the number of school-age children grows geometrically on the well-to-do East and West sides of Manhattan, some private school board members say only the details of the Grubman story surprise.

"What struck me about this story was that it suggests an explicit pledge to give $1 million," says a former board member of an exclusive private school. "I always understood that this stuff was supposed to be implicit."

The most exclusive private nursery schools comprise a hardy number, from the 92nd Street Y to All Souls, Park Avenue Synagogue, Christ Church and West Side Montessori. Admissions night at these schools resembles a convention of elegantly attired traveling salesmen, everyone flacking their kids to anyone who will listen.

"They all look and sound like Willy Loman and they all want to be your very best friend," said the East Side private school board member. "You just thank your stars that your child is already in."

The anxiety as often comes squared. The point is not merely to ensure that the 2-year-old might one day gain admittance to a preparatory school such as Trinity or Nightingale Bamford -- where the student theater puts to shame a good off-Broadway house. Parents stand to gain admittance to a gilded social circle.

"It's like getting into a good country club for some parents. Your child reflects on you," says Glickman. "Just as the car you drive is important, so is the place you send your child to school."

There is another fear as well -- that we are becoming, in some ways, a more meritocratic society. Private schools and colleges may admit a disproportionate number of the gilded, but they also seek a broad diversity of income and ethnicity. An Ivy League school that will accept a gentleman's C is harder to come by.

"Privilege isn't what it used to be as the children get older," says Clara Hemphill, author of "New York City's Best Public Elementary Schools: A Parents' Guide." "There's a lot of anxiety."

So the gilded few put foot to floor. A few years back, President Bill Clinton agreed to call a particularly prestigious Manhattan private school and put in a good word for a friend's child. The president chatted up the admissions officer.

A few weeks later, the school rejected the kid.

Analyst Jack Grubman: Pitching stock for preschool admission?