Lester Lanin, who made presidents, royalty and generations of debutantes dance to his steady, infectious beat, has stopped keeping time. Mr. Lanin, who led society dance bands for more than 75 years, died Oct. 27 at his home in New York at age 97. The cause of death was not announced.
He had been an itinerant bandleader since he was a young man, performing at hundreds of gatherings a year for his high-society patrons. He performed for kings and queens, as well as for fraternity parties, bar mitzvahs, debutante balls, celebrity galas and more than 20,000 weddings, including that of Prince Charles and Princess Diana.
Queen Elizabeth II changed the date of her 60th birthday party to fit Mr. Lanin's schedule. He led his band at the debutante party for the young Jacqueline Bouvier and later when she presided as first lady over the Kennedy White House. He appeared at the inaugural ball of every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower, with two exceptions: Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush.
A small, dapper man who refused to dance to his own music, Mr. Lanin did not personally lead every band that appeared under his name. Rather, he had something of a musical empire, which at its peak in the 1970s sent as many as 45 bands on the road and employed more than 1,600 musicians.
If someone wanted Mr. Lanin himself at a party, they had to reserve years in advance and pay a fee that could be as much as $75,000 for a single night.
Mr. Lanin, whose age was often a matter of conjecture -- he sometimes claimed to be "37, going on 36" -- put down his baton three years ago. Until then, he was routinely on his feet for nine hours at a time, conducting his orchestra and keeping an eye on the dance floor. He never took a vacation.
"If you rest, you rust," he said.
Nathaniel Lester Lanin was born in Philadelphia, the youngest of 10 boys, and originally planned to be a lawyer. But he had played drums and piano from the age of 5, and it seemed inevitable that he would turn to music. Both his father and grandfather were bandleaders, as well as six of his brothers.
Mr. Lanin directed his first band in Palm Beach in 1925, and before long he was playing at dances for the Vanderbilts, Whitneys, duPonts and Rockefellers. He supplied the music at the coming-out parties of debutantes Barbara Hutton and Dina Merrill and regularly appeared at well-heeled resorts around the country.
He first met Philadelphia society girl and future actress Grace Kelly when she was 8 and later performed at the Waldorf-Astoria ball celebrating her engagement to Prince Rainier. At the height of his career, Mr. Lanin was in such demand that parents would reserve his band 18 years in advance for their daughters' debutante balls.
Through it all, he never told salacious, eyebrow-raising tales of what he'd seen after the champagne, which he never touched, had flowed.
"He managed to lead the orchestra perfectly while talking to fans on the dance floor," said Letitia Baldrige, former social secretary to first lady Jacqueline Kennedy and a longtime friend of Mr. Lanin's. "He never, ever said a bad thing about anybody. He was a model of discretion."
Mr. Lanin recorded more than three dozen albums through the years, selling more than 10 million records. But no one would call him a musical innovator, and his staid rhythms were often the butt of jokes among jazz musicians.
Still, he promised his clients that his band could play any popular song written after 1920, as well as light classics, polkas, Jewish music, rock-and-roll and Irish lullabies. His only goal was to keep people moving and smiling. At a royal ball before the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, he played until 3:30 a.m., more than four hours longer than expected.
"That marvelous Lester Lanin," an excited Englishman exclaimed, "would have made an earthworm want to dance!"
Mr. Lanin's only marriage, to Marilyn Weiss, ended in divorce. He has no immediate survivors.
Baldrige recalled that whenever she saw him, he always remembered her favorite song, Rodgers and Hart's "I Could Write a Book."
Though he never wrote a book of his own, Mr. Lanin did observe that, in the old days, people seemed to enjoy a party more than their latter-day descendants.
"It used to be," he once said, "that a debutante party that broke up before 5 a.m. was a bomb."