L.A. Society Is An Odd Mix of Old and New, Ruled by Money and the Mighty Buff

updated 07/23/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/23/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Nowhere, perhaps, are the riches as nouveaux as they are in Los Angeles. Less than a century ago, the California city that isn't by the bay had a population of 5,000 and nothing to offer but a lot of land, a little oil and the kind of weather promised in Paradise. The land attracted speculators, the oil brought prospectors, and all that sun was an irresistible lure for the movie industry. The stars made the city famous, but land and oil barons banked most of the money. None of them had stepped off the Mayflower, but from the perspective of the generations that followed, their blood was the bluest. For years Los Angeles high society was as proud and private as Boston's or New York's—perhaps, self-consciously, even more so. Movie actors (except for Randolph Scott, who gave up his career for the privilege of membership) were barred from the WASPish Los Angeles Country Club, and by the time religious barriers were finally breached, the Jewish community had already established two staid, elegant clubs of its own.

Author Stephen Birmingham believes the people who built Los Angeles were true pioneers. "They came to the edge of the continent, so they had to make it work," he says. "They turned a most inhospitable place into a garden of Eden." Even now there is little sense of Paradise lost, though the Pasadena old guard has had to learn to share the social limelight, if not its cachet, with moneyed newcomers from Beverly Hills. "Compared to New York, L.A. is more interesting now," says Los Angeles Times society writer Jody Jacobs. "So much is new that the strata aren't set. They don't run as deep as they do in the East. If you have money, and a few introductions via letters, you can make it into a good group rather quickly." On these pages PEOPLE examines present-day society in Los Angeles: the traditions, the barriers, the men and women who set the rules.

Amazing Buff Chandler

L.A. society, like ancient Gaul, is divided into three parts—the WASPs of Pasadena, the Jews of Hillcrest Country Club and the Movie People. Before Dorothy Buffum Chandler (known as Buff, never Buffy), nobody in the city's brief social history had succeeded in bringing the three groups together. Mrs. C. (as she is also known) had an inspiration: the Amazing Blue Ribbon 400. Combining the appeals of snobbery and laudable purpose, the 400 is an exclusive committee of wealthy women that she put together 11 years ago—without regard for creed, club or husband's profession—for a bareknuckle fund-raising drive. The beneficiary of their labor, the L.A. Music Center (which includes the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion), opened in 1964. The Amazing 400 is still raiding checkbooks and, on the side, running the city's society. "It may be the only group in the world where you have to be invited to donate money," columnist Rex Reed has said.

The former Dorothy Buffum herself has known what it means to be an outsider. The daughter of a Long Beach department store owner, she took a social leap upward when she married Los Angeles Times heir Norman Chandler in 1922, and Chandler's sisters never let her forget it. At 31, the mother of two young children, she slid into dark depression and stunned her peers by consulting a psychiatrist. "It turned my life around," she says now. "Instead of thinking I was a failure because I couldn't get along with my in-laws, I realized I had my own life to lead, and that was okay." Using the power of the Times like a wand—or a blackjack—she prodded L.A. society in the direction she wanted.

Widowed since 1973, Mrs. Chandler, 78, has retired from her post as assistant to the chairman of the board of the Times Mirror Company (son Otis is now the Times' publisher) and unselfishly gives full time to the Music Center. "I've failed to find someone like myself who can develop real leadership," she says, "who can be treated like an equal with men." So Buff continues to play social czarina from her Italian Renaissance estate in Hancock Park, while a staff of six runs the 20-room household. She still entertains—"or the donors don't get interested"—and spends six hours every weekend just writing thank-you notes. "Then I write notes asking for more money," she says.

The cliques abide

Although the boundaries between cliques have blurred over the years, they have not disappeared altogether. Undisputed leaders of the Pasadena crowd are Dennis and Terry Stanfill. Dennis, 52, clambered to the executive pinnacle of 20th Century-Fox (where he is chairman, president and chief executive officer) by way of Lehman Brothers and the Times Mirror business side. He is never considered a Movie Person. Until she was asked to join the Amazing 400, says Terry, 48, "I didn't even drive the freeways. In three years here, I hadn't really left Pasadena." Now, broadening her horizons, she has gone on to redecorate the Fox commissary and update the menu. She recently added a sherbet machine.

Florsheim heiress Mary Bradley Jones, 58, has found a different outlet for her creative urges. She races horses at Santa Anita. The backbone of L.A. society, she believes, consists of descendants of people who "came out here in covered wagons." (Her own arrived from Chicago in 1952.) Revered for the eclectic, artsy-craftsy guest lists at her Santa Monica parties, Jones remains sympathetic to the socially impoverished. "I feel sorry for the poor housewife who has only her neighbor to talk about pickle recipes with," she says. "I like interesting people, and I get involved in anything that gives me a chance to mix."

Philanthropist Armand Deutsch, grandson of a Sears, Roebuck chairman and pillar of the in-crowd at Hillcrest, views his own role slightly differently. "Society today is outmoded," he maintains. "There is no such thing as just sitting back and entertaining anymore. We're all involved in the community." For Deutsch, 66, and his wife, Harriet, 60ish, that means lunches, board meetings and as many as four parties a week.

Producer Hal Wallis (Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon) and his wife, former actress Martha Hyer (Some Came Running), are the preeminently social Movie People. Born sans silver spoon, Wallis, 79, came to L.A. from Chicago; his first job was managing a theater. He rose to be Warner's production chief in the '30s and early '40s, and now enjoys having a dozen people in for hot dogs (on little TV trays) and a screening. The Wallises entertain the Blue Ribbon crowd (Martha, 49, is a board member) and Hollywood pals too. A recent Wallis retrospective benefit at the Desert Museum in Palm Springs drew Frank Sinatra, Gerald Ford, Richard Thomas and Paul Henried, among others, at $125 a head.

Actors have never been as socially acceptable as studio heads, yet' are beginning to acquire a veneer of respectability. Former French journalist Véronique Peck, 47, who married Gregory a year after she arrived in the U.S. in 1954, is a past vice-president of the 400. Carol Burnett has served on the board; Henry Mancini's wife, Ginny, does now. "The stars add glamor to parties," says one Hollywood hand. "They're a big draw." Though society writer Jacobs praises the breakdown of old social barriers, one Jewish activist who turned down Blue Ribbon membership isn't convinced. "Mrs. Chandler knows the Jews are always more generous," she says. "That's why she involved us in the Music Center. But don't believe the two groups really mix. Most of the old guard are still very anti-Semitic."

The new breed

If there is a lesson to be learned from the cliques, it is that almost anybody with money can nowadays make it in L.A. society. A rising new breed of socialites—wealthy, powerful and vaguely contemptuous of traditions—makes a point of seldom going out at all. People come to them. "The last time I went to a big party," says independent producer Dan Melnick, once president of Columbia, "there were three studio heads, six top producers and five big-grossing stars. I called the hostess the next morning and said: 'It was the best meeting I've ever been to.' " Melnick lunches on studio lots (proof he is too busy to eat out) and holds three business dinners a week, usually at the moviemakers' hangout, Ma Maison, or at home. He compares Hollywood to 11th-century England, likening studio heads to impotent kings. "The power is with the producers, who have their own troops," he says. "The fate of their court revolves around whether their movies are successful or not."

The new symbols of success are unique. An invitation to work a deal at Bob Evans' tennis court is prestige akin to seeding at Wimbledon; better yet is permission to stop by anytime. Jack Nicholson has it, so do Dustin Hoffman and Robert Duvall. Producer Allan Carr (Grease) lavishly entertains up to 500 guests at once, sometimes in his mirrored home disco. A private screening room is the sine qua non of social acceptance; without one, no arriviste can hope to arrive.

Producer Freddie Fields slipped, or was pushed, from high society when he and Polly Bergen were divorced. Now he spends more time in laid-back Malibu, where "people don't get dressed up." Besides his showbiz chums, Fields befriends newly arrived French and Italians who invest in real estate and sometimes in movies. Like most producers, he wouldn't be caught dead in a theater. "Seventy-five percent of the screenings I go to," he says, "are in my own home."

Grace Robbins founded what Rex Reed dubbed "the Fun Society" (along with Angie Dickinson, Henry Mancini and Cyd Charisse) after she and husband Harold, the novelist, arrived from New York 13 years ago. When invitations were only trickling in ("We'd go to half a dozen parties on New Year's Eve in New York," she recalls), Grace began throwing suppers for 12 and learning the new L.A. rules. "No one wants to get all dressed up here just for a drink," she says. "They want dinner too. In New York, people are already dressed."

Climbers' aid

"Society is a marketplace in Hollywood," says Joyce Haber, author of The Users. "People spend all their time and money trying to buy their way in." Masseuses, plastic surgeons, even exercise men and women who make house calls (Grace Robbins has hers in three times a week) are both ornaments of status and proof of arrival. Some achievers manage social entree themselves. Gale Hayman, who with her husband, Fred, owns the chic boutique Giorgio, on which the novel Scruples was based, is one of the Amazing Blue Ribbon 400. Florist Harry Finley occupies a place of his own in the Blue Book, L.A.'s social register. But Angelenos, he believes, have wearied of traditional decorum. "People don't want to read about little old ladies doing charities anymore," he says. "What's in now is cafe society—Helen Reddy, Anne Jeffreys, the Ray Starks, the Kirk Douglases, the Pecks and Liza Minnelli." To prove his point, Finley is thinking of publishing his own social register, the Gold Book, to list stars like Charlton Heston, Frank Sinatra and Diana Ross who are excluded from the Blue.

Understandably, newcomers need a guide through the L.A. labyrinth, and publicist Lee Anderson is the most visible social Sherpa for hire. Given the raw material, she can boost clients all the way to Blue Ribbon heights. "I must make sure there is no scandal in their past," she says. "The right schools count, the right background, the right husband. But they have to know how to talk, be amusing, tell interesting stories." Anderson, who has lived for nine years with director Vincente Minnelli, might give a small party for her client, then take her shopping—"to Giorgio's, because they have everything, to Juschi's [custom suedes and furs] because I do PR for them. The jewels should come from Van Cleef's—you can't go wrong there. Hair is done at Sassoon's, and bags come from Gucci's." When Lee's year-long retainer (at a reported $1,000 a month) expires, "I let my client fly off alone. It's like teaching a child to walk—pretty soon they don't need you anymore."

For lunch, Anderson mother-hens her fledglings to the Bistro Garden "because everybody is there." For dinner it's the Bistro, Chasen's, Mr. Chow or La Scala, and Sunday night it's Trader Vic's. Each clique has its preferred feeding ground. The high WASP hangout is Perino's in Hancock Park. The Hillcrest Crowd eats lunch at the club. The Movie People meet for breakfast or drinks (but rarely lunch or dinner) at the Polo Lounge, which has phones at the tables for calls to the East.

There is no sense of permanence about all of this, of course, except that imparted by the doyenne, Buff Chandler. The ranks of her 400 are bursting with willing recruits, and she is hungry for action. Once a year a regular performance at the Music Center is bumped for the Academy Awards, and it distresses her sense of priorities. "I'm dreaming of a new building right across the street," she says, iron in her voice. "We have to have it, and we are going to get it."

From Our Partners