Ali-Dada's Arabian Night
updated 09/04/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 09/04/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT
In the months that followed Forbes concocted an extravaganza extraordinaire, even by his standards: a three-day blowout that set a new standard for wretched excess and sparked a public debate in the media on the morality of such spending. The party brought together Very-and Semi-Important People from all over the social and geographical map. There were industrial moguls: Agnelli of Fiat, Iacocca of Chrysler, Perelman of Revlon. There were journalistic giants—ever wonder how Forbes gets such gushy press?—like Barbara Walters, Katharine Graham, Walter Cronkite and Helen Gurley Brown. There were columnists: Liz Smith, Cindy Adams, Ann Landers, James Brady. There were politicos: Henry Kissinger, Govs. Thomas Kean of New Jersey and George Deukmejian of California. There were fashion titans: Calvin and Kelly Klein, Diane Von Furstenberg, Carolyne Roehm (with husband, takeover tycoon Henry Kravis). And there were pure socialites: Betsy Bloomingdale, Blaine Trump, Nan Kempner; and pure partiers: interior decorator Mario Buatta and Jerry Zipkin. As Rupert Murdoch's London tabloid the Sun headlined, EITHER YOU'RE THERE OR YOU'RE NOWHERE. Rupert was there.
So were roughly 799 other guests and 110 reporters. "It would be ridiculous to say they're all my close personal friends," Forbes admits. "But they are all friends, and some have proven it by the amount of business they have put in Forbes magazine." Invitations sent by Forbes's children read, "Our Father is not in Heaven yet and, as he also still signs our paychecks, we are anxious to make his 70th birthday a memorable one....Scheherezade took 1,001 nights to keep her old man happy—we're counting on one night in a thousand in a Moroccan palace to keep the Chairman smiling."
Ali-Dada, as the birthday boy was dubbed, provided the estimated $2 million bankroll—a good chunk of which he may get back after writing off a piece of the party on taxes. No wonder the sky was the limit—and for most of the guests, inclusive. On Friday at 7 A.M., those who were not, like Iacocca and the Kleins, flying over in their own planes—or, like Murdoch, yachting over—met at New York's JFK Airport. An electronic sign on the highway told them where to go. At Hangar 14 three jets—a Concorde, a Boeing 747 and a DC-8—were waiting to wing them to Forbes's gala. A continental breakfast, replete with champagne and vodka, was served beneath a Moroccan-style tent.
The airport group was a big-bucks but mostly low-profile crowd. Liz Taylor, Forbes's frequent companion, had flown over earlier in Forbes's own jet, the Capitalist Tool. Malcolm had arrived in Morocco three days before. Hangar security was tight. There were no X-ray machines, but guards ran a metal detector over each passenger. Highlight of the morning: former National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger getting the treatment. "Please put your arms out," said the security guard. "Don't be ridiculous," said Kissinger, following orders anyway. He was clean.
After that bit of unpleasantness, the troops were treated to a preboarding serenade by a kilted bagpiper (Forbes is proud of his Scots ancestry) and an inflight picnic hamper of cornish hen and brownies from Manhattan's Le Cirque restaurant. For more European palates, the Concorde flight served salmon, lamb noisettes, potato pancakes and chestnut mousse before touching down in Tangier three hours and 18 minutes after takeoff.
Although Forbes was not on hand to greet guests at the airport, he had enlisted a welcoming committee. Hundreds of brightly clad Moroccan women clapped their hands and ululated as the posse of American party pashas deplaned. Men in flowing djellabas danced and blew small horns. Nobody went through customs, and the visitors were quickly loaded onto buses—another novelty—and dropped at their hotel.
While Forbes saw to last-minute details—antimosquito smoke bombs for his garden, fans for his daughter Moira's room and divers for the harbor to make sure nobody blew up guests' yachts—a crew of workmen scrambled to finish the renovations of the Hotel Solazur, one of two hotels accommodating the Forbes 800. They never quite got the air-conditioning in full gear, which was noticeable in the heat and oppressive humidity. Resourceful Blaine Trump considered taking her feather pillow to the bar, the hotel's coolest room, but settled for telling husband Robert, Donald's brother, to keep their door open. A hotel neighbor did just that and was standing nude in the middle of his room when Blaine walked by. "I guess he was hot too," she says.
Friday night was low-key for the arrivals: a giant buffet of lobster, shrimp and rice at the hotel and then early retirement. On Saturday some toured the city. Others shopped for fans. (Calvin and Kelly Klein bought a his-and-hers set. Too bad their room had only one outlet.) A chosen few, Liz and Malcolm included, went to lunch on Murdoch's yacht while others rested up for the do. "Black tie, ball gowns, turbans and tiaras are all in order for an evening of exotic dancing, dining and fireworks," the invitations had said. You can imagine the pressure.
At 7 P.M. buses (again!) took the guests to the impressively white Palais Mendoub, overlooking the Straits of Gibraltar. In addition to the harem room (the previous owner had three wives), the palace boasts a toy museum with Forbes's 117,000 toy soldiers. Malcolm and his children formed a receiving line that Liz, who was staying at the Palais with the family, joined late. Flamboyant British tabloid publisher Robert Maxwell, festooned as a turbaned pasha, went through the line twice to catch her. Guests were assigned to one of five tents, each overseen by a Forbes heir. Between champagne and dancing, who's who queries were rendered sotto voce. "Isn't it wonderful," pointed one whispering guest, "he's head of Fruit of the Loom!" Praise for the host and the party were more audible. "It takes someone with savvy and a lot of class to pull something like this together," said dear Abby van Buren, summing up the compliments. It also took 100 lambs (barbecued), 830 chickens (with olives and lemon), a lot of couscous, 150 cooks, 32,000 square feet of carpeting and 250 specially made chairs to supplement the pillow seats. Two hundred horsemen in Moroccan costume and 750 folkloric performers provided by King Hassan II lent atmosphere, as did the belly dancers. "I don't know what the final bill will be," says Forbes, "but it would be a lot more if we were doing it at home." And try finding a good pigeon pie in Far Hills.
As for the after-dinner events, Beverly Sills sang "Happy Birthday," Forbes's son Steve, president and deputy editor in chief of Forbes, gave a toast, and 16 minutes of fireworks were shot off to the accompaniment of Bolero. Shortly thereafter, the evening ended. But the party was just on pause.
On Sunday, King Hassan II in absentia hosted lunch at the Tangier Country Club. More tents, more mounted men in native costume. "It's Sunday in the park with Malcolm," said a bemused Cronkite. After lunch—veal, prominently displayed with knuckles attached—guests were bused to the airport, where they boarded their complimentary aircraft. Back in New York by 9 P.M., a happy if jet-and party-lagged crew filed out. Limos lined up outside, awaiting their owners, and the luggage was lined up on the tarmac, doing the same.
What? Forbes expected his guests to pick up their own luggage? Themselves? Arnold Scaasi was hardly amused, and when serious socialite Gayfryd Steinberg was asked how she felt about the trip, she snapped, "I think this is the wrong time to ask that question, don't you?"
Most revelers were more enthusiastic. "I'm from California," said Deukmejian, "and we're used to the extraordinary. But a Hollywood production would have trouble duplicating this." Aw, it's nothing. "I'm just doing what everybody does," says Forbes, "but on a different scale." That's rich.
—Margot Dougherty, David Hutchings and Fred Hauptfuhrer in Tangier