Those Were the Days

In the waning days of the ’80s, media mogul Malcolm Forbes threw a 70th birthday bash that put an exclamation point on the end of the era of success, and it changed everything

By Shinan Govani

IF TWITTER HAD EXISTED during those three fateful days 25 years ago this year, Tangier would indubitably have “trended” and #MalcolmForbes70th might very well have been the hashtag.

Have caftan, will travel: that was Elizabeth Taylor’s presumed credo when she deigned to play honorary hostess at a very special birthday for her friend, the publishing tycoon. With three planes commandeered to take off for Morocco, including the mythic Concorde, there was room for tout, a Zeitgeist grab bag encapsulating everyone from wrap dress whiz Diane von Fürstenberg to avuncular newsman Walter Cronkite to the rictus-grinning U.S. secretary of state of yore, Henry Kissinger (the latter spotted being ably frisked before being cleared to board). Others, such as Calvin Klein, did not let anything get in between them and their own Gulfstream: he and then-wife, Kelly, whisked their own way in a jet, care of Rolling Stone rajah Jann Wenner. Making an elegant sail via private yacht, meanwhile: Fiat lord Gianni Agnelli.

Safe to say that the ancient city on the North African coast had not quite seen anything like this glossy flock – and never will again. The attendees – a sandals-shod Rupert Murdoch et al. – rocked the kasbah, sure, and in so doing, carved out a definitive place in the archives of mirth: in terms of both scale and surrealism, the party sits on a list, along with Truman Capote’s famed Black and White Ball in 1966, as one of the all-time great bacchanals.

“La Cage aux Folles meets the Fortune 500.” That’s how the New York Times surmised the Forbes fete. And the digits, perhaps, tell the tale: 800 guests, 100-plus reporters, 600 drummers, acrobats and belly dancers, nearly 300 Berber horse- men, popping muskets into the air. A 16-minute fireworks display setting tremors into the Strait of Gibraltar. A total cost that skipped past $2.5 million dollars. And – for the ultimate pièce de résistance – an estimated 20,000 press clippings, springing forth from the shindig.

The then-ubiquitous Cosmopolitan editrix and author of Sex and the Single Girl Helen Gurley Brown – a guest at the party – summed it all up to Entertainment Weekly years later by way of understatement: “Malcolm had a lot of money, and he loved spending it.”

Looking at the hoopla in the quarter-century rear-view mirror, however, two things jut out, besides its Bonfire of the Vanities-era aura: it’s the extent to which the name “Malcolm Forbes” is a head-scratcher to most people under 40 (how quickly cultural amnesia sets in!) and also how much, fascinatingly, the jet set at the time leaned toward a crowd already in its prime. Compared to the juncture in the culture now, when the beau monde is affixed largely to youth, this moment, this party, epitomized an expectation of all-grown-up glamour.

“They were older and they were fabulous,” attests Norah Lawlor, telling me about the Moroccan adventure. In 1989, the St. John’s-born publicist was a recent arrival in New York City by way of Ottawa when she found herself being invited to the overseas bash, having made the acquaintance of Forbes at a restaurant she worked at. “It was about guests like William F. Buckley and Pat,” she reinforces, referring to the writerly conservative and his tart-tongued socialite-wife.

Contrary to today, when the paparazzi swoon for the positively cherubic (Suri Cruise: Exhibit A) and the glitterati passes for what E conceives (the Kim Kardashian-Kanye West wedding in Italy last spring: Exhibit B), a birthday party touting a seventh decade arrival international news

There are a couple of other reasons why this party, capping at the Forbeses’ gleaming Palais Mendoub, excels as an important social document, if you will. For one, it fore- shadowed a professional model that is hardly foreign to the Richard Bransons and the Elon Musks of our world and one in which the lines be- tween pleasure and business – what we refer to now as “branding” – were already being subtly smudged. The randy Forbes, known as much for his business exploits as he was for his lifestyle – his six world-records in hot-air ballooning, his assemblage of motor- bikes, his trophy real estate as well as his Kremlin-rivalling Fabergé egg collection – had cannily managed to produce an affair that was as much “birthday party” as it was super- expensive office function.

Just peer at the guest list: though it contained plenty of names from the “household” category – Barbara Walters, an MVP of schmooze, and Nan Kempner, the stick-thin soci- ety fixture – a good bulk of the atten- dees were outside the bounds of Page Six, i.e., associates pooled from the business world such as executives from Revlon, Chrysler and General Motors. (It was a schism not lost on some observers, such as one present on the behalf of New York magazine. In her overview of the event, in a cov- er story simply titled “That Party”, Julie Baumgold reported that some of the more notables at the soirée “began to feel like props. Names on alist. Press food.”)

An important part of Brand Forbes, by the way, as the 1980s romped to a close: his proximity to Cleopatra in- carnate. Ah, yes, the Liz factor: one that gives this soirée a very particular gauze. By the time the movie queen was cast as the hostess-mostest in Tangier, she and Malcolm had fine-tuned their symbiosis: he was good at borrowing her fame and she didn’t exactly mind his riches, and “both of them milked the speculation of a romance for all the publicity it was worth,” as biog- rapher Christopher Winans put it in his 1990 book, Malcolm Forbes: The Man Who Had Everything. As many of those in-the-know were aware then and many more clued into years later, Forbes’ predilections lay elsewhere.

Looked at from one lens, this baby boom bash was entirely consistent with its Liberace era: like the outlandish entertainer, Forbes excelled at playing to the fascination of the gossip around without ever really fully coming out of the shadows. Like Liberace – who, with his bejewelled speedos, yapping poodles and egregious house- boys, seemed to be hiding in plain sight – Forbes lurked in a kind of de- signer glass closet. Notwithstanding, much of the later coverage sufficed in playing wink-wink, shameless in its willingness to feed the impression of a Malcolm-Liz romance. Consider USA Today, which began its report on the blow-out, with this tease: “Like prom night kids, multimillionaire Malcolm Forbes and super- star Elizabeth Taylor – who left … beau Larry Fortensky at home – were virtually inseparable this weekend …”

After all was said and feted – the tajine feasted on, the “Happy Birthday” aria’ed by opera star Beverly Sills, and the guests swooshed back to their homes – all that was left were the memories and the bragging rights. As it happened, Tangier would be Forbes’ last stand. Less than a year later, he was gone, dying in his sleep. At the star-studded memorial service, in Manhattan – was there any destiny other than it being “star-studded”? – Robert Forbes, one of Malcolm’s five children, paid tribute. “It’s been,” he said, “a hell of a party, Pop.”

Zoomer magazine, Sept. 2014