Whatever else has changed over the last two millennia of social history, one thing has remained constant: We all love a great party. Every age, culture, and class redefines exactly what that means, but it is clear when we're at a truly out-of-the-ordinary event. Such occasions occur only after much careful planning. Often those who do that best possess the clarifying focus that only a certain distance can provide.
In a 2001 PBS American Masters documentary, F. Scott Fitzgerald's genius at evoking the glamour of New York was summed up by literary scholar Ann Douglas: "It sometimes takes outsiders to explain a city or place to itself." That's always been true of such quintessential New Yorkers. Bobby Short, Bill Blass, Cole Porter, Halston: All of them, like Fitzgerald, came from out of town, but they epitomized their adopted home better than many of its natives.
To that list of self-invented magicians we must now add David E. Monn, 42, born in Fayetteville, Pennsylvania, but in recent years a new paragon of Manhattan high style. Midcareer, he morphed from chain-store jewelry whiz to the most sought-after event planner of the new century. He has managed to knock the Fogal stockings off tough-to-impress New York party veterans with stagings that go to the top but never over it.
Like many decorators and garden designers of his top-tier ilk, Monn cannot disclose the names of private clients, a right they're entitled to after writing him checks in six and seven figures. But his jaw-dropping public events—especially the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute's "Party of the Year" last spring—have already become the stuff of upper-crust urban legend. To channel the spirit of Coco Chanel, the subject of the Met's latest fashion exhibition, Monn turned the museum into a modern-day Versailles, replete with 14,000 boxwood bushes and enough white gardenias to rouse the couturiere-honoree from les morts.
For all his daunting professional flair, Monn turns out to be surprisingly low-key in person. As he puts the final touches on DEPARTURES's specially commissioned White Nights party in a sprawling Greenwich Village loft overlooking the Hudson River, he's dressed in the best white shirt you've ever seen and deceptively ordinary-looking chinos. His only theatrical touch is a massive gold ring set with a flat blue oval stone.
"I love to marry fantasy and reality," Monn says. "Doctor Zhivago meets the New York waterfront was my vision, but this space functions as a living room. I edit my ideas to one element and then magnify it. Everything here works off the birch-bark paneling—the white lacquered floor, the white rugs, the mounted wildlife heads.
"When I do really fanciful parties," he continues, "there's always an element of reality to anchor it. Something has to be truly qualitative; it's not just a matter of throwing up drapes and flowers. Here we have a Belgian chandelier from the turn of the century and these $175,000 Regency ewers. These plates are 18th-century English porcelain, the real stuff."
Everyone comes away from a David Monn party with a different set of associations. For me, this soirée recalled more of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers than of Yuri Zhivago and his luscious Lara. Not that Monn was aiming for that nostalgic thirties Hollywood Deco look. Nonetheless, there was something in the big, sleek, confident scale of the space and the way he dramatized it that brought to mind those unforgettable and improbable penthouses where the city glittered below and the stars seemed to dance on air.
Yet practical matters are never overlooked, Monn says. "It can't be just pretty. Otherwise people mill around and say, 'All right, it's beautiful, but I just can't get into it.' "
For Monn, the place where design ends and emotion begins is crucial to casting the spell demanded by a memorable party. "All five senses must be engaged," he says, spritzing a whiff of his fragrance Winter for Bergdorf Goodman, which was first introduced as part of a line he created with his friend Gayfryd Steinberg. The company no longer exists, but they still work together on Monn's nonprofit events, like the New York Public Library Literary Lions Dinner.
"This is all new for me," Monn says of his success. It amazes him as much as it does his suddenly outflanked competitors in this small but intensely competitive field. Just as his great inspiration, designer Bill Blass, came to know perfectly his clients' needs by understanding their world, so does Monn. "The basic question for me is this: Are you simply going to be at a party or are you going to be transported by it? That's really my business."
David E. Monn, 212-242-2009; www.davidmonn.com.