The Social Detective

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What makes the oldest ball in town still the favorite for beauty and glamour after all these years? Is it the Michael’s On East food, the wildly romantic setting in the Charles Ringling Mansion, all dressed up on a crisp winter evening, the always attractive (and young) chairwomen, or the panache of New College of […]


What makes the oldest ball in town still the favorite for beauty and glamour after all these years? Is it the Michael’s On East food, the wildly romantic setting in the Charles Ringling Mansion, all dressed up on a crisp winter evening, the always attractive (and young) chairwomen, or the panache of New College of Florida, now a fixture on the map of best of the best colleges in the country? But what’s the true glitter magnet of the oldest continuous black-tie event in town?

The Mistletoe Ball has launched the Sarasota holiday season on the first Saturday of December for 39 years. This year is its 40th birthday, which now makes it officially older than I am. The ball started two years after the formation of the New College Library Association, with a goal to acquire 16,000 books for the Jane Bancroft Cook Library. Since then NCLA has raised more than $3 million for books and technology, and it has been the sole funder of all new books for the last several years. The library serves more than 3,000 students from New College and USF Sarasota-Manatee, and it’s also open to the community. If you become a member, you can even take books home.

I’m a big fan of reading, so a few years ago I called Jane Summerville, executive director of NCLA, to talk about books, and she invited me to the ball. I showed up in a short dress, and was my face red. And I’ve decided that despite the worthy cause and the festive mood and setting, the Mistletoe Ball is really all about the dress—and maybe the jewelry, too.

A few things in life are incredibly comforting. Libraries are one. Another is Saks. No matter what is going on in your life—divorce, taxes, real estate or the need for ball gowns and fine jewelry—Saks and Sally Schule are there to sponsor favorite causes and ease the pain. I don’t care if Neiman Marcus does the fashion show for NCLA’s Pique-nique in April and plans to open a store here some day. I’m not going. I love Sally, and I love Saks.

That’s why it was so good back in September to be at the Mistletoe Ball launch party at Saks, where Tommy Klauber did the wonderful food and NCLA supporters thronged to shop for that perfect red dress. I’m not kidding about the red. I’ve been seeing red dresses at the ball for years and really wanted one.

Sally had promised red gowns galore for the occasion, and did she deliver! Last year there were only one or two, and I was way too small for both of them. This year there were dozens of red dresses, all exactly the right size for any size. Jane Summerville modeled a Chris Kole gown with dangling sparkles, and Paula Weisman of Saks Fine Jewelry adorned her and the other models in stunning pieces we all wanted to take home. Paula started showing me the jewelry collection, and I got distracted right away. “We have the best colored-stone man in New York and a carefully edited collection of fine jewelry. You look great in those earrings,” she told me. The tourmalines came down to my shoulders.

Past ball chairs Julie Riddell, Shawndra Baird, Dara Thomson and current chair Chris Pfahler modeled divine red gowns. Julie Riddell wore an impressive Saks diamond and South Sea pearl necklace and a knockout Craig Signer dress that showed some serious cleavage. “Don’t worry,” she assured me, “I’m taped in.”

Shawndra chatted with Zack Hamric in her red Tom and Linda Plait. “Are you going to buy it?” I asked. “Maybe," she said.

Dara looked like a movie star in her sculptured gown by the same designer. She’s a definite winter complexion and was perfect in red. “It’s the scarf around the neck that adds the extra glamour,” she said. I thought it was her dazzling smile. “Are you going to buy it?” I asked.

“It’s surprisingly comfortable,” she said.

Ken Pfahler took lots of extra photos of Chris in her many layers of red chiffon, the couture jewelry, the Chanel makeup and Gucci shoes.

“Are you going to buy it?” I asked.

“I’m not allowed to shop anymore,” Chris told me. “I have to be good. I do have a few things in mind, but I’ll have to see how the tent looks.”

Jane nodded. “The scene unfolds and Chris dresses accordingly. It has to be organic,” Jane said. Then Sally came and told them it was time to change into new gowns, and they hurried away without saying good-bye. That’s what modeling does to people.

Debbi Benedict reminisced about the 30th anniversary, when she was chair. “The theme was Scottish Highlands Holiday that year. I had a dress made that was black velvet with red plaid. It’s still my favorite gown.”

Sarah and Michael Barron were also pondering what, oh what, to wear to the ball. “I shopped in Tampa all day yesterday and couldn’t find a thing,” Sarah said. “I’m thinking of going down to Miami next.” We agreed they have very flashy gowns there, and Michael looked as if he would like that.

People were excited about Mistletoe at Saks that September night; they really were—even after all these years. There have been a few rumors floating around about the theme. “It’s the 40th, so it’s going to be very gala and icy,” someone said. I heard something about crystal chandeliers in the tent. Kitty Cranor, whose husband, John, is head of the New College Foundation, told me the committee had talked about everybody coming in big gowns, “with hoops and crinolines,” she said. “I love the idea of the really big dress, don’t you?”

Well, yes, but the figure-hugging gowns being modeled that evening looked awfully tempting. Personal shopper Gloria Good steered browsers to the rack of even more red numbers—something for everyone—but definitely not the big gowns that Kitty had in mind. Maggie Hutter, Jo Rutstein, Helen Sosso and Jane Tice drank martinis and shopped. Pamela Meade, whose husband is CEO of Doctors Hospital, thought about shopping. Barb Brocious, who is financial VP for the New College Foundation, was not shopping at all. She was collecting money for chances at the beautiful $1,300 Louis Vuitton purse. Gail Yonov and Mary-Lou Moulton passed the basket and I bought six tickets, but grumpily went home without it. Maybe I didn’t get it because I’m on the board.

Mistletoe Ball gold sponsors Chuck Wondra and Mark LaRoe from JP Morgan in Naples and the east coast had come to greet everyone. I asked what their wives were going to wear, but they didn’t know yet. And then…even though I wanted to stay and shop and ask every single NCLA and Mistletoe Ball attendee what she was going to wear, I had to go. The vida loca of season had begun.

Asolo Rep was doing its launch of A Tale of Two Cities at Lakewood Ranch that night, and Asolo fans were going to hear speeches from director Michael Donald Edwards and designer Tony Walton, who did the sets for almost everything that was ever anything on Broadway, as well as listen to famous cast members sing. We’ve never heard voices like theirs in Sarasota before, and I couldn’t miss it. But if you want to know what color gown I’m wearing to the Mistletoe Ball, don’t tell. It’s teal.

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