In the old days, before the baseball cap became the ubiquitous symbol of Americans, hats were serious business and defined individuals in the deepest possible way. We were, literally, our hats. When my father was a TV and movie producer, he wore a Homburg, now known as the Godfather hat. When he was an investment banker with a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, he wore a bowler. He had a top hat for openings at the opera and was never without a straw hat on Martha's Vineyard.
My mother's hats were fashioned by Lilly Dache of ocelot, tweed, velvet or lace and adorned with a single feather or a tiny veil. The hats were never bigger than her hand and didn't hide much hair. With or without them she was a dead ringer for Princess Margaret. (The Windsor, not Wise.)
In April, I needed a hat for Pique-nique sur la Baie, the New College Library Association's spring luncheon. Frankly, my dears, I'm not a big fan of fund-raising lunches. Getting caught in an endless valet parking line at The Ritz or Michael's is enough to ruin a writer's whole afternoon. But Pique-nique is something special. It's held out at New College of Florida on the bay, where there's quite enough lawn to park your own car if you want to. Pique-nique was originated by Paulette Schindler, who is French and thought an elegant lunch party for ladies wearing hats would be an appropriate "thank you" for volunteers. It was such a success that fund raising for books had to follow.
Just 42 years old, New College was named No. 1 best educational value in America by the Princeton Review this year. It wasn't the first top 10 ranking by any means, and the New College Library Association (NCLA) has its own place as a Sarasota innovator. It launched the first black-tie event in town, and 38 years later the Mistletoe Ball is still one of the best parties of the season. In addition, NCLA's book clubs and Colloquium started the rage for author appearances for which Sarasota is now famous.
Nowadays, unless you're a red-hat lady or Annette Scherman, you can count on two fingers the hat-wearing opportunities in Sarasota. "There's nowhere else [than Pique-Nique] to wear them," lamented Jane Summerville, NCLA's executive director. Jane recalled that her mother had her own hat maker. "Whenever she wanted a real treat, she'd get a new hat." Jane got hers at Dillard's.
That's why the sell-out crowd of 560 was so excited, and preparations so frantic. You could see people skulking around town for weeks desperately seeking.something. There was a lot of ducking in and out of Saks on the way to Dillard's, Marshalls and Beall's. A few hats came from TJ Maxx, and there were even some secret forays to JoAnn's and glue-gunning of flowers in the dead of night. Other people had to leave town to get the job done. Cornelia Matson went to Paris for hers. Debbi Benedict got her fab hat at Saks in Naples, "because Saks here had nothing," she said, which was borne out by Sally Schule arriving hatless herself.
Penny Hill, who rarely wears hats, "because you can't see and you can't kiss," was on the way to Naples with to sort out the hat problem when they stopped in Venice for lunch. "I got my hat in Venice, can you believe it?" she said. I did. It was as big as she is.
A little cloudy and cool the day before, Pique-nique day dawned perfectly. Those who didn't know the way to New College made anxious last-minute calls to Cheryl Burstein, Pique-nique's able chair, who was worried about the first Chinese raffle. "It's not potluck. You put your tickets in the bag for the basket of your choice," she explained. It turned out to be another fine innovation. As usual, I didn't win a thing.
New College is just past the Ringling Museum. Turn left at the New College sign and follow the road to the Charles Ringling Mansion on the bay. It leads you to an era where Jackie Morton fit right in with her magnificent 1920s white crochet dress (found at The Pines thrift shop) and matching cloche with vintage white coral jewelry. I found her in a decorative clump with Diane Roskamp and B.J. Creighton, chair of NCLA. Roskamp said she has 12 "sun" and four serious "bright and bold" hats. The one she wore was a Florida conservative. Creighton's glam, beflowered hat came from Orlando.
"I love this party," Bea Elden told me. Her hats and clothes were still in storage because her new condo wasn't ready. "I bought a hat at Saks for this event, but it didn't go with my outfit. So I ran over to Dillard's and got this one for $50. Don't tell."
"I won't," I promised.
Julie Riddell has 10 or 12 hats. Her hat of the day came from Neiman's. Gila and Michael Meriwether were there together. "It's one of Michael's favorite events," Gila said. "He wouldn't miss it." Gila is such a hat person she could not tell me how many hats she has. She was wearing a gorgeous Eric Javit. Jill Strode bought her hat from Lotus on Main Street. "It's a Helen Kaminski. You can fold it up and sit on it." The same could not be said of her daughter's hat. Jerry Strode Smith and Kate O'Connell were wearing over-the-top Nikki Feldbaums. They were so gorgeous I almost wanted one. Margaret Wise was wearing a pink Raul Molina confection. "How many hats do you have?" I asked. Wise waved her hand. "Not many. I wear them twice and give them to Designing Women, the graveyard of St. John. Don't tell," she said.
"I won't," I promised.
Lydia McIntire was wearing an adorable hat from a Sarasota street vendor, and table No. 10 was the cowboy hat table. Sherry Chapman's cowboy hat had the only feather I saw that day and came from her husband's collection. Ann Van Cott was wearing an Emme, her mother's hat from Bonwit Teller. Sally Kessler's hat was from Mark Strike Fore "a long time ago." Alexandra Jupin got her hat from "New York," and Diane Smoler's hat was adorned with real tulips. Jan Holly has 60 hats. Her hat came from the Circle. "One For Me and Two For You, or is it the other way around?" she said.
I caught sight of Judith Thomson and Marie Belcher at their special milliner on different days, and they each begged me not to tell. "I won't," I promised. (Stein Mart.)
Not hat people were Pat Johnson, Amanda Stiff, Renee Richardson Kling and the Florida "bright star" New College student, Perri Warren, who sat next to me at lunch, thanks to John Cranor, head of the New College Foundation, who funded 10 students to attend the event. Warren's major is environmental studies, and you can be sure she's not going to be lobbying for oil drilling in the Gulf when she graduates. It was a great day. Sally Schule promised that she'll stock up hats at Saks for next year's Pique-nique, even if she has to watch another Neiman Marcus fashion show, but didn't promise to wear one herself.
Leslie Glass is a playwright and the author of 14 novels, including the best-selling crime series featuring the NYPD's April Woo.