David Patrick Columbia's New York Social Diary

16 June 2014

Everything is quieter

Last Thursday night at the Wildlife Conservation Society, the rain was already threatening. It was spritzing when I arrived at the Central Park Zoo at 7:30 (cocktails began an hour before) for the black tie affair.

They hold this event every year at this time and at this location (it used to be at the Bronx Zoo). They’d been blessed in the past with Great Weather. Cocktails are held outside around the Sea Lions’ pool, and the inhabitants are out there playing to the crowds (you get the feeling that they like the company in their confinement). Because the party starts out in a “center,” the vibe is very “social” in that people moved around  the Sea Lions’ pool, and talk to a lot of people. Hello, how are you, is even enough to put you in the mood.

Soon after I’d got there, the rain began, gentle but steady. The tables were set, as they are every year in the pavilion that surrounds the Sea Lions’ home, and so every – all several hundred quickly made their way to a roof overhead.

Allison (Mrs. Leonard) Stern chaired this event for several years (or so it seems in memory) and she produced a very glamorous party that produced a healthy figure for the night (over $ million) for the cause.

The WCS is a noble and important philanthropy in a world that is losing track at a breakneck pace of what is important (i.e., survival). That nobility appeals to more people than you might think. It crosses all the political lines because it makes sense.

They honored C. Diane Christensen and Hillary and Chelsea Clinton.  I didn’t know about Mrs. Christensen but she is a very important individual in the world of Wildlife Conservation -- as well as other matters philanthropic.  She grew up in San Francisco where her parents created a foundation to fund causes such as the WCS. She has been a lifelong devotee to wildlife conservation. She has traveled and visited sites all over the world that they are funding to protect wildlife.

I didn’t meet her, but saw, and listened to her acceptance speech. This is a woman, with a no frills, plain talking, Out West manner and presence; a woman of independent means, obviously, who has given much of her life and her resources in protecting wildlife on the planet. Or, to put it more realistically: to protect LIFE on the planet. You could tell from her speaking that it was just something that has to be done, has to be taken care of, the way a good mother protects her children. Mrs. Christensen is the essence of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s charter.

The big draw of the evening was Mrs. Clinton. Hillary Clinton in New York at least, is the star of the moment. She is our former Senator, the former Secretary of State, the former First Lady and from the looks of things, she’s thinking about being our first women President. She is also a superior speechmaker. Her talks are relevant, informed and informative, thoughtful and mainly delivered (most times I’ve seen her) without notes. You know you are listening to someone who’s smart. There’s a certain kind of relief in that.

She was introduced by our new Mayor De Blasio. Mr. De Blasio is currently not a favorite with many in this crowd, and on this side of town. Personally I have no opinion except to note that he’s somehow ended up on the bad side of many of the electorate (around me).

I had never seen or heard him speak until Thursday night when he took the podium to tell us about his relationship with Mrs. Clinton. He is a very appealing speaker. He worked with her when she was Senator. He described the experience with an almost effusive awe at her ability to Get To The Heart of the Matter, to solve or deal with a problem. His information wasn’t surprising: she’s tough, she’s sharp and she’s got a strong woman’s instinct to solve a problem. Or deal with it in some constructive way.

Thursday night was clearly not a campaign stop (although it was good exposure for a potential candidate). The former President, her husband, was with her, as was of course her daughter Chelsea who is evidently taking over the reins as head of the family foundation.

The focus of the evening, the theme was “An Elephant’s Tale.” Cristian Samper, the president of WCS, talked to the guests about the poaching of the elephants. He told about a tour he took in Dzang Bai in the Central African Republic where the poachers have moved in and are killing the elephants for their ivory tusks. The killing of elephants is now running close to 100 elephants a day across Africa. In a few years, they will be extinct.

When Samper saw what the illegal ivory trade was doing he called Hillary Clinton (when she was still Secretary of State). The Clinton Global Initiative got involved. Chelsea Clinton made a documentary for NBC News on the story, and Secretary Clinton gathered intelligence and security advisers to assess the issue.  The results of these efforts was a campaign “The Partnership to Save Africa’s Elephants. Poaching has become more sophisticated, using automatic weapons, night-vision goggles, helicopters, explosives.

The elephants share many things in common with us humanoids, our taste for murder and violence notwithstanding. They are emotional, intelligent and self-aware creatures, with long lives and long memories. They have feelings like us, and grieve over personal losses. Like us, they live in communities of families. The more you learn about them, including the threats to their mass destruction, the more you see that “saving” them is also related to saving ourselves.

After Mrs. Clinton spoke about the plight of the elephant, Chelsea Clinton took the podium to thank everyone for their efforts in helping the elephants. She pointed out that as a child, her parents often took her to the zoo where she learned, as she shared with us, that ultimately “for many of us, our love of wildlife and appreciation of the greater ecosystem in which we all live, does start in zoos.”

Ms. Clinton, who, as the world now knows, is about to become a mother herself, is a very confident and able speaker -- not surprising considering her background. Her mother presented the basic message but daughter was graciously enthusiastic in thanking the guests for their interest and help in the matter. Growing up as she did with two of the best public speakers in the world, surely must have been a challenge for the young girl. However, as she spoke on Thursday night, I couldn’t help thinking of her father who was seated only 20 feet from his daughter, and how proud he (and his wife) must feel about their daughter’s ability to convey the message.

Ms. Clinton’s fashion statement for the evening, however -- an ensemble that inevitably conjured up characters from consumer celebritydom -- the Kardashians -- was a puzzlement.

I've been attending this event every year since the mid-90s. It’s a serious evening although usually not a speaker’s evening. The Clintons’ appearance added another dimension to the matter, making it seem more urgent, more timely.

The honorees speak briefly and the president of the organization reports on the WCS activities and progress, all of which is preceded by a lovely cocktail reception, a good dinner (this year’s menu was African in origin. Starter was a “Regional Taster” – Ethiopian vegetable somasa; West African sweet potato soup; South African black-eyed pea “koek” – interesting and good).  After dinner the younger crowd is invited in for dancing and drinks and desserts. So it is a pleasant evening all around.  The appearance of the Clinton women added greater public attention to the business of the WCS, and that is good for the cause. It was a good night, and the rain stopped in time for the after-party, so hundreds more young New Yorkers were happy too.

Alison Minton and Daniel Colon.