Thursday, December 21, 2006

DJ to NYC's elite

December 16, 2006
The D.J. Who Moves the Movers and Shakers

Somewhere between eating the caviar wraps and ducking outside to smoke his fifth Dunhill International Mild Blue of the evening, Tom Finn realized he was going to be O.K.

This was last weekend, at the New York Botanical Garden’s annual holiday benefit, the Winter Wonderland ball. Mr. Finn, who for almost every year in its nine-year history has been the D.J. of the event, had left his platform at the edge of the dance floor — where he’d been laying out some of his musical selections in advance — to mosey around the conservatory for cocktail hour.

“This is unnerving — the group has really turned over the past year or two,” Mr. Finn said. “I don’t know who this set is.”

But as he stood near the bar to get his bearings, he recognized a friendly face, and then a few more. He winked at Tara Rockefeller. Then Alexandra Lind Rose, whom Mr. Finn identified as a member of “the A-crowd, obviously,” told him it was nice to see him again. Another such lady, Alexandra Kramer, came over to administer an air kiss.

“You’re gorgeous, baby,” Mr. Finn told her.

Yes, he was going to be O.K.

Mr. Finn has reigned as the court D.J. to New York’s high society for more than a decade. “About seven years ago, Vogue called me the new Lester Lanin,” he said. “It’s different, because he led an orchestra and I’m playing CDs, but the social role is the same.”

Mr. Finn certainly knows his way around plates of jellied madrilène and the distinctions among black tie, white tie, morning dress and national costume. Working an average of 70 nights a year, and charging from $5,000 to $12,000 a night, he is as much a fixture of first-tier benefits and galas as the Boardmans (Serena and Samantha), the Hearsts (Amanda and Lydia) and the young lady known to some as the Tinz (that’s Tinsley Mortimer, or Mrs. Robert Livingston “Topper” Mortimer, to you).

He has been the D.J. for everything from the New York City Ballet’s opening-night benefit last month to the Young Fellows of the Frick Collection’s gala to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Costume Institute ball. He played at the 1995 wedding of Crown Prince Pavlos of Greece and Marie-Chantal Miller, the middle daughter of Robert W. Miller, the duty-free shopping tycoon.

“A lot of people hire a D.J. instead of a band nowadays for the flexibility,” said Dayssi Olarte de Kanavos, a philanthropist and a local floor-committee stalwart. “If a band isn’t a hit with the audience, it’s difficult for them to change. Tom is very good at reading a crowd.”

Jill Kargman, a novelist, a screenwriter and a staple of the charity-ball circuit (her father is Arie Kopelman, the chief executive of Chanel), said, “The great thing about him is he doesn’t aspire to be some kind of a turntablist.

“He basically says to this set, ‘I’m perfectly happy playing Michael Jackson, and you can get up there and do your white-man’s overbite,’ ” she said.

For his part, Mr. Finn attributes his successful run much more to party skills than to musical instincts, or even taste (though he possesses those as well). And for an evening to be successful, he says, his single goal — getting as many people as possible to dance — depends on a familiarity with his audience.

“The women are young this year, but they’re all wearing white fur stoles — very fancy, obviously,” said Mr. Finn, who is 58 and nearly bald and wears Buddy Holly-style glasses with tinted lenses.

These simple observations, he said, signaled him to start with a standby at the Winter Wonderland ball. As the guests, most of them married couples, glided single-file into the heated tent where the dinner was to be served, Mr. Finn donned his headphones, played the Leroy Anderson Pops Orchestra standard “Belle of the Ball,” and waved his hands like a symphony conductor.

Photographers from the society pages snapped away. The women stopped, turned, tossed their heads, smiled. It was glamorous enough to make one wonder if a moment like this was an implicit promise of the $5,000-a-table fee.

“It’s not that hard, actually,” Mr. Finn said, permitting himself a moment’s satisfaction. “These people don’t want anything very uptempo at first, but the women still need to feel sexy, sexy, sexy. I’m scoring the mating rituals for today’s society. You can call these parties whatever you want, but it’s really a WASP breeding party.”

Mr. Finn describes himself as a teenage runaway from Brooklyn who spent time in foster care, and he is quick to acknowledge that his chosen milieu was always an object of wonder as well as his intended destination. “When I was young, I used to go to the library and read about Princess Grace Kelly,” he said. “I fantasized about rich people and their big mansions.”

It was rock ’n’ roll that provided the first means of escape. In 1965 when he was 16, he formed the band the Left Banke, with three friends in Greenwich Village. He played bass and traded off on vocals, and although the group disbanded after recording only one album, they did score a Top-5 hit the next year with the single “Walk Away Renee.”

The song — you’ve heard it, whether you realize it or not — was written about Mr. Finn’s girlfriend at the time (Renee), and a couple of years ago was ranked by Rolling Stone as the 220th greatest rock song ever written (No. 221 was “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed; No. 222: “Oh, Pretty Woman,” by Roy Orbison). It is especially memorable for a baroque string arrangement and the flute solo.

A chance encounter with Steve Rubell in 1982 led to a guest job spinning records at Studio 54, and thus Mr. Finn’s D.J. career was born.

At the Wonderland ball, he kicked off the dessert hour with Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You,” then, halfway through it, segued into “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Baby” by Barry White. Three couples took to the dance floor and did a few modest twirls.

Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” prompted a few more women to drag their husbands and dates onto the checkerboard, and they held the trains of their dresses and swung their elbows. Mr. Finn played “Bad Girls” by Donna Summer — “Paris Hilton’s mother loves when I play this, and I always play it with the vocals low, because she likes to take the microphone and sing over it,” he said — and then Madonna’s “Vogue,” “Dancing Queen” by Abba and “Bust a Move” by Young MC.

By the time he got to “What I Like About You” by the Romantics, just about everybody who was still in the tent — perhaps 175 of the original 250 guests — was cutting a rug. In particular, Chris Cuomo of “Good Morning America,” whose wife, Cristina, was one of the evening’s co-chairwoman, seemed to be living out several rock ’n’ roll fantasies at once.

“I learned at Studio that yuppies really like to dance to the music of their adolescence,” Mr. Finn said, as if to apologize for the lack of originality in his selections. “It’s not my job to educate them.”

Nearly two hours later, Mr. Finn closed with Roxy Music’s “Avalon,” threw on his overcoat, and ran to his car before the song had even finished. “I like to get out before anybody can start making those ‘just one more song’ requests,” he said. “The thing with this crowd is, both sides should know not to wear out their welcome.”

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