Society: Little Miss Popular

How an 82-year-old socialite became the pied piper of Boston’s bright young fashion set.

marilyn riseman society

The always-fashionable Marilyn Riseman in her Beacon Hill home. / Photograph by Conor Doherty

THE REGULARS WEAR PATAGONIA, and the staff at the 21st Amendment on Beacon Hill, they wear tight T-shirts. Neither are sure of what they’re seeing. Dozens of people who don’t belong are pushing into the State House watering hole. They’re the city’s young fashion types, done up in sequins and fur, their ironic hats brushing the dark wood beams overhead.

They hug and gush over one another, this crowd of interlopers, using terms like “dahhhling” and “soooo fabulous” to a comical degree. As venues go, this one’s an odd departure from the glitzier haunts favored by this group, which is celebrating the 25th birthday of clothing designer Sam Mendoza. But the real head-scratcher — the one the barkeeps and the afterwork Bud-drinkers are puzzling over — is why in the hell a little old lady with a jet-black bob and a face of flour-white makeup seems to be the center
of attention.

This lady is 82 years old, and her name is Marilyn Riseman. She’s enthroned on a rickety wooden chair and wears a red Yohji Yamamoto coat with a satiny pink panel down the back, adding a considerably regal vibe to the whole scene.

Riseman is tiny (as in, teeny-tiny), and she turns her head back and forth, chatting with guests who approach from all sides. She listens fiercely and nods, and every once in a while, she throws a zinger into the conversation — a zinger she accents with the f-word (her favorite word). She sips a cranberry juice and engages all comers: the twentysomething stylists, the bloggers, the shop girls, the makeup artists. They compliment her clothes, they lean in close for a few words of wisdom, and they beg for a quick photo. Scoring a picture, in fact, has become the night’s main event. Riseman leans back in that creaky chair and opens a lipsticked mouth into an epically wide grin. It’s obvious: The lady has done this hundreds of times. No, thousands.

All over our fair city, men and women half Riseman’s age have already retired to bed. But the grande dame of Boston society stays up with the kids. And tonight — like most nights — she is a star, enjoying a moment of popularity with a crowd she outgrew half a century ago. Even the guest of honor is paying homage to Riseman: As Mendoza makes the rounds at his birthday party, he wears an Alexander McQueen skull-print scarf, which, he tells all who’ll listen, was a gift from Riseman herself.

THE NEXT MORNING, WHILE THE sequin-covered young things snooze off their hangovers, Riseman, who never drinks, will be up by 6, as she is every day. Most days Riseman keeps to routines she established decades ago. A couple of times a week, she’ll get her hair done by Richard Corrieri at Persona. Once a week David Nicholas, who created her signature Kabuki look almost 30 years ago, does her makeup; other days, she’ll spend an hour or so drawing her face on. A one-time Newbury Street boutique owner — her shop, Apogee, carried edgy Parisian fashions from the ’60s into the ’80s — Riseman is particular about her clothes and where they come from. On days that she goes shopping, she’ll visit Chanel or the eponymous store owned by her friend Alan Bilzerian — and often she’ll call ahead to have things pulled that might suit her. Sometimes the shop girls will even bring the selections to her home for her review.