Society: Little Miss Popular

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

Riseman doesn’t drive and never has. She lives with her two dogs on Beacon Hill in an eclectically decorated condo with stylistic flourishes from the ’70s and ’80s. When it’s snowy or rainy out, she would sooner stay home than risk a spill, but she can be persuaded to go to lunch on the condition that she be chauffeured to either the Four Seasons or the Royal Sonesta, because they have covered driveways.

Riseman loves hotels. She practically grew up in the old Ritz-Carlton on Arlington Street, now the Taj, where her father, the legendary bookmaker Harry “Doc” Sagansky, held sway amid a glittery social swirl in the ’40s and ’50s. Sagansky enjoyed a colorful life at the center of power in 20th-century Boston. Accused by authorities in the 1950s of running “the largest racket kingdom in existence in the city of Boston,” he was also a folk-hero philanthropist. He’d pal around the Ritz with his business partner Mickey Redstone, the father of Viacom owner Sumner Redstone. Some days, there was even a Kennedy to catch a glimpse of. It was here where Riseman found herself mesmerized by the society parties and personalities, and where she found her place in it all.

And, of course, after she found her place, Riseman never left. It’s just that nowadays her unforgettable mug shows up not just in society pages, but also all over Facebook — where a profile pic with Riseman is better for a certain kind of cred than a photo with Cher or Liza.

Because Riseman doesn’t use the Internet or carry a cell phone, she sets her schedule via landline or letter. Joanna Prager, her 26-year-old granddaughter, has become the go-between for Riseman and her wired acolytes. Almost daily, Prager says, she receives Facebook invitations for events that beg her to bring her grandmother. “Sometimes, it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re talking to me because my grandmother’s an icon or whatever,’” Prager says. “But when everyone’s like, ‘You’re so lucky,’ I say, ‘Yes I am.’ I can call her at 11 p.m., and I know it’s not too late.”

Some of Riseman’s outings are less festive, though. A lot of funerals make their way onto her schedule. At 82, she’s no longer shocked when she gets the news that another of her peers has passed away. (Her husband, Bill Riseman, an architect and artist whom she talks about with starry eyes, died 28 years ago.) But she doesn’t view those losses as reason to stay home and give up the lifestyle that she loves. Why sit on the couch and nod off before Dancing with the Stars when you can watch people, listen to them, connect them with each other?

ADVERTISMENT