Society: Little Miss Popular

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

Though today’s crop of fashionistas may think they’ve discovered Riseman, the truth is that she’s been out with the kids for years, beginning with the girls who worked for her at Apogee. “I have always been attracted to young people, because I can help them,” she says. “And their energy, it transfers.”

Salvatore DeGeorge, the director of catering at the Taj, met Riseman
in 1992 when he was 25. “She’s always interested in embracing new
people,” says DeGeorge, who credits Riseman with landing him his current job. “She’s really become iconic recently, but she’s constantly introducing people.”

OF COURSE, RISEMAN’S CURRENT popularity among a certain crowd of swishy go-getters says as much about them as it does about her. These youngsters throw parties in the scene-y bars of the South End and guzzle their vodka sodas with an outward confidence that masks a reflexive insecurity about their city’s staid image. They compensate for the latter by laying the fabulousness and the glitter on thick. This kind of anxiety isn’t necessarily new to the city’s fashion-minded creative crowd. But what is new is an escalating interest in Boston society of yore — a curiosity about an exclusive, perhaps mythical, scene that revolved around pedigree and old money.

Says Liana Peterson, a 27-year-old blogger known as the “New Brahmin,” and a fairly recent friend of Riseman: “You think Boston Brahmin, you think tweedy. [Riseman] has broken those boundaries because she’s not necessarily a blueblood, and she was a woman in the ’60s and ’70s opening a business — in those days she was super-progressive. For me, she’s a great role model, and you could never have a better representative of Boston. She shows that [creative progression] has been here for generations and that there has been and can be more to Boston than sports and politics.”

Last fall, I began seeing Riseman at fashion shows, at parties, and at bars. I’d known who she was since I started covering Boston fashion four years ago, but she suddenly seemed to be everywhere. A couple of my friends and a slew of acquaintances started calling her a friend. They used words like “inspiration” and “icon.” For a fashion show last September, Mendoza topped off each model with a wig inspired by the Marilyn hairdo. (“When I think about what makes Boston awesome and unique, I think Marilyn,” he told me later. “It just made sense.”) Once, at a restaurant, I heard a prissy 27-year-old in a bow tie demand to be moved to the top of the reservation list because he was with Riseman. I felt certain these people were exploiting this sweet old thing, trading on her local cachet and using her as some kind of quirky vintage accessory. A little old lady has become the pet mascot of a bunch of social climbers, I thought.

Turns out, I wasn’t giving Riseman enough credit. To really spend time with her — to while away afternoons in her cheetah-carpeted living room, for instance — is to realize that the important question isn’t Why are these kids hanging out with an 82-year-old woman? but rather Why haven’t I been? She wants to talk about family and movies and parties and pets. She wants to call you “honey” and “dear,” and she’ll tell you about running into her old high school classmate Lauren Bacall (who, she’ll confide, “looked like an unmade bed!”). She’ll tell you what it was like when they filmed Pink Panther 2 in town and she was asked to do a cameo (“I was to play this Spanish socialite and they wanted me to put my face in the soup — no fuckin’ way”).

Sure, she’s a handy embodiment of local nostalgia. And she has hangers-on, indeed. But she also possesses a cynicism-melting warmth and a finely tuned radar for bullshit. Earn her ear and she’ll tell you which of the young scenesters she likes and which ones she thinks can go “fuck off.” Sure, she’ll be cordial and pose for pictures — that’s just part of being a grande dame. She also has the ability to size people up quickly and won’t engage with the ones who give her a bad vibe. After all, she’s been doing this for a while.