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.

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?

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.

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