The Life of the Party
If you want to mingle with the crème de la crème at one of James Mitchell’s parties, you have to measure up to the host’s strict criteria. As he takes pains to note, he throws the events as a “pro bono activity,” and as such gets to be quite picky about who gets in. He has no tolerance, for instance, for “rude and flaky people,” “space cadets,” smokers, or “whiners and complainers.” He insists that his guests RSVP promptly and, for the fanciest events, show up properly attired—little black dresses or equivalent for ladies, jackets for guys. According to the lengthy guidelines he’s taken the trouble to draw up, his ideal revelers possess other qualities as well:
“They are interesting and have a wide range of intellectual interests.”
“They have interesting careers.”
“They have a high level of enthusiam [sic] for joining our group.”
“They are not small-minded dweebs.”
For those who make the cut, the reward is access to what Mitchell, a leveraged buyout guru by trade, once boasted to a judge are “uniformly considered among Boston professionals to be the best parties” in town. In the three and a half years he’s been giving them, he’s amassed a guest list more than 2,400 names long, and now draws up to 500 well-educated, well-to-do people to the bashes he throws once a month or so in the clubby confines of the Harvard Club or the Grand Ballroom of the old Ritz, which are organized simply by number—Large Cocktail Party 28 was held on May 15—rather than by occasion or theme. Every couple of weeks he also puts together a more modestly sized to-do at a nightspot like the Foundation Lounge or the Langham’s Julien Bar. Though business cards and amorous glances are liberally swapped at the gatherings, they are not networking mixers or singles events per se, but instead closer to the old-fashioned salon, a rarified forum for high-minded conversation and basking in refracted prestige. There’s never a cover charge, and it’s always cash bar.
When Mitchell signs up new invitees, he sometimes follows up with an e-mail containing an exhaustive autobiography he’s written. Accordingly, the Mitchell mystique has grown apace with the popularity of his parties: schooled in economics, political theory, defense policy, management, and finance at California’s Pitzer College, Harvard, MIT, and Wharton; studied classical music under Yo-Yo Ma’s onetime mentor; oversees multimillion-dollar transactions through his firm, Kensington Partners; described by some as “scary smart”; employs a personal secretary just to help manage his ever-swelling guest list. All in all, it makes for an utterly urbane profile, the very picture of erudition and refinement. But the uninitiated can also find the whole thing—the suddenness of Mitchell’s appearance on the scene, the downright un-Boston-ness of his serial sociability—hard to swallow. Before turning out at his April 10 get-together at the Back Bay tapas joint Bar Lola (officially, Smaller Cocktail Party 17), one first-timer went so far, in fact, as to wonder whether James Mitchell actually exists.
That young lady’s skepticism vanished when she posed with him for a snapshot. But the man she was photographed with that night was not the real James Mitchell, or at least not the whole James Mitchell, who turns out to be someone his guests might hardly recognize.
WHEN PEOPLE GUESS at Mitchell’s age, the way people at parties do, their estimates tend to fall well shy of his 50 years. A notch under six feet tall, he has a preppy if often rumpled wardrobe, an ample paunch, and a round, ruddy face topped by a Kennedyesque pouf of brown hair. He is fifth-generation Los Angelino—“which almost makes me aristocracy out there,” he’s noted—the son of a prominent attorney and nephew of a former chief justice of the California Supreme Court. He moved east in 1977 to pursue graduate studies at Harvard. For most of his life, he’s stated, he felt “awkward in social settings, not knowing how to make small talk with people I did not know.”
It wasn’t until after he and his wife, Mary Pitak, split in late 2001 that Mitchell began his transformation into man about town. He threw himself into the project, hitting as many as five parties a night during the next two years. He was not impressed by what he saw. “I concluded that Boston parties consisted of high-quality people…which I’ll call ‘Group A,’ and those who are not, which I’ll call ‘Group B.’ The problem was that Group A was being mixed in with Group B and it was almost impossible at first to distinguish who is in which group,” he has written. “Sometimes a person is such a jerk that they develop a reputation which precedes them, but information flows are quite imperfect and this usually doesn’t happen.”
On November 12, 2002, Mitchell invited 20 friends to join him at Bar Lola, then known as Geoffrey’s. The positive feedback he received convinced him to hold another party there the following January, which led to events at Saint and Armani Café and eventually a run of shindigs at 33, the guests drawn by a stream of e-mailed invitations and follow-ups. As his crowds grew, Mitchell began to implement his now famous quality-control measures. If some found the mandatory RSVPs and nametags and dress code and general behavioral edicts off-putting, well, that was the point. “They don’t work for everyone,” says Brookline executive coach Alisa Cohn. “But I personally appreciate the breath of fresh air. It’s a serious business, this throwing of parties. If no one had rules, there would be no good parties.”
Mitchell has claimed that he never intended to get into the hosting game full-time. But now that he has, he’s become an exuberant and inflexible promoter of his own way of doing things, über–event-planner Bryan Rafanelli channeling Emily Post channeling Donald Rumsfeld. “Our policies are very, very clear—no one has ever accused me of subtlety,” he writes on the home page he’s created for his parties on his leveraged buyout firm’s rudimentary-looking website at kensingtonllc.com/parties, and that assessment is spot-on: The online handbook contains dozens of sub-pages covering everything from lectures on phone etiquette (“My favorite is ‘I didn’t call him back because I didn’t know what he was calling about.’ How are you going to find out unless you return the call?”) to his strictures regarding requests to publicize other group’s events (“When I send out an announcement, there is an implicit ‘James Mitchell Seal of Approval.’ I’ve developed a good reputation for selecting appropriate events and I don’t want my guests to attend a party they might not enjoy.”) There’s also a link to his online dating profile, which, he claims, “Match.com says is the longest in Internet history.”
Readers who take the time to delve into the documents will find Mitchell’s take on everything from productivity guru David Allen to Microsoft to attorneys (he doesn’t trust ’em) to personal finance, as well as a “Girlfriend Job Description” that lays out, with remarkable candor, what he looks for in a companion. (“The CEO…has a preference for women who are buxom.”) But for all his pedantry, there is one topic on which Mitchell refrains from holding forth.
“What are your weaknesses?” he writes at one point, using the Q-and-A format that marks his profile. The response: “I have lots of weaknesses. You, as potential girlfriend, are literally the last person I will tell them to. You’ll have to find out about them as you get to know me.”
WHEN BOSTON MAGAZINE began work on an article on Mitchell and his parties, the piece was assigned to a freelance writer who had been a frequent guest at the events. When that writer withdrew from the project, Mitchell balked at participating in the profile you are reading, agreeing only to answer select questions. That seems in keeping with the controlling personality he displays in his party guidelines. But perhaps it also has something to do with certain details of Mitchell’s background that don’t square well with the genteel image he seeks to project.
According to a divorce filing Mitchell submitted in March, over the course of his leveraged buyout career he has had a hand in two completed acquisitions. He earned approximately $250,000 in management fees from the 1988 purchase of an Ohio paper mill and another $250,000 from a deal concerning a New Jersey construction outfit. A third project, a 1997 merger of two high-tech companies, ended with several of the parties involved, including the Mitchells, taking each other to court. (Mitchell says his suit is still pending.) Legal documents indicate that for many years Mitchell’s primary source of money was his mother, who left him more than $1.2 million when she died in 2002. How long that sum will hold out is unclear. As of March, according to Mitchell and Pitak’s divorce agreement, Mitchell was more than $760,000 in debt. He declines to comment on his financial situation. “I just don’t see the relevance to the parties,” he says.
In Suffolk and Middlesex counties alone during the past 20 years, Mitchell has been involved in a law school textbook’s worth of civil suits ensnaring dozens of parties. In the late 1980s, he and his now ex-wife were evicted from a rental (and faced eviction from a second home) in Newton, where their spitz, Cedric, allegedly bit five passersby, leading to a protracted legal battle. “We were frankly very close to the dog, and the city wanted to have the dog removed, and we were opposed to that,” Mitchell says. When they finally vacated the second house, the couple accused their landlord’s handyman of damaging computers they had left behind, destroying data their appraiser estimated was worth more than $725,000. As that fight dragged on, according to court documents, the Mitchells allegedly drafted, or helped draft, talking points they sent to an attorney who had represented their foes in a separate dispute, with the understanding that said attorney would attest to the couple’s ruthlessness should lawyers from other cases call. “James and Mary Mitchell are professional pro se litigators,” the script read. “They are cunning and creative litigants who will inevitably prevail no matter how weak their case.…I strongly recommend that you settle with Mitchell and Pitak now, on whatever terms you can obtain. Otherwise, your client’s life, and perhaps your own, will be living hell.”
Over the years, the Mitchells twice filed for bankruptcy and had an involuntary bankruptcy brought against them by James’s mom. There was also a nasty contretemps between Mitchell and his wife on January 5, 1995. Two more incidents followed; Pitak would submit the police reports when securing a restraining order against her estranged husband in 2001. Mitchell declines to comment on his ex-wife, but in court documents has claimed that she had verbally abused him.
Mitchell has also scrapped with his esteemed Cambridge alma maters, which, as it turns out, are not that at all, since he never received a degree from either. His quarrel with MIT began in the fall of 1983, not long after he enrolled in the university’s prestigious Sloan Fellows program, when the director accused him of having gained admission by appropriating the undergraduate Harvard transcript of one Dr. James Murray Mitchell. After Mitchell left the school, he brought suit against MIT in an effort to recoup part of his tuition. Then, in September 2002, according to court records, Harvard slapped Mitchell with a no-trespassing warning after he buttonholed a female student at a function. Sixteen months later, in January 2004, Mitchell allegedly sent an e-mail containing his profile and a request for a date to an undergrad he’d read about in Harvard Magazine; he followed up with a second missive, but only, he’d attest, because the young woman never had the courtesy to reply to the first. That March, Mitchell allegedly cornered a female grad student at a conference at Harvard Business School. Both women reported the incidents to the university police, which sent out a security alert on the business school e-mail system, and filed a criminal trespassing charge against Mitchell in Brighton District Court. In a suit he filed against the women and the president and fellows of Harvard college, Mitchell put forth a different account of what transpired: “The so-called ‘advances’ were invitations to attend Mitchell’s cocktail parties.”
IN MARCH of last year, the trespassing charge against Mitchell was dismissed, at least in part on a fitting technicality: After Harvard sent him the no-tresspassing warning in 2002, various campus groups had continued to send him invitations to events. Two weeks following the ruling, he played host to a few hundred people at the Ritz-Carlton. It’s unlikely he brought up the saga with his guests, who were probably just as glad to be left in the dark. The sordid chapters of our private lives are after all considered inappropriate for cocktail chatter. There’s only so much we want to know about our party friends.
In a lot of arenas, if you pretend to be something you’re not—if, say, you imagine yourself to be a leveraged buyout guru while perhaps lacking the requisite expertise—you’ll inevitably get yourself in trouble. But if what you want to be is an A-list gadabout, merely adopting that persona can be enough. By starting his party series, Mitchell did more than transform himself into a playboy with a deep pool of potential dates (though that was clearly part of the motivation: “He kind of uses them to meet chicks,” says a journalist who’s attended several of Mitchell’s events). Because he gets to set the standards for admission, he gains a stature that appears to have eluded him in other pursuits—the eccentric outsider reborn as the center of attention. Mitchell has claimed that his gatherings are a form of philanthropy, that in this case, the galas are the charity. No one’s benefited from them more than he has.
“In the past 2¾ years, Mitchell has literally met in excess of 5,000 people, and almost everyone likes him,” Mitchell wrote in a 45-page brief he prepared during his suit against Harvard. He added, “No one—not Mother Teresa or even Your Honor—is liked by 100 percent of the people they meet.” Like a lot about Mitchell, that claim is impossible to pin down. But it’s not like his new friends are going to press him on it. Amid the swirl of his parties, one repeat attendee has observed, guests jockey to sit at Mitchell’s table.