26-Jul, 05:32

19:47, January 04 198 0

2017-01-04 19:47:16
Climbing the Socialite Ladder, One Gala at a Time

It’s hard out here for a primp.

On a warm Wednesday evening in November, Jean Shafiroff, a striking redhead, entered a ballroom inside the Plaza hotel. She wore a custom gown by the Harlem designer Victor de Souza: pink-and-blue striped silk taffeta, with a large bow on the bust and a train so long that it could have qualified for its own subway line. Think Jessica Rabbit as a candy striper.

The occasion was a gala for the French Heritage Society, which seeks to preserve French culture and was attended by a who’s who of counts and countesses. The setting was grand, the music was gay and the Taittinger Champagne flowed like blood from a guillotine.

“When I get dressed up and go to a gala — say the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Ballet, A.B.T. or even some of the lesser galas — it’s a chance to sort of unwind,” Mrs. Shafiroff said, referring to the American Ballet Theater. As she entered the ballroom, cameras flashed around her like fireflies in a summer meadow.

As a rising member of the city’s philanthropic class, Mrs. Shafiroff has been gaining prominence lately for her fund-raising prowess as well as her proficiency in getting media attention. But her outsize presence on the gala circuit has also attracted a certain amount of society side-eye, causing some to question whether her primary motive is philanthropy or publicity.

Mrs. Shafiroff, 62, estimates that she and her husband, Martin D. Shafiroff, a former Lehman Brothers managing director, contribute nearly $1 million every year to charities, and solicit an additional $800,000 from their wealthy peers. As a measure of her social standing, she sits on the board of seven well-connected charities, including the French Heritage Society.

Being social, of course, means being seen, so Mrs. Shafiroff attends three or four events a week in the busy fall season. And that is how, since embarking on a publicity push in late 2010, she has racked up almost 8,000 photographs on the website of the society photographer Patrick McMullan, and more than 100 mentions in Page Six, the gossip column in The New York Post.

Even in the era of a social media celebrities, those are impressive numbers.

“I see her as the new society,” said Cristina Cuomo, a social arbiter and former longtime editor of Manhattan and Beach magazines. “The more she gets herself out there, the more effective she is at what she’s doing. Her gaining notoriety goes hand in hand with her efforts to help these organizations that she supports.”

Mrs. Shafiroff exemplifies a new breed of hands-on philanthropist, one who isn’t necessarily born with the right family name, or introduced through debutante balls, or nurtured through the ranks of junior benefit committees. Instead, she is what her husband calls a working socialite, who regards the philanthropy circuit as a profession and is a master of promoting her own image alongside the charities she supports.

To maintain the flow of the ink, Mrs. Shafiroff works with four publicity agencies: Rubenstein Public Relations and firms owned by Norah Lawlor, R. Couri Hay and Todd Shapiro.

Some might regard that — or her collection of 80 elaborate evening gowns and many more cocktail dresses and lunch looks — as overkill. But Mrs. Shafiroff prefers to see it all in historical context.

“Brooke Astor had a publicist,” she said.

On a recent Sunday afternoon at her handsome four-bedroom apartment on Park Avenue, Mrs. Shafiroff wore black Christian Louboutin platform pumps, a gold Verdura crisscross cuff paired with a diamond-studded gold Buccellati ring and a Victorian-print silk dress from the current season of Coach 1941.

The apartment, in a coveted Park Avenue co-op where one unit is on the market for $17.5 million, is decorated in a European style common among older finance millionaires, with oil paintings by artists including the 16th-century Dutch master Bernard van Orley hanging over flock wallpaper.

Mr. Shafiroff, her husband of almost 35 years — a straight-talking, highly likable Brooklynite — made his fortune as a managing director of Lehman Brothers, where published reports indicate that he managed more than $100 billion in assets, and was once ranked No. 1 on Barron’s list of best wealth advisers.

He admiringly recounted his wife’s moxie in soliciting donations from other wealthy New Yorkers. “I’ve seen calls where people were screaming at her,” he said. “Screaming: ‘How dare you call? How dare you ask for a gift?’”

Mrs. Shafiroff exhaled sharply, like a small dog that had been hugged too hard, and interjected, “Well, not quite.”

“Jean gets in trouble,” her husband said.

“I don’t get into trouble,” she said, in protest.

“Yes, she gets in trouble,” he said.

While husband and wife may spin it differently, there is no question that Mrs. Shafiroff is a fearsomely effective fund-raiser. She has ramrod posture and diction to match, cultivations that emphasize a steely conversational focus on herself and her causes. But she came by her grit honestly: raised middle class in Hicksville, N.Y., the daughter of a schoolteacher and a stay-at-home mother.

In 1978, the former Jean Lutri was pursuing an M.B.A. at Columbia Business School when she met her future husband at a Midtown squash club. They married in 1982, waiting until Mrs. Shafiroff had completed her studies, and had two daughters.

She caught the philanthropy bug as a brownie-baking fund-raiser for her daughters’ schools, Dalton and Columbia Grammar and Preparatory, honing the talents that have made her an influencer on the charity circuit.

Among them is the quid-pro-quo diplomacy that comes with being honored at a gala. Honorees are ostensibly recognized for their leadership, but in practice, it often means that one has either donated money or, just as important, will attract other donors.

“You have to guarantee a certain contribution to the organization,” said Mrs. Cuomo, the society editor. “There’s also a sense of vanity. You know you’re going to be celebrated and looked at, and you have to be willing. And Jean, because she likes that level of admiration, it really works to the benefit of the organization that she’s supporting.”

As part of her charm offensive, Mrs. Shafiroff began writing six-figure checks to select charities. In 2013, she donated $100,000 to the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, a mental health and social services nonprofit, on whose board she has served for more than 20 years. That year, the organization presented her with the Madeleine Borg Lifetime Service Award at its spring gala, attended by the mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg.

Mrs. Shafiroff has received a slew of other such honors, tracking closely with her generosity. In 2014 alone, according to her website, she was honored by Surgeons of Hope, the Ellen Hermanson Foundation, the Pet Philanthropy Circle and Animal Zone International.

Also in 2014, after having served as the chairwoman for several benefits for the NYC Mission Society, a Harlem-based nonprofit that provides social services for underserved youth and families, Mrs. Shafiroff was honored at the society’s spring gala with its Dina Merrill Award for Public Service and elected to its board.

“She not only gives financially and helps us raise money, but she also rolls up her sleeves and gives her time,” said Elsie McCabe Thompson, the society’s president.

These credentials come with other perks. As a ball-gowned gatekeeper in the charity circuit, Mrs. Shafiroff helps select who is honored, and prospective candidates beat a path to her Park Avenue door.

Cherie Blair, the wife of former Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, paid a visit in September. “She asked for a large gift for her foundation, and then she asked that I recommend her to be honored by a certain charity,” Mrs. Shafiroff said, referring to the New York Women’s Foundation, which funds health and economic programs for women and families, on whose board she serves. “I said, ‘Absolutely.’ I think she’d make a great honoree.”

(Clare Twelvetrees, the chief executive of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, did not attend the meeting, but she said that it was Mrs. Shafiroff who “proposed” that Mrs. Blair be honored, and that “Mrs. Blair said she would be delighted to do so.”)

Kerry Kennedy, the former wife of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, and the president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, paid a visit in November, according to Mrs. Shafiroff, who is a financial supporter of the organization.

During that visit, there was some unplanned excitement. A dog belonging to one of the Shafiroffs’ daughters bit Ms. Kennedy’s finger, drawing blood and requiring a tetanus shot.

Rather than keeping such a potentially embarrassing episode out of the papers, as Mrs. Astor may have done, one of Mrs. Shafiroff’s publicists provided it to Page Six, which ran an item with the headline: “Socialite’s dog takes a bite out of Kerry Kennedy.”

Mrs. Shafiroff sees publicity as a tool for advancing her causes.

“Most charities want to list names,” she said. “Names bring in names. So, if you’re a good leader and you think your name can bring in funding, you lend your name and you don’t mind being a bit of an attraction.”

But for every Cinderella, there will be jealous stepsisters, and Mrs. Shafiroff’s fondness for posing in ball gowns has led some to question whether her appetite for publicity is within the bounds of good taste.

“There’s a lot of people in society who snipe about Jean,” said Emily Smith, the editor of Page Six. “They think that she could be out just to get attention.”

Ms. Smith said she sometimes balks under the sheer volume of solicitations that come from Mrs. Shafiroff’s many publicity handlers. “What is ridiculous and sometimes quite annoying is that we will get pitched by every one of them,” she said.

She added, “If we fail to mention her, her publicists will complain, and I get the impression that she probably complained heavily to them.”

Her publicists, of course, frame things differently.

“Jean is about getting the job done, and she hires specialists to build her brand and to make philanthropy recognized worldwide,” said Ms. Lawlor, who runs the Lawlor Media Group, a boutique P.R. agency.

Still, none of Mrs. Shafiroff’s multiple publicists seemed thrilled to be serving on a team of rivals. Three different firms handled her new book, “Successful Philanthropy: How to Make a Life by What You Give,” a guide for modern benefactors, leading to much bickering over who deserves credit for what.

“She only needs one press agent,” Mr. Hay said. “But for special events, if it makes her feel that she’s extending her reach by hiring other press agents, as far as I’m concerned, she can hire dozens of them.”

At the French Heritage Society gala, Mrs. Shafiroff was in her element, hosting a table of friends and dependents including Ms. McCabe, the NYC Mission Society president; Mr. de Souza, the fashion designer; Mr. Hay; and Lady Liliana Cavendish.

There were speeches, a salmon pastrami starter followed by chicken breast, and excitement when a party crasher was thrown out by security for trying to steal an armload of the event’s gift bags — a spectacle captured by Lady Liliana on her smartphone.

Mr. McMullan, the photographer, stopped to take Mrs. Shafiroff’s picture, prompting two tablemates to take out their cellphones and also start snapping images.

Mrs. Shafiroff angled her swan neck and smiled. “How embarrassing,” she murmured of the attention. “I’m a very fortunate person and I have an obligation to give back. I’m far from perfect, but I do believe it’s O.K. to be able to enjoy your life as well.”