LA JOLLA — The Jewel Ball, just like caviar and other innocent but alluring vices, is a habit that is hard to kick.
A guest at Saturday's "Vintage," the 40th annual edition of this zesty excursion beyond the fringes of everyday life, called the Jewel Ball a "gorgeous fantasy." And she was right, but had she called it a state of mind, she would have been equally correct.
For those lucky souls who have been regular guests at this summer ritual, and especially for those who have attended since its 1947 premiere, the Jewel Ball is a state of mind. The physical details change from year to year, according to the whims, fancies and imagination of the chairman and her committee, but its place in the spiritual calendar of those who regularly attend makes it a kind of ongoing and never-ending festival of the best things in life--this is a party with blurred edges, so that within moments of arriving, guests feel as if they are at both a continuation of the previous year's ball, and a tasty prelude to the one that will follow.
For La Jolla and the myriad well-heeled visitors who crowd its beaches and byways during the summer season, the Jewel Ball is a social highlight approached with respect, planning and a good deal of preliminary merrymaking. Because of this, the Las Patronas, the philanthropic organization that gives the ball (and which since 1947 has contributed well in excess of $2 million to local charities and cultural institutions), approaches the ball with more than a moiety of the care with which a queen adjusts her crown. Given this attitude, it came as no surprise that chairman Betsy Manchester, her co-chairs Judy Lessard and Bonnie Stewart, and their committee of 47 set out to make "Vintage" a Jewel Ball to remember.
"Vintage" celebrated and honored the 40-year tradition of the ball, which began modestly enough as a summer benefit for a Chinese relief fund and has devolved into one of the 10 top-grossing fund-raisers in the country. Always given as a giddy gambit under the stars, this year's Jewel Ball stayed true to form in most details, including the essential of being held on the tennis courts of the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club. The ball always has a theme, of course, one that ranges from the familiar to the far edge of fantasy, and this year, Manchester chose a motif that was grounded somewhat in reality.
"Vintage," with a "ballroom" lined by stage sets built and painted by the Las Patronas over a 10-month period, created the illusion of a summer party given in the Hamptons or Newport. (And the Newport in question, as Manchester was quick to point out, was the Astor-Vanderbilt watering spot in Rhode Island, not the microwaveable imitation in Orange County. "I really had a vision for what I wanted this ball to look like, and it all came together; enjoy the beauty of the evening," Manchester told her guests.)
This was, then, the essence of an old-line summer party, with men in white dinner jackets and women in cool couture that may have cost a fortune but still looked like something casually tossed on. The sets that edged the open-air ballroom were painted to represent watery vistas studded with mountains, sailboats and sea gulls, a scene that could indeed have been in Newport, but which Ouisa Pillsbury, who painted many of the details, said was inspired by Cabrillo Point and La Jolla Cove. And with the beach and the lapping waters but a few steps away from the dance floor, it was easy to feel at home in this familiarly exotic setting.
One popular detail resurrected from the past, but one that had been abandoned by recent balls, was the bridge that spanned the Beach Club pool. This led daringly (in the sense that the bridge shuddered and bounced to the steps of each person who crossed it) from the ballroom to the patio, the scene of the extended cocktail hour that preceded the dinner and dancing. Here, guests wandered from buffet to buffet, indulging in the extravagant tidbits catered by the Hotel Inter-Continental (a property developed by the chairman's husband, Doug Manchester), and pausing along the way to visit with and inspect the costumes of as many of the other 900 guests as was humanly possible. (Barbara ZoBell, by habit, was a knockout in a sheer, clinging, beaded sheath, and Suzanne Figi made a coy, trans-Atlantic reference to the jet set by turning up in Princess Di's favorite polka dots.)
Most guests also made their way to a nearby gazebo, at which memento photos were taken; just next to it stood a bronze plaque dedicated at the beginning of the ball, honoring the Beach and Tennis Club for its 40 years of continuous support of Las Patronas and the Jewel Ball. Bill and Tricia Kellogg represented the club's controlling family at the dedication, and it was a special moment for Tricia, who is in the first year of her seven-year stint with Las Patronas.