It was the party of the year on the night of the year, and if you could sell your mother for a chance to get in, you just might have done it.
Literary agent Irving (Swifty) Lazar's Oscar night bash was the triple-A-list party, an E-ticket ride to the biggest celeb-fest ever. Although the Governor's Ball is the official post-Academy Awards soiree, it wasn't unusual for a presenter, nominee or winner to ditch it altogether and limo to Lazar's.
To be invited meant that you were a friend, or that you'd finally arrived. If you weren't asked, you had the options of leaving town or suffering the indignity of begging for an invitation. Or, you could do as one crasher did and try to wedge your fanny through a second-story window.
The deaths of the legendary powerhouse last December and of his wife, Mary, 11 months earlier, put an end to a tradition that spanned three decades, beginning as an intimate dinner for friends at the Bistro in Beverly Hills and evolving into a media frenzy at Spago.
Those close to Lazar--the ones who called him Irving, as he preferred--can't quite believe that their friend is gone, that tonight Spago will be dark, that there will be no glamorous celebration capped with pizza and champagne.
Michael Caine and wife Shakira are deliberately out of town: "We don't feel like celebrating anything," Caine said from England.
Angie Dickinson will be watching the show at a friend's house. Some, including Barbara and Marvin Davis, will attend other parties.
But no one will forget the diminutive, bald man in oversized black-rimmed glasses who would admonish guests to sit down, eat dinner and watch the show on the various monitors around the room. Lazar didn't suffer table hoppers gladly. If you were seated for dinner, you sat .
And no one will forget Mary, described by one friend as looking like a cameo, as much responsible for the success of the party as her husband.
The evening unfolded in stages, the first before sundown when guests would assemble for dinner. A second wave of guests came later from the awards show Downtown. Here the party found its second wind, re-energized by fresh blood and new faces, some gripping heavy gold statuettes and stargazing themselves.
So many movie stars, directors, producers, studio chiefs, writers and media types were crammed into one place that even the most jaded Hollywood-ites were impressed with the view.
Barbara Lazaroff, restaurant designer and wife of Spago's Wolfgang Puck, recalls this scenario: "We'd do all the prep work; Wolf would be cooking all day. Then Mary would show up with the boards for the seating. Then Irving would come in, look at the boards that she'd been preparing for weeks and move people around. Then he'd leave and she'd move them all back. Then she'd leave. It was the same scene every year, but we loved it.
"Something funny would always happen at the party," she says. "The year Madonna and Michael Jackson came together, they almost seemed like an old married couple. . . . And you could always measure popularity by how loudly people standing outside screamed. When Oprah Winfrey came walking down, you'd think the Messiah had arrived."
Actress Jacqueline Bissett calls Lazar's annual fete "an evening of excitement and a bit of fear."
She recalls "one ironic situation."
"I was at a table with a lot of bigwigs, and I remember Meryl Streep was up for 'Ironweed,' but a lot of people at my table hadn't seen it. I thought in this performance she was just brilliant. And suddenly I got the sense of the split between the work and the social tornado--that people in this town who are in the social tornado don't know the work. It was very odd. . . . There was a definite imbalance."
It was Lazar's ability to draw in all kinds of fascinating people that Dickinson admires.
"One year I remember I was seated across from Paloma Picasso, and that was thrilling. Another year I was seated near (Rolling Stone Publisher) Jann Wenner. It was also the kind of party where if you hadn't met someone, you could. I had never met Kathleen Turner, and I felt very comfortable going to up to her and introducing myself."
When Lazar moved his base of operations to Spago in 1985, the hype grew exponentially. The party extended beyond Spago's front door and could be diagrammed in concentric circles: On the outermost arc were fans behind barricades near the restaurant. A gaggle of paparazzi staked out the sidewalk. Security types scattered around the restaurant watched crashers and ushered in the biggest stars through the back entrance.
A few select reporters, photographers and camera crews were stationed on the front porch to catch sound bites. A handful of lucky media types were allowed inside, some told not to roam beyond the bar during dinner.
Seating was tricky--few relished being stuck in the back room, although mega-celebs sometimes were stuck there anyway. The front room was considered ground zero, the primo spot for watching and being watched.