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He's rich in tales of high society

October 21, 2002|. GERALDINE BAUM

"OH Muffie, darling, you look so festive tonight!" David Patrick Columbia says, bussing one Muffie Potter Aston, a socialite in a white satin bustier. They greet one another inside the lobby of the City Center, where the American Ballet Theatre is debuting its fall season. Muffie is married to Dr. Sherrell Aston, the plastic surgeon responsible for some of New York's best architecture, and tonight the Astons are co-chairs of the ballet's fund-raising gala -- an A-list event in the city's social season.

In the aviary of high society, David Patrick Columbia is more than a bird-watcher. He is an ornithologist. He calls himself a social diarist, recounting the parties and foibles of aristocrats, pacesetters and other rich, overachieving New Yorkers. In a chalk-striped blue suit, he observes the swirl before returning to a monastic one-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side. There, four nights a week, he writes a report for his Web site, He gets 75,000 hits a week but pays the rent editing Quest, a monthly magazine chock-full of high-priced real estate ads delivered free to the co-ops of high society.

If Columbia does not write everything he knows, he certainly knows a lot about everybody he writes up. He can tell you about the Astons, their previous marriages, her former job in PR, and Dr. Aston's former client, the late doyenne Pamela Harriman, who owed her late-in-life beauty to him. But unlike Dominick Dunne, who goes to dinner and is pulled aside by the butler, Columbia isn't getting the dish from the help. Still, he knows about a couple's prenup, the woman's social lineage, the man's affairs. He can explain why so-and-so -- and really, who can tell these people apart?-- is so tan, and why a descendant of the president of Standard Oil of California named Topper would marry a Southern belle named Tinsley. (She is 27, pretty, and an heiress who aspires to co-chair. He is 26, pretty, and a banker who is bored by ballet.) Columbia does live off the world he chronicles, but he does not share its values. Nor does he kid himself he is one of them. He is tall, silver-haired, a chauffeur's son who dropped out of college to be a playwright. That didn't work, so he moved to L.A., where he wrote an authorized autobiography for Debbie Reynolds and worked sporadically on TV courtroom shows. After 14 difficult years, and broke again, he drove east with three dogs.

"Boohoo-ing all the way across the country , I asked myself what would make me happy," he recalls. "I realized I wanted to write a social column in New York."

At 61, he is diligent. He owns two tuxedos and goes out almost every night of the week, covering Blaine Trump's 50th birthday party, Topper and Tinsley's Virginia wedding, and all those zoo and hospital balls. He prints flattering photographs of the usual suspects and sometimes resells them. He talks intelligently at lunch about world events. His columns are descriptive. Occasionally, he has bite.

And all the birds, in their feathers and plumes, flutter around him in the hope he can somehow upgrade a few nobodies into the ranks of the somebodies. "I'm always telling people if you want publicity, give me a call," Columbia says. "This is a community and my position is nebulous. But the one thing I can do is give publicity. To me it's just words to paper. To them, this is life." Liz Smith told him long ago "you don't get access with vinegar," he says.

And Columbia gets as good as he gives. He sits fourth row center seat at the ballet. In the fifth row, behind him, are Sam and Judy Peabody, genuine aristocrats who have raised millions to fight AIDS. Before the theater darkens for the ballet, Columbia surveys the scene and concludes: "This is not quite the fancy evening it used to be." For the last few years, Muffie Potter Aston has seen to it that the invitation says "festive," instead of "formal." It is just too much to ask of the men, often reluctant about ballet, to go home and put on a tuxedo night after night. So Muffie let them off the hook, but the women dress to kill.

Of course, change is always good in a world where whatever society is at the moment is not what it is about to become, according to Charlotte Curtis, a social diarist of an earlier era whose 1976 book was called "The Rich and Other Atrocities."

The only sure thing is that in-people, their prominence inflated by their money and how they spend it, will go on, and that ballet galas will be around to distract from an economy in the tank, CEOs falling like autumn leaves and impending war.

Flocking to the head table

After two hours of watching beautiful young bodies leaping and twirling on stage, the gala crowd walks around the block to the University Club at Fifth Avenue and 54th Street, where they are joined by the dancers for dinner.

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