Room at the Top

By staff December 1, 2005

It happens all the time. You've just moved to Sarasota. You've bought one of those $2 million condos downtown, the kind on the second floor with no view. Let's say you're a couple in your 50s, early retirees or still running some business up North. You love Sarasota. It's beautiful and there's so much going on. There's only one problem. It's not going on with you. Back in Cleveland or Houston or Hartford that was you in the paper at all those glamorous parties, but here you're a nobody.

What are you going to do about it?

The answer is easy: Social climb. Yes, I know it's considered a little taboo, a trifle crass and undignified. But people have been doing it for thousands of years. It's a basic human drive: to rise in the pecking order. The primary activity of practically all primitive societies is not hunting or herding or human sacrifice, but the accumulation of status. Chiefs try to outdo each other with the number of canoes and wives they have-just like the guys at the Bird Key Yacht Club.

Well, you can relax. Sarasota is going to be a good town for you. It welcomes newcomers who want to play the game, and the cost is surprisingly affordable. Five thousand dollars will get your foot in the door, and a well-spent $25,000 can do wonders. You were going to spend that much on kitchen-counter upgrades; scale back a little and put it into your social life.

And you know the best part? Your time and effort and money will actually benefit poor people. And art. And medicine.

It's an amazing system.


Do research. Sarasota is blessed with all sorts of media outlets that cover its parties, and you should study each one. Marjorie North's column in the Herald-Tribune should be read religiously. Marjorie is an institution. Many towns have a society columnist, but I would venture to say that none anywhere wields the power that Marjorie has at her disposal. Your first goal as a social climber is simple: a mention in Marjorie's column.

Nipping at Marjorie's heels is Emily Walsh. She's young and beautiful and her father owns the paper she works for (The Longboat Observer), but even so, her coverage is particularly knowing. She grew up with these people, and her cast of characters is more purely social. She doesn't bother with all those suits at the various banks, the way Marjorie does, and very graciously, I must say. And don't miss Joan Griffith in Attitudes magazine, either.

Next, study the Limelight pictures in this very magazine. Rebecca Baxter has been taking them for more than 10 years. She knows these people better than you ever will, so don't get on her bad side. What should you look for? A general sense of style in Sarasota: what to wear, how to do your hair, how far to go with your plastic surgery, etc. Put the names and faces together with the various charities. You'll start to see certain people over and over again. A pattern will develop.

Get a copy of our annual Charity Register. In addition to all sorts of not-so-subtle articles about who's who, you get a list of all the nonprofits in the area, along with their major fund raisers. Needless to say, they vary wildly in social importance, but it's not hard to figure out the heavy hitters-the Florida West Coast Symphony, Sarasota Opera, the Asolo, New College, the Ringling Museum and Sarasota Ballet. Right beneath these come a whole slew of groups that are almost as prestigious, attract a fair number of the hottest names in town, and will position you as a savvy, committed Sarasotan who likes to party. Here we find Selby Gardens, Florida Studio Theatre, Mote Marine, UCP, Planned Parenthood, Animal Rescue Coalition, Community AIDS Network, the YMCA, etc., etc., etc.

Get the look. How? In a word, St. John. Sarasota doesn't take to unusual looks. No flowing hair, no unusual jewelry-unless it's designed by Nikki Feldbaum. There are exceptions: A trophy wife is expected to look like one, and attire at the black-tie galas can get very competitive in the area of properly displaying one's breast augmentations.

Naturally you'll want to take advantage of the services of all the plastic surgeons, cosmetic dentists, vein removers, etc., whose advertisements you will find sprinkled liberally through this magazine. Otherwise you'll stick out like a sore thumb.

So you've got the look and a plan is forming in your mind. How do you know when you're ready to venture forth and do battle? Easy. Wait until you can recognize Margaret Wise at 50 paces.


What to do first, you ask? Join the Junior League.

Most people see the Junior League as a group of well-bred young women doing genteel good deeds. And, yes, it certainly is that. But it also serves as a sorority of social prominence, a sort of pipeline that pops out the social leaders of tomorrow. It's like Skull and Bones at Yale.

In Sarasota the League is said to be "very welcoming," which of course means "easy to get into." And you don't even have to be junior. It is now "age silent," and the meetings are held at night to accommodate all the members who work. At the League you'll meet a lot of women like you, only farther along in the process. Latch onto these, volunteer for committees of any kind, and voilĂ , you're on your way. Don't feel that you're above sitting around addressing invitations. That's a bonding experience with your other Leaguers, plus you'll find out the addresses of every important person in town.

But if you just can't see yourself as a Junior Leaguer, there are ways around it. You can try community activism and passion for your cause (which can be tricky and exhausting), or you can try money (which is much easier and always works). Don't just buy a table or two for the gala; make a donation to the group itself. Ten thousand speaks volumes. Tip: Make sure they know it's for general operating expenses. This means it will most likely go to pay the executive director's salary, not fund some silly scholarship program. Boy, will you have a friend for life.


This is the hard part. As we have demonstrated, any kind soul with no visible tattoos and some spending cash can get his or her foot in the door. But how do you stay on top, year after year after, as so many of these people do? How do you become a real power in Sarasota society?

Number One: Don't get a swelled head. The archetypal Sarasota story is the flashy newcomer who blows into town, wows everybody, then crashes and burns, usually because of some scandal in his or her past. You must never do anything that would stimulate interest over at the Herald-Tribune in running a background check. They'll blow your arrest back in Iowa all out of proportion.

Number Two: Don't talk politics. What this really means is that no one must ever find out you're a Democrat. In Sarasota being a Democrat is like being gay-people make the most insulting remarks about you and your kind right to your face and don't even realize they're doing it. It takes a lot of gritting your teeth. Sometimes you even see two Democrats huddled in a corner, crying on each other's shoulders. (Get to know Helene Noble. She's very good at this.)

Number Three: You have to keep spending more and more and more. Really socially prominent people don't buy one table to an event-they buy three. The donations have to get bigger and bigger. You've got to co-produce this and co-sponsor that. You can never rest on your laurels. The town is swimming with sharks, ambitious new people just like you were five years ago, who are all waiting for you to back the wrong charity or make another mistake.

But if you're lucky, there will come a defining moment. That day when you open the Herald-Tribune and-eschewing Iraq and current events-you turn first to Marjorie's column, just as you always do, and THERE YOU ARE! And the lead item, yet. With a picture. For that day, anyway, you have made it. Kick back and open some champagne.

It's been a long, hard climb. You should be proud of yourself. There's only one peak left to scale: a tribute dinner in your honor, preferably sponsored by a religion other than your own. These are the hardest things in town to get. But just think-you started off a social climber, and you ended up a humanitarian.

Or at least that's the way we like to think about it here in Sarasota.


This is a personal list, but when I ran it by people in the know, there was surprising agreement. Here are the five parties you must attend to really get a handle on Sarasota social life.

  1. The UnGala Gala. Sarasota's most famous party, staged in the Ringling Museum courtyard, and for young people yet. Always spectacular, but with 1,200 attendees it has its share of amateurs.
  2. Opera Opening Night. How could the opera opening not be big in a town like Sarasota? It has Tradition. Proof that your social life can extend well into your 90s.
  3. The Orchid Ball. Everybody loves Selby Gardens' Orchid Ball. It's the perfect tropical setting, and those plant lovers are often nice people who can help you out socially.
  4. The Mistletoe Ball. The oldest, most prestigious party around benefits the New College Foundation. The quality goes up and down, but the pedigree is impeccable.
  5. The Sarasota Film Festival Tribute Dinner. This event has less social cachet than the others and sometimes resembles a train wreck, but don't miss it for its pure theater and demonic glamour.

The Right Address

Tell your Michael Saunders agent (using a prestigious realtor is crucial in your climb to the top) that you only want to see places in:

  • Harbor Acres. The best address in town. Always has been, always will be. Old money, new money, plus the more successful thoracic surgeons.
  • Longboat Key. At its high end, it's an excellent choice for a newcomer. But it's relatively large and has its share of ordinary multimillionaires. Be careful.
  • The Oaks. The town's most prestigious gated community. A mix of old and new money, and it's gorgeous. Can't go wrong with The Oaks-plus Marjorie North lives here.
  • Cherokee Park and Oyster Bay. Old Sarasota. Discreet, tucked away, a little shabby around the edges. But those who know, know.

That's about it. I'm not saying there aren't other wonderful places to live in Sarasota. Who would turn down a waterfront mansion on Siesta or a million-dollar renovated cottage in Southside Village? But you're here to social climb, not enjoy yourself. Stick with the tried and true.

Getting Exposure

We asked our social photographer, Rebecca Baxter, for some advice on how to get into our Limelight pages. Her suggestions:

  1. Wear red. Or another color that jumps off the page. Anything but black.
  2. Cleavage is crucial. It's the reason men look at the pictures.
  3. Stand next to an interesting-looking man. They're hard to find. Whatever you do, don't stand with a bunch of other women. And if you're a man, throw on a silk scarf. Anything to make yourself look interesting.
  4. Take off the nametag but hold on to the drink.
  5. If all else fails, slip Rebecca a little something. As she puts it, "I hope that's a 20 and not your business card."

Short Cuts

In a hurry? Here are some ways to jump-start your social career.

  • Study nursing. Yes, girls-rich men still marry their nurses, their wives' nurses, even their secretaries. Many of the most prominent women in town started out this way.
  • Take a cruise. Sail on one of those cruises sponsored by the Asolo or the Opera and you'll find yourself getting plenty of face time with the most important people in town.
  • Get in bed with Katherine Harris-in a political sense, of course. Her supporters are A-list Sarasota. Just make sure you have a firm grasp of the campaign-finance laws. Some people tried this and ended up in jail.
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