Chronicler of Cafe Society

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It's hard to believe it but even in the New York magazine world -- a community so focused on its own navels that the mating rituals of associate editors routinely make the columns -- momentous events can sometimes fail to appear on the mediarati's radar screens.

So it was that few noticed the changing of the guard at one of the influential periodicals of the past generation -- the sale by Judy Price of Avenue magazine.

If you don't live in New York, chances are you don't know about Avenue. It's a controlled-circulation publication, an elegant glossy distributed primarily in the lobbies of doorman buildings on the Upper East Side -- long the locus of cafe society (and its successors) in the city's life.

But to think of Avenue as just another freebie is to utterly miss the effect it has had. In the quarter century of Mrs. Price's ownership, Avenue was a molder of journalistic talent with few equals. Its alumni are a who's who of literary and visual artists: New York Times food critic "Biff" Grimes; author and Vanity Fair writer Michael Shnayerson; Allure scribe Joan Kron; urban historian Christopher Gray; Worth editor Jane Berenson; PR executive Dan Klores; novelist Lisa Grunwald; Internet entertainment entrepreneur Susan Mulcahy; photographers Arnold Newman, Ralph Gibson and Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. The list goes on.

Like only a few other small publications -- Seven Days and New Jersey Monthly leap to mind -- Avenue was a finishing school for the glossy set.

Judy Price is brash, ebullient, demanding and a famously tough boss. But in attracting this coven of capability, and putting them to work chronicling the Park Avenue set, this alumna of Penn, Columbia and Time Inc. knew exactly what she was doing.

"I'll tell you why it worked," she said, leaning in over an excruciatingly tiny table at Le Bilboquet, a smoky bistro on East 63rd St. that its Eurotrash clientele call Parisian (all the while knowing it could only exist on the Upper East Side). "Randy, people want fantasy. And they also want to know, from the first grade on, how'm I doing. How am I doing in the arts? In society?"

Mrs. Price said she learned this lesson some 30 years ago as a volunteer in the art lending library at the Museum of Modern Art, where she found a tape measure. "I realized then that these people who were coming didn't want art," she told me. "They wanted something for over the couch. I realized that affluent people, people of attainment, were neurotically insecure." In giving them what she calls "a pictorial New Yorker," she was also giving them a de facto guide to keeping up with the Joneses -- the 1085 Park Joneses.

The Prices -- husband Peter is another media-world fixture, a former publisher of the New York Post and a cable TV entrepreneur -- had an advantage in their campaign to ease the obsessions of the upper crust. Like New York Magazine founder Clay Felker, who came from St. Louis, and The New Yorker's Harold Ross, a Coloradan, they were outsiders, having come from Philadelphia. They only ended up on Park Avenue in the late 1960s, after their Greenwich Village walkup was robbed too many times to remain a comfortable home.

When they moved uptown, Park Ave. was going through a generational shift; its original turn-of-the-century denizens were dying or cashing out, leading to significant real-estate turnover -- at an appealingly low price, for the Prices.

"We weren't looking at the old Park Avenue, but at the regeneration of the new Park Ave., from the inside," said Peter. When this new cohort helped reinvent Wall Street, Avenue was there to chronicle its social escapades. When they became enamored of the Hamptons, Avenue helped explain it. (My own first visit to East Hampton was on an Avenue field trip, organized by its then-editor extraordinaire, Joan Kron.)

Alas, even a career as cultural anthropologist to the chintz crowd must close. After numerous entreaties over the years (some from publishers who didn't last in the city nearly as long as she did), Mrs. Price finally succumbed to an offer from the Stagebill folks and relinquished Avenue last August.

Her leave-taking coincided with my own move to the Upper East Side. Alas, who, I wonder, will help me with my own neuroses?

Mr. Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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