In the Stephen Sondheim musical Company, perhaps the most emotional song is "Here's to the Ladies that Lunch!" -- a sad lament about the withering of Old Money New York Society. The musical came out in 1970 and the song was, perhaps, a bit premature. After all, the doyenne of NYC society, Brooke Astor, lived for another thirty-plus years, and the old money clubs still boast a strong membership. Society did not, and has not, gone away. Rich people love, and always will love, being rich. People are always saying that old guard institutions or traditions and in some cases it's true -- but rumors of Society's demise have been greatly exaggerated.
But like everything else in NYC, Society has evolved.
The term "socialite" -- thanks to the ilk of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian -- has became en epithet. Being a socialite isn't exactly what those in polite society aspire to (if making a sex tape is what you have to do to become a socialite, then most will pass). But those who come from or aspire to be part of Society want to be seen as classy but not lazy.
Basically, it is no longer fashionable to be a part of Society and do nothing.
That's who Ladies who Lunched basically were -- people who did nothing. They were married to rich men and had hours to spend during the week going to lunch at fancy restaurants and gossipping. Today, even in the conservative world of Society and old money -- where feminism has not necessarily penetrated -- women who don't work and just spend their days shopping and spending their husband's money are frowned upon. Same goes for men. The Bertie Wooster types, cads who just flinted around, getting into scrapes and living off their inheritances, are basically about as popular as leprosy in polite society.
Not being able to answer the question "What do you do?" does fly in today' Society. It's a different world.
Ah, but we still have memories! Specifically, Vanity Fair -- that catalogue of classiness -- has a big new article on the Ladies Who Used to Lunch. This is Old New York Society from the inside, first person stories of the Old Guard. It's fascinating to read and makes you a little sad -- lazy as they were, these ladies provided a classiness to a time gone by.