At her legendary Derby Eve parties, Anita Madden would make a grand entrance, many years on the arm of actor Dennis Cole, her blonde hair in cascading curls, wearing a revealing costume adorned with sequins and jewels.
Anita and Preston Madden’s parties the night before Derby were where elegance and decadence met in a cluster of white tents on their farm, Hamburg Place.
No matter the extraordinary decorations, or the corporate CEOs, the Thoroughbred industry people, the senators, governors and celebrities in attendance, Anita Madden was the star of the show.
Her jaw-dropping dresses came to be as much of the fun as the rest of the party.
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“She knew she had to wear something lavish,” said Vicki Shannon, Madden’s personal assistant for 20 years.
And Madden didn’t disappoint.
Dresses were cut low, studded with jewels and sequins, with lots of feathers and eye-catching cutouts around the midriff.
With Derby season approaching, a collection of more than a dozen of Madden’s party dresses will be in the gallery of ArtsPlace on North Mill Street, in an exhibit called “Our Divine Ms. M.” The exhibit will include photographs of the Madden party by Lexington artist and photographer Louis Bickett. It opens April 7 and will run through Derby Day, May 6.
A fundraiser is scheduled for April 13 at ArtsPlace to benefit Bluegrass Boys Ranch and LexArts. For this event, the gymnasium at ArtsPlace is decorated in a style “reminiscent of the Madden party,” said Maury Sparrow, LexArts communication director.
“People have wanted to do this for so many years, I’m happy it’s happening,” said friend Julia Kirkpatrick. Her late husband, Arnold Kirkpatrick, editor of the Thoroughbred Record, was a friend of Preston Madden’s since childhood.
Anita Madden has had a stroke and wasn’t up to being interviewed. But according to Preston Madden, she said of the Derby parties, “I wish I could do it all over again.”
Clothes for the exhibit were selected by friends and Shannon.
One outfit in the retrospective is a floor-length purple feather cape studded with sparkly jewels that Madden wore to a Derby Eve party with the theme “Along the Inca Trail.” Madden teamed a blue satin strapless dress with a stunning blue-feathered headdress for “Land of the Midnight Sun.”
“The red dress with the red jeweled bralett was the Kato Kaelin party,” Shannon said. “Derby Eve Showtime” was the theme of that 1996 party. Kaelin gained notoriety as a minor witness for the prosecution in the 1995 O. J. Simpson murder trial.
Several of Madden’s outfits came from Suzy Creamcheese, “whose birth name was Leslie DeKeyser, but she was called Suzy Creamcheese because that was the name of her boutique at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas,” said Shannon. “She had very fun, original outfits. Mrs. Madden met her in Las Vegas. They became friends. Suzy got to know Mrs. Madden’s taste and style in clothing.”
It was always suspenseful when Suzy Creamcheese provided the party dress, Shannon said. “Because sometimes on Thursday before the party, Mrs. Madden had no idea what she was going to wear. She had to wait until Suzy got to the farm.
“Suzy would arrive on the airplane with three steamer trunks of clothes. She brought clothes for the whole weekend for Mrs. Madden.”
Derby was a whirlwind event that stretched over several days. One of Madden’s friends would have a party Thursday night for out-of-town guests. “She didn’t want her friends sitting in their hotel room,” Shannon said.
Friday was a luncheon at Burdette Campbell’s house, and that night was the party. On Saturday morning, guests went to the Kentucky Derby.
“Sunday was another party at the house for whoever was left. Monday was girls’ night out,” Shannon said, adding with a laugh, “We hoped everybody was on the plane headed for home by then.”
A small beginning
The extravagant Derby Eve affair started in 1955 as an intimate dinner party for 10 in the Maddens’ dining room, mainly for their horse farm clients. Madden moved the festivities briefly to the Idle Hour Country Club, then back to Hamburg Place, where a tent was attached to the Polo Club building in the 1970s.
Hamburg Place is the storied horse farm on Winchester Road that was started by Preston Madden’s grandfather in 1898. The farm produced six Derby winners and five members of the racing Hall of Fame, including America’s first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton, in 1919.
One of those Derby winners was Alysheba, bred by Preston Madden at Hamburg Place, and who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 1987.
Today, Hamburg is better known to most people as Hamburg Pavilion, the huge shopping center and residential area in southeast Lexington where Interstate 75 and Man o’ War Boulevard meet.
But years ago, “Clients would come and see their horses. Mr. Madden would have their horses brought up to the office and paraded around for the clients to see the mares and their new babies,” Shannon said.
From a small gathering, the party, called Revelry of Racing, grew in size and popularity.
On Derby Day, Madden guests boarded two chartered buses and headed for Churchill Downs, where they had box seats to watch the Kentucky Derby. That enticed new people into the business.
“Derby Weekend is definitely a business time,” Anita Madden once told a reporter.
In 1979, the party became a charity event when Robert Stephens, chief justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court, asked Anita Madden to stage it for the Kentucky Heart Fund. It also benefited Bluegrass Boys Ranch.
Celebrity guests included actor Don Johnson, singer Connie Stevens, and Telly Savalas, a movie actor and the star of the hit television show “Kojak.”
As Revelry of Racing grew in renown and in numbers, it gained media coverage in People magazine and international publications. More than 2,500 people attended the last few parties. The last party was in 1998.
“Anita was the right person to create this kind of event,” Kirkpatrick said. “She’s funny, optimistic and really smart. She has that spark of fun about her. The party was a reflection of her and her personality.”
Best party in Lexington
The Maddens’ famous Derby Eve parties haven’t been matched in terms of fun and frolic, friends say.
The party always had a theme that was reflected on the invitation. Decorations that carried out the theme were elaborate.
A 68-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower, complete with a red light on top, was built outside the tent one year. Another year, the theme was “A Night on the Nile,” with tethered camels and two sphinxes.
Preston suggested the theme “A Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” the title of an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. The inspiration behind that theme: Madden’s father and Fitzgerald were classmates at Princeton. For that party, Harry Winston, the American luxury jeweler, sent Mike Healy, one of the company’s top executives, to the party with a display case of exquisite jewels, Shannon said.
Planning for the next year’s party started soon after the last one ended, Kirkpatrick said. “It took an army of volunteers. We hand-addressed thousands of envelopes. We helped with the decorations. It was a lot of work.”
Because guests were friends, or friends of friends, Madden knew everyone, and she personally drew up the seating chart for tables of 10. “She put people together who knew each other or who would enjoy each other’s company,” Kirkpatrick said. “It was this attention to detail that made the party so fun. Anita wanted everybody to have a good time.”
The atmosphere in the tent was sensual.
As guests walked in, they were met by dozens of University of Kentucky sorority girls in very short skirts serving trays of cocktails. Male hunks wearing loincloths hung out in the women’s restrooms. One year, two streakers ran through the crowd. Another year, topless mermaids cavorted in the swimming pool.
Guests dined and danced until the wee hours. For several years, the Lester Lanin Orchestra played early in the evening. As the night wore on, Dash Riprock and the Dragons took the stage. Dash Riprock is Anita’s brother Mark Stuart.
Party dresses galore
Madden sent her party clothes to Chrisman Cleaners on National Avenue to be cleaned and stored in plastic bags. (Chrisman is no longer in business). Back at the farm, the dresses were hung on racks in the attic. Matching shoes were stored in boxes.
“It’s a big attic, and there’s a lot up there. We hardly made a dent,” said Judy Kincaid, a friend who went through the attic with Shannon and Nancy Sebring, longtime administrative assistant to Patrick Madden, the Maddens’ son.
The women looked for dresses with feathers, jewels, ostrich plumes and sequins, Kincaid said. Her favorite Madden outfit has yellow satin hot pants, a jeweled top and a long satin coat.
“That outfit says it all. It is so her personality. It says she’s beautiful. She knows how to party,” Kincaid said.
“Any clothing that is gold, sequined, lamé, lycra or spandex is vintage Mrs. Madden,” Shannon said. “She had a great figure, great legs and a great face. She was perfect.”
After leaving Madden’s employ, Shannon went to Washington D.C. to work. Now she is director of the West Virginia Governor’s Mansion and executive assistant to First Lady Cathy Leigh Justice.
Kirkpatrick, who with her brother owns and operates her family’s business, Old Kentucky Chocolates on Southland Drive, said that when she talked with Madden several months ago about putting the dresses on display, “She was all in favor of it.
“I’m so happy this is happening.”
Beverly Fortune: email@example.com.
If you go
“Our Divine Ms. M”
What: Exhibit of Anita Madden party dresses
Where: ArtsPlace gallery, 161 N. Mill St.
When: April 7-May 6
Gallery: 10-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri., noon-5 p.m. Saturdays