It is 17 years since the last Anita Madden pre-Derby party left the Bluegrass with something besides the ponies to talk about come Derby Day.
Socialite Marylou Whitney’s party was dropped in 1994 after her husband, C.V. “Sonny” Whitney died, although she revived it for a one-off in 1999.
The question rears its head every so often: Where are the celebrities, and parties, of Derby yesteryear? Where are the megawatt celebrities of today? Taylor Swift? Beyonce? Giselle Bundchen and Tom Brady? Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump? Where is Jennifer Lawrence, who is, after all, from Louisville?
Not everyone was on board the Derby party train, however.
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In 1989, a spokesman for then-Gov. Wallace Wilkinson sniffed that the governor saw his Derby party primarily as a business showcase for Kentucky: “Governor and Mrs. Wilkinson are not interested in guests on the basis of celebrity.”
However, that was definitely a minority opinion about the great Derby party divas.
Lexington will witness a number of Derby Eve soirees Friday night that will undoubtedly bring out a who’s-who of local luminaries, including a fete at the new 21c Museum Hotel and the classic, invitation-only Poor Man’s Harlan County Derby Eve Party at B&B Morgan Tire. In the 21st century, though, the pre-Derby star power has definitely shifted west. That wasn’t always the case.
Anita Madden’s thoughts on her annual charity party were pretty straightforward. She drew celebrities including action star Chuck Norris, TV actor Mike Connors (Mannix), and Cheri Oteri and Molly Shannon (Saturday Night Live).
In 1995, Madden told a Herald-Leader reporter, “The Bluegrass Boys’ Ranch needs the money, and Lexington needs the party. I’ve thought about that so often. ... We need to keep the Derby in Lexington so that people don’t think the Derby only means ‘Louisville.’”
Madden herself was a primary attraction at the Derby party: Hair teased up to Jesus, guaranteed to be in something sparkly and fluffy and jaw-dropping, with arm candy who was usually the electrically blond TV hunk Dennis Cole.
The Madden parties existed to generate not only charitable cash, but also stories: In 2016, Bradley Picklesimer, once Lexington’s leading drag queen, recalled a friend who once woke up the morning in a field after a Madden bash, his Brooks Brothers suit grass-stained and one foot missing a shoe.
Also endearing about Madden was her excitement about the little things come Derby Day: “When I walk into Churchill Downs the day of the Derby, I head straight for the hot dog stand and get one of those hot smokies,” she told the Herald-Leader in 1990. “I can’t wait. I only allow myself one a year.”
Not that the Madden party was the only thing going the night before the Derby, back in the day.
In 1991, Marylou Whitney said before her party: “By the time I get my jewels on, it won’t make any difference what I’m wearing.”
When Whitney talked jewels, she was talking about rocks that really weighed a girl down: One Whitney necklace was made of diamonds, sapphires and an emerald of more than 200 carats. Guests at the Whitney party ate off solid gold plates and drank from solid gold goblets. (Fun fact: Whitney once lost a 40-carat emerald at a “Wizard of Oz” party in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. The gem was found and returned to her.)
Whitney’s party guests included Al Hirt on trumpet, and Jimmy Dean and Kenny Rogers singing. Princess Margaret and her then-husband, Antony Armstrong-Jones, came to one party, and Whitney said that a female guest sat down on Armstrong-Jones’ lap and tried to talking him into going over to the Madden party with her. Whitney put a quick stop to that.
Whitney guests got true service. Once, Walter Cronkite turned up without spare underwear; the distinguished CBS newsman was quickly provided with some brand new underdrawers. And that’s the way it was.
In their heyday, the party styles of the two Bluegrass hostesses with the mostest were easy to distinguish: “Ours is a private party,” Whitney said, “and Anita Madden’s is a charity party.”
Madden’s last party was in 1998. There’s a picture of her from that year with Dennis Cole, who looked like a living Ken doll. The hostess was decked out in yellow marabou, her blonde hair falling in beachy waves years before beachy waves became a thing. It is oddly perfect.
Whitney was least fond of having her party lumped in with the Madden party the year that streakers attended the Madden party.
For you children who cannot remember, “streaking” was a ’70s and ’80s phenomenon in which naked people ran through public places for fun. Whitney said the Madden party streakers got confused in the press with the more staid Whitney party, and before long she had to fly off to Switzerland to calm her nerves at her children’s boarding school.
Those are the kinds of problems Kentucky’s well-bred just don’t have any more.
If you go
Lexington Derby Eve parties
Down the Rabbit Hole
What: Derby Eve party presented by 21c and the Original Makers Club, with hors d’oeuvres by Lockbox and cocktails by Woodford Reserve and Korbel
When: 8 p.m. May 6
Where: 21c Museum Hotel, 167 W. Main St.
Derby Eve Lexington
What: Sportscaster Jeff Piecoro hosts a bash with music by The Spazmatics, a DJ and plenty of food and drink
When: 8 p.m. May 6
Where: James E. Pepper Distillery Rickhouse Building, 1170 Manchester St.
Tickets: $100 general admission, $350 VIP, $2,500 VIP table for eight