06/18/2012 04:49 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2012

In the Garden Again: Doing Good and Doing Well

Last week the annual Conservatory Ball at The New York Botanical Garden, a major fundraising dinner dance, was about to begin after a year of careful planning, when a perfectly lovely spring afternoon suddenly turned dark and stormy, and the rain came pounding in from the west. Dozens of florists and waiters and musicians were all in place in the huge white tent magnificently decorated by Chanel, the evening's sponsor, and the brilliant party designer Bronson Van Wyck. The tent was ready for dinner but outside the sumptuous perennial garden was to be the setting for the cocktails, and in seconds all hopes for a perfect evening for the crème de la crème of New York society were dashed.

But only for a moment! Ten minutes later the evening sun reappeared, the lush and verdant garden had been freshly washed, the historic glass dome of the Victorian Conservatory glistened against a pale blue sky, and best of all a double rainbow appeared arching over the whole scene. There will be two pots of gold! New York society is not to be put off!

Soon, hundreds of partygoers -- old establishment and nouveau -- arrived in elegant cars, designer ball gowns, and their best jewels. The Bob Hardwick Band, knowing just the right tone to strike, swung into action. Cocktails were poured. Tours were taken of "Monet's Garden," a gorgeous flower show in the Conservatory, and fully packed golf carts swept out for viewings of the Rockefeller Rose Garden. Banter was exchanged. Ladies gushed over each other's gowns.

And then the dinner tent was opened and the sophisticated assembly was awed by the splendor of the appointments. Boxwood and peonies and roses and laurel garlands were everywhere reflected in mirrored walls and tabletops. Waiters poured fine wine. Caviar was served. The dancing began.

It was a charity ball in New York City, and it was racing at full tilt. These splendid entertainments are staged nowadays in many cities, but rarely are they so beautiful, so carefully designed and planned. And probably nowhere else (except perhaps in Texas) do they raise so much money. This one generated nearly two million dollars, and since Chanel had underwritten many of the expenses and much of the luxury, that meant most of the take went to fund the organization's extensive programs in science education for New York City children and plant research and conservation. Rarely have so many dressed and eaten so beautifully for such serious purposes.

These events have been held in New York City since the late 1800s. Today they are in a sense an extension of Gilded Age thinking about civic and cultural philanthropy. In years past some organizations have tried the "No Party Party." Their constituents were tired of fundraising dinners they said, "So why don't we offer tickets and tables from $1,000 to $50,000, publish a list of who gave, and let everyone spend the evening at home watching TV?" It never works, unfortunately, as the excitement and competitive sport of giving are lost when you are home alone. The party is the thing.

Like the cultural institutions they often benefit, these elaborate evenings provide a highly useful platform for the democratic exchange of ideas and points of view. Mayors and their chiefs of staff mingle with financiers and socialites and fashionistas and scientists and art historians and publishers and restaurateurs and artists and lawyers. There is no better place for these various members of the community to meet. They have fun "working the room," exchanging business cards, meeting each other's spouses. Actually, there is probably no other place for such a successful blending of backgrounds and businesses and social classes because these dinners provide a place for all of these disparate types to talk. To gossip. To work things out. To drink a little wine and perhaps, if the party is a good one, to reveal themselves. How many business deals, how many love affairs, have sprouted from this fertile ground?

In American cities, major cultural institutions, once bastions of the upper class, are now meeting places. The best of their governing boards are meritocracies. And by the same token these glamorous parties, unlike those given in the 19th century by the original Mrs. Astor for her legendary "Four Hundred," are now open to anyone who can purchase a ticket and doesn't want to spend the evening at home alone watching TV. They are very useful. Very charming. Very American.