Bi-Curious: Duff’s Pow-Wows Take Pols Past Party Ties
THURSDAY, AUGUST 10, 2017
Bernard-Henri Lévy—the celebrated French intellectual, author and filmmaker—has a uniform.
It’s a dark suit and white shirt from the venerable Place Vendôme tailor Charvet, said to be the oldest shirt store in the world. Levy wears his chemise unbuttoned almost to the belt, a style that seems to symbolically offer the world access to his heart…and maybe other organs, on an à la carte basis.
This was how he came to an East Side cinema in early June, for an intimate screening of his new documentary about Iraq’s Peshmerga militia, The Battle of Mosul.
Lévy is a hugger. But even in heels, the editor Tina Brown—an old friend of the philosopher—barely comes up to his chin. So when she came in for an embrace, her face landed on Lévy’s pale, bare breast like an Apollo module setting down on the lunar surface.
It’s the sort of unscripted moment between remarkable people that is common at events hosted by the Common Good, an organization dedicated to nonpartisan political dialogue. TCG events are held in small rooms full of exactly the right people. Those people are chosen by Patricia Duff, whose uncommon touch created the Common Good.
In recent years, her organization has gained a reputation for connecting global leaders with well-heeled influencers at small private events like this one, held throughout the year. It’s where the Peshmerga meets the pashmina set to exchange ideas…and maybe just a little gossip.
For example: Accompanying Lévy to the screening—but staying out of the pictures—was his frequent companion, the Anglo-Irish heiress, muse and designer Daphne Guinness. With a talent at scheduling that rivals her genius for fashion, Guinness manages never to attend the same events with Lévy as his wife, the actress and singer Arielle Dombasle.
And there was Tom Freston, the 71-year-old MTV cofounder and former Viacom CEO, busy texting emojis to someone before the lights went down, possibly his girlfriend, Carey Lowell, recently divorced from Richard Gere.
Watching them all from the side of the auditorium, with the subdued authority of a chatelaine, was the brains of the operation. At 63, Duff—who is universally known by her last name—is in her prime.
She, too, is happily partnered—with Richard Cohen, the Washington Post columnist, who has been her companion for four years. In whatever downtime running TCG allows, she paints, skis and travels. Her bedside table is piled high with books that represent her current interest in post–World War II history, a dozen titles by the likes of Dean Acheson, Walter Isaacson, Evan Thomas, Sebastian Junger, and former secretary of defense Robert Gates. She calls him Bob.
Duff makes it all look easy, but it hasn’t been. It has taken her a lifetime of political engagement—and some bruising years as a football of the gossip press—to emerge as an organizer trusted by thought-leaders from across the ideological spectrum.
Two high-profile divorces in the 1990s—from Mike Medavoy, a powerful Los Angeles producer and studio chief, and Ron Perelman, the New York–based Revlon billionaire who is father to her daughter, Caleigh—brought unkind and unwanted scrutiny. That experience undoubtedly informed her low-key approach to TCG, and explains why this influential nonprofit has remained largely off the public radar, and indicated why its leader hugged the wall at Lévy’s screening.
“The idea of tweeting and everything…” she says, her voice trailing off as she conjures the demands made on modern public figures. “I just don’t want that much attention on my life.”
Not so shy, however, are Duff’s high-profile guests, who are quick to praise her work. Lévy told AVENUE that independent organizations like TCG were becoming more important as Western governments ceded leadership on world events. “Look at what is happening today with the stepping out of the Paris agreement,” he said, referring to President Trump’s decision to take the United States out of the world climate accord. “Associations and NGOs [must] decide to take the lead and to take the torch. This is how politics work today.” He added: “It’s important for all of us to have individuals like Mrs. Duff to take initiatives. That’s good, and that is so American.”
As The Battle for Mosul opened, Lévy’s narration described the desperate push to liberate ISIS-held land in northern Iraq. Finally, amid the dust, sniper fire, and scrambling Peshmerga in flak jackets, Lévy himself emerged from an armored transport.
He was in the same Charvet suit and shirt that he wore to the screening.
For a woman who doesn’t like to court attention, Patricia Duff nonetheless has a Lévy-like knack for turning heads. She does just that on another recent evening, striding into 8½, the old-school society brasserie on the stretch of West 57th Street that has been dubbed “Billionaires’ Row.”
“I’ve always liked this place,” she says, sliding into a banquet, keeping a lightweight black coat between her teal summer dress—both by Giorgio Armani—and the air-conditioned cool. She doesn’t betray any awareness that she’s being noticed.
Duff does allow herself some satisfaction at the growing success of TCG, whose events over the last three years have attracted everyone from liberal lions like Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Secretary of State John Kerry and President Bill Clinton, to close Trump advisors Kellyanne Conway and Anthony Scaramucci.
“I don’t think there are very many places at all where you can go, where the idea is not to be partisan,” Duff says over an appetizer of grilled asparagus. “Where the idea is to get information, and not spoon-feeding a particular point-of-view.”
At a moment defined by partisan heat, Duff, who’s spent more time than most in the frying pan and the fire, has evolved into quite a cool customer.
Patricia Duff’s breadth of influence is partly explained by her unique life trajectory, which began as a Georgetown graduate in Carter-era Washington. Like Daenerys Targaryen—the pinup warrior queen of Game of Thrones, who conquers city after city with raw talent and the occasional assist by a consort—Duff transitioned from DC to Los Angeles and then New York, always moving in the upper echelons of power, and always (well, mostly) making friends.
TCG’s precursor was the Show Coalition, which Duff founded in Los Angeles in 1988 as a forum for introducing Hollywood potentates to politicians seeking their party’s presidential nomination. At the time, she was married to Medavoy—who cofounded Orion Pictures—and Show Coalition events were visited by Democrats, including Gary Hart, the Clintons and Al Gore, as well as Republicans like Bob Dole and Jack Kemp.
Changing its name to the Common Good in 1992, the organization had several quiet years before being reinvigorated in 2007. By then, Duff had moved to New York and married and divorced Perelman.
Today, she attributes her success with the organization to both “dogged persistence” and accumulating a “critical mass of people.”
“You know, I have now at least one or two lifetimes of relationships—Los Angeles, and obviously from Washington. When you have these relationships, it’s a little bit easier to transform it into an opportunity,” she said.
The sheer depth and variety of Duff’s connections mean that even her most off-hand remarks are littered with the kind of dropped names that would give your average New York social climber a terminal case of retroactive FOMO.
“When we had Eric Schmidt, everybody wanted to come,” she said, referring to an event two years ago with the former Google CEO turned executive chairman of Alphabet, its corporate parent. “It was this small thing we did at Mort Zuckerman’s apartment. Tory Burch was there.”
These ultraexclusive gatherings are attended by New York society’s “deep state”—the subtle power-brokers who are not elbowing each other out of the way to be in party pictures, but, behind the scenes, sit on the ley lines of money and influence that crisscross the city.
“Patricia always has the most insightful speakers, and the audience is engaged and engaging,” said Kerry Kennedy, a daughter of the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who is president of the human rights foundation named for him, and has attended TCG events on both sides of the podium. “TCG is a box of truffles for the brain: deep, rich and always a treat.”
Maria Cuomo Cole, of that other Democrat dynasty, summed up TCG’s events this way: “Where else would one be able to listen—calmly—to Kellyanne Conway and Carl Bernstein at the same time, and share a toast to both?”
In May, TCG staged its third full-blown annual forum. John Kerry led a list of notable speakers, which included Senators Gillibrand and John McCain and the former Homeland Security secretary, Jeh Johnson, on a range of panels addressing topics from media and politics to the economy.
Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney delivered a report on the movement to found a National Women’s History Museum, a cause promoted by TCG. Duff says three Washington, D.C., sites have been identified as potential homes for the museum, which would fall under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution, with a groundbreaking possibly as early as 2020.
With the presidential election going the way it did, a groundbreaking that was once regarded as a near-certainty may no longer seem so. But if the lobbying is successful, it’s possible to imagine that another generation of the Duff family might be present for the museum’s eventual opening.
“My daughter has just graduated from Brown and she’s going to NYU Law School next fall, and she’s going to be studying women’s rights law,” said Duff. “I’m very proud of that—I wasn’t sure she was going to be interested in public interest.”
After a moment’s thought, she added: “I do think there’s something in the DNA.”
Styled by Emily Barnes Hair by Yoichi Tomizawa at Art-Dept using Rene Furterer Makeup by Georgina Billington at Judy Casey Inc. using BY TERRY Cosmetics Fashion assistance by Edwin Exaus