The Daily Telegraph

The rich who rob themselves to help the poor

A new breed of philanthropist is emerging in New York, led by actress Gwyneth Paltrow, writes Philip Delves Broughton.

Some time in the early Nineties, New York woke up, hung over from two decades of excess. It staggered to the bathroom, wrestled open the aspirin bottle, splashed its face with cold water and stared in the mirror. A pair of guilty, bloodshot eyes stared back. It was time to turn over a new leaf. The city simply could not go on like this.

First, it elected Rudolph Giuliani as mayor, a modern-day Savonarola, mandated to drive corruption from the city. Then, slowly, the city purged itself - fasting, drinking eight glasses of water a day, going to yoga classes, until, finally, as 2000 dawned, it could take another look in the mirror and see what it had become. This time, the face in the glass was peachy and glowing with self-satisfaction.

One crucial element in New York's redemption has been the evolution of charity parties. Such bashes used to be the preserve of the Waspy elite, a rich Wall Street and media crowd who gathered to fund a new wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art or import the fruitiest Italian tenor to sing at the Met. These days, they are at the heart of New York's social scene. A party without a charitable motive is thought almost obscene.

Last week, Gwyneth Paltrow was the star at the biggest charity event of the year, which raised nearly $18 million for the Robin Hood Foundation, formerly the pet cause of John F Kennedy Jr. Paltrow is fast becoming as much a symbol of the new, Pilates-toned city as King Kong was of the old, roaring metropolis.

The event required eight maitre d's with headsets connected to the kitchen, a traffic monitor to direct more than 400 waiters into the correct lanes and a kitchen staff of 150. A seat cost $3600 - for which you got dinner, an auction gaveled by Robin Williams and a chance to dance within hip-swinging distance of Paltrow. There were 2,600 takers, most of them investment bankers so stiff they had trouble moving even when The Who came on stage.

Set up by a group of rich young Wall Street traders in 1988, the Robin Hood Foundation was a pioneer of what is now the most fashionable form of charity in America: venture philanthropy. Venture philanthropists consider applications for donations as if they were business proposals. They make the operations they fund work more efficiently and stop funding in cases of sloppy management. Their approach chimes well with newly minted, practical, technology zillionaires, who have little time for traditional charities.

Paltrow's position as the patron saint of modern charity derives from more than her status as an Oscar winner. She is also a natural New York aristocrat, well educated and as comfortable in the company of sober millionaires as with the loud Miramax boss, Harvey Weinstein. Her only challenger is Karenna Gore Schiff, daughter of the Vice President, wife of a rich New York doctor, a recent law graduate and all-round cheery blonde. These days, however, she is too busy advising her father on the campaign trail to pose a threat to Paltrow.

In the wake of these two come the Park Avenue Princesses, a gaggle hailed by Vogue and Harper's Bazaar as powerful influences on society and fashion. These are young women awash with inherited money (such as the Miller girls - Alexandra, Pia and Marie-Chantal - whose father made his millions in duty-free goods) but who are determined to do more than lunch and have facials. Not that they never have lunch or facials, just that they do other things in between - such as public relations, interior design or, if you are Aerin Lauder and your family firm is Estee Lauder, cosmetics.

They sit on the event committees of every charity going, whether it be the Botanical Garden, the Bronx Zoo or the Fresh Air Fund, aimed at sending inner-city children out to the countryside in the summer. The FAF raised pounds 1 million in one evening last week. You won't find these girls dancing on tabletops. At worst, you might catch them smoking behind a topiary swan. They are the heirs to New York's late 19th-century gilded age - the Edith Wharton era rather than the Bianca Jagger years. And thanks to them, everyone is giving and everyone is feeling good.

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