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Mingling with San Francisco's Party Crasher Culture

Photo by Jessica Craig Martin

An ordinary Tuesday night party at an upscale department store downtown, I spotted a woman of a certain age wearing a pink teddy bear backpack. Noting her bag (and how could I not?), I asked the event photographer, my friend and well-known society shooter Drew Altizer, if she was some sort of artsy heiress.

“No.” He exhaled, annoyed. “She’s a crasher. I see her everywhere.”
“You mean a party crasher?” I was shocked. “That’s really a thing?”

Night after night, San Francisco is host to dozens of parties, from boutique openings to black-tie galas, packed with boldfaced names from the society pages and the rest of us who want to be them. But in our midst exists an elusive few, a collection of mostly middle-aged eccentrics and oddballs who will, apparently, go to great lengths for a free glass of Chardonnay and a canapé.

I had watched stuffed-animal-backpack lady as she made her way around Gump’s, knocking back several glasses of white wine in quick succession and devouring a handful of beef Wellington bites. Backpack, as we shall call her, was not alone. She conferred with Wacky Glasses lady before dousing herself at the perfume counter.

Who was this party crasher, and what was she doing with her girlie little backpack at an invitation-only cocktail party at Gump’s, where social butterflies like Daru Kawalkowski and Joel Goodrich were in their element? Wasn’t she afraid of being thrown out? And how did she get in in the first place? Fascinated, and a little impressed, I had to find out. Thus began my mission to crash the crashers.

According to our city’s premier publicists, photographers, and columnists, party crashers come in various forms—the most notorious among them now easily recognizable to event crews and frequent event hosts. The consensus seems to be that free booze and food are the main draw. But reportedly, some crashers have been known to shoplift. On one occasion, Altizer spotted a noted crasher trying to sneak a competing photographer into an event. “I told him it was nice to see him sneaking something into the store,” he remembers. Other crashers, Altizer notes, are seeking something less tangible: “One woman just wanted to be relevant. ‘Take my picture. Take my picture,’” he says.

So how does a crasher crash? Well, as it turns out, it’s not all that hard. The PR folks manning the all-important clipboard at the door don’t want a scene. And much of the time it isn’t worth alarming the invited guests just to keep a determined crasher, even a known imposter, from helping themselves to a few glasses of wine. Plus, can you really tell the difference between an underdressed con and, say, an Internet billionaire? Said Internet billionaires can go to any party they want—it is one of the many perks of making your money in tech (along with the casual dress code). “If it looks like it’s at all possible that a person could be a client, we have to let them in,” says PR queen bee Allison Speer, whose eponymous public relations firm staged the much buzzed about openings for Graff Diamonds and Lucky Strike.

Another insider told me that someone tried to get into the SFMOMA Modern Ball this past April by being, to borrow a phrase from Seinfeld, a low-talker. “She whispered her name so quietly that they kept saying, ‘What? I’m sorry, I can’t hear you. What is your name?’ She finally gave up and left.”

Low talking seems to be a new tactic. Most crashers who attempt to talk their way in usually feign surprise at not being on the list. Loudly. A few name-checkers are sticklers for the guest list and will turn folks away with a stern smile. But most are let in anyway. While social circuit denizens are happy to dish the dirt on these uninvited guests, albeit largely off the record, cracking the crasher proves much more challenging.

At a 7x7 fete this past summer, I followed an alleged crasher around Ghirardelli Square—an immense, easy to infiltrate venue. Judging by his very casual T-shirt and shorts in a crowd of pretty stylish imbibers, I got the impression that this slightly unkempt gentleman had simply happened by the event and ventured in. Mr. T-shirt wandered from food table to food table, filling his arms with four plates of gourmet delights, which he balanced while waiting in line for the open bar. Deftly, perhaps, he managed to avoid my attempts to engage him in small talk, losing me in the crowd like Harrison Ford in The Fugitive. (In this scenario, I am Tommy Lee Jones.)

At another recent event at Bloomingdale’s, the hostess pointed out a well-dressed man and whispered, “He’s a crasher.” I stealthily situated myself next to him as he sipped a cocktail and admired a $1,300 military jacket. “Well, this is a fun party!” I offered. “I just wandered in myself.”

“Yes, it is fun!” He smiled. “Are you a friend of the host?” I replied. I hoped he would pull me in and whisper, “No! I’m a repeat party crasher. In fact, I am vice president-elect of the Frisco Crashers, an underground group of free-wheeling, middle-aged singles who sneak into San Francisco parties for the bourgeois thrill of it.” He didn’t say any of that, of course. Instead, he asked my approval on the jacket and assured me he could afford it.

At the outset of my experiment, I had imagined madcap tales of fun-loving risk-takers finding sport in half-enjoying and half-mocking San Francisco society. I thought maybe they shared covert information and invitations on some antiquated Yahoo bulletin board, where they could compare notes on which parties have the best open bars and gripe about testy publicists. Turns out, the crasher ethos may be more depressing than fabulous. (Just ask Altizer, who once spotted a drunken phony being escorted out of a bash at Otis for having relieved himself in his pants.)

At some point or another, many of us have waited anxiously outside an event of some kind and nervously hoped that our name was on the list. Even at a party full of strangers, it’s embarrassing to stand aside of the velvet rope and try to explain who you are and why you should be let in while the boldface names who made the sacred clipboard sip their champagne and look at you like you’re a criminal. (Not that I would know. Nope, never happened to me.)
There was a time in the not-so-distant past when I wanted nothing more than to know about these events—actually attending them seemed out of reach. Flipping through the party pictures and social pages, it’s obvious there is always something glamorous happening in San Francisco. Each tempting photo beams with the smiles of faces smoothed by thousand-dollar cream flown in from the moon. And dapper, tanned men swathed in perfectly rumpled lightweight scarves are identified as “gallery director so-and-so.” Who wouldn’t want to be part of that world?

A few years and dozens of parties later, I never got my face cream from the moon. My scarves make me look like I’m trying too hard, and I’m always dressed a little bit wrong (because I am not a gallerist). No matter how you get in the door, it can be tough to fit in. Great expectations are rarely met.

I wanted to believe that crashers were in it for the thrill of breaking the rules and the rush of getting in the door. Now I think they attend for the promise of something they’re not likely to find. Because at no point, at any party in the history of San Francisco society, has any moon cream-faced Getty or Traina ever said, “Oh, you snuck into this party wearing a teddy bear backpack to drink a bottle of wine for free? How fun! Please spend the weekend with us in Napa.”

This article was published in 7x7's September issue. Click here to subscribe.