By Judy Bachrach
December 07, 1981 12:00 PM

Jerry Zipkin is a celebrity now and more than a little nervous about it. Treading gingerly, as if each word were a potential land mine, he is extremely cautious about discussing his close friendship with Nancy Reagan. Equally fearful of jeopardizing the confidences of all his other ladies, he does not want to risk the gratification he gets from knowing that when anything goes wrong—anything at all—they will turn, as they always have, to him.

Why do they do it? “Well,” says Zipkin, “I believe a woman can have a best man-friend, and a man can have a best man-friend. But a woman cannot have a best woman-friend. A best woman-friend will do her in, whereas the best man-friend won’t.”

He speaks with no small authority. For most of his 66 years, Jerome Zipkin, heir to a fortune in New York City real estate and a man of infinite leisure, has functioned as best friend to a host of ladies. Many of them are equally wealthy: They draw upon his time and counsel as avidly as they do on their husbands’ bank accounts. The First Lady heads the list. “Jerry is just gaga over Nancy Reagan,” reports one of his close friends, and the First Lady returns the compliment so enthusiastically that Zipkin has been called “the other man in [her] life.” “Don’t think I don’t know,” he says slyly, “that when the next President is Joe Jones or whoever, people will completely forget about me.” Yet long before the Reagans stepped into the White House, Zipkin was a valued escort to the Ladies Who Lunch. Betsy Bloomingdale (who introduced him to Nancy Reagan more than 20 years ago), New York socialite Nan Kempner, Mica Ertegun, wife of the head of Atlantic Records, Pat (Mrs. William) Buckley, Diana Vreeland—all can be seen with Zipkin at such fashionable New York haunts as Le Cirque, La Grenouille, Quo Vadis and Mortimer’s.

It was Women’s Wear Daily, in whose columns Zipkin’s bullet-shaped head and portly figure often appear, that dubbed him “the social moth.” His lady friends call him Zip. They love his loyalty, praise his discretion, live in dread of his waspish criticism, compete for his favor and rely on his companionship. Zipkin will go where their husbands fear to tread: to fashion shows, where he offers advice to designer friends Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta; to the theater, where he routinely procures tickets to any sold-out show; and, finally, to distant places. “I’ve got a husband who’s like fine wine—he doesn’t travel well,” says Nan Kempner of her investment banker husband, Tom. “He is thrilled when Jerry takes me someplace he doesn’t want to go. I’ve been to Spain with Zip, and we went to Gstaad with Pat and Bill Buckley. We’re Mr. and Mrs. Kempner-Zipkin.”

Some of his friends believe that despite the frenetic activity, Zipkin is a lonely man with no personal life of his own. He lives by himself in the Park Avenue apartment that he shared with his mother until her death a few years ago. Those who know him best say he rarely alludes to his youth and never discusses his problems. He seems to live his life, friends say, through the women who continually phone him. “Zip is the best secret keeper,” says Blass. “Anyone can tell him anything.” Secure in his loyalty, Nancy Reagan calls him faithfully from Washington. “Oh, he’ll talk about Nancy,” says a friend, “but only the most innocuous stuff.”

The only person Zipkin never talks about is Zipkin himself. Yet he denies that his childhood was unhappy or that he is ever lonely. Why did he choose to stay with his mother? “I lived my own life, and I enjoyed my mother’s company,” he says. “She was an attractive, cultivated Victorian lady who was born rich—God, how I hate that word!—and enjoyed cultural activities far more than social ones.”

The son of Annette Goldstein and David Zipkin, whose real estate dealings made the family even richer, Zipkin grew up privileged in New York City. He attended Princeton but left in his senior year “because of illness,” he explains. “So I went to Florida for the warm weather.” From the beginning he set out to appease his craving for rich and famous friends in rich and famous settings. In the thirties he struck up a close friendship with Somerset Maugham and was a frequent bridge-playing guest at the writer’s villa on the French Riviera. He cadged a crust of borrowed immortality when Maugham used him as a partial model for Elliott Templeton, a snobbish character in his novel The Razor’s Edge. In 1966 Zipkin’s collection of Maugham letters and the manuscript of Maugham’s novel about Gauguin, The Moon and Sixpence, were purchased by the University of Texas.

Zipkin is a creature around whom legends revolve. There is the story of how Jerry, finding himself at the Colony Hotel in Palm Beach, demanded the enlargement of a closet that was crushing his suits, ordered an additional mirror installed in his bathroom so that he could see the back of his head, got everything he wanted—and then never returned to the Colony. Of how Jerry, always the perfectionist, prefers his raspberries flown in from Chile. Of how Jerry, having delivered a cool put-down to the hostess of a party at Maxim’s in Paris, found himself ejected bodily down a flight of stairs.

“The myth,” sighs Zipkin, “is fun, except there is a load of misinformation in it. Frankly, I don’t even know if they have raspberries in Chile. And the only thing I complained about at the Colony was the mirror. They immediately installed one for me, so of course I went back. I find that Claridge’s, in London, is the only hotel where they do have rearview mirrors,” he adds. “It’s an international complaint I’ve made all over.” As for the celebrated tumble at Maxim’s, says Nan Kempner, “Everyone involved has made up.”

So what does Zipkin get out of all his friendships? “Nothing, really,” says a woman who knows him well. “It’s just that nothing has ever changed for all these people who are his friends. They are a conspiracy for the Establishment life—luxury, money, servants, pools. By sticking together they can defend themselves. They’ve got all their wagons in a circle.” “Look, no one in Jerry’s crowd is starving,” concedes Nan Kempner, “but Jerry is not a lavish spender, and he is not a court jester. I know his life looks very frivolous, but it isn’t.”

According to his friends, Zipkin usually gets up around 11 a.m., except on Sundays, when, as he likes to say, “Eleven is the middle of the night. You may call me at noon.” All day long the phone rings. The ladies call with gossip, problems, invitations. Zipkin reciprocates with advice, affection and—as several of his friends have discovered—some very blunt criticism. “It’s just that Jerry wants his friends to be as super as he is,” Kempner explains. “Oh, my dear, he is absolutely terrific! He wouldn’t just tell you about something trivial, like a run in your stocking. He’d tell you, ‘You ought to change the color of your hair.’ ”

Along with the criticism and the wicked remarks, Zipkin is known, says gossip columnist Liz Smith, “for his great big squishy soft heart.” About 20 years ago, when Smith lost a job, “Jerry was the first to call me,” she remembers. “He said, ‘If you ever need money, and I hear you called anybody but me, I’ll never speak to you again.’ ” Smith took him up on the offer and later paid Zipkin back the $1,000 she borrowed. “I think he was surprised by that,” she says. “I don’t think he ever expected to be paid back.” Bill Blass has similar memories. Thirty years ago, when he was starting out as a designer, he was virtually unknown on the West Coast. “Jerry called up everyone in California and said, ‘You mean you don’t know Bill Blass?’ ” the designer recalls. “From that moment on, my business boomed. Now he takes his friends to my shows. He has a large following among the Greeks. Rich Greeks—are there any other kind?”

“I don’t think shyness ever entered my life,” Zipkin says. “I’ve always been outgoing.” Outgoing, perhaps, but rarely forthcoming. Generous and unerringly discreet, he is the perfect director of other people’s lives. He orders the costumes, brightens the dialogue, provides the amusements and hovers over the essential scenes. “I think this man was saving himself for Nancy Reagan, for the perfection of this moment,” says a friend. “When he and his ladies go out, there is no bad news. Everything is happy talk in that world, and the only real concern is whether Nancy’s dress is just right.”