By Frank Conroy
December 21, 1987 12:00 PM

No one is quite sure what the upper class actually is in America. Some say it’s blood. Some say it’s old money, or achievement, or celebrity. Even the upper class isn’t sure. Maybe nobody is upper class anymore—but if you’re trying to be, having Lester Lanin provide the music for your party couldn’t hurt. Lester Lanin, a drummer from humble origins, is the musical gentleman’s gentleman who’s kept champagne society sparkling for more than half a century.

Lanin, a short, sharp, birdlike man, nearly 80 years old—he won’t reveal his exact age—sits behind the desk in his unpretentious Manhattan office. He wears an impeccably tailored three-piece suit from Savile Row, handmade shoes and a regimental tie (one of Prince Charles’s regiments—he’s played for the prince). His posture is erect, almost military. His eyes are clear. “I never drank,” he says. “I’m not talking willpower. I just never liked the taste. Also I never touched a cup of coffee in my life, never smoked and never took opiates. I watch what I eat, so, thank God, I’m in pretty good shape.” In fact, he is in remarkable shape, springing up out of his chair like a young man.

“Names?” says Lanin. “I’ll give you names: the Vanderbilts, especially Cornelius; the Astors—John Jacob and Vincent and Brooke; Paul and Bunny Mellon; Henry Ford—Junior, of course, the old man was before my time—and Edsel; the Chryslers, the Du Ponts, the Whitneys; Larry Rockefeller, David Rockefeller, that whole family.” He waves his hand at the signed photographs on the walls. “Every President since Eisenhower, except Carter. The royal family in England.” He looks off into the middle distance. ” ‘You’re in top form tonight, Mr. Lanin.’ That’s what the Queen said to me the last time I played Windsor Castle. I play for all the top people. Who did I leave out?” He goes to the door. “Betty! Have we got a list of the top people? I mean the really top people. Baroness Rothschild, those people.”

He picks up the phone and pushes a button. “Murray? Book another horn for the Union Club tomorrow night.” He listens for a moment and then makes a face. “I know. I know it’s signed already. I don’t care. I want another horn. So it’ll cost me money. So what? We got [the press]. I want it to sound good.” He hangs up. “You should hear us with strings sometime. You know we did a party at Versailles? Twenty-three men! They flew us over and back. I’m telling you.”

Betty enters. She is the office manager, middle-aged, crisp, friendly. Murray and Ed are the contractors, working the phones all day contacting musicians from a master list, assembling bands for various gigs. “I don’t have a separate file on the top people, Mr. Lanin, but I can put one together.” She puts a piece of paper in front of him. “Sign this, please.” He looks down. “What is it?” She gives him a pen. “A check,” she says. He signs, and she leaves. He sighs. “I’m carrying 13 people, you count it all up. Well, that’s life. I’m not complaining. I’ve got to go to the dentist. I broke a tooth.”

From the dawn of the radio era to this New Year’s Eve’s debutante ball in Jacksonville, Fla., Lester Lanin has personally pumped out tunes at the parties of the rich three to five nights a week—and he can’t recall taking a week off since 1945. Those gigs he can’t make himself he assigns to hand-picked musicians who know how to do it the way he likes it done. “I’m a businessman,” he says. “Every Saturday night I send out 10 or 15 bands. I’ve got maybe two, three hundred musicians I’m giving fairly steady work. Other guys we use once in a while. We mailed out—what?—I don’t know, 1,200 W-2’s last year? A lot, anyway.” Forbes magazine recently estimated Lanin’s annual gross at $5 million.

Lanin is the king of society music, and he didn’t get there by accident. A good deal of business acumen, as well as musical knowledge, must have been absorbed from his father, Benjamin Lanin, who ran a band in Philadelphia while raising 10 children, of whom Nathaniel Lester Lanin was the youngest. Ben Lanin’s music was Polish one night, Irish the next, then German, Jewish, Italian. A bar mitzvah, a wake, a wedding—whatever the public wanted, the public got.

At the age of 15 Lester was an accomplished drummer. In addition to playing with his father, he was already doing gigs with his own band in Palm Beach, specializing in the high-society market. Young Lester paid close attention to these (for him) mildly exotic customers and learned the show tunes, fox-trots, Charlestons, waltzes and two-steps they adored. He also knew how to behave—how to flatter a hostess and how to reassure, with his vaguely old-world manners, a host. His men never drank on the job and never, ever, mixed with the guests. The word spread that Lanin was good and that, furthermore, Lanin was reliable. The horsey set in Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia soon took him up. The American aristocracy valued good service, and they appreciated Lester Lanin. The loyalty of these people helped to carry Lanin through the Great Depression, when many other bands went out of business.

By the time of “the hostilities” (as he calls WW II) Lanin had moved to New York. His connections among the moneyed class expanded as he played the huge dances for servicemen regularly staged by the Vanderbilts and other prominent families as a contribution to the war effort. The soldiers and sailors at these affairs were ordinary GIs, but the ladies they danced with on the crowded ballroom floors, under the paper decorations and the moving lights, were debutantes, the maidens and matrons of the Social Register, the cream of society. And those debutantes would hire Lester Lanin for the rest of their lives for their weddings, for their daughters’ weddings and for everything else.

Lanin strides up Lexington Avenue after dinner at the Friars Club, hurrying home to change for work at the Union Club charity ball. Divorced some 20 years ago from a former Miss Texas who had worked on his staff—they had no children—he lives alone in a two-bedroom high-rise apartment on Manhattan’s fashionable East Side. The apartment, he’ll tell you, is not so much a home as “a big closet” he lives out of between endless engagements on the road. It is jammed with the paraphernalia of his work: Stacks of boxes of the trademark Lester Lanin beanies that he hands out at performances vie for space with the hundreds of old big-band albums covering the floor. Only the dozen custom-made tuxedos hanging in his bedroom suggest the elegance of the world in which he lives.

Lanin doesn’t want to talk about his life. He wants to talk about his work—or perhaps that’s the same thing. “You’ve got your pre-debs,” he says, “say 14 years old to 16 or 17. Then your debs at 18. Post-debs, 21 to 25, followed by young marrieds up to the age of 35 or so, and then the old established, 40 and over. That’s five separate categories, and they like different kinds of music, different mixes. You gotta stay on your toes in this business. Plus I play other kinds of jobs.” He stops in the middle of the sidewalk and waves his umbrella for emphasis. “You know I played Billy Joel’s wedding? You know I played for Frank Zappa? As God is my witness.”

The affair at the Union Club, one of New York’s grandest private clubs, with marble and mahogany everywhere, is attended mostly by young marrieds and old established. Lanin has gathered a rhythm section (bass, drums and piano), two trumpets, a trombone, a saxophone and a guitar player. The musicians are mostly older men. “It’s hard to find young players who can do this,” Lanin says. “You’ve got to know three or four hundred tunes just for openers. The kids today, well, they learned another way. They can read music like nobody’s business. They can read flyspecks. But we don’t use music, so what good is that? You gotta have the stuff in your head.”

A Lester Lanin band provides continuous music, a nonstop succession of familiar numbers, perhaps 10 or 15 tunes, until it’s time for a new medley at a new tempo. Each melody delivers a little charge of emotion—”Dancing in the Dark,” followed by “Dancing on the Ceiling,” followed by “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now.” The effect is something like time-lapse photography, quick memories one after the other, quick pleasurable mini-shocks of recognition. Lanin keeps track of the mood of the party, adjusting the music accordingly. If the hour is early and there are predominantly older folks on the dance floor, he might call an old favorite like “Tenderly.” If younger people come in from the bar, Lanin might motion to the guitar/vocalist to stand up and then tell the band to play “La Bamba.” The musicians are deft indeed—they shift from one tune to another with the smoothness of a Rolls-Royce automatic transmission.

The bounciness, the lilt for which the Lester Lanin sound is famous, comes from the phrasing, which accentuates a crisp two-beat feel. The notes do not linger but pop along in a way calculated to pull people up out of their chairs and onto the dance floor. It’s a cheerful sound, and it works. Lanin himself never stops working—calling tunes, playing the cowbell, jumping into the air, setting tempos, or talking to the dancers. “Are you having fun?” he asks. It’s clear that he is, after all these years.

Lanin has been around for so long that the cultural revolution of the ’60s seemed to him just another craze, another fad. He agrees that high society kept a somewhat lower profile during those years and that bookings went down a bit, but he is proud of how he adjusted. “The young people wanted rock, so I gave them rock,” he says. “I had three guitars in the band—you know, to get that sound. People thought I was crazy, but it worked. We did all right.” When the dust began to clear in the late ’70s, when traditional values began to reemerge in the ’80s, there was Lester Lanin, still playing “Tea for Two” as if nothing had happened.

Notes Letitia Baldrige, formerly Jackie Kennedy’s social secretary: “Lester Lanin has been, for so many of us for so long, the one stable, predictable guarantee of success at any social gathering, be it a debut in Newport or a state dinner at the White House.”

George Plimpton, the writer, who grew up in precisely the social set Lanin has served, speaks affectionately of the bandleader. “When I was a kid,” Plimpton says, “I’d go to these dances in New York, or Locust Valley, or Connecticut, or wherever. One went for the girls, of course. Half the time I never knew a soul. But there would be Lester Lanin up there, swinging his arms. He always gave me a nod, a smile. I haven’t the faintest idea if he actually recognized me from one time to the next, but, you know, he provided a kind of continuity. I found his presence enormously reassuring. One didn’t feel quite so alone, you see.”

Nor need one worry that the reassuring continuity will be broken anytime soon. For the rich are always with us, and as long as they are willing to pay the fiddler, Lester Lanin will play the tune. “Retire?” he snorts. “What would I do? Besides, they need me.”