November 28, 2000 12:00 PM

On a crisp autumn evening, Denise Rich’s third major party in two weeks is about to begin at her art-filled penthouse duplex apartment overlooking New York City’s Central Park. Dressed in a fire-engine-red Escada pantsuit and shrimp-size diamond earrings, Manhattan’s premier party-giver has already chilled out with an hour of yoga. The room has chilled out too: 21 ice-sculpture centerpieces decorate the tables, 150 candles have been lit, and a glassblower has been stationed behind a booth to create on-the-spot souvenirs. A staff of 12 is busy in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on the swordfish with parsley and pomegranate. Outside the elevator, a violin string duo is poised to receive the 150 guests. Soon enough, the place is filled with the likes of actor Gabriel Byrne, actress Blythe Danner, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and the guest of honor, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Now Rich can breathe easy. “The worst thing,” she says, “is a frazzled hostess. If you’re relaxed, then everybody else around you will be relaxed too.”

It’s all in a day’s fun for Rich, 47, who has been throwing celebrated celebrations for a decade. The guest list is never a problem. Rich is a Grammy-nominated songwriter (most recently for “Don’t Waste Your Time,” with Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige) who travels in enviable circles. Her pals include Patti LaBelle, Natalie Cole and the guys from ‘N Sync, who dropped by her pad last July with 70 of their friends. (“The staff just made cakes and cookies while the party was going on,” says Rich.) She is also a formidable Democratic fund-raiser who hobnobs with the Clintons and the Gores. Money is never an object when Rich entertains either. A 1991 divorce from billionaire commodities trader Marc Rich left her with all she needs to let the good times roll.

But most of her extravaganzas—as many as 25 every year—have a larger purpose. “If you’re lucky enough to have a place to throw a party,” Rich says, “it’s your obligation to help others.” Tonight’s bash benefits the G & P Foundation for Cancer Research, which Rich began after losing her 27-year-old daughter Gabrielle to leukemia in 1996. (The G stands for Gabrielle; the P is for the young woman’s widower, Philip Aouad, a commodities trader.) It is this cause that has brought Gorbachev, whose wife, Raisa, died of the disease last year, to Rich’s side tonight—and to kick off the G & P Angel Ball at the Marriott Marquis in Manhattan on Nov. 30, a benefit that stands to generate $4 million.

Right now Gorbachev is holding court in the parlor, chatting with Larry King (“I watch you every night,” he says), Jane Seymour (“Oh, Dr. Quinn!”) and Christie Brinkley, whom he grabs by the waist, murmuring an appreciative “Hmmmm!” Singer Marc Anthony is amazed that the former Soviet leader knows who he is. “He said his granddaughter liked my music!” says Anthony. Rich’s mission—”making people meet each other and feel comfortable,” she says—has been accomplished.

Good humor flows as freely as the 200 bottles of Veuve Clicquot champagne. Brinkley, who’s keeping a camera handy in her black Hermès purse, mingles easily with actress Lynn Whitfield, Barbara Walters and Miss Universe Lara Dutta. “Only Denise,” concludes close friend Star Jones, from The View, “can give a froufrou, chichi dinner honoring Gorbachev, with Hollywood and D.C. glitterati, and make it all work.”

Work is the operative word. Rich’s parties are a team effort involving event designer Susan Holland, who creates the menus and decor, and party planner Brad Boles, who takes charge of the themes. “Sometimes I have a month to plan,” says Boles, “sometimes it’s 24 hours.” With plenty of notice for a 1998 Grammy party, he transformed Rich’s terrace into an ice rink complete with women skaters painted gold. But zero notice can yield results too. The day before last New Year’s Eve, Rich asked Boles to cobble together a spur-of-the-moment millennium blowout at her mountaintop Aspen getaway. (“Nobody was doing anything special,” says Rich. “I thought I should do something!”) Boles came up with a moon, star and glitter theme, passing out top hats to the men and oversize gold-colored glasses to the women. “If you do things that are a little different,” says Rich, “it just makes the event more memorable.” The party was certainly memorable for one couple: It was there that Michael Douglas proposed to Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Although Rich may delegate the details, the vitality behind her fêtes comes from within. The energetic daughter of Holocaust survivors, Denise Eisenberg grew up in Worcester, Mass., where her father, Emil, started a shoe factory. He arranged for his daughter to go on a blind date with Marc Rich, then a banker, in 1966. They married six months later and settled in New York City until 1983—when Marc was indicted by then-U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani for tax evasion, fraud and racketeering. He fled to Switzerland, where Denise and their three daughters (Ilona, 33, Daniella, 26, and Gabrielle) later joined him.

The marriage began to unravel—but Denise found her musical voice. In 1984, on a plane home from visiting her sister, who was dying of breast cancer in Boston, she dreamed the words to her first song, “Frankie,” which became a hit by the group Sister Sledge. By 1991 Rich was divorced and back in New York City. She soon became a fixture on the social scene.

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing in Rich’s career as hostess. Back in 1998, the seating chart for a benefit for her foundation got stuck in a cab. Confusion ensued among the guests, who had paid as much as $50,000 for a ticket. Geraldo Rivera took it upon himself to step up to the mike and announce, “Just sit anywhere.” But tonight’s party has gone off without a hitch. At 1 a.m. Gabriel Byrne is one of the last guests out the door. “The women didn’t want him to leave,” says Rich, who joins the last few revelers for champagne, chocolate cookies and dancing barefoot. Afterward, she retires to her bedroom, where a masseuse awaits for a post-party rubdown. “I was happy with the mix of people,” she says the next morning. “Everybody there felt there was terrific energy.” Much of it was generated by the hostess. Says Sister Sledge’s Kathy Sledge: “Denise is the best thing about her parties.”

Nancy Stedman

Elizabeth McNeil in New York City

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