Style | September 17, 2020 9:40 am

Remembering Malcolm Forbes’s 70th Birthday, Where 1980s Excess Peaked

A weekend in Tangier with Liz Taylor, the Trump brothers and Ghislaine Maxwell's dad

Malcolm Forbes' 70th Birthday Party, 1989
Elizabeth Taylor and Malcolm Forbes during Malcolm Forbes' 70th Birthday Party, 1989.
Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

In the Reagan era, parties inevitably embraced a more-is-more aesthetic. Disco was over, the rich were getting richer and glossy consumerism was held up as the apex of aesthetics. Near the end of the decade — on August 19th, 1989, to be exact — publishing mogul Malcolm Forbes (called “one of the country’s most flamboyant multimillionaires” in his New York Times obituary a year later) had a 70th birthday party that’s become the stuff of legend for both its exotic setting and its array of stylish and powerful guests. Many years before the rise of social media, the party, which took place at a palace he owned in Tangier, Morocco, offered the kind of aspirational yet ultimately garish settings and proximity to fame that most Instagram influencers would kill for. Looking back at the party more than 30 years later, it seems to capture the most extravagant impulses of a decade that still reverberates in often troubling ways.

A society party is nothing if it’s not heavily documented. The Forbes party was photographed by the prolific Ron Galella, well-known for his decades of paparazzo snaps of pretty much every celebrity you can think of (reached for comment through an assistant, Galella said he had no memories to share of the event — one would imagine that’s par for the course when constantly photographing celebrity functions for a living). Coverage appeared in a host of newspapers and magazines. Forbes walked arm-in-arm with a regal, caftan-clad Elizabeth Taylor. The party was more than just a night out — it was a weekend-long destination event, with 800 guests flown out and price tag upwards of $2 million.

The guests included everyone from writer Fran Lebowitz (clad in her signature crisp white oxford-cloth button-down and jeans, even poolside) to fashion designer Calvin Klein and Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, along with a bevy of other socialites and power players that read like a roll call of the New York Times Styles Section of the day. One of the party’s guests, former Forbes employee Elizabeth Bailey, succinctly described the inimitable party vibe over email to InsideHook: “The most endearing thing about Malcom’s excesses were the sheer audacity of the display. Who else would have had the planes touch down on a tarmac lined with Berber Horsemen, followed by a serenade of kilted Scottish bagpipes as the guests deplaned … It was always mix and match and you had to laugh, no matter how ostentatious it all was.” 

Malcolm Forbes' 70th Birthday Party, 1989
Calvin Klein, Fran Lebowitz, Kelly Klein and Jann Wenner
Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

At the same time, ’80s excess — so fun and glitzy and tantalizingly out of reach for the vast majority of people — has a dark side that’s only become more pronounced in the Trump era. The current president was there (the mind reels at the possibilities of traveling back in time, telling everyone of our current hell) and so was his brother. And, as Bailey describes, “Robert Maxwell, dressed in traditional garb stretched over his belly, was hard to miss at most events.” Maxwell, the late media proprietor, was known for wealth, constant drama and shady dealings. More recently, his name has come up in the news for the despicable crimes of his daughter, Ghislaine.

In this context, some of the Forbes party pictures take on a sinister aura today. Pictures of people boarding Maxwell’s yacht called (wait for it…) “The Lady Ghislaine” are a reminder of an undercurrent of creepiness that’s shown no signs of disappearing in recent years. A recent Reddit thread on a Jeffrey Epstein-related board posted the Getty Images page for the party with the comment “Tons of names associated with Mr. Epstein.”  

Regis Philbin and Barbara having a grand old time.
Ron Galella Collection via Getty

Before conspiracies around the party would begin to brew, there were already some mixed reviews. A 1996 article in Entertainment Weekly recalled that during that fateful weekend in 1989, “Back in the U.S., a backlash was brewing. Press reports and magazine features had depicted the celebration as a capitalist bacchanal, an image that network footage of carousing celebrities did little to dispel.” If anything, capitalist bacchanalia has only grown in the decades since the party, with income inequality continuing to soar while the 1% soldiers on with ever-conspicuous displays of consumption. The Forbes party, at least, had a sense of play. As Bailey sums it up, “The carnival atmosphere was a little unnerving to someone who saw themselves as a serious journalist, but Malcom combined an outlandishness along with his corny capitalism that tended to defuse any self-righteous indignation. More or less.” The party was such a self-conscious event, so exaggeratedly divorced from anything resembling most people’s reality, that it ended up as a pre-reality TV fascination, and a key document of the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous era.

When asked how he felt about throwing a wildly costly party that was largely written off as a business expense, Forbes rationalized it by saying, “We all do things in our lives that probably aren’t essential. It’s just that this scale is more visible … I don’t feel guilty about it. I feel grateful that we can do it.”

The spectacle, with belly dancers, bright colors, tents and even costumed locals lounging about for atmosphere, was a very ’80s American take on Moroccan culture (one can imagine possible arguments around “appropriation” that would likely come up if the party took place today). As Bailey remembers, “Of course, there were camel rides and sails in the port and trip to the market to buy jewelry and silk djellaba.” The party seems to have been part display of corporate American greed and part fairy tale.

Calvin Klein and Kelly Klein.
Ron Galella Collection via Getty

“The Forbes family had done their very best to make this the perfect party in a decade that knew something about parties,” says Bailey.

But one of her most enduring memories of the event shows the risks of all the frippery of the era: “It was hot and humid as Miami in Tangier and all the ladies needed serious hair repair to their large ’80s hairdos. As if on cue, they (or their hairdressers brought along for the party) plugged in and blew out the hotel’s electrical grid (if not those of others on the street). As I remember, the air conditioning winded down at the same time. Doors opened and slammed as partygoers brandished blow dryers up and down the halls.” The image of hairstyles so big and fussy that they short-circuit an entire hotel is both farcically vain and oddly charming. It’s a fitting final image for the most over-the-top party of the most over-the-top decade in recent history.