Socialite Easterling goes out as she wanted—with a party

Friends of Mickey Easterling join her for Champagne at Saenger

Most of those in attendance seemed to agree that Mickey Easterling went out Tuesday evening just the way she would have wanted to — well-dressed and in the thick of things.

Friends of the local philanthropist, socialite and party hostess packed the gleaming marble foyer of the Saenger Theater on Canal Street, plucking champagne and fried eggplant from the trays of passing waiters. Music sounded from a jazz combo parked on the balcony overhead.

And Mickey, as everyone called her, took in the whole scene from her perch on a wrought iron bench, her famous accouterments of hat, feather boa and cigarette holder all in evidence. She even wore a diamond-studded “Bitch” pin on her chest.

Here was a wake — Easterling died April 14 after a long illness — that seemed in every way to confirm New Orleans’ reputation for enjoying a cocktail and some company, and for pursuing both in ways that tend to set it apart from the rest of the country.

No, this was not really a funeral, as Easterling’s daughter, Nanci Myke, explained in an interview earlier this week.

“There’s no program,” she said, “It’s really more of a …” She paused and searched for the words, then continued, “It’s a really nice way to say, ‘The party’s over.’ ”

There is a precedent for this type of send-off. Close observers of local funeral rites will remember “Uncle” Lionel Batiste’s wake in 2012, where the Treme Brass Band drummer leaned against a faux street lamp. Beer and barbecue were served at the funeral home on St. Philip Street while Batiste presided in a natty sportcoat and sunglasses.

Revelers at the Saenger on Tuesday gathered to honor an entirely different type of character — a Lakefront grande dame rather than a Treme jazz legend.

Sammy Steele III, a friend of Easterling’s going back three decades, handled her cosmetics and wardrobe for the event, drawing on Easterling’s own closet for a fluorescent pink boa, a black hat and a floral print dress by Leonard.

“My goal was to make her look even prettier than she was in real life,” Steele said, “because she was a larger-than-life person.”

To Easterling’s right, on a small table, sat a bottle of her favorite Champagne, Veuve Clicquot, and in her right hand was a Waterford crystal Champagne flute of the kind she used to carry around with her sometimes when restaurant glassware wouldn’t do.

The setting seemed appropriate enough. Easterling, whose marriage to local investor Vern Easterling ended in divorce in the 1970s, used to own a stake in the Saenger, regularly attended the Broadway shows that played there and usually hosted opening-night parties for the visiting cast, said Kathleen Turner, who managed the Saenger in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

“A lot of times, she knew these people already,” Turner said, mentioning Easterling’s frequent trips to New York and acquaintanceship with stars like Lena Horne and Richard Burton. “She was so welcoming and gracious and giving in opening her home. And they would come in and it was, ‘Oh Mickey, it’s so good to see you again.’ ”

And of course, Turner said, there would be the glass of Champagne, the cigarette holder, the waiter standing ready with a tray of refreshments and the band playing on the back patio by the pool. Everything came with a New Orleans touch.

Turner recalled a show’s chorus line once turning into a second-line as it exited the party and got back on the waiting bus.

The site for these parties reflected an eclectic, exuberant taste.

“Mickey was never afraid to display what she liked,” Turner said. “She didn’t care what was current. She didn’t care if someone said, ‘You can’t mix these periods.’ If it looked good to her, she wanted it. She would always say, ‘This is my house’ — actually, ‘This is my damn house.’ ”

On one occasion, Turner showed up to find Easterling out in the driveway unpacking crates full of new items for the decor, saying, “Oh, this is fun. Here’s an extra crowbar. Open a box!”

Where she found the time for all this outside of various civic commitments is unclear.

Easterling’s daughter recently came across an old curriculum vitae of her mother’s. It was four pages long, detailing involvement in everything from the Audubon Park board to Delta Festival Ballet. For years, she sat on the board of the Orleans Levee District.

For all of the celebratory mood at the Saenger on Tuesday, there was also a palpable sense of mourning for an era when women like this so seamlessly combined civic boosterism with a will to party.

“There were so many fabulous women in New Orleans who really had this mission to live life to the fullest and help the arts,” Marjorie Gehl said. “These grande dames are all sort of gone.”

Gehl sat with two other friends, Diane Fee and Betty Davidson, who used to accompany Easterling to the opera. All agreed that one last party seemed like a fitting wake.

Davidson recalled when Easterling used to ride around “with a trunk full of iced Champagne,” picking up friends. No one could remember if it was a Rolls-Royce or a Bentley she used to drive.

“You can’t expect the women to remember what type of car,” Fee quipped, but agreed that drinks at the Saenger would have pleased Easterling. “It’s very much like she would have planned.”