There they were--Liz and Malcolm--together under the stars on a moonlit night, listening to Bolero as fireworks exploded high over Arabian tents and out into the glistening Mediterranean.
The rhythmic music and the dazzling fireworks climaxed together, each reaching a crescendo and abruptly ending in unison to the cheers of another 1,000 people whom publisher Malcolm Forbes had invited along with his date, Elizabeth Taylor, to celebrate his 70th birthday.
Liz and Malcolm were what the guests had come to see--together with his gleaming-white Moroccan palace (Palais Mendoub) and, actually, each other.
Celebrity guests included opera star Beverly Sills (she sang “Happy Birthday”), Henry Kissinger, Walter Cronkite and Barbara Walters.
There were hardly any politicians, but California’s Gov. George Deukmejian was one, apparently because Forbes likes his fiscal conservatism. Republican Gov. Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey--Forbes’ home state--also was there.
More than anything, however, the guest list read like a who’s who of corporate America--Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca, General Motors Chairman Roger B. Smith and hundreds of other business and financial executives--and clearly represented an effort to attract advertising to Forbes magazine.
“They are all friends,” Forbes said of his guests, “and some of them have proven it by the amount of business they have put into Forbes magazine.”
And to his guests as he and Liz were about to cut the huge four-layer birthday cake around midnight Saturday, Forbes acknowledged: “If it hadn’t been my birthday we would have thought of a different reason (to party). The birthday was incidental.”
In an earlier generation, another publisher--William Randolph Hearst--used to invite celebrities from Hollywood up to his “ranch” at San Simeon. They would arrive by the scores in automobiles or in trains and spend the weekend with Hearst and his celebrity girlfriend, Marion Davies, at La Casa Grande.
In the jet age, the publishing world’s biggest party-giver is Forbes. And for this soiree he flew most of the guests at his expense in three chartered jets--including a Concorde--across the Atlantic to party with him and Liz. He put everybody up at two seaside hotels.
The cost of the chartered planes alone was around $1 million, according to one Forbes official: $500,000 for the Concorde, $300,000 for a 747 and $200,000 for a DC-8.
But Forbes told reporters he doubted the party’s tab would reach the $2-million figure that has been estimated because things are cheaper in Morocco and also because Morocco’s King Hassan II--who threw a lavish farewell lunch and picnic for the entire group on Sunday at the Tangier Country Club--supplied all of the music and entertainment.
Much of the cost will be written off as a business expense and become a Forbes tax deduction--meaning that American taxpayers will wind up subsidizing a lot of the fun for these rich party-goers. “I wish it was entirely,” Forbes replied when asked whether he considered the party a business expense. “Some of it is.”
Whatever, Forbes said he did not feel the slightest bit guilty about spending all that money on one extravagant party.
“Somebody asked me, ‘How do you defend it?’ ” Forbes said. “It’s difficult. You can point out that we give several million dollars a year to philanthropies and worthy causes. But that doesn’t explain why we didn’t use all this money for the same thing. . . .
“There’s nobody here,” he told the reporters, “who doesn’t, maybe, on their wife’s birthday take her to the theater or dinner or something and do you say to yourself, ‘Gee, instead of that, I should have given it to the local chapter of the Red Cross.’ 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.”
Forbes--who has named his private jet Capitalist Tool and painted its tail what he calls “money green"--inherited a fortune from his self-made father, B.C. Forbes, who founded the magazine. But Malcolm has multiplied that fortune many times over and now is worth “somewhere between half a billion and a billion,” said Forbes communication director William Donald Garson. “Honestly, he doesn’t know what he is worth.”
A flamboyant motorcyclist and hot air balloon enthusiast--"It’s very hard to be anonymous when you’re flying a Sphinx balloon over Cairo,” he noted Saturday--Forbes entered Elizabeth Taylor’s life two years ago when he handed her a $1-million check to fight AIDS.
Asked what Liz gave him for his birthday, the divorced Forbes said, “I am not telling, as a matter of fact.” But then he paused for a second and added: “One of the things she gave me was Elizabeth Taylor’s passion for me.”
He described their relationship as “happy,” but said the actress should not be considered his “fiancee. We have finessed around that. . . . You don’t have to marry somebody before you have fun together. . . . She’s got wit and wisdom and love.”
Forbes said he threw the party because “I just wasn’t that confident I would be here or, if here, capable of enjoying my 100th. So I decided to have it on the 70th.”
“I know they’ll top it on his 75th,” said Kissinger, who has been to a few gala affairs himself, “but for now, it has to be the most unusual party I have seen.”
Said Deukmejian, who is not much of a party-goer but echoed the sentiments of most guests: “There’s no question it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
You know you’ve been to something special when they have designer outdoor toilets that flush. The toilets--five of them designed locally by a food caterer--had His and Her enclosed stalls under a small Arabian tent with black and white tile floors and a sink. (But they had one common problem of most outdoor heads: no towels, so people used soggy toilet paper to wipe their hands.)
This is a little of what it was like to attend Malcolm Forbes’ three-day “Ali-Dada Birthday Bash.” (A play on the name Ali-Baba):
For ordinary guests--the Kissingers, the Betsy Bloomingdales, the Cronkites, the Deukmejians and folks even more ordinary than that--it was an early wake-up Friday for arrival at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport by 7 a.m.
There also was another, much smaller category of guests who used their own jets--people like Chrysler’s Iacocca and Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner. These people had more flexibility.
For an example, financier Henry Kravis and his wife, fashion designer Carolyne Roehm, planned to have their private jet meet them Sunday in Tangier so they could take another couple to dinner in Venice en route to the Salzburg Music Festival, the next stop on their summer fun calendar of social globe trotters.
There were other twists, too, in individual travel arrangements. Publisher Rupert Murdoch, for instance, chartered a yacht and brought it to Tangier so he could host a Saturday luncheon for roughly 100 select guests, including Deukmejian and his wife, Gloria.
But for about 600 people, the weekend began shortly after dawn Friday with a crush of limousines and taxicabs--family sedans were scarce--outside a private hangar at JFK.
Amid the confusion of hundreds of people trying to check in and dump off their bags, the partying began with the chanting of Moroccan musicians shaking tambourines and other instruments. Then came a belly-dancer in a tight-fitting, low-cut dress.
Deukmejian, sitting at a table under a tent right in front of the dancer, shook his head to the rhythm, stretched out his arms and snapped his fingers. “I do this every morning at 8:30,” he told a reporter, smiling. In a few minutes, the governor--grinning ear to ear--stood briefly near the woman and began dancing himself, twisting and turning and clicking the fingers.
After an elaborate continental breakfast prepared by caterer Basil Rathbone--granddaughter of the late film star Basil Rathbone--Deukmejian and 99 other passengers boarded the Concorde. The sleek, narrow craft flew at twice the speed of sound, cruising at around 50,000 feet, and arrived at Tangier on the northwestern tip of Africa, just opposite Gibraltar, in three hours, 20 minutes--about half the normal time.
Hundreds of Moroccan musicians greeted guests aboard all three chartered jets at the airport. And thousands of curious citizens lined the streets into town to catch a glimpse of the rich Americans. More musicians entertained at the hotel--and virtually every place the guests traveled throughout the weekend.
Deukmejian and his wife spent part of Saturday shopping in the famed Kasbahs, but didn’t buy anything. “We were trying to keep up with our guide. We didn’t want to get lost in that maze,” said Gloria Deukmejian.
The weather was hot and humid. The hotel rooms had no air-conditioning and everybody was sweating--except, strangely, at the birthday party where guests wearing the required tuxedoes and formals were spared by a cool, gentle breeze that blew off the Mediterranean.
“The party works better in Morocco--there’s a romance and mystique about being far from home,” noted advice columnist Abigail Van Buren. “It’s glamorous, it’s spectacular.”
Hundreds of white-robed musicians and green-capped Royal Calvary guards wearing turbans met guests outside the palace. Then the guests drew their dinner seating assignments from a brass bowl. Deukmejian sat in the “Money Green” tent, one of seven Arabian tents erected on the terrace gardens overlooking the sea.
Forbes, wearing green Scottish kilts, stood in the reception line with his four sons and one daughter for more than two hours greeting the steady stream of guests. Many people, after having gone through the line themselves, just stood around and ogled the other guests.
This was especially true when Elizabeth Taylor stood beside Forbes, which was most of the time. She wore a floor-length emerald green caftan with gold metallic braiding and long diamond and ruby earrings. Her hairdo could be best described as free-form and she again seemed to be losing her battle against pounds.
The dinner--pastilla (pigeon pie), barbecued lamb, chicken and fruits--lasted until nearly midnight. And guests didn’t begin leaving until after 1 a.m.
“Look at it now,” a man said to nobody in particular as one of the chartered buses pulled away from the palace. “You’ll never see it again.”