Lester Lanin, 97; Favorite Bandleader for Socialites and the White House

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Bandleader Lester Lanin, who supplied music for presidential inaugurations, Queen Elizabeth's 60th birthday party and gatherings hosted by the Rockefellers, DuPonts and Chryslers, died Wednesday in New York City. He was 97.

His death was announced by his spokeswoman, Betty Shulman. The cause was not disclosed.

Lanin led his band in playing Dixieland, swing and light rock 'n' roll for every presidential inauguration since Eisenhower's, except those of Jimmy Carter, who thought he was too expensive, and George W. Bush, who didn't invite him.

He serenaded Grace Kelly at her engagement party to Prince Rainier III of Monaco, as well as Prince Charles and Princess Diana at their wedding. He played at about 20,000 wedding receptions, 7,500 parties and 4,500 proms, and recorded more than 30 albums.

Over the years, Lanin also became a staple of the debutante party scene in New York City. It became customary to book him two years in advance.

One woman was so determined to book Lanin for her daughter's cotillion that she reserved him when the girl was 3 weeks old.

"She said, 'Put the date down: the St. Regis Hotel, 18 years from now,' " Lanin told the Associated Press in 1992. "Then, later, when people called me about the day ... I called her and asked her if there were any changes with the date. And she said no."

As many as 12 bands toured under his name at once. Even at the time of his death there were two, though Lanin stopped conducting in 2001. He once said he slept only an hour or two before hopping a plane to his next engagement.

Lanin recalled getting to know Grace Kelly while working for her father, Jack.

"She was about 8 years old and she would come in front of the band with a hamburger or an ice cream cone. And I used to play tunes for her, and all the men in the band loved her. Such a sweet girl," Lanin said.

Lanin estimated that he played the White House more than two dozen times and told an interviewer some years ago that the acoustics aren't great "so you have to play soft."

It was not uncommon for a Lanin orchestra to play until dawn. He once noted that he thought a debutante party that broke up before 5 a.m. was "a bomb."

But sometimes it could not be prevented.

Legendary in Lanin lore was the debutante ball in Texas when one of the guests was Charles Tandy, the founder of the Tandy Corp.

Tandy didn't want the night to end, so to keep the orchestra going, he stuffed large amounts of cash into Lanin's hands every hour. But the cash and the dancing stopped when Tandy collapsed on the floor. He died the next day.

Lanin called the incident "most unfortunate" and didn't like to discuss it.

Lanin was born in Philadelphia, the youngest of 10 boys. His father was a bandleader, as were six of his brothers.

He first intended to become a lawyer, but dropped out of school at 15 to play piano and drums with his brothers' bands.

He swore off many of the vices associated with the party life: "Smoking and alcohol and dope and sex, all no good for you," he said.

Before leading his own bands, he worked as a booking agent, employing such musicians as Louis Armstrong and Doc Severinsen.

He got his first big break in 1930, when he played at heiress Barbara Hutton's debutante party. Lanin was inducted into the Big Band Hall of Fame in Palm Beach, Fla., in 1993.

Lanin's brief marriage to Marilynn Weiss ended in divorce. He leaves no survivors.

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