Congress Park looked a little like Manhattan Friday evening, and not just because of “Tiffany & Co.” emblazoned over the entrance to Canfield Casino.
Fans of socialite and philanthropist Marylou Whitney mobbed the walkway before she even got out of her yellow cab, much like a throng of pedestrians spilling across Fifth Avenue when the light turns green.
“God bless you!” one woman yelled. Others snapped pictures and one woman got Whitney’s autograph, which she signed with a black-gloved hand.
“She is our rock star,” said Frank Demetrowitz of Clifton Park. “It’s so good to have her here, because we thought we were going to lose her for a while.”
Whitney wore a form-fitting black sleeveless dress similar to the one Audrey Hepburn donned for the 1961 movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
The dress was vintage, as was the jeweled collar necklace she bought from the late socialite Mollie Wilmot’s estate.
Whitney, despite her 80-some years and a stroke suffered four years ago, waded into the crowd with husband John Hendrickson and handed out baubles as she traditionally does for her annual gala, which is held at Canfield Casino on the eve of the Whitney at Saratoga Race Course.
Last year the couple canceled the party because it seemed insensitive to show such opulence during the recession. The only other year since 1960 that she hasn’t had the party was in 2006 when Whitney suffered a stroke.
About 200 people waited for her arrival in a yellow Checker cab and clamored for the trinkets and large faux diamonds that Whitney and assistants handed out to the crowd.
“I just think she’s a wonderful lady and I like to see her and see what her theme is each year,” said Jannie Daggs of Cohoes, who set up a folding chair near Whitney’s entry point and got a photo of her through the cab window.
Daggs is a Saratoga Springs native who comes to Congress Park every year to see Whitney arrive. She said her family has lived in Saratoga starting in the 1800s.
“This is home.”
She approved of the Breakfast at Tiffany’s theme.
“It’s different,” she said. “It reminds me of New York. With Marylou, it should be Tiffany’s.”
On this chilly, breezy night, guests drove up to the valets and entered on foot through the entryway flanked with oversized blue-wrapped boxes.
They included retired jockey Jerry Bailey, horse trainer Wayne Lukas, horse industry leaders, local politicians, including U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, and local business leaders like Adirondack Trust President Charles Wait.
Inside, the casino was decked out with a New York City streetscape and pale Tiffany blue napkins, ribbons and tablecloths on each table. Crystal lamps served as the centerpieces.
Whitney said she hadn’t seen the room until she entered Friday night, minutes before the press was allowed inside for a brief glimpse before the guests arrived.
“I’m just in awe,” she said.
“My imagination and your money, baby,” Hendrickson deadpanned, eliciting a big laugh out of his wife.
“He has a wonderful sense of humor,” she said.
Whitney spoke slowly and clearly during interviews, and appeared to be feeling well, basking in the limelight and growing especially animated once daughter Cornelia sat down next to her.
She knew “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” author Truman Capote and said she and several other young party girls in Manhattan were the inspiration for Holly Golightly, the main character played by Hepburn in the movie.
“There were about 12 of us,” Whitney said at the party. “It was a time of nightclubs in New York.”
She recalled with a smile eating a free dinner at The Stork Club of a “chicken burger” and “half a bottle of bad champagne.”
After World War II, 20-year-olds like Whitney let loose.
“During the war, a lot of us were teenagers,” she explained. “A lot of the good times, we couldn’t have.”
They made up for it afterward, welcoming “the boys” home from the war and partying until the wee hours.
“It was probably one of the best eras I’ve ever known.”
Whitney and Hendrickson spend about 21⁄2 to 31⁄2 months in Saratoga every year at their Cady Hill estate on Geyser Road.
“Every time we come to Saratoga, she says, ‘I’m home,’ ” Hendrickson said.
Whitney started holding the party in 1960, and she paid to have air conditioning put in Canfield Casino.
Before the party, singers and dancers entertained people who waited for Whitney’s arrival and those who just happened to wander by.
“We heard there were nice dresses,” said Kelly McKinney of Buffalo, who was visiting for the weekend with friend Kimberly Steck. The two came for the spas.
“We knew nothing about the track,” Steck admitted.
The Gilligan family of Manhattan is in town for the weekend because their friend owns a horse running today.
“This is exciting for us,” said Melissa Gilligan, whose husband, two children and niece were also along.