The phrase ‘café society’, the title of a book in press, has for me always pointed to a form of bounded sociability. It is a classic example of what Oldenburg calls a ‘third place’. Revisiting C Wright Mills’ The Power Elite, however, I discovered an alternative and quite different meaning.
In the course of his discussion of ‘celebrity’ in 1950s America, Mills located ‘café society’ in ‘the restaurants and night clubs of New York City – from Fiftieth to Sixtieth streets, between Third Avenue and Sixth’. The term refers to a very particular type of ‘bounded sociability’:
‘in café society, the major inhabitants of the world of the celebrity – the institutional elite, the metropolitan socialite and the professional entertainer – mingle, publicly cashing in one another’s claims for prestige. It is upon café society that all the spotlights of publicity often coincide, spreading the glamour found there to wider publics. For in café society national glamour has become a hard fact of well-established business routines’.
The hierarchy of publicity, Mills argued, has overtaken hierarchies of descent and even wealth as far as the praxis of prestige is concerned. Café society is the pinnacle of the prestige system as well as being big business in its own right. There is of course much here of relevance to Britain and kindred consumer societies in the twenty-first century.
Mill remained aware, unsurprisingly, that prestige ‘is the shadow of money and power’. Members of the higher political, economic and military circles, comprising the power elite:
‘are celebrated because of the positions they occupy and the decisions they command. They are celebrities because they have prestige, and they have prestige because they are thought to have power and wealth. It is true that they, too, must enter the world of publicity, become material for the mass media, but they are sought as material almost irrespective of what they do on and to these media’.
So the power elite gives and receives prestige via publicity; and it does so nowhere more symbolically than in the company of showbiz and sporting superstars in café society.