It was a party like any other, host Malcolm Forbes shrugged, just bigger and more expensive. But for most of the VIPs who helped the publishing mogul celebrate his 70th birthday at his gleaming palace in Tangier on Aug. 19, 1989, it was really more like an all-expenses-paid field trip to a world that was, even by their own affluent standards, unfathomably opulent.
Barely 24 hours before, most of the 800-plus invitees — an assortment of glossy personalities that included Barbara Walters, Walter Cronkite, Oscar de la Renta, and three U.S. governors — had crammed into three Morocco-bound jets chartered by Forbes at a reported cost of $1 million. ”Malcolm had a lot of money, and he loved spending it,” explains Cosmopolitan editor in chief Helen Gurley Brown, who attended with her husband, Hollywood producer David Brown. ”His parties were always special, and I think people knew that Morocco would be an especially scrumptious happening.”
Honorary hostess Elizabeth Taylor, glittering expensively in an emerald green caftan that made her look like one of the host’s prized Faberge eggs, set the standard for glamour, while Forbes delivered on his promise of luxury. Six hundred tambourining belly dancers and a cavalry of sword-bearing guards swarmed around the grounds; guests relaxed under bedouin tents. Around midnight, opera diva Beverly Sills sang ”Happy Birthday.” Soon after a 16-minute fireworks display, the party was over.
Boy, was it. Back in the U.S., a backlash was brewing. Press reports and magazine features had depicted the celebration as a capitalist bacchanal, an image that network footage of carousing celebrities did little to dispel. The public debated the morality of such flagrant excess — and the editorials flew when Forbes claimed that since so many of the guests advertised in Forbes magazine, most of his $2 million in expenses were tax deductible. In the end, Forbes never did try to write off the party, perhaps because of the sudden flak. ”He did not expect that,” says Brown. ”He was just horrified that there was so much complaining.”
Like so many of the guests, Henry Kissinger wondered what Forbes would do to ”top it on his 75th.” As it turned out, Tangier was the multimillionaire’s last bash. He suffered a heart attack and died in his sleep Feb. 24, 1990, at Timberfield, his 40-acre estate in Far Hills, N.J. At the star-studded memorial service in Manhattan, Robert Forbes, one of Malcolm’s five children, said, ”It’s been a hell of a party, Pop.”
Time Capsule: August 19, 1989
Uncle Buck was the favorite at the box office; TV viewers were intoxicated by Cheers; Richard Marx’s ”Right Here Waiting” lingered at the top of the singles chart; and John le Carre readers moved into the Russia House.