A Chicago philanthropist is queen for a day

I'm a huge fan of historical fiction and devour any books by Philippa Gregory, Bernard Cornwell and C.W. Gortner. There's something about the 17th and 18th centuries that completely captivate me. I love the intrigue, the gowns and the balls and the delicious decadence of the royals. And on April 23, I felt like I'd stepped right into the pages of one of these novels at the magnificent black-tie party to celebrate one of Chicago's most beloved arts patrons, Janet L. Melk.

For Jan's 80th birthday bash, the theme revolved around a Venetian Masquerade Ball and it was hosted at the Vanderbilt Mansion on Fisher Island. Access there, as many of you know, is by ferry only and security was tight for the 100+ guests who made their way there from all across the country.

The scene could've been painted by Watteau it was so elegant--women in flowing gowns with delicate masks were everywhere you looked and the men all looked so handsome in their impeccable tuxes. The birthday girl was a vision in a strapless cream gown with silver sparkles on top and white feathers fluttering all the way down to the ground. Jan's diamond necklace and gilded mask, held daintily on a stick, completed her lovely ensemble.

Guest Carrie Lannon's mask was made of delicate black lace that she had hand-cut and strategically glued right onto her pretty face. Jan's daughter-in-law, Sarah Melk, was a stand-out with her whole head covered in peacock feathers that framed her face, topped off with a sparkling choker necklace. Leslie Hindman looked chic in a floor-length navy Oscar de la Renta, a diamond brooch and bracelet. Michel Desjardins and Pierre "Peanut" Desy wore black and gold masks that they had purchased in Venice for the occasion. Jan's daughter Cindy Melk looked fashionable, as always, in a floor-length creme-colored gown with cut-outs that perfectly matched her ivory mask.

Several guests stayed at The Palms and limousine trolley transportation was thoughtfully provided to the island. Upon arrival, men colorfully dressed as pages announced attendees with a blast of trumpets and a "hear-ye, hear-ye." I tell you, it was something straight out of a fairytale and one you hoped would never end.

During the reception, partygoers clinked champagne glasses and chatted under the banyon trees while dozens of peacocks roosted overhead. Their haunting sounds added to the soundtrack of the night and created even more drama. A Venetian backdrop, complete with a gondola manned by handsome gondoliers provided an enchanting photo opp (at the end of the night, guests were gifted with these photo memories).

Soon it was time for the black-tie crowd to make its way to dinner--they entered through a gauntlet of performance artists and a royal blue canopy with Jan's initials in gold. The room was decorated in a style suited to Queen Marie Antoinette. Dramatic arrangements of colorful flowers topped tables with tiny Venetian masks peeking out from among the opulent blooms. Underneath an overflowing sweets table, a huge gilded portrait of the Queen with Jan's face superimposed delighted partygoers as they popped out their Iphones to record the moment.

Dancers dressed as ladies and gentlemen of an 18th century court, wearing powdered wigs and flowing white gowns, glided across the dance floor as minuets and music of the era played. A pre-recorded video of Jan's friends sharing their thoughts about the woman of the hour brought laughter and tears from the crowd and included comments from Dr. Michael O'Meara and Margaret O'Connor, Michel Desjardins and Pierre Desy, Leslie Hindman, Helen Melchior, Sarah and Tom Melk, Deb and Tom Gross, Christine Ott, Dawn Mattozzi, Cindy Melk, Emmanuel Nony and Chuck and me among others.

Jan's son, Tom Melk delivered a heartfelt speech about his mom calling her someone who came from humble circumstances, but "wrote her own story" and encouraged all around her to "live life to its fullest." He described her as a "mother, a belly dancer, a business woman, a traveler, an expat, a wise woman, a partier, a seeker of knowledge and an adventurer in life." Jan thanked her many friends for attending and for being a part of her life. She shared her favorite quote from the poem "Dash" by Linda Ellis. She said, "There are two dates on our tombstones, our date of birth and date of death. These dates aren’t what really matters. It’s “the dash”, those years in between and what you do with them, that does."

Following dinner, one of the best dance bands we've ever heard kept the crowd on the dance floor until the wee hours. I went to sleep with dreams of royalty and the song "Cake by the Ocean" playing in my head. This, my friends, was a party we will not soon forget.

Love and congrats to Jan Melk, not only for being such a dear friend, but for being so inspirational and giving to so many in Chicago and beyond.

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