Forgotten Web Celebrities: Courtney Pulitzer
Once upon a time, a woman named Courtney Pulitzer, descendant of the famed journalist Joseph Pulitzer, became the most influential woman in Silicon Alley, and the most important Web Celebrity in New York.
Her beginnings were modest: in the early 1990's, she'd been a Web designer working for a small company with a couple of Madison Avenue clients. Shortly thereafter, she wrote a social column for @NY, a New York-based technology magazine with no real circulation beyond its Web site. But on August 9, 1995, Netscape went public, opening up an invisible channel linking the billions of dollars gathering lint in the pockets of Wall Street brokers with the Manhattan-based, mouse-wielding entrepreneurs who bravely stepped forward to spend it.
Music and revolution were in the air, and Courtney, pounding out her social column in her cramped cube, could clearly sense the changes in Manhattan's mood. One night, she ventured out into the darkness to sample this new world, awash in money, sex, and the sweet madness that only gathers when fabulously wealthy young people stride into the night to claim it as their own.
Being an attractive woman in a world where most men's experience of females came from the thumb-smeared advice columns of Maxim or the pixelated images of hard-core porn sites, Courtney found it easy to infiltrate the lavish parties given by freshly-minted Alley-based startups. She began carrying a notebook, and jotted down who was seen with whom, what they ate, what they drank, and what they talked about. She transferred her musings into an email newsletter she named The Cyber Scene and began firing it out to people she knew.
To the socially-starved geeks of New York, The Cyber Scene newsletter was a refreshing alternative to the flame wars, sanctimonious posturing, and mind-numbing, nit-picking technical squabbles that were endemic on New York's New Media mailing lists. The Cyber Scene's writing might have seemed goofy to those whose only daily chuckle came from studying broken IP packets, but most people loved it because it gave to each of them the sense that they weren't just cube-bound Netslaves trapped in a world of bits, but members of a "scene" with a world-historical mission. Membership soared and The Cyber Scene quickly became the most widely-forwarded newsletter in Silicon Alley.
For the next year, like some latter-day reincarnation of J.J. Hunsecker or Walter Winchell, Courtney Pulitzer raced up and down Manhattan in a limousine, chronicling the gin-soaked, IPO-stoked hedonism of New York's ascendant class of 20-somethings, telling told the world Who was Who. Her breathlessly hectic nightly journeys were best documented in a Business Week article entitled "Six Parties a Night? It's a Living."
But going to other people's parties wasn't enough for Courtney. She soon launched her own branded parties, dubbed "Cocktails with Courtney." These parties glued together the money men, the mouse-and-modem men, and the young women with dollar signs in their eyes who hoped to hook up with them, no matter how drunk they got, and were an instant success among the paper-rich and cyber-horny.
People - those with money and those who wanted it - flocked to the parties, and soon Pulitzer had become a Web celebrity in her own right. "In just a year," wrote Red Herring, "rubbing shoulders with Ms. Pulitzer and her cohorts has become a de rigeur for established executives and hopeful entrepreneurs alike." Wrote Business 2.0: "Courtney's monthly cocktail event is known as the newcomers' first stop when making their way inside the business and social network of the alley."
At the height of her fame as "hostess to tomorrow's billionaires," The New Yorker, whose coverage of the Internet had always been execrable, ran a full-page spread of her wearing a full-length, fire-engine red evening gown. At a black-tie dinner, Mayor Rudi Guiliani called her "Manhattan's Breath of Fresh Air." Soon she was hosting parties not just in New York, but in Atlanta, Boston and San Francisco. America seemed completely smitten by her hospitality -- would not the world be next?
Of course, that's not the way it worked out. When the NASDAQ peaked and fell in March of 2000, all of the partying stopped, and the big Internet hangover began. For someone like Courtney Pulitzer, who had done nothing to challenge the media's definition of her as "Silicon Alley's ultimate party girl," her suffering must have been acute.
Still, she tried to persevere. She turned her back on the party scene and tried to organize nanotechnology conferences. She archived the many hundreds of pictures taken at her parties and offered them to the world as a gift. She even launched a site called SiliconAlleyReunion.com, a wistful gesture to a world that no longer cared about her.
Her own site, Courtney Pulitzer Creations, is looking more than a little melencholy these days. CyberScene TV, a cable TV channel she attempted to launch, is completely dysfunctional and replete with broken links. TheCyberScene.com, a site prominently linked to from within her site, has been decomissioned. Her press clips area has not been updated in five years. And perhaps most sadly, her most recent CyberScene newsletter bears the date stamp of August 6th, 2004.
To many, Courtney Pulitzer is an unforgivable icon of yesterday: a painful time which the world, especially those still active in the technology industry, would prefer to pretend never happened. But those who witnessed the once-in-a-lifetime madness that overtook New York in the late 1990's, a hallucinogenic fever which had not happened since the Jazz age, will never forget her.
She beyond all the others realized that the real business of networking has nothing to do with RJ-45 connectors or Ethernet cards or Web sites or business plans, but with people, flawed, driven, desperately lonely, crowded into tight spaces, played upon by dancing blue lights, intoxicated by liquor, speaking in strange tongues of the future: America's one and only real God, that invisible force that can be placated only by work, a smile and a handshake, or a well-placed bet on a Lotto ticket or a penny-stock.
Times and technologies may change, but the principle that Courtney Pulitzer discovered is forever unalterable. Using nothing more high-tech than old-fashioned gossip, an unquenchable instinct to party and a brilliant smile, she was the one who made much of what became New York's New Media scene happen for as long a time as Fate would allow it.
Unfortunately, as Walter Winchell noted, "nothing recedes like success."