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How Jacob Bernstein Covers New York Society

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Jacob Bernstein is fascinated by power, privilege and the people who wield both.

As a reporter for the Styles desk at The New York Times, Mr. Bernstein’s beat involves writing about influential figures — both past and present — of New York City.

In the last year, his coverage has included an exploration of the former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s “second career on the society circuit”; a profile of a Republican pundit turned liberal favorite, Alyssa Farah Griffin; and an article on the rise and fall of the hip-hop mogul Sean Combs.

“I don’t have a conventional beat where there’s one person or subject I’m covering all the time,” said Mr. Bernstein, 45. Often, he’s reporting late at night, from the spaces and places where privilege and power meet: parties.

As part of his job, Mr. Bernstein often writes about soirees on the New York party scene, such as Met Gala after-parties or the always-buzzy Vanity Fair Oscar party. Before joining The Times in 2013, Mr. Bernstein wrote for outlets including The Daily Beast, New York Magazine and Women’s Wear Daily, where he wrote a column about the magazine business.

In a phone conversation from the Hamptons, where he was reporting on the uproar surrounding a trendy members-only club, Mr. Bernstein shared why he has never grown bored of the society beat and his bold method for breaking the ice at, as he calls certain parties, “playgrounds of privilege.” These are edited and condensed excerpts.

Did you always want to become a journalist?

When I got out of college, I knew I was interested in narrative, and I knew I was interested in New York. Growing up in the city, I had experienced two very different versions of it: One was going to a fancy private school and being the child of famous people in journalism and film, and the other was being an openly gay kid at the end of the AIDS era.

I got my education as much at the Sound Factory, a nightclub on 27th Street, as I did at the Dalton School on Park Avenue. During college, I deejayed at the Tunnel. The way that world disappeared at the end of the ’90s — when all of those places got shut down — was part of a larger arc in which art lost the battle to money and then became it.

Your parents are Carl Bernstein and Nora Ephron, who died in 2012. Did having famous writers for parents make writing as an occupation more or less attractive to you?

My parents occupied prominent spots in the world I inhabit, and I don’t have any doubt it helped open doors. You can’t say it’s easier to not have connections any more than you can say it’s easier to be ugly than beautiful, or poor instead of rich.

At the same time, when the documentary I directed about my mother came out in 2015, the one review that really made me squirm said something about how my mother had cast a long shadow. That wouldn’t have been the case had it not, in certain ways, been true.

Mr. Bernstein said he was educated by the city he grew up in — and now reports on.Credit…Amir Hamja/The New York Times

What fascinates you about society in New York?

The story of this city, particularly over the last 40 years, is about a playground of incredible wealth — and you get to cover that fully as a person on the Styles desk whose beat isn’t fashion. So the entire life of the city is under my umbrella.

A lot of my writing is about Park Avenue fixtures like Steve Schwarzman or Agnes Gund, but I also want to do these pieces about people who are more on the periphery, such as a ballroom legend like Hector Xtravaganza — it’s two different sides of New York.

Your recent article chronicling how the art-world mogul Louise Blouin found herself unloading her Hamptons dream home in bankruptcy court was fascinating. How did you come up with the idea?

I was talking with my editors about doing a column on stuff sold through auction houses, and that’s when I began reporting. I’d known who she was back when she was building her art empire, and then I saw the house was being auctioned off through Sotheby’s. It quickly metastasized into a larger profile of a person who’d been kind of an avatar for the post-2000 art world bubble.

What’s the secret to great party reporting?

Just taking a beta blocker and walking up to that person you’re scared to walk up to. Sometimes you have a good question, and sometimes you don’t. It really almost doesn’t matter as long as you just break the ice.

I didn’t have a remotely good question when I walked up to Lauren Sánchez at the Vanity Fair Oscar party, so I just asked, “Do you have people stepping on your train all night long?” Her response was, “Sure, but it just bounces right back up.” It conveyed something enormously telling. The kinds of parties we cover are playgrounds of privilege, so my job is to show the humor and tragedy of that.

I’m sure there are many celebrities who would love to be profiled in The Times. How do you decide which narratives to pursue?

One thing I look for in potential stories is a subject who makes you think, “Maybe I missed something with him.” If someone’s been deified and isn’t wholly deserving, it makes for a really good story. The same goes for if someone’s been vilified. Maybe there’s something more redemptive to write about them.

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