The Hosting Hall of Fame

Our hostess with the mostess, an avid student of the art of entertaining, holds forth on her favorite party hosts of the modern age.

A bonus to writing a party-giving column is one can tax-deduct the purchase of glossy, unrealistic books about party-giving. My library includes the obvious choices—Carolyne Roehm, Colin Cowie, and she who needs no name—that blonde woman.

I was moved to tears of covetousness by a book I purchased recently, Soiree by Danielle Rollins. Have you seen it? It’s dazzling. The flowers! The napery! The hostess gowns! Every chapter documents a party—not a staged photo shoot but an actual party, one more gorgeous than the next—most of them given in the author’s historic Atlanta home.

When you see a photo of a lavish party, do you sometimes think “well, anyone could do that; all it takes is money?” The photos in this book do not have that effect. It’s obvious the author puts part of her own soul into her parties. I had the chance to meet her recently; she was so charming that all my envy evaporated.

In addition to the current divas of entertaining such as Danielle, Martha and Colin, hosts and hostesses of bygone times offer great inspiration. Here are some of my favorites of the 20th century.

The Fearless Mrs. Vreeland

Diana Vreeland, known for her sartorial and editorial genius, was a venerated hostess, famous for her cozy dinners for eight to 10 in her two-bedroom flat on Park Avenue. Although D.V. ran in wealthy circles, she didn’t have money until late in her life (“It never occurred to me to ask for a raise,” she said.), but her guests had no idea she was strapped for funds. My hunch is she was so imperial, so fearless as a hostess, she made all of her economy-driven choices look chic and intentional, a lesson for us all.

Before and after dinner, Mrs. Vreeland held court in her legendary living room, which was covered in red chintz fabric and filled with artwork, books and photographs. “She lives in an atmosphere of informal luxury confined in crowded quarters,” said Voguefashion editor Bettina Ballard, a frequent guest. “There is an aura of intimacy and mystery in which all conversation sounds important.” Just once, will someone please say that about my house on Harrison Street?

Mr. Capote’s Little Dance

Would you like to get back at everybody who has ever dissed you in your entire life? Throw an enormous masked ball with a glittering roster of guests from which all transgressors are pointedly omitted. To really rub it in, release the guest list the next day for publication in The New York Times. That’s what Truman Capote did in 1966 when he planned what is still being called the party of the century.

Capote’s Black and White Ball continues to be the subject of books, magazine pieces and blog posts. (And I think I have read them all.) Why do we still revere a party from which so many were excluded, given by a man who later betrayed almost everyone who ever trusted him? Answer that and you will unlock all the mysteries of human nature.

His Real Friends Called Him Nick

The writer Dominick Dunne and his wife were among those not invited to Capote’s ball, even though Dunne later claimed that Capote ripped the theme off from him, after having danced the night away, two years earlier, at the black-and-white party Dunne and his wife, Lenny, hosted in Beverly Hills to celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary. He makes a compelling case for it in The Way We Lived Then, a scrapbook-style memoir filled with snapshots of glam parties the Dunnes hosted and attended during the ’50s and ’60s. The star-studded photos, most shot by Dunne himself, are a fascinating moment in time: Mainbocher dresses, tuxedos, everyone smoking their heads off. In those days even the surgeon general was a three-pack-a-day man.

If you aspire to a sophisticated social life (and is that so wrong?), read everything you can get your hands on by Dominick Dunne, in my opinion one of the great American writers, party-goers, and societal commentators. I wish he were still alive, still writing.

A Salon is a Salon is a Salon

Nobody ever talks about the food Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas served at their fabled Saturday night salons, which just goes to show, once again, that a great party is not about the cuisine, it’s about the conversation. Guests originally came to see Stein’s radical art collection, but they stayed for the company, which included the most avant garde artists and writers of the day. Picasso, Hemingway and Matisse—then unknowns—were frequent attenders at 27 rue de Fleurus on the Left Bank of Paris.

A friend of Stein’s commented that she collected geniuses, not masterpieces, and that she could spot them a mile away. This is something I have noticed about great hosts and hostesses: they have an eye for people on their way up, and they include them at their parties.

Jack-cleen, Rhymes with Queen

Isn’t it astonishing that Jacqueline (she preferred it pronounced in the French manner) Kennedy was only 31 when she became First Lady? Her contributions to American fashion and culture are renowned, but she also knew exactly how to throw a dinner party. Dim those lights, she told the White House staff, and bring in some intimate, round dining tables, so people can actually talk to each other. Swap out those fussy flower arrangements for simple blooms, and light some Rigaud candles in the hallway. Invite the most interesting people in the country, instead of those we owe politically.We will not cave on this. And let’s hire a top French chef, whose food somehow, oddly, will perfectly represent American excellence.

How did she know to do all that? “The French know this, anybody knows this,” she said in a 1981 interview. “If you put busy men in an attractive atmosphere, where the surroundings are comfortable, the food is good, you relax, you unwind, there’s some stimulating conversation. You know, sometimes quite a lot can happen.” I would have said busy men and women. But other than that, my point exactly.

 


 

Truman Capote’s Decadent Chicken Hash

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To be served at midnight to famished party-goers.

I can’t believe I am giving you this recipe when I so recently waxed on about the merits of low-calorie party food. Mr. Capote, at his storied 1966 ball at The Plaza Hotel, ordered this dish (his favorite on the hotel’s menu) served to guests who had been drinking and dancing for hours. Don’t you just know they had been starving themselves for weeks to look elegant in their party clothes? Bet it hit the spot.

4 cups finely diced cooked chicken (white meat only)

1-1/2 cups heavy cream

1 cup bechamel sauce

2 teaspoons salt

1/8 teaspoon white pepper

1/4 cup dry sherry

1/2 cup Hollandaise sauce

Mix chicken, cream, bechamel sauce, and seasonings in a heavy skillet. Cook over moderate heat, stirring often for about 10 minutes. When moisture is slightly reduced, place skillet in a moderate oven 350 and bake 30 minutes. Stir in sherry and return to oven for 10 minutes. Lightly fold in Hollandaise sauce and serve at once. Makes 4-5 servings. Do not serve to your cardiologist.

Recipe from The Party of the Century: The Fabulous Story of Truman Capote and His Black and White Ball by Deborah Davis