|Antiques Digest||Browse Auctions||Appraisal||Antiques And Arts News||Home|
Party Planning And EntertainingBy Elsa Maxwell
( Originally Published 1957 )
I suppose I should know a little about the art of entertaining. I've been at it long enough. On and off for forty years I've been giving parties, some 2000 in all - big parties, little parties, fantastic parties, spectacular parties. Parties in New York, Hollywood, London, Paris, Monte Carlo, Cannes, Biarritz, Venice, Egypt. Parties reported in almost every newspaper and language under the sun, including Hindustani, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Arabic. (If I knew what they said, perhaps I wouldn't mention it!) Parties simple, parties gargantuan - but always gay parties, amusing parties, enjoyable parties. Above all, enjoyable. If I have a boast, it is that. For whatever the party - wherever the place, whoever the guests - I can truthfully say I have yet to give a dull one.
I know that for many people giving a party is a penance. For me it is pure happiness, pure pleasure. I love giving parties. I always have. I always shall. I have given them spontaneously, on the spur of the moment, or I have planned and staged them with all the strategy and tactics of a battle, together with a loving care and affection. When I eat my cake I like to enjoy it! Either way, people seem to find they like my parties, that I give good ones, that they want to come to them again and again. In short, that my parties are successful.
How has it all come about? How has a simple love of gaiety, a love of enjoyment and of wanting to bring enjoyment to others, earned me the title of World Party-Giver No. 1? I didn't ask for this mantle of champion party-giver; the world has pinned it on me. To me,entertaining has ever been second nature, merely "doing what comes naturally." I've done just that, and had a world of fun doing it. But with what reason? To what purpose?
Perhaps the answer lies in history.
"We are part of what has gone before," says that exquisite writer and wit, Oliver St. John Gogarty. "Portions and parcels of the past guide us and carry us on. . . . What we call the present is only a suburb of the past."
I believe that. I believe that in my predilection for bringing into the world a little more laughter, a little more color, a little more warmth, I am merely following in the footsteps of others; I am just another page in the long history of entertaining a story that began, let's face it, in the Garden of Eden, when Eve gave the first party of all with only an apple!
Since poor Eve unwittingly involved us in the fall of man, there have been hundreds, thousands of women -and men - whose place in time is forever marked by the bright stamp of pleasure they left on a not always pleasant world. They were not all good hosts; some of them were downright bad. But the spirit that moved them was the same: to amuse, to divert, to lighten hearts and hopes.
A great queen has been described by a phrase that puts the cachet on it all. She was Hatshepsut, who ruled Egypt nearly two thousand years before Christ. Queen Hatshepsut had many titles, among them "Bestower of Years, Goddess and Lady of All Lands, Renewer of Hearts." Renewer of Hearts! That is the one that appeals to me an appeal in no way diminished by the strong likelihood Hatshepsut wrote it herself. The phrase sings through the ages, touching the countless generations of people who have wakened one morning and thought, "I think I'll give a party - the best party ever!" I like to think that I am simply a twentiethcentury addition to that gaudy, wonderful crew - a sort of latter-day "Renewer of Hearts."
It was in Egypt one winter that I first became acquainted with my fascinating Hatshepsut and, caught up and imbued with the excitement of the incredible past about me, began to wonder if "portions and parcels of the past" had not indeed unconsciously guided me since the time some ten years before when I had begun to weave my little tapestry of entertaining.
What parties Hatshepsut gave! There was the one honoring the return of her expedition to the Land of Punt-Somaliland as we know it.
The five great-sailed and -oared galleys came home laden with ivory, gold, ebony, cassia, myrrh, green monkeys, greyhounds, leopards and, most precious of all, aromatic gum trees which would provide incense to honor the great god, Amen-Ra. (The gum trees were planted in the garden of the temple at Thebes, where they flourished and duly produced an abundance of fresh incense. Indeed, when I was there one of the supposed roots of the trees was pointed out to me.)
For the celebration, Hatshepsut, like any good hostess, planned ahead. She had sent artists with the expedition to make on-the-spot sketches, and these she had reproduced in sculpture and mosaics in her temple, so that the travelers at her party could live again in the scene of their triumph. She knew the importance of creating a pleasing backdrop for her guests, the enchantment of make-believe.
As keeper of the state purse, I'm sure the canny Hatshepsut kept an eye on expenses; but she had the queenly advantage of not having to engage high-priced entertainers for her party. Dancing girls and musicians were fixtures at her court and guests were treated throughout the feast to the eye-filling sight of beautiful girls with lilies in their hair swaying to the rhythms of harp and flute and that considerably less melodic disc-andwire instrument, the sistrum.
For her party Queen Hatshepsut dressed as a queen should, in a flowing, richly-colored robe, her long hair braided and curled, on top of her head a lump of sweet-scented unguent which must have been tricky to balance, though a great aid to good posture. So she sat, regal in her great carved, claw-andball-footed throne, while the lesser of her guests made do with the fold-away chairs whose progeny may be seen today at our best church suppers. Lying down while eating was never the chic thing with Egyptians that it was later to become among the Greeks and Romans. Men talked politics and money. Women talked eternals. Women who were strangers to each other observed custom: How many children? they asked politely.... And how difficult were the confinements? ... Doubtless it broke the ice.
No post-dinner letdown marred the rollicking pace of Hatshepsut's party. For those who drank and ate too much - and that was most of the guest list - a vomitorium was handy; eat, drink, and be sick seemed to be the Egyptian idea of a perfect party. Then, digestive problems solved, they could get to the more colorful diversions of the evening, such as tossing a handful of virgins into the Nile to appease the gods' and the crocodiles' appetites. (To the Egyptians, nothing was too good for a crocodile. They considered them sacred and even bedecked their necks, like dowagers, with collars of emerald.)
Hatshepsut was no wager of wars, no bloodstained conqueror. To me, it is significant that a woman who so clearly attached importance to the art of entertaining made her reign noteworthy by still nobler arts, chief among them the art of peace. She brought tranquillity and beauty to an age strange to both. Her temple at Karnak is among the wonders of Egypt, and one of the great obelisks she built, the highest and finest of its kind, still stands.
I like to think that such a woman spent her post-dinner hours in quieter pursuits than a bit of good-natured human sacrifice. Once I came across her backgammon board, and felt a glow of personal friendship between us. She, too, must have enjoyed an after-dinner gamble as I do. (In point of accuracy I must add that I believe it was a draughts board. No matter; I have won and lost a few dollars at that, too.)
Externals change, but the human heart does not. It's an old truth and one we all rediscover from time to time in our lives, yet never have I been made so vividly aware of it as when I stumbled on the records left by this ancient queen and realized fully for the first time how ageless and honored is the heredity of entertaining. Four thousand years ago, could not Hatshepsut have chosen to reward the achievements of her travelers merely with titles and lands, the customary royal perquisites? She could have; no doubt she did. But she didn't stop there. She added to her thanks the most heart-warming gesture of gratitude a woman can make: she gave a party.
Run a finger down history's long index; note the great periods; and note, as I have-to my pleasure, and with perhaps a forgivable bit of smugness - that they were all periods in which women figured importantly, and the art of entertaining rode high. (I shall have to except the years of Victoria's reign. Unquestionably they were great years, yet during them entertaining as an aid to cheer rode somewhere well below the Plimsoll line.)
The Greeks, in the heyday of their greatness, greeted each other with the words Chaire! Komos! ("Rejoice! Revel!") They did just that. Celebrations honoring their numerous gods and goddesses were as much a part of their lives as breathing. During these festivals - and they occurred just about as often as it took to recover from the last one - whole cities spilled into the streets, dancing and drinking, feasting and loving and singing, shouting their joy to Zeus and Dionysius and Aphrodite, most of all to the fates that had made them Greek and therefore blessed among men. It was not, sad to say, a period in which the average woman could show her best party-giving hand. Married women were virtually house-bound by a patriarchal society, yet it was a society in love with pleasure and, as such, forced to acknowledge that, without women, pleasure was a pretty empty pursuit.
Drinking clubs were one alternative. There a Greek gentleman found other conveniences than a chance for a friendly tipple. He might dine, for example, on such delicacies as shark meat and eels, make a ritual of conversation, and contemplate to his heart's content the singular talents of the auletrides - the dancing girls who played the flute and sang.
For rich men there was even fairer game. The glamour girls of Greek society were the hetaerae, those remarkable women who found the only independence possible to them by staying single, using their beauty as nature intended, and adding to natural endowments the pretty arts of conversation. They were the true hostesses of their time, and proof enough - if proof be needed - that, however much men may profess to scorn the sex it dubs "weaker," they still cannot get along without women -and, in particular, women who know the whys and wherefores of entertaining. Indeed, a few Greek men had the grace, even then, to acknowledge the superiority of women as social fence-menders. Thus in Aristophanes' great play, Lysistrata, we have that wily lady bringing about the signing of a peace treaty that men had sought unsuccessfully for years. How did Lysistrata do it? Why, with wine. She simply got them all a little drunk and so happy they'd sign anything.
It was the Romans who finally restored to women a place of honor at the banquet table, if only at the foot. Perhaps the men of Rome were simply conceding a truth learned from their Greek predecessors - that you can't keep a good woman down. The fact is that women serve men well, and men well know it. It may be going too far to suggest that any or all three of Caesar's wives contributed measurably to the great dictator's greatness, yet it is surely not inconceivable that at his table the right dish put before the right ambassador at the right time might have gained favor where favor was sought. Caesar could hardly have taken time out from wars and conquest and lawmaking to learn whether a guest preferred his flamingo tongues with or without garlic. Women could, and did. Who can say what political mishaps were averted, what appeasements arrived at, simply because Calpurnia put her talents as a hostess to work?
I must say she went overboard, by modern standards anyway. If, for example, there were to be twelve honored personages at dinner and each had a different preference in food, twelve different dishes would be served. To each his own: shellfish ragout to one, sheep's head to another, and so on down the list through shark's liver, whole spit-roasted lamb, scallops and oysters, sea urchins, snails. As a hostess I can't say I recommend catering to the individual palate of each and every guest, but I do most heartily commend the spirit that moved Calpurnia: like Hatshepsut, she sought only to please her guests. And in doing so, she pleased herself.
Nearly a thousand years passed before there came again a civilization with the capacity for living life in a manner Queen Hatshepsut would have applauded. The Renaissance burst like a phoenix from the murky ashes of the Middle Ages and brought with it a galaxy of men and women more dazzling than any the world had seen before or is likely to see again.
Lorenzo the Magnificent, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Gutenberg, Columbus - the very names spell greatness. Yet to me it is the women of the Renaissance to whom their twentieth-century sisters owe the loudest salute. Roman women had taken a few bold if hesitant steps towards emancipation, but their gains had all but disappeared in the wasteland of the Dark Ages. Now again appeared women with the wit to perceive that a permanent position in the back seat obscured the view. Moreover, they had the brains to do something about it.
Isabella d'Este was scarcely out of her teens when she assumed virtual rule of Mantua (her husband, the Duke of Mantua, wasn't very bright) and was shortly being called la prima donna del mondo -" the first lady of the world."
Isabella set the style for Renaissance women. She was an accomplished poet and writer of prose, she played the clavichord and lute and danced with such airy grace she was poetically credited with having wings. She drew the finest painters and poets and musicians to her court, and built an imposing collection of manuscripts, statues, and paintings. She also collected dwarfs. She was, in fact, so mad about dwarfs that she went to considerable expense to have a six-room suite built to their measure in the palace, complete with chapel. Understandably this foible did not catch on, but her otherwise exemplary social conduct did. Women took avidly to culture. They studied the arts, perfected dancing, trained their voices. They cultivated all the most seemly elegances of manner and speech and, determined to hold their own, sat with stiff upper lips when their husbands' talk shifted from the polite to the ribald.
The result was that men gave ground. In deference to their obdurate ladies, they now took to the practice of fine manners and fine talk. Bel parlare became as admired among men as it was among women, and this new awareness of beauty reflected itself in their clothes, their personal grooming, the very food they ate. The Renaissance man became a gourmet of the first order, even learning to appreciate the advantages of the newfangled fork. His rough-and-tumble sports gave way to the more genteel pastimes of cards, chess, dancing, fencing. Yet with it all he lost none of his vigor, his masculine aggressiveness. He'd been a rough-cut stone. Now, with women wielding the buffer, he simply acquired luster. And it lasted. Thanks to Isabella and her sisters in bond, the mannerly arts were with us to stay.
One use Isabella didn't think of for her dwarfs was serving them for dinner. That whimsy was reserved for the ever-resourceful French when their own great age arrived. In the eighteenth century, elegance and wit were the keynotes of the French court, and chefs applied both to their cuisine. A dish that never failed to draw cries of delight was an enormous cake from which dwarfs jumped out on cue to entertain and titillate the guests.
The eighteenth century was not, in fact, as all-fired gay as is popularly supposed. There were endless bloody little wars, stiff taxes, wretched poverty among the peasants. Yet few but scholars identify the period with hard times. To most of us, the century brings to mind the glitter of Versailles, apogee of the life beautiful-with its mirrored halls, its marbles and crystal and gilt, its swan lakes set in perfumed parks where stately fountains played and bejeweled and beribboned ladies and gentlemen strolled to the melodies of violin and flute.
Certainly it was a time for greatness, and it met the challenge with many great men. Yet of all the names that dot its history, none shine brighter than the women who lent it glamour: La Valliere, Madame de Montespan, La Pompadour, Du Barry. Today when we think of the Revolution we are apt to think first neither of Robespierre nor of the luckless Marat, but of the still more luckless Marie Antoinette and her irritable advice to "Let 'em eat cake!" (What she actually said, if she said it at all, was: "Let 'em eat brioche." No matter. In a story, it's endurance that counts.)
What is fascinating and to the point in all this is that, though wars are fought, famines endured, monarchs overthrown, it is the givers of pleasure, the bringers of beauty, the gay at heart who endure. These are history's darlings. Now I have no intention of defending the disdainful and rather stupid point of view that brought on Marie Antoinette's callous little epigram, nor even the ostrichlike attitude of the other pleasureloving ladies of the French court. The kindest thing that can be said for them is that they didn't know any better. What politics they understood were power politics. Their world was the satin-cushioned world of privilege by divine right. Yet for all the extravagance of their balls and tableaux, their intentions were good: it was their timing that was out of kilter.
History has a way of dishing up the cream and ignoring the milk. So if in giving you this pocket-edition peek into the great periods in the history of entertaining I have touched only on the rich and royal, it is simply because in those days you had either to be somebody, or at least able to afford a big splash, before you were considered qualified for posterity. Yet the high and the mighty have no monopoly on pleasure. Far from it. In the final analysis, it is not the who but the why that counts in entertaining. It is not the money you spend, nor the prestige you may reap -it is what is in your heart. More, it is what you leave in the hearts of others.
Of all the parties I have given, there is one that stands out in my memory as perhaps the most rewarding of all. Certainly it was the smallest. I had a guest list of one! Yet never have I known a happier fulfillment in my role as hostess than I did on that evening when I entertained a girl I had never seen before, and may never see again.
Her name, let's say, was Alice. Alice was young, a widow, and having a heavy time of it making ends meet in the Brooklyn flat she shared with a friend. One day I received a letter from her. She knew, she said, how much I love music, that I went often to concerts and the opera. She had read in my column about the places I dined and the people I met. "Oh, once, just once," she wrote, "to spend an evening as you do!"
So I invited her to do just that.
I booked seats at Carnegie Hall for a concert Toscanini was to conduct. Before the concert we dined at El Morocco and Alice had the time of her young life watching the parade of Hollywood and Broadway and society that came and went. People stopped at our table to chat: Walter Winchell, Leonard Lyons, a former governor of Pennsylvania; and when, as we were about to leave for our concert, Alice came face to face with Betty Grable I nearly had to assist my little friend into our taxi.
I don't think two people ever had a better time. It was a beautiful evening, an evening surrounded by elegance, from the perfection of the food on which we dined to the perfection of the music we heard; and when it was over Alice told me she had never spent a finer, happier few hours in her life. Well, she no more than I. That night there was not one, there were two hearts renewed.
Now I am aware that it is a far cry from a Theban temple to El Morocco. Yet I like to feel that what Queen Hatshepsut accomplished on a long-ago night in Thebes, I too accomplished that evening in New York when I was able to bring to a lonely young woman some of the beauty, some of the elegance, some of the romance, if you will, she so yearned for. For there is romance in elegance; and today, I am sorry to say, there is far too little of both in the routine of our daily lives. Yet I sincerely believe that by entertaining we can all bring the romance of elegance a little closer.
Party-giving isn't simply a matter of trotting out the best china, the wedding-present linen, and hoping for the best. It is loving. It is giving. It is sharing. It is everybody's chance to light a little candle in the sometimes gloomy corners of the world. Someone has said that life itself is a party: you join after it's started and you leave before it's finished. Well, when it comes my turn to leave this longest of all parties, I can hope for no better epitaph than the one the late Frederick Lonsdale, a little prematurely to be sure, once wrote for me:
"She knocked on the door of history," he said, "and made a part of our century gayer with her entertaining. Hers was the fame of a thousand and one nights - and never a dull one." And should someone care to add to that, "Renewer of Hearts," I hereby submit my heartfelt thanks.