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Analyzing Some PartiesBy Elsa Maxwell
( Originally Published 1957 )
You can throw away that book of etiquette if you wish me to be your guide to the secrets of successful entertaining. I'd say that slavish adherence to the dos and don'ts of etiquette as laid down by the rulebooks has doomed more parties than anything else. Time and again outmoded conventions of etiquette are the reason parties are so terrible, so boring, such flops, why so many people find custom hanging like wet seaweed on their hands.
I am not talking about the etiquette that prescribes simple good manners. Abandon the tried-and-true precepts of courtesy and tact, and you will make yourself about as endearing socially as a typhoid carrier at a house party. No, what I declare war on is the etiquette that ordains a fixed, inflexible pattern on the way in which this or that kind of party must be given - the etiquette that states, for example, that hot breads may never be served at a tea where there is dancing, that before a dinner the hostess must remain standing, thereby keeping the gentlemen on their reluctant feet, that when the guest of honor leaves all must leave, whether they or the hostess like it or not. What should a party be, in heaven's name? A good time, or an exercise in discipline?
Rigid standards of procedure are all very well for royalty and high officialdom. They are fatal to the party given with the pure and unbeguiled aim to please. Queen Victoria was an imposing jewel in the British crown, I know, but she threw a pall of stiff-necked etiquette over two continents that clings to the traditionalists among us to this day. I had tea once with that Queen of Etiquette, Emily Price Post. I found Mrs. Post charming, but her party wasn't exactly gay. Nothing creative has ever yet come out of blind obedience to custom. Yet still today I know of people who entertain - if that is the word - in the same joyless, stodgy, oh-so-correct fashion that turned nineteenth-century drawing rooms into the overstuffed shrines to boredom they were.
It was the monotony of most people's parties that drove me to invent my own. Early in my party-giving career I made up my mind to break the rules that bound entertaining to formula dullness. I dare say that often enough I've done the wrong thing, at least by conventional standards, yet in party-giving as in everything else it is results that count, and I have no intention of being modest about the results I've had. I give good parties, and they are good because they don't conform, they don't hew to the line of hidebound precedent. They don't, in short, bore.
Give people what they don't expect is my advice if you would succeed as a hostess. Throw out all the rules, except those that discretion and good taste demand, and you will swim to the top. Don't try to keep up with the Joneses. Make the Joneses keep up with you - if you care at all about the Joneses. Take the lead. Put your imagination to work. Nowadays the tendency to conform is an appalling threat to individuality. Get off the assembly line, I say, and turn out parties that are custom-made to your personality, your taste, your pocketbook.
That old bugbear, money, is the most common defense I hear from women who are afraid to give parties simply because they can't afford to entertain on a gilt-edged scale. Nonsense. All the money in the world doesn't make a good hostess. If wealth were all, Barbara Hutton would have put me in the shade years ago. Money doesn't make a good party. You do. If I were to give ten thousand dollars to some people I know and tell them to spend it all on a party, the party would still be a flop. But if I were to ask Cole Porter, for instance, to play host to a Dutch treat party, guests to bring their own food and drink, all would be a-bubble till break of day. In entertaining as in finance there is a sort of Gresham's Law at work; in entertaining it is not bad money, but money badly spent, that will condemn the most expensively backed party to social oblivion.
I have given parties when I hadn't two pennies to rub together - and I haven't so many more now - crazy, childish parties like the one at which a group of cabinet ministers had the time of their sedate lives blowing feathers off an outstretched sheet. True, I have also given parties that would have cost others tens of thousands - parties for kings, statesmen, for assorted nabobs from the arts and from society; yet, I repeat, it was not the sum at the foot of the bill I didn't always get that made them good parties. It was because they were different. They offered the unexpected. When I give parties I like to surprise, to astonish, to epater or delight, as the French say. Certainly, also, there is the ever-present determination to top the last party I gave.
"Where in the world do you get your ideas?" is a question I am often asked. Well, to that I can only answer, "Out of my head," and that is a piece of equipment on which I have no monopoly. Anyone can find a novel idea if he'll only go looking for it. To illustrate, I am going to tell you about some of the parties I look back on with special affection because each was, in its own way, unique. Let me first, however, anticipate those who will complain, "It is all very well for Elsa Maxwell to give such parties, but how is it possible for me?" I agree that some of these parties were on a generally prohibitive scale. Yet I say again. In party-giving it is not money but imagination that counts. I used my imagination when I planned these parties. And there is not one of them in which the basic idea could not be adapted to the facilities of the average household and budget. Later on I will make some suggestions as to how.
I suppose it must be my lifelong devotion to the cause of unseating riders of very high horses that accounts for my predilection for leveling devices at parties: games, contests, fancy dress are all great levelers. No one, for instance, is going to stand long on dignity while he is engaged in demonstrating his technique at dunking doughnuts into coffee, which was the sole purpose of one party I remember with pleasure.
The uninhibited twenties, which have come to be associated with all sorts of sinful goings-on among the rich, were, as a matter of fact, the heyday of the innocent pastime at parties. Nowadays party games are commonly left to the children, while their parents content themselves with the statelier diversions of dining, drinking, looking at television, occasionally breaking the routine with excursions onto a dance floor or to a card table. All very pleasant things to do, but how very much more fun can be had from life by climbing out of the adult rut now and then, doing something delightfully unadult for a change. "Make me a child again just for tonight" is a wish that psychiatrists no doubt view with pain; but, take it from me, acting on it is the greatest mental therapy there is. What is more, when a party is joined in some gay and lively enterprise, however foolish, there is a lot less senseless drinking done, and a lot more enjoyment for all as a result.
Well, there have been all kinds.
There was the game I staged in London one year in the twenties that began on an ominous note but resulted in a fad that was still going strong into the forties when the war apparently shelved it. Lady Diana Cooper, Blossom ForbesRobertson, and I hit on the idea of organizing a treasure hunt and sending the invitations out in the form of an anagram. There was only one hitch. Not knowing how many people would be able to decipher the message, we had no idea how many would turn up. We needn't have worried. So many cars converged on Lady Juliet Duff's house in Belgrave Square, where the hunt was to start, that the police arrived wanting to know what was going on. We all had visions of being arrested as public nuisances, but then, just as we were about resigned to being carried off to the nearest police station, out from a car stepped a fair-haired young man and the law disappeared like the mists at morning. It was the Prince of Wales. So we carried on, the party was the hit of the London season, and when I returned home in the fall I found the idea had gotten here ahead of me. Treasure hunts were all the rage.
There was my cooking party in Hollywood - this the result, during my first visit there in the early thirties, of my outspoken views on the quality of the local cuisine. The food in most of the houses and restaurants I visited struck me as uniformly bad, and I blamed this state of affairs on the fact that apparently no one out there knew his way around a kitchen well enough to make toast. This was denied on so many fronts that I decided to put a hand-picked group of people, all claiming to be good cooks, to the test: I invited ten top stars to have it out with chafing dish and spoon at Mike Romanoff's. Through Mike I ordered a great variety of foods, which were spread out on a long table with other necessary equipment, and when the contestants arrived they were ushered to one of the chafing dishes, equipped with aprons and chefs' caps, and told to cook whatever they liked. This experiment, I should add, was also in the nature of a calculated risk: whatever came out of those chafing dishes that night was to be dinner for the whole party. As it turned out, it was a risk worth taking. With one exception, my ten glamorous chefs produced dishes worthy of a cordon bleu - and the first prize, ladies, went to a man: Clark Gable. At this remove I don't remember what it was Clark cooked - something to do with eggs, I believe-but I do remember that, whatever it was, it was divine. Ronald Colman ran a close second to Clark among the men, and in the women's division Joan Fontaine and Claudette Colbert did their sex proud.
There was my painting party in Paris, which in my book has two stars to its credit for uniqueness: for one thing, it lasted a solid month -surely the longest party on record; for another, it started the craze for amateur Sunday painting that is with us still. If I had nothing else to feel proud of, I am proud of being able to claim credit for launching the vogue for a purely aesthetic hobby at a time when the conception of art for art's sake was fast losing ground to the conception of art for the sake of the dollar.
The idea for the party came to me when my friend, Countess Mimi Pecci-Blunt, an admirer of art and a hard-working philanthropist, was casting about for a means of raising money for a pet charity. Why not, I thought, make her happy on both counts? We would ask fifty women, the cream of Paris society and amateurs all, to paint pictures, and at the end hold a money-raising exhibition of their work. Mimi fell in delightedly with the idea, and together we transformed the drawing room of her house on the Rue Babylon into a gigantic atelier, crammed with easels, canvases, palettes, brushes, paints; smocks. Here, every day for a month, fifty of the most fashionable women in the world, faces and hands daubed with paint, toiled away with varying degrees of artistry. Princess Marina and Princess Elizabeth of Greece, I remember, both painted beautifully, as did Daisy Fellowes, Millicent Hearst, and Mimi Pecci-Blunt herself. Mine was a horror. I have never had the smallest talent for painting or drawing. But uneven though the contributions were, the exhibition was such a success that the late Virginia Vanderbilt later brought the entire collection to New York, where it was shown at, I believe, the Wildenstein Galleries, and repeated its Paris performance by raising a very tidy sum for charity here. Meanwhile, Town & Country magazine had covered the progress of the party in Paris, gave it a great spread, and the nationwide rush to the art stores was on.
There was the barnyard party at the Jade Room of the Waldorf in New York, which gave me the pleasure of indulging my passion for paradox when I converted the most luxurious ballroom in the world into a scene so authentically bucolic that even the hogs I brought in for the occasion felt at home. There were apple trees, a well, hayricks draped with red flannel underwear, farmers in straw hats and overalls, beautiful dairymaids, three cows, those hogs - twelve enormous beasts -even a hog caller imported from Ohio for me by Len Hanna. Actually only the hog caller, his charges, two cows, the hayrick and the red flannels were authentic. The trees with apples sewn on the branches were very convincing fakes - just how convincing I hadn't realized myself until I caught sight of the late George F. Baker trying to climb one to reach an apple. The well yielded beer instead of water. The farmers were my men guests. The beautiful dairymaids were beautiful young society women gotten up in their own elegant versions of what the well-dressed dairymaid wears. And the third of the trio of cows was a very lifelike papier-mache copy of the two real ones, her chief distinction being that she gave champagne and whisky instead of milk. Anyone who knew how to milk a cow was invited to help himself at this novel bar. Amateurs were barred out of consideration for the real cows. All three animals looked so much alike that, with champagne flowing freely, not everybody could be trusted to tell the difference. (Some years later in San Francisco, incidentally, I put this same stunt to profitable use at a benefit: experienced milkers paid twenty-five dollars for the privilege of showing what they could do.) But the biggest surprise of the evening was the hogs -or, rather, the performance put on by the hogs. They'd been kept penned behind a screen at one end of the ballroom, and when the hog caller went into his act at the other end, letting out that weird cry that only hogs seem to understand, they all came running, so fast that some of the beautiful dairymaids who were sitting on the floor were taken completely unawares and had to scramble, screaming very authentically, to safety.
There was the time I planned a party for the first of May and turned it into a fitting celebration of the day by making a living Maypole of Mrs. John ( "Fifi" ) Fell, who stood centered (and scared to death, she told me later) on a small high podium in the middle of the ballroom floor, while the handsomest men there, each holding the end of one of the long satin streamers fastened to her gown, danced about in a circle, winding the ribbons around her. Later, since May Day seems to call for dancing, I put on a waltz contest which Mrs. Lytle Hull, then Mrs. Vincent Astor, won by unanimous decision of the judges. Her partner? A young man named Ray Bolger.
There was the year in Venice when old-guard Venetians not yet used to the antic ways of the Americans who had only recently begun to invade the city en masse, thanks to my promotional efforts at the behest of the tourist-hungry city fathers-were rocked back on their patrician heels when I gave a dinner for the late Princess Mafalda, daughter of the late King of Italy, on a string of gorgeously draped barges towed to and fro on the Grand Canal. This was one of the first, but by no means the last, samples of party-giving, American style, that at first startled, finally captivated Venetian society. A few years later Linda and Cole Porter sent eyebrows up with their Red and White Ball at the Palazzo Rizzonico. Knowing how lazy people are about dressing up for a party, at the witching hour of midnight the Porters brought the mountain to Mahomet by giving all their guests the most wonderful red and white paper costumes to wear. Then, following my oftrepeated enjoinder to keep the surprises coming, they released a flight of acrobats who turned our stomachs upsidedown by performing on the parapet and on wires strung across the top of the Palazzo courtyard. There have been many others since, equally stunning and novel. There isn't much that will startle a Venetian now.
Let me now step aside and say that two of the most beautiful parties I can remember were parties I didn't give. In Paris in the early thirties - in July, 1934, to be exact - Baron Niki de Gunzburg, a rich young White Russian, now an editor of Vogue magazine, gave a party on an island in the lake in the Bois de Boulogne which was unmatched for beauty in my experience. He called it the Bal des Valses, and it was supposed to take place in Vienna. All the guests wore costumes of the period. Prince Jean de Lucinge was Franz Joseph; his wife ("Baba"), the Empress Elizabeth; and Denise Bourdet and Niki himself were the star-crossed lovers, Maria Vetsera and Archduke Rudolf. For reasons that now elude me I chose to go as Napoleon III.
There is a restaurant on the island, le Pavillon des Iles, and when you give a party there the whole island goes with it. Niki had had the restaurant and surrounding grounds lighted and decorated by the French decorator, Monsieur le Baron, who added a final note of elegance to the whole by having white velvet carpeting laid from the entrance of le Pavillon right down to the landing at the water's edge where, at 10:30 at night, guests arrived in little rowboats. That crossing must have been quite a sight - all of us standing up in the rowboats because our costumes didn't allow room for sitting down, while the astonished boatmen ferried us toward the island from which blared the music of the two alternating orchestras, one playing Vienna waltzes, the other tzigane.
One of the amusing incidents I remember about that night happened at supper. Princess Marina of Greece, one of the most beautiful young women I have ever seen, was sitting at my table. She was living in Paris then with her parents, Prince Nicolas of Greece and the Grand Duchess Helen of Russia, and not having an easy time of it. During supper Marina turned to an American friend who had just arrived from Hollywood. "I am so tired of being poor!" she said. "I wonder if you could get me a film test in Hollywood?" It might just have come about, too, except that later in the summer Princess Marina went to Dubrovnik on the Dalmatian coast for a holiday, and there met another holidayer - Prince George, afterwards Duke of Kent. They fell in love and were married before the year was out.
If it was difficult in those free-and-easy days to persuade people to put on fancy dress, it has now become next to impossible. Even so, I still do what I can to dress up my parties. For example, when I gave a ball recently to honor Stavros Niarchos I decided that, since it was he who made my cruise to the Greek islands possible, I must pay him a fitting tribute. So I asked all the women to wear a headdress or tiara, synonyms of elegance, and to my amazement two thirds of them actually showed up in tiaras. Mine, incidentally, would have been at home at Niki de Gunzburg's Bal des Valses, as it had belonged to Empress Elizabeth of Austria. Harry Winston, the jeweler, lent it to me, and it was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen-all diamond roses, exquisitely entwined. With it, at Mr. Winston's suggestion, I also wore the Portuguese diamond which one of the Kings of Portugal had sent into Brazil, and which finally reached New York. This was a single diamond of great purity and weight, valued, I believe, in the neighborhood of half a million dollars. So with these two adornments I had, for the first and, no doubt, last time in my life, roughly a million dollars on my person.
Another recent party at which elegance was the keynote was a dinner I gave in the Empire Room at the Waldorf a few seasons ago - a party that was strictly a labor of love because it was in honor of a man I love dearly, Cole Porter.
Now it has always seemed to me that if you are going to give a party to honor a friend, the honor ought to be expressed in more tangible ways than simply where you seat him at table. Since this was to be Cole's party, I tried to think of what I could do to please him. What would make the party particularly his? I know Cole very well, and, tenderer sentiments aside, there are three things about him that key him as a personality. First, there is his music. Second, his gaiety. Third, his extreme elegance. So what did I do? For music I had birds, some two hundred of them, singing their heads off in airy, decorative cages. (Later I gave the birds to the women guests as favors.) For gaiety-pink. Pink flowers, pink balloons, plumes of pink feathers. For elegance - ah, what is more elegant than a man in a white tie? All the men were asked to wear white ties; and for offenders who didn't or wouldn't or forgot, I had spares at the door which they could don before entering the ballroom. What's more, they loved it. Looking their elegant best tickled their vanity, and it certainly added to the pleasure of the evening for the women.
Actually, of course, the most rewarding parties to give or go to are those that not only give guests a good time, but also serve a good cause. I have taken active part in more benefits than I care to remember, and I have loved every one of them. The biggest, I think, was a benefit at Madison Square Garden before World War II for Chinese Relief, when 16,000 people crowded into the Garden to watch, among other unusual sights, a Floradora sextet featuring Clifton Webb, Bea Lillie, and Elsa Maxwell.
More recently I had a wonderful time turned out as Catherine the Great in the pageant of empresses at Mrs. Lytle Hull's Imperial Ball to benefit the Hospitalized Veterans Service. I was in regal competition, with Maria Meneghini Callas, a real beauty, as my old friend, Hatshepsut; Faye Emerson as the Dowager Empress of China; Arlene Dahl as Poppaea, wife of Nero; Mrs. Frank Hunter as the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria; English actress Margaret Leighton as Empress Eugenie; Mrs. Lawrence Copley Thaw as the Empress Josephine; and Mrs. Bertrand Taylor III as the woman of today, embodying all the attributes of all the Queens. As I don't regard myself as in any way a queenly figure, and hardly pin-up girl material, I was a little surprised when Time magazine bypassed all this glamour and ran only my picture when it covered the ball.
But the benefit that is dearest to my heart is the annual April in Paris Ball in New York. I suppose there is an element of parental pride here, for I was one of the ball's originators and I have watched it grow from a fairly modest beginning into the largest charitable undertaking of its kind in this country. It had its start seven years ago, the year Paris celebrated her 2000th birthday. Alexander Manziarly, French consulgeneral in New York, Claude Philippe, head of the banquet department and vice-president of the Waldorf, and I lunched at the Pavillon one day to discuss putting on a party at the Waldorf to honor this historic event, and to raise money for French charities here. We discussed some of the organizations we might help, and I am glad to claim credit for naming the French Hospital in New York as one of the beneficiaries. It was poor, badly in need of money, and the balls have helped it enormously.
So the plans took shape. Bernard Gimbel agreed to be our treasurer, and he has remained our treasurer. Valerian Rybar was, and is, our decorator. I was general entrepreneuse. But one man alone did, and has continued to do, all the real work, and that is Claude Philippe. We called that first party the 2000th Anniversary of Paris Ball, and it was such a success that the following year we decided to make it even bigger and better, hold it in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf, and call it the April in Paris Ball. It has been growing in size and importance ever since, making more money each year. Five hundred people attended the first ball. At the last, there were 1200, and the net take for the French charities was $130,000.
One April in Paris Ball I have special cause to remember. I believe it was the third, when someone hit on the idea of bulking it up still larger-with elephants. John Ringling North agreed to lend us some from his circus menagerie, and Beatrice Lillie and I agreed to ride them. Unfortunately, if that is the word, it didn't turn out that way. Bea and I dutifully went around to Madison Square, where the circus was quartered, to practice, but the elephants had other ideas. They would have none of us. So it was decided that, rather than risk our necks, we would follow them on foot in the parade around the ballroom - equipped, for reasons that will be obvious to anyone who has ever spent time with an elephant, with dustpans and brooms. On the night of the party, when the time came to go on we went to the anteroom from which we were to make our entrance - I costumed as a maharajah, Bea as my favorite - and found our monstrous charges waiting. Maybe they were just nervous.
So there you have, in sum, eleven parties, each different from the other, each designed to suit a particular moment or place or problem or person. Each, as I admitted earlier, was elaborate by average standards and expensive by any standard. Yet analyze them and you will see that at the core of each was simply a novel idea.
The treasure hunt? This is a game that can be organized on any scale, for any number, any time - indoors or out, on foot, by car, on horseback.
The cooking party? No need for fancy fixings. Lay in a supply of good simple foods and challenge would-be cooks to see how ingenious they can be in using them to create different, interesting dishes for the party dinner. (Never mind if the resulting menu isn't in ideal balance. One eccentric meal never hurt anybody.) Prizes to the winners? Something new and inexpensive in kitchen gadgets. And if you want to ensure a concerted effort by all hands, announce that the cook voted least good must wash the dishes.
The painting party? Make it a drawing party instead, if you don't want to invest heavily in art supplies. Set up a still-life subject, give each guest a drawing pad and crayon, have each artist contribute a quarter to a common pool, select an impartial panel of judges, and award the pot to the best artist to do with as he sees fit.
The barnyard party? Ask your guests to dress for the farm, and do what you can in the way of props to set the appropriate scene. For an indoor party, vegetable arrangements, perhaps, in place of flowers, and miniature scarecrows as table decorations - easy to make yourself from scraps of cloth and straw from the kitchen broom. For an outdoor party, hay spread on the grass, wonderful to sit on -perhaps a life-sized scarecrow in the background. Perhaps, indeed, a real-life scarecrowwhich is the guise in which Cecil Beaton came to my barnyard party, complete with crows.
The Maypole party? It could be copied just as I've described it.
If it's elegance you're after, my Tiara Ball and my party for Cole both contained the basic ingredients: white ties for men, headdresses for women.
As to the two benefits I've mentioned-both drew on history far their themes, and that is a bottomless source. Go far and wide - or stay at home: look into local history for a gay or dramatic event to commemorate when you want to appeal to civic pride and purse.
Imagination, ideas - they are what make a party. They are what will make you as a hostess.