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The Perfect Hostess and OthersBy Elsa Maxwell
( Originally Published 1957 )
Let me introduce you to the man who killed Rasputin," Lady Emerald Cunard once announced to her guests at lunch. Not surprisingly, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich - who had indeed had a hand in dispatching the old menace -turned on his heel and left.
Not, I grant you, an instance of behavior likely to make just anyone very, very popular as a hostess, yet such was the way of the woman who, shortly before the turn of the century, brought London society to its collective knee and kept it there for close to fifty years. Lady Cunard loved to gather her lions together, lash them with the whip of her tongue, and watch them fight to the blood. By pitting them one against another she sought to make her guests more interesting to herself, to each other, and, not at all incidentally, to exploit her own acid wit.
"Dear little Poppy," she would address an old friend. Then, turning to the others with a pleased smile, "She's been that for the past thirty-five years, haven't you, Poppy, darling?" By such tactics Lady Cunard kept her guests in perpetual thrall to her, and because of the commanding position she occupied in the stringent social hierarchy of the day she got away with it. Few people with any hope of weathering London's social climate had the temerity to defy her. One of her few come-uppances was at the hands of one of the few opponents worthy of her-Lord Birkenhead, the great English lawyer and politician, and no mean barb-tosser himself. The occasion was a dinner given by Lady Cunard.
"Do you mind if I smoke?" Birkenhead asked, producing one of his Gargantuan cigars long before dinner was over.
"Do you mind if we eat?" Lady Cunard inquired silkily. "Not if you do it quietly," retorted His Lordship.
But Lady Cunard's waspish and frequently cruel tongue did not lessen her effectiveness as a hostess. On the contrary, it was an intriguing part of her showmanship. Society, shocked and delighted by her antics, showed itself so endlessly willing to come back for more that Lady Cunard was kept riding the crest long after less provocative hostesses would have seen fit to bow to new and abler competition. Almost until the outbreak of war in 1939, bids to the great Cunard mansion at No. 7 Grosvenor Square were deemed tantamount to social benediction. The parties there were glittering - the musical soirees in particular, for Lady Cunard, in addition to her talents as a hostess, had great artistic taste and was a generous patron of some of the finest musical talent of the time.
Lady Cunard is a clear-cut case of the power possible to a unique and willful personality -a striking example of the hostess who, by sheer force of character, imposes and establishes herself on society. True, she had the backing of a great name and a great fortune, but the secret of her success as a hostess was her individuality as a woman. Any hostess who would run at the front of the pack must give something that is different, out of the ordinary. In Lady Cunard's case this something was provocativeness. She carried it to pretty scandalous lengths at times - perhaps taking her cue from old Rasputin himself, with his dictum of "Sin and obtain forgiveness." Certainly she often sinned against what we accept as normal standards of courtesy, but, unorthodox though her methods were, they worked. Society forgave her. For all her snobbish quiddity, her intemperate talk, when she died in 1948 those who had known her - friends and enemies alike - remembered best that she had given them that most valued of gifts: a sense of excitement. Any hostess who can do that is made, and never mind the rules. I don't recommend that you go about guying your guests into temper tantrums as Lady Cunard did -only that you keep in mind that in the long run provocativeness will stand you in better stead than all the statelier rules of deportment combined.
Lady Cunard was by all odds the most spectacular, but she was by no means the only American of her time to cut a figure in London society. From the turn of the century on, London's reigning hostesses were all Americans. There were Lady Paget, Lady Essex, Maxine Elliott. There was Lady Ribblesdale - formerly Mrs. John Jacob Astor; also Maybelle Cory - formerly Ziegfeld Follies. There was the Duchess of Marlborough, who had been Consuelo Vanderbilt and is now Mme. Jacques Balsan, and whose marriage in 1895 to the ninth Duke is generally credited with bringing on the gold rush of titled Europeans to our heiress-bound shores.
Mme. Balsan is a top-notch hostess and another of the rare ones who are liked for themselves alone: she needed neither title nor Vanderbilt money to win her social laurels. Nowadays she is at her best as hostess to a few, preferring small parties to large: no doubt she had her fill of the pomp-and-ceremony school of hospitality during her years as mistress of Blenheim Palace. Though we are no longer friends, owing to a political dispute I had with her husband in 1940, I have stayed with Mme. Balsan - at her villa at Eze, at St. George Matel in Normandy, at her beautiful houses at Palm Beach and on Long Island - so I am able to vouch for her attributes as a thoughtful and gracious hostess. To my mind her only notable lack is her failure to recognize the hypodermic value of an occasional celebrity at her parties. As a hostess of standing she could draw talent from any field she chooses, but she does not. On different occasions I introduced such notables as Fritz Kreisler, Charlie Chaplin, and Grace Moore, both to her house and to the profit of her parties, but the practice apparently didn't take hold. No hostess should ignore the stimulation value of including at least one person of note in a group - whether he be world famous or merely the town's best parcheesi player.
A great London hostess in the twenties was the irrepressible Laura Corrigan, who established a formidable handicap in the American Cinderella Derby by covering the ground from switchboard operator to rich widow in a record six months and promptly setting out to buy her way into European society. Except for her wealth - and it was prodigious - Laura's social armor was not promising. She was not beautiful, she was not educated or particularly clever-her innocent blunders of speech provided almost as much amusement, behind her back, as her parties -but she was honest, she had vitality, and she had a heart as big as her bank. Laura ran her parties like a particularly benevolent mistress of ceremonies on a well-backed giveaway show. Guests were showered with favors, and as her taste in these ran to gold and precious stones, practical-minded hypocrites found it easy to swallow their prejudices against Laura's lowly beginnings on the grounds that being her guest was the next best thing to being gainfully employed. Laura had good friends who liked her for herself, but there were many more, I'm afraid, who toadied to her for what they could get out of it.
Yet for all her love of money show, Laura was not a money snob. She never forgot that she'd come by her millions more or less by default, and that others were not as rich as she. She went out of her way to see that guests were not obliged to dip into their own pockets for the least thing - even such incidentals as tipping: "The staff is paid extra when guests are staying with me," read signs posted in each of her guestrooms, "so they do not expect anything from you. Neither do I wish you to give it."
Laura's one snobbery was her passion for hobnobbing with royalty. As an American she was not unique in this, but she carried it to unusual extremes. Anything went - if it pleased a royal heart. For example, when games were played at her parties Laura considered the night lost if some royal participant did not make off with the richest prize, and if she had to finagle a bit to swing it-well, in Laura's book, royalty was its own excuse.
Occasionally in her zeal for cozying up to crowns she overstepped. Once, indeed, she was taken over the coals by no less a personage than the Lord Chamberlain, after she'd startled a party by persisting in calling a member of the royal family by her Christian name. But Laura took her rebuffs gamely. There was the time she planned a dinner party in honor of the late Prince George, Duke of Kent. All the invitations were out, when, on the day before the party, the Duke thought better of the idea and sent his regrets. Laura went to work, putting pressure on everyone she knew to provide a suitable royal substitute to fill the place of honor. She managed finally to commandeer King Alphonso of Spain and, with this slight change in cast, the party went off as scheduled. The hostess's explanation to her other guests? "Where a Prince refused," said Laura dryly, "a King obliged."
Probably the best-known of Lady Cunard's American contemporaries abroad - and a very different kind of woman as well as hostess -was Lady Mendl, who rose to riches neither by marrying money nor by inheriting it. She did it the hard way. She made it. As Elsie de Wolfe, Lady Mendl was the first of her sex to make a profession of interior decorating, and was the author in this capacity of ideas so revolutionary that she succeeded in changing the American taste in interiors almost overnight. It was Elsie who banished the overstuffed look from living rooms, spread the craze for chintz through houses from Maine to California (she was popularly known as "The Chintz Lady"), whitened and lightened walls and furniture, and introduced into millionaires' and luxury women's clubs the styles of Louis XIV, XV, and XVI for a profitable 10 per cent on the bills.
Entertaining for Elsie was both an art and a business. In her line one never knew: the guest of today might well be the client of tomorrow. Combining business with pleasure is seldom likely to benefit a party and for that reason has never been my way, but Elsie was clever enough never to let the mixture grow stodgy. Her parties were masterpieces, and I can say with all candor that this was in great part due to the fact that she imitated me, for Elsie admitted it herself. She came quickly to understand my guiding precept that the best you can offer your guests is the unexpected. Elsie never used the same formula twice. Her dinner parties - particularly those at her exquisite little eighteenth-century Villa Trianon at Versailles where she spent her later years -were famous equally for the novelty of the food, the glitter of the guests, and the volatile charm of the hostess, who moved through it all like the re-embodied spirit of Marie Antoinette airily treating her court to a fete galante.
But there was nothing airy about Elsie's preparations for a party. Where I might sometimes put my faith in luck and le bon Dieu, Elsie went at it like a small, alert IBM calculator that didn't quite trust the help; she trusted no one and nothing, not even her own memory. A great believer in getting it down on paper, every detail of her parties was noted and put on file, along with her business records. (Keeping up with all this paper work was no easy task, and in later years she never moved without her secretary, Hilda West, to whom she left all her money when she died. It was well earned. Elsie would start dictating in her luxurious boudoir-bathroom immediately after breakfast, and continue on and off well into the night.)
Menus and the guests that went with them were carefully catalogued, to be consulted before each new party and so avoid duplication, for while most important hostesses take the easy way of sticking to the same menu dinner after dinner, Elsie would as soon turn in a repeat performance as be caught jumping up and down on Escoffier's grave. Nor did her infinite capacity for taking pains end with the drawing up of guest lists and orders to the chef. Invariably the last minutes before the appointed hour of a party would find her, gowned and jeweled to kill, fingering tables for the least speck of dust, studying flowers for best effect from every viewpoint, checking chairs for proper placement within an inch, and last, subjecting dining room and kitchens to a scrutiny as finicking as a military inspection.
Just as my party-giving owed its original success to the elements of surprise and informality, so Elsie's success was originally founded on the excellence of her food. No hostess can ignore the necessity of providing good food, but with Elsie designing the perfect menu amounted to a fetish. She would go to any amount of trouble for the sake of learning the secret of a single dish. I can remember to this day the delight and sensation she produced among her guests one night when she introduced a recipe for cooking duck that she had found at the Walterspiel restaurant in Munich. Not content with the written recipe, she and I made a special trip to Munich so that Elsie might confer with the Walterspiel's chef -such was her perfectionism. She collected unusual recipes as she collected celebrities, knowing how well the two blend when served together.
After perfect food, Elsie's three cardinal rules for a dinner party were: cold room, hot plates, and low table decorations (no one at Elsie's table ever had to peer through something seasonal to see who was facing him!). These are rules worth chiseling into the kitchen walls to be remembered and copied. For copy all you can, I say. Imitation is often the sure way to success. For myself, I have learned little from others in the art of entertaining: for my kind of parties I have only myself to blame! But while originality has worked for me, I don't advise it for everyone. The best in art and literature has usually begun with borrowings, and so it is with the art of entertaining.
Lady Cunard was the last of London's hostesses in the grand manner -for that matter, almost the last anywhere. Today in Paris and Rome and Madrid there are still a few houses where shades of the old grandeur linger, but even where they exist they no longer serve notice on the community, as they once did, of their owners' vested right to social leadership. In Rome today, for example, society's arbiter and ranking hostess is the American-born Baroness Lo Monaco - who does, to be sure, live in a palace, but only in an apartment in a palace. Still it is a beautiful apartment, and La Moffa, as she is called, is one of the most beautiful characters I have ever known: gay, loving, an ardent Christian Scientist, incapable of saying an unkind word of anyone, the most generous woman alive, and a born hostess.
As I write this I have on the desk beside me a letter from La Moffa, full of her plans for welcome when I arrive in Rome with Millicent Hearst in a few weeks' time. This Roman interlude will be past history by the time this book is in print, but the letter is so characteristic of La Moffa's zeal for making people happy that I want to touch on it. She has spread the word of our coming throughout Rome: every day and night for the three weeks of our stay we will enjoy the Romans' special brand of hospitality. The Duchess di Sangro, writes La Moffa, is planning a dinner for us. La Moffa herself will be hostess to sixty at another dinner for us. The Aga Khan has arrived in Rome and asked her help in planning a party at which we will dance . . . So her letter goes, reading like a page from the Almanach de Gotha, or the Arabian Nights.
But if European society has been largely democratized, in England the process is complete. Postwar austerity brought stringent rationing and an increase in taxes that inevitably forced the conversion of many of the once great houses into office buildings or apartments. Trained servants took up trade and disappeared. Few people had the heart - or the means - for more than token entertaining.
Now, with the lifting of food and clothes rationing, the picture is more cheerful. Money isn't exactly rolling in the streets - taxes see to that - but postwar tensions have been largely dissipated and the air once more smells free. People are giving parties again with something of the old spirit, if not the old splash, and American hostesses have re-established themselves as among the best in London. They are doing themselves proud. More importantly, as propagators of good will, they are doing their country proud.
Anyone visiting abroad is in the peculiarly ambiguous position when he entertains of being both host and guest in his own home - host in the obvious sense, guest in the sense that he is where he is by kind leave of whatever government is making him welcome at the time. In his role as host he may express all the individuality he wants. In his role as guest it behooves him to leave as pleasing an impression on his temporary host as possible. Americans visiting abroad often forget this; particularly, it seems, Americans visiting England. Perhaps because we are richer and stronger and healthier as a nation - perhaps, too, because we are young by comparison and feel at a certain cultural disadvantage in the face of venerable British tradition - we are apt to act arrogant, showy-off, like so many unpromising children who've made good and feel impelled to call attention to the fact by stunting in front of the old folks. No one who has been exposed to the spectacle of the American tourist, specie vulgaris, shirted in something vaguely akin to a tropical landscape in riot and expensively hung about with cameras and binoculars and related equipment, roistering his way through a meal in a foreign restaurant with demands for faster service, rarer meat, stronger coffee - all this laced together with side glances at the natives (how come they eat that funny left-handed way?) - can fail to be grateful to the more typical group of transplants who represent the best of American character and culture. These people do a wonderful job in countering the antagonism left in all too many corners of the globe by Joe Vulgar and company - a minority that has given us, along with a reputation for highhandedness, a reputation for irreverence that is as destructive as it is undeserved.
A small example of this was the hue and cry that went up in the London press after a dance given for the Queen by former Ambassador and Mrs. Winthrop Aldrich. Some of the younger members of the Embassy staff, so went the report, had had the effrontery to cut in on Her Majesty. There wasn't a word of truth in it, of course, but it was undoubtedly accepted as fact by people conditioned by the rough-diamond element to "those boorish Americans," and is typical of the kind of molehill misunderstanding that uneasy times have been known to compound into mountains. The Aldriches were, in fact, ideal captains for the American diplomatic and quasi-diplomatic team in London. Enormously popular themselves, they entertained beautifully at the new Embassy, which was Barbara Hutton's gift to our government. I went to a delightful party there when I was in London a few years ago. The house is set in a manicured park of several acres (which must cost a pretty penny to keep up) and is on the stately side, but under Harriet Aldrich's skillful eye and hand it had been made cozy and charming inside - ideal for the blend of personal-informal and official-formal entertaining the Aldriches were called on to do so often, and which they did so well.
Bad hostesses, as I have learned to my regret, far outnumber the good. Of course, as with everything else, the bad ones come in degrees of badness, the range being, loosely, from pretty bad to awful to downright abysmal. In this last category, my nomination for honors goes to two sisterhoods: women of rank, and so-called "good" women.
Women of rank, to be sure, can't be too harshly criticized for their failure to entertain well: obligation to duty pretty well thrusts failure upon them. While they have on the one hand the advantage of being able to hand-pick their guests from the top drawer (who, for example, would turn down an invitation from Mrs. Eisenhower or the Queen of England? Or, in a less lofty area, from the mayor's wife?), they have on the other the disadvantage of having to stand forever on dignity. For this reason they are seldom good hostesses. Too much dignity at a party of any sort is lethal. No one is going to have fun when he must be conscious every minute of observing the stodgier rules of social behavior. Conversation palls under fear of inadvertence. Everyone minds his manners to a degree that paralyzes. In these circumstances, the most interesting people in the world are bound to grow bored and, therefore, boring.
By the same token, women who put the accent on probity automatically put their parties to death. Excessive virtue may be its own reward (which I question), but in a hostess it is about as rewarding as a dose of laudanum. Although I can't claim to have done any research in the matter personally, my guess is that this is a trouble from which clergymen's wives must inevitably suffer: living under constant restraint, as they do, never yet made a good hostess.
Nowadays, of course, our views on what, in another day, constituted "badness" have come in for some strenuous revision. Modern women smoke and take cocktails and use make-up and generally carry on in ways once possible only to what our proper Victorian mamas and grandmamas called "loose" women. Less than fifty years ago in America, for instance, a woman who went on the stage was immediately branded no better than she should be, and barred by Best Society as a threat to the morals of the young and the sanctity of the home. Now, distinguished people of the theater are welcomed with open arms - indeed, they are courted - even by the old guard. Can you imagine a hostess who would not feel flattered to count Miss Ethel Barrymore among her guests?
All the same, there is still a good deal of Victorianism lurking about, and there is a diehard element of society that condemns as "bad" any who refuse to conform to what it accepts as convention - convention, here, interpreted in a string of sermonish negatives. "Nice" women, say the diehards, never go hatless; nice women never cross their legs in public; nice women are never heard to laugh aloud. Nice women dress to comply to the view that the clothes of a lady are clothes no one will either notice or remember. So the list goes on, ad well-bred nauseam. Heaven knows, I am all in favor of decorum, so long as it does not rubber-stamp individuality out of existence. What I deplore is the unfair bias that frequently stems from this kind of smug-mindedness; it judges before it weighs.
I have met, I believe, most of the important women in public life over the last fifty years, and I have found that, by and large, the higher her position in point of rank, the worse the hostess. Even when there is no need to stand on ceremony, they simply do not know how to unbend - or else feel that to do so would cause them to lose face.
A delightful exception in this category is Queen Frederika of Greece. The Queen is a wonderful hostess: friendly, solicitous, and remarkably free of the stickier observances of protocol - remarkable, in particular, when one considers that her greatgrandmother was that doughtiest of unbenders, Victoria herself. Queen Frederika has probably more vivid charm than any other living sovereign. She is beautiful, she has great warmth of personality and humor, and she has with it all an energetic sense of duty and love for her country, her three children, and her husband, the handsome King Paul, that is hard to beat.
The first occasion I had to observe these two charming people close at hand was when I was in Athens in the fall of 1954 and had the good fortune to lunch with them alone. It was a delightful few hours, for the King, too, has the rare knack of putting aside the stately air of office when they entertain informally. The talk was good - better, I am compelled to admit, than the food. I suppose I had expected something typically Greek - as why not? -but there was nothing Greek about lunch at the Queen's table that day. It was plain, pleasant food in the English style: eggs Benedict first (for you menu-hounds); then a chicken dish with vegetables; salad, cheese, and a simple blanc mange for the sweet. All very good, but hardly inspired. I don't think the Queen gives much thought to food -but to say that is to quibble. She is one of the busiest women in the world, engaged in far more important matters than what's for lunch. And food notwithstanding, she is, by virtue of her singular personality and charm, a superb hostess.