|Antiques Digest||Browse Auctions||Appraisal||Home|
Men As HostsBy Elsa Maxwell
( Originally Published 1957 )
Skill in the care and feeding of guests has so long been considered woman's prerogative that men who show any marked degree of proficiency in the field are generally supposed to have mastered a feat not altogether natural to them, like those performing dogs you see who've learned to walk erect and count to five. Women, of course, are responsible for the popularity of this ungenerous theory. Nothing pleases us more than to feel ourselves in exclusive charge of a preserve in which men feel not only ill at ease, but inept as well. Unwelcome, too, for women do not take kindly to claim-jumping. The fact is, they're jealous. I think the closest I ever came to being walked out on by an audience was when I told a group of women at a luncheon the last thing they wanted or expected to hear: that men are, in fact, better hosts than women. Well, the bridling that greeted this heresy subsided in due course, my audience stayed to hear me out, and in the end they had to agree that I was right.
For it is true. Not of all men, heaven knows. I know many who couldn't plan and carry off a good party if they tried. But if a man is a good host at all he is usually a winner. One reason, I believe, is that while men recognize entertaining as a necessary and even vital adjunct to the business of living, it is never quite as necessary or vital to them as the business of making a living.
To the average, non-working woman, homemaking and all that goes with it - including entertaining - is a career in itself and she treats it in dead earnest. To a man, entertaining is a pleasant means of escape from the demands of getting on in the career that pays the bills. And he treats it thus. When he gives a party he means to relax, forget the worries of the day, have fun. This does not mean he goes at it carelessly. He plans well, because planning is anticipating and therefore part of his pleasure, and also because his professional training has put him in the habit of forearming by means of foresight. He doesn't always hit it 100 per cent, of course. The best laid plans ... and so on. But here I think is where much of his superiority lies, for when some unlooked-for snag does arise he takes it in stride. He doesn't worry. Where a woman might give way to hand-wringing and loud distress when the roast burns or the wine refuses to bubble, a man will laugh it off. He is determined that nothing short of sudden death will mar his enjoyment of his all-too-brief escape from workaday pursuits, so he keeps his humor high and his guests do too.
Then, too, men are notoriously open-handed as hosts. Women love to scrimp. They delight in cutting corners where they can, possibly because, if statistics are to be believed, women hold the nation's purse strings and mean to go on holding them, and the heavier the purse the better. At any rate, nothing puts an unholier gleam in a woman's eye than striking a blow for the economy, and often as not the richer the woman the brighter the gleam. Nine out of ten plan their parties with one eye on the shopping list, the other on the till. Now I don't flatly decry this approach: thrift, I am sure, is an admirable asset in women and one that is valued by the men they marry. But excessive thrift has no place in the design of a party. When you buy food and drink at a saving you may be sure that it is because you are buying second-rate food and drink. The best is never to be had at bargain prices. Men know this and they won't compromise for less than the best -anyway, not when they give a party. As a matter of fact, I have known men whose everyday behavior in regard to money would make Ebenezer Scrooge look prodigal, yet who will spare no expense when they entertain. Food, wines, flowers, service - all must be of the finest. Naturally, such magnanimity is pleasing to guests. It flatters them. It boosts their egos. Being treated pricelessly, they begin to feel priceless, and they bask in it.
Finally, the good host gives off an air of such resolute confidence in himself and in the certain success of the business at hand that the least optimistic arrival at his party all at once feels himself assured of having a good time and, consequently, has a good time. Awfully few women are able to present as poised an exterior as men do at the outset of a party. Women flutter, they giggle, they deliver their greetings in little shrieks, or if they're the introvertish sort they withdraw into shells of such chilling reserve that even the words of welcome sound frostbitten. The sympathetic state of mind into which this initial unease throws guests usually wears off as the party comes together and the hostess begins to relax, but it is a sorry way to open the festivities, and men seldom do. Not that men always feel so blissfully cocksure, but here again professional training serves them. They have learned to camouflage uncertainty and self-doubt. After all, a man in business cannot very well approach a prospective client or a meeting with the boss without an air of conviction that his feet are on the ground and his head in an orderly condition to deal sensibly with matters relevant to profit and loss. Confidence is his indispensable stock in trade. He may have to struggle to acquire it, but if he means to get on in the world acquire it he will.
Men excuse ineptness in women; they even find it rather endearing, to judge by the number who marry scatterbrains. But men look for authority in each other, and never more so than when they sit down to do business - even when the business is carried on in the guise of entertaining, as it frequently is. Thus the art of entertaining well is of greatest importance to a man. Some men, in fact - notably salesmen - succeed more on the strength of their convivial talents than on business ability. Some, alas, fumble diligently along in their jobs totally ignorant of the importance to their careers of social competence. How often have I seen a young man playing host in a restaurant to an older man - an important client, perhaps, or a prospective boss -with all the aplomb of a water buffalo slogging its way out of a quagmire. From the first clumsy handshake it is apparent that junior has foundered blind into a situation for which he is woefully unprepared. Conversation is plainly a chore for him; he veers between hearty inanities and embarrassed mumbling, uncertain of the point at which it will be polite and proper for him to abandon the weather and get on with the purpose of the meeting. (Barring a cue from Senior, wait until coffee is my advice. Serious discussion is not compatible with the digestive processes.)
Then there is the matter of ordering. Menus come and are studied while the waiter hovers impatiently. It comes suddenly to junior that, as host at the table, it is up to him to take charge. At this juncture he begins to feel a glimmer of confidence. The menu is a plain statement of facts and relieves him for the moment of the need to concoct small talk. On solid conversational ground now, he speaks up manfully.
"What will you have, sir?"
"I don't know. What do you suggest?"
Gone is junior's moment of confidence. The ball, tossed neatly back at him, has caught him unprepared. What should he suggest? His eye darts, not unnoticed, to the right side of the menu. He remembers vaguely having heard that to offer the most expensive dish smacks of pretension. On the other hand it might seem niggling if he doesn't. So he wavers. It doesn't occur to him to ask the waiter for advice. As a matter of fact, this is precisely what should have occurred to him several hours earlier. As I have said before, it is always wise when entertaining in a restaurant to let the restaurant in on your plans ahead of time, and if, as in this case, your guest is a comparative stranger - but one whose good opinion is important to you - it is plain folly not to. Had junior been on his toes he'd have gotten to the restaurant early, studied the menu, consulted the captain or waiter, and so been able to come out with one or two firm suggestions on request.
Now knowing your way around a menu may sound a relatively minor matter, and in most circumstances it would be. But in the case of this befuddled young man, not being able to give a quick, informed answer to his guest's call for advice - indeed, the inadequacy of his whole performance -may well cost him the good impression he is so eager to make. Big men attach importance to small skills: I once knew an industrialist in the habit of judging the efficiency potential of new employees simply by the care - or lack of it - with which they pasted postage stamps on envelopes, reasoning that a bungler of small chores is pretty apt to be a bungler of large. Just so might this young man's apparent inability to bring off the relatively simple social chore of standing one for lunch result, so far as his career is concerned, in a thumbs-down verdict. In his personal life he would be said to lack social awareness; in his professional life he would be deemed a bad hand at public relations, than which, to a businessman, there is no blacker sin.
when their wives give parties for them - that in offering a cordial welcome to each arriving guest they are amply fulfilling the duties of the good host. But of course they are not. Their hearts aren't really in it. They find the exchange of pleasantries all very charming and nice-and tedious. They yearn for the moment when they may settle down with cigars and brandy and a few like-minded cronies to talk ponderous fiscal talk and fret about the state of the nation. Businessmen to the core, they are good hosts only to other businessmen, and that is hardly sufficient to the cause of general merriment at a party. (There is only one other class of people I know who can match them for vocational ardor to the exclusion of all else -and to the detriment of their talents as hosts - and that is the sporty set. The baseball players, football players, basketball players, tennis players, swimmers, boxers, et al. that I have met were nice sturdy specimens and good men all; but they live, eat, and sleep sports; they think only sports; they talk only sports. They can regale one another for hours on end with stories of contests won or lost; listeners from more sedentary spheres are apt to find the endurance point a matter of minutes.)
So much for the bad.
Let us now praise the good, starting, by way of softening the indictment, with a businessman - Pierre David-Weill, head of the great French banking house of Lazard Freres, and a fine host. Pierre is a true gourmet -not a particularly remarkable quality in a Frenchman, perhaps, but in the gourmet's art there are levels of perfection, even among Frenchmen, and Pierre stands awesomely close to the top. I have had dinners at his house in New York that were unsurpassed in my experience. For one thing, Pierre is mindful of the old warning that God sends meat and the Devil cooks, and he takes care to staff his kitchen from the side of the angels. His chef is unquestionably the finest in New York. Curiously enough, in France-at his houses in Paris and on the Riviera where I have often dined - the food, while certainly good, seldom measures up to the perfection of what he serves in New York.
I have never met a diplomat who was not a good host. I hope I never shall. International diplomacy is a touchy business at best, and when a diplomat, in line of duty, is host to a party of representatives of other powers, friendly or otherwise, his least breach of conduct may well send some proud chauvinist off in a state of dudgeon that nothing short of a White Paper will appease. Ambassadors, ministers, in fact everybody connected with an embassy down to the least secretary (and this includes their wives) must be able to function as efficiently in a drawing room as in a conference room, or very soon find themselves manning unimportant desks back home and wondering how they got there.
I was greatly impressed by a party I attended not long ago in a private dining room at the United Nations. New York was celebrating City Center Day, and the UN powers that be took graceful note of the occasion by inviting some of the City Center staff and members of the board (I am one) to lunch. To begin with, the roster of our hosts was impressive in itself. There were Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Dr. van Kleffens, Dr. Ralph Bunche, and perhaps a dozen more of the UN's leading delegates and officials. Now these are all important men, among the most important in the world, and I knew I could look forward to a rewarding time with them. Just how relaxed and gay a time it would be remained to be seen. Our hosts, after all, would be coming to the luncheon table direct from a morning spent coping with matters of gravest international concern. After lunch they would return to them. Their guests, on the other hand, while not what I'd call a signally light-minded group, represented the comparatively frivolous world of the theater. With me, on the promotive side of City Center operations, were Mrs. Lytle Hull; Newbold Morris, chairman of the board of directors; and Jean Dalrymple, director of the theater company. On the performing side were our first lady of the stage, Helen Hayes; Betsy von Furstenburg; Jessica Tandy; Harold Lang; Franchot Tone; and others. Considering the size of the gulf that separates these two areas of interest -on the one side man's fate, on the other his pleasure -it would be natural to suppose that a certain lack of rapport might creep into the proceedings. As it turned out, the only observable lack of rapport was between me and my old friend, Dr. van Kleffens, who remarked during his welcoming address that Miss Maxwell looked not a day older than she had when he first met her at the opening session of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945. My reply to that was that Dr. van Kleffens had at least succeeded in proving Dr. Einstein's theory of the relativity of time. "With you," I said, "the clock has gone backwards!"
It was a wonderful party-easy, informal, relaxed. To a man, our hosts were witty, charming, and marvelously adept at making us feel sincerely welcome, that we and our work really mattered to them. I could not help thinking that women, entertaining in similar circumstances, would have found it difficult to reconcile the preoccupying differences between themselves and their guests. Women whose lives and interests and thinking patterns are widely separated never seem able to bridge the gap gracefully as men do. The cat comes out in them, not in any opprobrious sense - I like cats - but in the wary, slow, circling-for-time way strange cats have of appraising each other. Can you imagine, for example - and I hasten to say that I do not mean to liken this doubtful combination to the ladies and gentlemen of the United Nations and City Center -but can you imagine the executive committee of the D. A. R. playing host to a delegation from the chorus line at Minsky's with any kind of success? Not likely, and not because of snobbishness or of any conscious wish on the hostesses' part to patronize, but simply because women tend to become so absorbed in their own little worlds that only time and proximity will let them feel entirely comfortable in any other. Men are far more adaptable -the more open-minded and intelligent among them, anyway. They know how to step outside themselves, to suit their mood and manner to the mood and manner of the company and the occasion. As I have said, our hosts at the United Nations that day were doubtless facing an afternoon of sober decision and debate. Yet we were not once made conscious of it. Their full attention and concern was for their guests. That is the gift of the truly good host.
After diplomats on my list of best hosts come bachelors. Which is logical. A married man may have entered the wedded state with more ability for and knowledge about entertaining well than his wife will acquire in her lifetime, but unless he is unusually persevering or she is unusually feminist in her views on the domestic rights and privileges of man and wife, she will take firm hold of the duty she considers hers - entertaining - and that will be that. But the bachelor ruling his own roost entertains as it pleases him to entertain, and if he has any native talent whatsoever he will usually develop into a top-flight host. For one thing, he is almost invariably more inventive than the average woman because he is almost invariably self-taught. He may have been born with a connoisseur's taste in food and drink, but he didn't learn the ins and outs of planning and preparing a party at his mother's knee as his sister did - or should have - so he learns as he goes, unhampered by convention and with gratifyingly refreshing results.
Also in his favor is the fact that, while he probably gives fewer parties than the average woman, he feels bound to make those he does give standouts. If he is at all presentable - which, as a hostess gauges a bachelor, is roughly equivalent to saying if he has only one head, a suit of clothes, and the power of speech -he is certain to be in steady demand as a guest. No hostess needs to be told that extra men -whether bachelors by persuasion or single by circumstance - are as rare in most communities as black pearls, so that any that are available are pretty well bound to find themselves regulars on one guest list after another. (The popular bachelor's life is, indeed, so endlessly gay one wonders how they stand it. Not all of them do, it seems. Statistics show that the insanity rate among bachelors is three times higher than it is among married men. As a hostess, I won't labor the point, except to say that there are hostesses who press their advantage unfairly. Some of the duds I have seen foisted on obliging extra men as dinner partners would be enough to drive anyone off the deep end.) Be that as it may, as the bachelor's invitations pile up so do his obligations, and he inclines as a rule to meet these with a few large parties during each season rather than a spate of little dinners for six or eight which most hostesses favor. And, as I have said, though he gives fewer parties, because he gives fewer parties, he sees to it that those he does give are in the nature of events.
In New York, Lauder Greenway - to start off with an exception to that generality about size - is a fine bachelor host who does not run to large parties, nor to parties at home. His specialty is the little dinner for ten or twelve at one of his clubs - generally the Metropolitan or the Brook. These dinners have a character very much their own. Music predominates, for Lauder is, among other things, Vice-Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Opera Association, and his guests for the most part are people from the musical world. And the parties themselves are generally preludes to a night at the opera. Furthermore, the food is invariably good -not a state of affairs habitual to club dining rooms, and I once satisfied my curiosity on the point after a particularly fine Greenway dinner by asking the maitre d'hotel who had ordered it. "Mr. Greenway, himself," was the reply. As I might have known.
Incidentally, I have said elsewhere that the sensible procedure when entertaining a smallish party in a club or restaurant is to let each guest order for himself. An exception is the pre-theater or concert party. In such a case, whether your guests be two, four, or ten, it is nonsense to squander time at the table while people ponder what they will eat. Always order beforehand. Set the hour early so that there is plenty of time to enjoy the meal, and be sure to let the restaurant know the precise moment at which you'll leave for the theater so that they can plan the service accordingly.
Another excellent theater-night host is Duke Fulco di Verdura, jeweler to fashion and, in bachelor ranks, one of the best cooks I know. Verdura is of the Continental persuasion, that good theater stimulates good appetite and that the time to satisfy it is after. So his parties are generally planned for the late, hungry hours after the opera or the theater, when he takes over in the kitchen of his handsome apartment to concoct sublime Italian dishes. One that I am particularly fond of is spaghetti bathed in an exquisite sauce of mussels -perfect proof of to what ambrosial uses the humble pasta may be put, given a little imagination and the whim to indulge it.
Iva Patcevitch, publisher of Vogue, is a wonderful host. His house in East 70th Street is, as befits the house of a dealer in taste, stunningly done from top to bottom, and let no one doubt the importance of the mise en scene to good party-giving. Patcevitch likes to give Canasta parties, these on the large side, with a guest-list range of from twenty to fifty. To feed and deploy a group of this size smoothly, without fuss, with a minimum of last-minute who-plays-where-and-with-whom, and with all the necessary paraphernalia of the game ready and in order when the playing begins, is an intricate business and requires a practiced hand. Patcevitch does it with great skill. The moves from cocktails to dinner to the card tables are made easily, in an atmosphere of leisure, with none of the monitoring, social-director overtones that women so often adopt when they give this kind of party. NO one is made to feel bound to an inflexible timetable. Dinner is served promptly, but because there are always going to be stragglers at a party of this size, it is always something that can stand waiting if need be, and even improve as it waits - a boeuf f Bourgignon or the like.
One of the few New York businessmen who recognize the lunch hour for what it's worth is Count Lanfranco Rasponi, public relations expert and benefactor to artists: as a side interest, he owns and operates the Sagittarius Gallery, largely as a showcase for young painters. Rasponi often entertains at delightful small luncheon parties at the Colony. For dinner, he prefers to entertain at home, where he serves food that is simple, but as delicious as any to be found in New York. I never refuse his invitations.
As anyone who has ever met me, read me, or come within electronic range of my voice is likely to know, one of my wilder enthusiasms in people is my long-time friend and companion in a thousand memories, Cole Porter. As a matter of fact, I have used so many words over the years to describe my admiration for this gifted gentleman from Indiana turned homme du monde that it would be superfluous to add to them at any great length here. Certainly as an artist Cole needs no explaining: if there is an inhabitant of the civilized world who has not at one time or another sung, whistled, or danced to his music, he must either be still in the cradle or stone deaf. But at the personal level it bears repeating that Cole understands the art of good living as few men do. His taste is impeccable, and on the elegant side. He has, for instance, a fondness for wearing embroidered waistcoats and for period-piece canes -these a painful necessity, since he suffered a serious fall from a horse some years ago. (His collection is imposing. One belonged to Beau Brummel, another to Louis XV - two gentlemen not without some claim to elegance themselves.) More to the point in this context is Cole's innate elegance of mind. He is witty, urbane, kind, something of a gallant, and the most loyal of friends -all markings of a great gentleman and of a great host as well.
Nowadays Cole entertains on a comparatively modest scale - modest, anyway, in comparison to the big, colorful hooplas with which he and Linda Porter titivated international society back in the twenties. Since Linda's death a few years ago Cole has made his New York headquarters in a handsome ten-room apartment on the thirty-third floor of the Waldorf Towers, and in California, a house in the Brentwood section, where he keeps a fine chef all year round, just in case. But the New York apartment is officially home, and there he likes to entertain quietly, usually at luncheon. For dinner he is very apt to take his guests to the Pavillon, which he considers the finest restaurant in the world, as do I.
As to food, Cole is the nearest thing to Lucullus I know - a gourmet in the best cosmopolitan tradition, with a sturdy dash of plain Hoosier thrown in. He is most particular about what he eats, but far from insisting on food that is exotic beyond the purse and patience of ordinary folk, he prefers simple foods, perfectly prepared. Too many who claim to be gourmets are, in fact, nothing but food snobs. To these people a dish must be rare, intricate, and, above all, expensive before it is deemed worthy of their delicate palates. Cole knows, as all true gourmets know, that pretension has little to do with the joys of table. Lamb hash, for example, is a great favorite of his, but it must be good lamb hash, seasoned to perfection and on the wet side. Another simple favorite is the flaked fish-and-rice dish called kedgeree, and Indiana relatives keep him supplied with wonderful little sausages -yards of them arrive at regular intervals - which Cole likes to serve en casserole with flageolets, the little green kidney beans of France. Also from Indiana comes a divine fruit cake baked by one of his cousins that is like no other fruit cake I have ever tasted. Just what the ingredients are that give it its special magic I don't know. I do know that it has prunes in it, and figs, and no flour, and that Cole eats it in staggering amounts. Unfortunately, so do I!
If marriage is the undoing of some men as hosts I concede that it may also be their making. My friends Eric and Eleanor Loder, for example, have settled into a comfortable pattern of marriage: Eleanor looks after their business interests, Eric runs the house, and they are one of the happiest couples I know. Such is their devotion that in the twenty-five years of their marriage the Loders have been separated for only one night, when Eleanor had to make a flying trip to Canada on business. Eleanor first took the plunge into business some years ago after she discovered that the men responsible for handling her extensive holdings were negligent in their management. Somewhat to her own surprise, I think, she turned out to be a financial wizard, and is today a very rich woman. But if Eleanor is energetic in regard to business matters, in home matters she has inherited the Southern belle's traditional laziness. So it falls to Eric to wrestle with the chef, order the food, buy the wines. I must say it agrees with him. I have known Eric since 1912 and today, at seventy, he is still handsome, still young at heart, still gay.
Hamilton Fish Armstrong, publisher of Foreign Affairs magazine, gives wonderful parties in the charming little red-brick house in West loth Street that has been in his family for several generations and where he was born. One of the best parties of the year is the supper party the Annstrongs always give each winter just before Christmas. Ham himself greets you at the door and ushers you in - urbane, affable, and with the born host's gift for apportioning himself among the company in equal amounts and with justice to all, for he is possessed of one of those protean minds that can adapt itself instantly to whatever shape the conversation of the moment happens to take-just so long as it is intelligent conversation. Like all first-rate minds, his cannot abide the second-rate in anything, least of all in people, and that is one of the reasons his parties are so good. The guests are always interesting, informed, and informative people.. I remember in one evening talking to such assorted intellects as Mrs. Irita Van Doren, editor of the New York Herald Tribune Book Review; Dorothy Thompson and Max Kopf; former Secretary of the Air Forces, Tom Finletter, and his wife,, Gretchen (daughter of the late Walter Damrosch ) ; Dr. and Mrs. Grayson Kirk; Lady John Marriott; and the John BarryRyans, among others. I also remember leaving that party with a: feeling of gratitude to my hosts for having fulfilled the ideal condition of party-giving. They had provided a few hours of complete escape from boobery. I went home with a mind cleared; of the little lingering irritations left on it by the unavoidable mediocrities that clutter up most of our days. Willy-nilly, we are all forced now and then into the company of people who live,, mentally, in fish ponds - rather sluggish fish ponds, at that. I know of no better remedy for the torpid aftereffects these people leave you with than a party like that one - where wit and wisdom were not only seen, they were most eloquently heard.
Cartoonists have battened for years on a situation that is, I suppose, more or less universal: that is the battle between thesexes over what constitutes a good time. In the cartoons this contrariety is generally framed as domestic comedy, with the wife in the case (cartoonists are nearly always men) invariably triumphant. Thus we are shown the husband struggling peevishly into dinner clothes, or being dragged from watching the fights on television with his cronies in order to make a fourth at bridge, or being made to suffer, not gladly, through a night at the opera. As a matter of fact, in real life too the wife usually does run the social show, and in most households the arrangement is probably perfectly satisfactory. She, after all, is the one on whom the major burden falls when there is entertaining to be done, and the deferent husband feels therefore that it is only cricket to let her have her head. For this he earns his wife's gratitude and, all else being equal, a reputation among their friends as an Ideal Husband - a label which, by the way, I have always considered questionable: the specimens I have met just seemed resigned, which is hardly man's ideal state. Nor do I believe women enjoy it. I can't imagine any woman really wanting to be married to a Milquetoast. Women, though they seldom admit it, like to be dominated. Of course, they owe it to their sex to try constantly for the upper hand, but their success when they get it can't be very rewarding; having always to be true and faithful to a true and faithful yes-man must be very boring at times. After all, what can be duller than a sure thing? Well, this is straying. The fact is that wives normally make it their business to take charge of the family's social doings, and interference from husbands is sternly discouraged. In this, many women are mistaken. A woman who marries a socially experienced man with pronounced preferences and knowledge about such things as what to serve for dinner and what diversions are to follow will, if she is sensible, let him have things his way. The concession needn't always be loo per cent. Perhaps he prides himself only on a single specialty, in which case he should certainly be allowed to show it off. Sir Charles Mendl, for example, has a genius for planning the seating arrangements at a dinner party; Elsie wisely-indeed gladly-always left that task to him.
The point I am trying to make is that husbands and wives ought, when they entertain, to honor what each likes best to do, and what each does best.
In this respect, Palm Beach's Charles and Dorothy Munn are perfect examples. The Munns, as nearly as I can discover, have only two things in common: their marriage, which is a happy one, and money. Dorothy was a Spreckels of the sugar clan, and is - indulge me - one of the sweetest women alive; I call her "Sugar." Charles holds the patents for the pari-mutuel system of race-track betting, which is the next best thing to owning a producing gold mine, and is known fondly in horse-racing circles as "the Tote King." No, I take it back. There is a third meeting ground. Dorothy is a great outdoor girl, and is as ardent a racing fan as Charles; from this point on their interests diverge. Charles loves to entertain and is an excellent host. Dorothy is the most indifferent hostess I know. It isn't that she doesn't like to have people around. She does, but she ignores them. Charles loves to eat and knows food. Dorothy likes to eat as well as the next one, but she doesn't know the first thing about food. When I have stayed with them at their lovely Villa Amado it was Charles who ordered all the meals, and Charles again who performed the late-at-night kitchen ritual of scrambling eggs and making coffee while Dorothy looked on. Again, Charles likes to watch movies. Dorothy likes to play cards. So when they entertain, Charles shows movies to his cronies in one part of the house, Dorothy plays cards with hers in another, and everybody is happy. I know very well that this You-go-your-way, I'll-go-mine system isn't everybody's dish, nor for that matter could it be applied practicably to everybody's lives. At least not to the extent the Munns carry it. In Paris, for example, where they usually go each summer, they maintain apartments in different parts of the city - one for Dorothy, one for Charles. You can't do this sort of thing on the average budget, or with the kiddies around to worry about; but I'm not at all sure that fact isn't to be regretted. The Munns' eminently successful marriage gives evidence that periodically planned separation is a very good design for some marriages.
I have defended a handful of Hollywood hostesses against my own attack on that rich and largely unpalatable land, so it is now only fair to speak out for the handful of Hollywood's men to whom the art of entertaining means something more than what to expose on a reel of film. As a matter of fact, the small number of good Hollywood hosts is increasing. In the early days, as in any primitive civilization, survival was all that mattered to the movie-makers. They ate to keep their energies up for the fight with their competitors. Dinner parties as we know them didn't exist: there were brawls, and there were business conferences at which food was served, and that was about the extent of it. Inevitably, of course, as the picture business flourished, Hollywood began to take notice of itself as a new Kulturhreis and with this pleasing thought to live up to set about to establish a social order as rigidly stratified as any that then existed in other world capitals, but with one important difference. In Hollywood, money was the sole basis on which one's social position was fixed. The more money, the higher one stood, and while this is not in itself a necessarily censurable conception, it's bound to be a pretty futile one. Money and manners do not, alas, always go hand in hand. Nevertheless, the new Hollywood aristocracy did its best. As a starter they began to build houses suited to their station. They built castles and chateaux and haciendas and villas, they built mansions in every known style of architecture and some that defy recognition to this day. They brought marble from Italy with which to tile their bathrooms, then heightened the effect by installing solid gold plumbing fixtures - no doubt in a spirit of thrift; gold needs no polishing. They raided the market places of the world for treasures to fill their houses. They imported chefs from New York and London and Paris to run their kitchens, and they hired servants enough to keep DeMille in extras for years. Then, in these sumptuous surroundings, they gave parties. Here, unfortunately, any similarity between grand entertaining in Hollywood and grand entertaining in, say, London or Paris stopped. Guests flocked to the regular Saturdaynight parties as they always had. They got drunk as they always had. They ignored the food as they always had. They might as well have been entertained in barns, as, indeed, one could only conclude they always had.
In the current crop of good Hollywood hosts, Arthur Hornblow, Jr., is a food connoisseur of the first order; his dinners are masterpieces. Ronald Colman and Clifton Webb are both charming hosts, as might be expected, and Clark Gable is another, as might not. Clark is essentially an outdoor man, which is not usually conducive to skill in the gentler homely arts, but he loves good food and is, as indicated earlier, a great cook.
Sam Goldwyn is a wonderful host, a great character, and a man who likes his work: his favorite way of entertaining guests after dinner is to show movies. Of course it is impossible to think of Sam without being reminded of his celebrated malapropisms. The latest to reach me came about during a visit to Hollywood by Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery. Montgomery had gone to dine with the Goldwyns, and at the appropriate moment Sam rose from the table, glass in hand. "I should like you all to rise," said Sam with great dignity, and join me in a toast to our honored guest, Lord Marshal Field Montgomery."
Sam isn't often topped, but in this instance he was. Out of the mild disconcertion that followed came the bland voice of Jack Warner. "Sam's got it wrong," said Jack. "What he meant to say was Lord Marshal Field Montgomery Ward."
Jack Warner is deservedly famous as a wit and raconteur, and he is also, in my opinion, the best host in Hollywood. There are the usual reasons. Both Jack and his wife, Ann, understand the art of good living and indulge it. The food and drink at the Warners' is always excellent, the service efficient, the decor charming, the guests stimulating. But behind all these tangibles lies the essential warmth and generosity of spirit that mark the truly good host. To Jack an act of friendship is as involuntary as breathing. Last summer, for example, knowing that Dickie Gordon and I would be at our farm near Cannes before their arrival there, Jack insisted that we make ourselves at home in their villa, Aujourd'hui. So every day we packed a cold lunch, sat on the rocks in front of the villa, and splashed in the sea in isolated splendor. That is real generosity. To lend money or the like is one thing, but to lend your house is to lend a bit of yourself.
On another occasion, this time in New York, I developed a sudden longing to eat a good Mexican dinner. I hadn't been able to find a restaurant in town where the authentic dishes were served, but I remembered the Warners' fondness for Mexican food - they frequently serve it at their parties - and I wrote to them in Hollywood asking if they knew of one. My reply from them came in a rather unexpected, if typical, form: they sent me, by air express, a complete Mexican dinner which was delivered to me at the Waldorf, piping hot and good down to the last frijole. Untitled, but no less noble in my view, are those three illimitably gifted Englishmen, Noel Coward, my old friend W. Somerset Maugham, and Cecil Beaton -brilliant, articulate, witty to a man - although not, curiously enough considering these assets, all good hosts. Anyway, not without qualification.
Heretofore I have used the words "entertaining" and "partygiving" as more or less synonymous, and so of course they may be, although there are instances in which the twain do not necessarily meet. Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham are two of the most entertaining men in the world, but they are not good party-givers. Cecil Beaton, on the other hand, is both entertaining and a good party-giver - ergo, a wonderful host. Cecil has an instinct for mixing the right people; it goes without saying that he knows how to provide them with the ultimate in background elegance (merely to enter his house in Pelham Gardens is to take on bloom), and he has the cosmopolite's taste for exciting food. A Beaton dinner is very apt to feature South American or Indian foods, accompanied by rice dishes with the appropriate hot sauces. I asked him once if there weren't any plain, everyday foods he liked. There were, said Cecil. "Breakfast foods -at any time but breakfast."
Noel Coward is one of my oldest and dearest friends, and a man whose wit, charm, and multiple talents have made him the most conspicuously prolific figure in the theater today. As a conversationalist he is beyond compare. There is no subject that does not strike the flint of his brilliance into giving off sparks of fiery wit. As a judge of food he is, if not expert, on his way to being: time was when Noel's disinterest in food amounted to disdain. Perhaps he has mellowed. In any case, he has now taken up cooking with characteristic enthusiasm, and will probably excel in that as he has in everything else. Still he is not a good host - at least not a good party-giver. Entertaining in that sense is not a part of his life; his very profession makes dinner parties while he is acting impossible. A supper party he may give to half a dozen old friends is not so much entertaining as old-home week. I have been his guest when he had a house at St. Margaret's Bay, and at his Goldenhurst Farm near the sea in Kent, and I was always happy to be there because Noel gives happiness to his friends. But that is just the point. Not essentially gregarious, he likes to be only with his closest friends and he is content to confine that circle to a very small circumference. He has little or no interest in people outside his professional orbit. If you are an artist, if you paint, or are a musician or writer you have a much better chance of enjoying yourself with Noel - or of Noel enjoying himself with you - than if you are a purely social adjunct of the everyday world. To his cronies - people like Gladys Caldthorpe, who designs all his sets, and the late writer Joyce Cary -he is a good host simply because he is his entertaining self. But I don't believe he could bring off a properly planned party to save him. I salute Noel on both cheeks as the perfect guest, but just as he'd hardly put me among the top ten actresses of the world -more likely tenth below bottom -so I wouldn't put him, and I don't think he'd expect me to, among the first flight of hosts.
Neither, when strictly observing the standards of perfection, can I put Somerset Maugham in that category. I have known Willie as writer, wit, wooer, and host for forty years and I adore him. I used to play waltzes for him till my nails scorched the keys while he whirled round and round with Syrie Wellcome, whom he later married. Now past eighty, he is unimpaired. In fine weather he swims every day, and his small compact figure is as erect as ever. I think he is the most polite man I have ever met. His manners are faultless, and given added grace by a natural, almost shy, charm, deep literary erudition, and a wicked sense of humor. More, he is a gourmet of the first order and serves delicious food. Yet he is not really a good host. For one thing, like Noel, he prefers few to many, but unlike Noel he makes no effort to cast the net of his hospitality over his many gifted friends. Strangely enough, he seems to prefer nonentities. As often as I have been his guest for lunch or dinner at his lovely Villa Mauresque at Cap Ferrat I have never met there anyone of outstanding social or artistic brilliance. I think perhaps I have an explanation for this. Maugham lives so much in his mind, he dwells so constantly in the companionship of books, he works so hard - if not so much now, he has during most of his life - that when he comes from his study he wants nothing more stimulating than a good game of bridge, or talk that is diverting because effortless.
I do not mean to write off the Messrs. Coward and Maugham as good hosts solely on the ground that they are averse to giving large parties. The fact is, they don't give parties at all. Call them rather get-togethers, which is something else again. A gettogether just happens. A party, big or small, must have plan, harmony, pattern. As a matter of fact, though, I will take the get-together a la Coward and Maugham any day in preference to the most ambitious party that fails in these requirements. A large party takes an awful lot of doing. It is not enough to count on numberless guests to create their own momentum, or on some bizarre form of entertainment to keep it up. A large party relies for success on what the host alone can give it in the way of cohesive attraction. If it does not hold together, the host has failed.
To take a melancholy example: I went to an enormous party at Vallauris on the Riviera one day recently, fully expecting to have a wonderful time. Certainly the circumstances were auspicious. It was a Spanish party, and the hosts were Pablo Picasso, whose capacity for invention is undoubted, and the equally agile-minded French poet academician, Jean Cocteau. High point of the day was to be a stage-managed - i.e., faked - bullfight, for which purpose nine suitably menacing-looking bulls were added to the guest list, which was menacing enough in itself: one thousand bidden and accepted, not counting the bulls. By way of setting the mood, Picasso greeted the guests wearing a sombrero and plucking on a guitar. Cocteau wore a toreador's costume. Taken all in all, I did not see how such a colorfully conceived and mounted party could fail. Yet it did. By the time I arrived most of the company had assembled and was positively radiating boredom. As this is a state of mind to which I am unusually susceptible I soon fell in with it. It was hard to diagnose the precise trouble. Mainly, there seemed to be a sort of pervasive aimlessness in the air. No one seemed to know what to do, where to go, or to care much that they didn't. The hosts, for all their ornate efforts, had failed to provide the most important thing of all: a hub, a center, a focus of interest. Now a thousand people is, I grant, an unwieldy number to try to band together into one jolly, integrated crew. In fact, it can't be done. But a thousand people can be made to feel that they are joining in and enjoying a common experience - as, for instance, a theater audience will do - and in this Picasso and Cocteau failed. They promised a show, but they were without showmanship. Even the food, which, if exciting enough, can often be counted on to cover a multitude of sins, was inadequate and not very good. (I can't say I was surprised at this. Like most artists, neither Picasso nor Cocteau cares one whit about food. They eat when they feel like eating, never mind what.) Well, it was all just too bad. There was talent, there was scope, there was an incomparable setting, there was a dramatic idea, and the party was a flop. In the end it was left to the bulls to administer the coup de grace. When the time came, they were too bored to fight.
It took an Englishman, Matthew Arnold, to declare France "famed in all great arts, in none supreme." Hah! Presumably Mr. Arnold, although he traveled fairly extensively in France, had never been invited to dine at a Frenchman's home. In Arnold's time, as now, the French respected cookery as an art, and I do not believe there is a food expert in the world who will not concede their supremacy. The good French cook is a true artist, and, as true artists do, he sees beyond the immediate work in hand. The true artist's interest in his creation doesn't stop at filling the canvas. He knows that the finished work must be framed and displayed in a way that will set it off to best advantage; just so does the Frenchman concern himself with setting off the perfect meal. He knows that drab surroundings will detract from its charm, and so frames it with utmost care. He knows that dull company will dull all the senses, including taste, and so selects his guests as painstakingly as he selects the wines -for the maximum enhancement of his chef d'oeuvre. All this being so, and Mr. Arnold to the contrary, it is obvious that this model Frenchman cannot fail to excel as a host.
The list of Frenchmen who belong in this distinguished category is long - too long to be done justice to here. One who is typical will do, and that is Baron Fred de Cabrol, who gives dinner parties that I consider masterpieces in miniature. The parties are invariably small; whether the Cabrols entertain in their large house on the Avenue Foch in Paris, or at their small country house, Trois Pommes, at Montfart 1'Amaury, they make it a rule never to have more than twelve for dinner. Timing is an important factor in the serving of most foods, and at a large party, with people drinking cocktails and ruining their appetites with appetizers, it is next to impossible to get everyone to the table at the appointed time. So while the Cabrols may have as many as a hundred guests in after dinner, the limit for the table is strictly observed, and to good purpose.
One of the more beneficent aspects of the French passion for good cooking is that it is catching. No one with any degree of wit can stay long in France and fail to succumb to it. I have seen young American women arrive in Paris not knowing or caring how to boil water, only to find them two or three months later proudly showing off the latest lesson learned at the Cordon Bleu. And, since it is axiomatic that the convert is often more dedicated than the converter, foreign-born adherents to the French culinary persuasion not infrequently equal and sometimes even surpass their mentors. Thus two of the finest hosts in France hail originally from South America. One is Charles Bestegui. The other, Arturo Lopez-Willshaw.
Charles Bestegui has the most perfect taste, the most exquisite imagination of any man I know. Clare Boothe Luce has called this gentle and reserved man not one of the best hosts in France, but one of the best hosts in the world, and I agree. I have been entertained by Charles at small dinners and large, at banquets and at balls, and he has never failed to achieve an elegance so little seen these days that simply to share his hospitality is a bit like moving back into another century, to a time when taste and elegance mattered and a man who gave himself to the direct service of beauty could do so without risk of a public bullying. Charles is the eighteenth-century gentleman doing the best he can in the twentieth to pay his respects to that graceful and mannerly period, and doing his best, too, to resurrect and preserve a part of it. Recently he has bought the Chateau de Groussay at Montfort 1'Amaury, a beautiful old chateau overlooking a lake, and an eighteenth-century monument historique. To it he has added two wings, one - with a backward nod to the seventeenth century - containing a Dutch room decorated in the style of that period, the other a perfect little theater of the eighteenth century, decorated in red silk and seating 250, with a center box reserved always for his friends, the Comte and Comtesse de Paris. Charles had his grand opening early this spring, while I was still in New York, alas, but later in the summer I will be among the audience watching a play or the ballet. No amateur theatricals these. Marcel Achard, one of France's foremost playwrights, has written a play to be performed there, the Comedic Fran~aise will do a play by Marivaux, and the Opera Comique is also scheduled to appear. I don't know what more a host can offer than evenings like these - unless it is a taste for more: lengthiness is not a strong point with Charles. An early bird, his friends know that the curtain falls at midnight and that is when they must leave. And they do.
Arturo Lopez-Willshaw, whose father founded a tin empire in Chile, and who is now reputedly worth sixty million dollars, is as representative a citizen of the twentieth century as any man can be; nonetheless he pays homage to the virtues of the eighteenth, too. The Lopezes' house in Paris is Louis XVI throughout, a beautiful example of the period, to which Patricia Lopez adds the final note of opulence by keeping the rooms filled always with great clusters of wonderful flowers. Not the least of the Lopezes' accomplishments as hosts is their talent for giving large dinner parties perfectly. Quantity is a notoriously efficient thief of quality, and mass cooking is seldom all it should be, yet I have been to parties at the Lopezes' where a hundred guests were seated and where the food, the service, all the arrangements, were as perfect as if we had been no more than ten.
The word "considerate" doesn't come often to mind these days; there just don't seem to be many around who deserve it. The dictionary defines it as "observant of the rights and feelings of others; showing thoughtful kindness," and thus succinctly describes the Lopezes. They are considerate people. Possibly the most convincing proof of this is the loyalty of the people who work for them. Their two chefs, for example, have each been with them for sixteen years - the younger, having started as pastry chef at the startling age of fifteen, is now a fully qualified master chef and always goes along to take charge of the galley when they are aboard their beautiful yacht, the Gaviota. Then there is Patricia's observant regard for the individual tastes of their friends. Like most good hostesses who entertain often and in force, she keeps a file of menus and guests; unlike most hostesses, however, this record is not intended solely to avoid duplication. Its secondary purpose is to ensure duplication. Thus, when a guest shows a pronounced fondness for a particular dish, the fact is duly noted in the file and the next time he comes - unless it is to a large dinner when it is obviously impractical to cater to individual tastes - he is very likely to be served it again. Nor is the Lopez thoughtfulness reserved for the home. At a recent dinner at the Paul Dubonnets' in Paris, the food was exceptionally good, and we were all lavish in our praise to the hosts. Only Arturo thought to go into the kitchen afterward to personally present his compliments to the chef.
My last candidate for inclusion in this company of notable hosts is a man who, properly speaking, doesn't really qualify at all: Prince Aly Khan is less a working host than a star attraction at his own parties; but I include him nevertheless for the simple, time-honored, and most feminine of reasons- that I love him. I have known Aly for something over ten years now, and I admit that the friendship got under way handicapped by what was then my belief in the popular theory that he is a playboy, nothing more. Being shorn of that notion was a slow process, but a complete one. As I came to know him, I came also to know that Aly's much-publicized romances have completely obscured the more significant facts of his life. Certainly he loves beautiful women. Certainly women find it easy to love him. T`hat's bad? More enviable, I should say. What few people realize is that Aly is a hard-working businessman who has for many years successfully managed the multimillion-dollar horse-breeding business he owned jointly with his father, the Aga Khan, and that he was equally hard-working and conscientious in discharging his duties as the potential spiritual leader of the Ismaili. In naming Aly's son, Prince Karim, as his successor, the Aga Khan felt that a young, untried man, about whom there had been no publicity of any kind, would be the best choice. Karim is a serious young man, and I do not believe he will ever become as emotionally involved with women as his father and grandfather were. I believe Aly must have been very much hurt by his father's decision to bypass him, All the same, I was devoted to the Aga, and I am also devoted to the Begum Aga Khan, who proved her devotion to her husband until his death, and who has now become the first Moslem woman to be an acknowledged leader of the Ismaili, as her late husband wished.
I will say for Aly as a host that when he gives a party there is one predictable thing about it: that is that the end result is wholly unpredictable. For the art of giving the completely casual party, one that gathers itself together like leaves in the wind, that begins, remains, and ends on an entirely disorganized note, I hand him all honors. People seem to be coming and going all the time at his house in Paris, and at his Chateau de 1'Horizon at Cannes. (As a householder, Aly may well hold a world record; he owns in the neighborhood of twenty houses, but these two in France are his bases.) Fortunately, he has a perfect staff which always manages to rise to the exigencies of guests arriving for lunch or dinner at the last minute, for he enjoys a crowd and invites everyone he meets on the spur of the moment. As if this weren't clamorous enough, he also likes a background of music; when he is at the Chateau de 1'Horizon, bands play steadily from midday to midnight. Aly, in short, entertains, but he doesn't give parties. His parties give themselves, and if that's the way he wants it it's all right with me. If only the host is on hand, I'll go any time.