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These Can Kill a Party

By Elsa Maxwell

[Party Planning And Entertaining]  [Analyzing Some Parties]  [The Art of the Hostess]  [The Perfect Hostess and Others]  [Men As Hosts]  [The Pleasure of Your Company]  [The Perfect Guest - and Others]  [These Can Kill a Party]  [The Art of Preparing Party]  [The Art of Good Eating] 

( Originally Published 1957 )

One of the blessings I count is that I am not unusually gifted with second sight: I can think of no drearier existence than one in which I wakened every morning of my life facing a day that held no surprises. All the same as a hostess I am bound to say that there are times when a good reliable crystal ball would have its uses. Particularly in regard to the behavior potential of guests. For the fact is that no matter how carefully a hostess may have reviewed the personal qualifications of her guests, somewhere along the line - human nature being what is - she is going to find she has guessed wrong and is stuck with a bad one. At best, a bad one. At worst, a lethal one -one of those personalities so pervasively deadly it will kill a party cold in nothing flat. It isn't always that these people mean to be killjoys. Some, like bores, can't help themselves. Some are merely victims of circumstance. Some, on the other hand, not only know what they are doing when they set about to destroy a party, they seem to take the greatest possible pleasure in doing so. Well, there are all kinds, and ways to deal with each of them, and I will get to both canker and cure shortly.

First, however, let it not be thought that bad guests alone have it in them to kill a party. There are hostesses who can accomplish the same end with no outside help from anybody. I have known women who could plan a seemingly perfect party, people it with the most agreeable guests imaginable, then singlehandedly kill it dead before it had half a chance to come to life.

There is, for one, the apologist-the hostess who is certain from the start that nothing is going to go right with her party and starts telling you so almost before you have your foot in the door. Lady Ribblesdale was one of these. With all in readiness for a party, with guests beginning to arrive, she would suddenly get it into her head that half the people she'd invited were washouts. "Mice men, mice men, nothing coming but mice men," she'd go around moaning dispiritingly to first arrivals. Generally she recovered her confidence as the party got under way, and the men who appeared either fitted the description not at all, or fitted it so well they went unnoticed. But the advanced-case apologist never gives up. On she goes through the evening abjectly calling attention to the fact, real or imagined, that the roast is overdone or the sauce badly seasoned, that the guest she'd counted on to make the party has treacherously failed her, that the florist has sent the wrong flowers, did you notice? - and so on through the whole sorry business, begging your pardon all the way. Then she sits back and wonders why no one seems to be enjoying himself.

In one respect at least the apologist has an edge on another type of party-killing hostess, the worrier, for while the apologist can easily convince herself that having begged your pardon she's gotten it and thereafter relax, the worrier never stops worrying, and neither as a result do her guests. Convinced from first to last that something is going to go wrong, she is a veritable wellspring of gloom whether it does or not. Worse, if the awful unexpected does happen she goes completely to pieces. A fuse suddenly blows, the lights go out. She panics. At the last minute there is a telephone call: the guest of honor is in bed with a temperature of 105. She weeps. Too late she finds she has seated a woman at dinner next to a despised ex-husband. She scutters about in a frenzy of last-minute shifts in the seating plan, in all likelihood putting the whole table in a shambles. Everyone feels her distress and no one is happy.

Take my advice and never worry. Easy to say? Yes, but easy to do, too, if you who incline this way will learn to accept philosophically the fact that a thousand things can go wrong, they do go wrong, and that getting yourself into a taking when they do isn't going to help any. School yourself to make the best of accidents by learning to laugh at them, thereby encouraging your guests to laugh at them too. Make it amusing and you will make it of no consequence. But with the exceptions as noted, it is the mischosen guest who commonly flummoxes the innocent hostess, and not the other way around. As I have said, it just plain isn't possible always to avoid a bad guest. Sometimes you will have to ask him as a matter of business or for family reasons. Sometimes he will simply fool you by doing a complete about-face on the behavior you have come to expect of him. Sometimes, in the case of a new acquaintance, he will teach you an abrupt lesson in the folly of trusting yourself as an instinctively sound judge of character. But however he gets to your party or whatever his crime once there, there is this about him: he is either tamable or expellable, and here are some tips on how:

Worst of the offending guests, because his offensiveness is negative and therefore difficult to define, is the show-me guest -be who arrives at your party, seats himself, folds his arms, presses his lips together, and deliberately defies you to amuse him. He is there, his attitude says plainly, only to see if you can do it. To him I show no quarter. When I give a party I always have someone stationed at the door - chiefly as a block to would-be crashers, but also to help out in situations such as this. Also when I give a party I always have a few of the latest books sent in. With these for props, I am ready for the show-me. I first send word to the door to have his (sometimes her, but rarely) coat ready. Then I beckon sweetly to the offender, and when he has followed me out of the party room I say to him, nicely but very firmly, "Darling, you are not happy here. Because you are not happy, I am not happy. So I think a good book and bed will be just the thing for you now." Before he can recover from his astonishment, his coat is put on, his hat or stick or gloves handed him, the book placed under his arm, and he finds himself on his way out, still not quite grasping what has happened to him. Brutal, yes. But so is he, and I recommend the treatment the next time you want to manage a discreet eviction.

Next on the list of bad guests come snobs, but let me first say that not all snobs are to be despised. Some snobs I approve of entirely - those who, in aspiring to the friendship of people they esteem, show a rather pathetic longing to be something, to make something better of themselves. I, for one, am the world's greatest snob when it comes to music and musicians. When a woman like Maria Callas comes to dine with me, when later I receive a charming note from her tucked into a sheaf of roses, when Nathan Milstein calls to tell me he will be delighted to come to one of my parties, I preen, I purr, I am beside myself with joy. Everybody has some kind of snobbism, and should have - when it is a snobbism that has to do with honest achievement, true creative ability. But the snobs I rail against, the snobs I will not endure at my parties or in my life, are, first, money snobs, and, second, purely social snobs.

Actually, of course, these are the snobs who should never be a problem at a party because they are so instantly recognizable for what they are they should never have been asked in the first place. Still, they do slip in now and then, even to parties of mine. The husband, perhaps, of a woman I like and admire, or the other way around. When this happens there is really nothing to do but welcome the creature and thereafter do what you can to prevent him from inflicting himself too painfully on others. The treatment here is fairly simple, for both money snobs and social snobs: that is a smart jab with a sharp pin to the most noticeably inflated area. In the case of a money snob, for instance, who has come to the point of advertising his bank account (a point reached by the true money snob usually within seconds of his arrival) change the subject at once to the one branch of the arts he is almost certain to know nothing about: literature. Money snobs like to pretend they know something about painting and sculpture, and indeed they often do: after all, it takes only a minute to look at a painting or a piece of sculpture and another minute to be told its value and so come to an immediate understanding of its artistic worth. But money snobs don't read books. In some cases I can call to mind, it is doubtful that they know how to read at all. And, while he may assume an attitude of superiority toward those poorliterally poor-souls who must rely for their riches on the imagination of other men's minds, the typical money snob's ignorance is, as a matter of fact, a source of humiliation to him. This, then, is your target of attack. Nip into his ego with a bookish question or two. It won't matter if you don't know what you're talking about: he won't either, remember. Tell him you've been going crazy not being able to remember the last lines of Paradise Lost. Can he help you out? Or that new book of Toynbee's you can't get out of your mind. How does he think it compares with the earlier work? If he has an answer, which is unlikely, all to the good. You will at least have got him off money. But the chances are he will have none, will be reluctant to stay in a conversation he doesn't understand, and will retire sensibly from the field.

Or (and while, in point of order, this should come first, I give it second simply because, being a measure of prevention against something you aren't always certain you will have to prevent, its usefulness is limited) there is the set-stage method. For this you need only a few early arrivals and an instinct for timing. Then, shortly before your money snob is due, turn the conversation onto money snobs in general. Mention one that you know -and if you don't know a flesh-and-blood specimen yourself, someone you've read about in the papers will do - and cite a few odious examples of his or her lapses of taste. Nearly everyone has crossed paths with money snobs at some time in their lives, so you will soon have a nice competitive conversation under way, with everyone comparing stories like mad. Into this atmosphere, then, walks your money snob. You greet him warmly. You bring him into the group. You make him feel part of it by briefing him on the topic at hand. "Darling," you say, "we were just talking about that dreadful So-and-so. Do you know him? The one who has all that money and does nothing but try to impress people with it. Such a bore!" That's all. He'll get the message.

Social snobs are also susceptible to the set-stage method, the only change needed being that you substitute name-droppers for money snobs as the topic of conversation they walk in on. When a social snob appears at your party without warning, however, the most dependable snubs are ( (1) ) pretending total ignorance of the names dropped - "Tom Jones, dear? No, I'm afraid I don't. Just who is he?" - and (2) pretending full but somewhat unsavory knowledge: "The joneses? Of course, such nice people, and such a cross to bear-all that insanity in the family." The variations on these two themes are endless, and very workable.

Two species of bad guests I seldom if ever have at my parties are bores and carpers - bores because, well, because they bore, and carpers because they only come to find fault, full of the hope that your party will be a failure so that they may enjoy themselves later by telling others just how dreadful it was. Of carpers I honestly think I have none (and if I ever should find one present he will get the book-and-door treatment, but without the book), and of bores perhaps 10 per cent, which in a party of any size is not fatal. Still, even a minimum of bores at a party must be kept from inflictir.g their debilitating charms on other guests, and I long ago discovered what has proved to be the perfect solution to this problem. But first a statement of my case against bores in general. Recently in England I made a guest appearance with Malcolm Muggeridge, editor of Punch, on his weekly BBC television show, and in the course of the interview expressed my aversion to bores. It would seem that the bore situation is of universal interest. At any rate, the audience response to these remarks was so great that the London Sunday Graphic followed up by asking me to give them an interview on the subject. The body of the story that resulted was the following succinct summing-up:

What is a bore?

Maxwell definition: a vacuum cleaner of society, sucking up everything and giving nothing. How do you spot one?

Bores are always anxious to be seen talking to you.

Bores will walk round and round the table after you so that you have to talk to them. Bores are like barnacles. They fasten on to you and never let you go.

Bores have hobbies. They talk to you morning, noon and night about their hobbies. Bores talk too much-or not at all. (One is as bad as the other.)

Are they dangerous?

Bores put you in a mental cemetery while you are still walking. Bores will never admit that they bore. Under pressure people admit to murder, setting fire to the village church, or robbing a bank, but never to being bores.

How do you dodge 'em?

1. Cultivate a sense of self-preservation.

2. At a party seat all your bores at one table. Never sacrifice one good guest to them.

Says Miss Maxwell: I often think that one day for the sake of other people's happiness I will open a school for bores and try to tell them how not to be boring. And then the awful thought comes to me that I might be more boring to the bores than they would be to me. As noted, my method of protecting others from bores is, at a large party, to seat them all together at one table. This not only serves the initial purpose of isolating them - it has a really electrifying effect on the bores themselves. Bores, like other dumb creatures of the field, instinctively recognize their own kind. They don't know why, they just do. A bore, therefore, put with a group of other bores, looks about him, correctly sizes up his companions, and - since, as I have said, it will never enter his head that he is one of them - will instantly decide that it is up to him to make the best of a bad situation by injecting a little life into things. Now when you have, say, ten people sitting together, each privately self-sworn to show the others what a rollicking good fellow he is, you are very soon going to have a rollicking good party going. I have found to my astonishment and delight that the bore table at my parties invariably turns out to be the merriest of all. Bursts of wild laughter erupt from them, their tongues seem never to be still, you find yourself craning your neck to hear what is causing all that gaiety. I don't know whether or not the practice of administering snake venom for the cure of snakebite is still considered effective, but I can guarantee that the principle applied to bores is a sure antidote against boredom.

The isolation method is possible of course only at large parties. At small parties, if you have for some reason been obliged to include a bore, your only recourse is to stay close to him, ready to move in as a buffer when you see him getting ready to do his worst to another guest. This may be a punishing assignment, but you're responsible for having him there and it is therefore up to you to protect the others from him. Relax your vigilance, let him get away from you, and someone is in for a bad time. Particularly if it is a talking bore -and they are in the majority, full of a really sublime confidence that every word they utter falls on fascinated ears. Should this happen, your best bet is a straight frontal attack. "All right, now, Bill," I will say. "That's enough of that. Stop right there." He'll stop. A little taken aback, perhaps, a little hurt, but he'll stop. Nothing has quite so stunning an effect on people as outspoken honesty.

The problem of what to do with excessive drinkers confounds most hostesses because they tend to regard inebriates as being in a mentally deranged state and therefore potentially dangerous. So they treat them with kid gloves, trying to coax them to the door with gentle words and a good many hollow little laughs, pampering all the way. Nonsense. Certainly, normally mildmannered people have been known to turn violent in drink - nevertheless my advice to any host who has allowed such a situation to develop is to order the offender off the premises in no uncertain terms, and to be prepared to back up the order with a discreet show of bodily force if necessary. If you haven't one strong-armed man in the group to help, ask for a little teamwork from a few of the spindlier ones. At any rate, get him out of the house, and I mean this for women who drink too much and become either sloppy or obstreperous as well as for men. I have no patience with them and neither should you. Only be sure in extreme cases that you not only get them out of your house, but that you also get them safely into their own. Call a cab and see them into it, or, if it is someone who has driven his own car, have someone else take him home. This much at least you owe to the excessive drinkers - for the fault, I am bound to say, is as much yours as theirs. You should never have allowed if to happen in the first place.

At my own parties I keep a careful eye on all my guests, particularly any suspected tipplers. Then if I see someone taking aboard more than he should, I put an end to it then and there. I simply do not allow a state of drunkenness to be reached by any guest at my parties, and neither should you. It is simple enough to stop. If the culprit is a man I take him aside and put it to him frankly. "Now, listen here," I will say, "lay off. You don't want to spoil the party, do you? You can have as much to drink as you can hold, so long as you can hold it. But no more. Is that understood?" It always is. If he doesn't stop entirely, he at least slows down to a safe speed.

If the culprit is a woman, my technique is both more direct and more painful. I simply go up behind her and give her pearls a twist. No, I am not kidding. I do. And it works like a charm. However, if garrotting is not your style, do as I do with a man. Simply tell her to stop, with the implication strong that if she does not she will have to leave. No one will flirt with the humiliation of being thrown out. She'll watch her step from there on. The main point is that it is up to you, the host or hostess, never to allow an ugly situation to develop because of too-liberal pouring, for which, after all, you and you alone are responsible.

Two other types who should be similarly rebuked at parties, if not barred altogether, are off-color-story tellers and what colloquialists have been pleased to dub "wolves" - though I have never for the life of me made sense of that particular sobriquet being hung on a species so closely resembling weasels. One thing I do know, however, is that a wolf - there doesn't seem to be a better word - is only as wolflike as a woman permits him to be, and that it therefore behooves a hostess who comes up against this particular unpleasantness to warn off not only the man, but the receptive lady in the case as well. Just be sure you do stop it. No really attractive man will be guilty of wolfishness. No really attractive man needs to be. It is always the creepy little fellow with the look of having spent his early years hoping vainly to make the team who fancies himself a Lothario, and since the sight of any man ogling a woman is not edifying at best, when this unattractive character goes into his act it is downright mortifying, an embarrassment to all who must witness it and, if there is a husband or a beau present - and there usually is - a straight-on invitation for a scene. Nowadays, I am pleased to say, this is a problem I never have to face at my parties because, after a few enlightening experiences with it in my early days, I have made it known I won't have it, and I don't: incipient wolves there may be at my parties, yes, but, in my presence, incipient they know enough to remain.

You must always, if you are to be a good hostess, have the courage to put your foot down on behavior that offends or in any way displeases you. Subtlety, hints, the slight reproving shake of the head, the message signaled mutely with the eye won't do the trick. Say it out, and say it in a way that will leave no doubt that you mean it. If you do this, and do it as often as the disagreeable necessity arises, you will soon have no more disagreeable necessities. This is the way I have learned to guard myself and my friends against bad drinkers, against irksomely amorous men, and certainly against those grubby individuals, off-color-story tellers. No one tells off-color stories at my parties because I have made it perfectly plain, and often, that I won't put up with it. But if some one of the uninitiated were to start such a story in my hearing, I know exactly what I would do, and I would advise you to do the same. Make no bones about it. Simply announce to the offender and, if need be, to all within hearing that he is to stop, and stop this minute. You may be sure word of your ultimatum will be talked about later, and lead in time to a reputation that will protect you from any chance of recurrence.

Gossip can scarcely be condemned as a party-killer: indeed good clever amusing gossip is the lifeblood of any party. But gossip of another sort-mean, corrosive, character-destroying gossip - should never be tolerated by a hostess, first, because if you allow it, you are in effect lending support to the spread of a story almost certain to be founded on fiction - "Have you heard," one of these birds of ill omen will ask, "that So-and-so is sleeping with So-and-so?" - How can they possibly know? - and, second, because deliberately malicious gossip, once it is in the open, will put a taint on the atmosphere of your party that will be almost impossible to erase. Heaven knows, I am no sweetness-and-light girl - I love a good gossip myself, so long as it is honest and fair - but plain scandalmongery leaves an unpleasant and, what is worse, lingering aftereffect. It is a little as if a snake had suddenly slithered across the floor. No one will be quite comfortable in the room again.

My father had a wonderful way of handling malicious gossips, and I have often followed his example, always with the looked-for result. (Parenthetically, my father's dislike of gossip was not typical of the sex. Men are and always have been greater gossips than women. Try eavesdropping on an all-male conversation group the next time you have a chance. You will find they are all tattling like mad - about each other's businesses, about each other's families, about who is being faithless to whom, etc. They relish it.) My father, in any case, would tolerate gossip only to a certain point. When one of my mother's friends came to call he would sit quietly by, listening to the two of them as they huddled over their coffee cups droning out the long litany of They Says - "They say that she . . ." "They say he saw her . . ." and on and on -until he could stand it no longer.

"You're speaking of So-and-so?" he'd ask suddenly, with the air of someone brought abruptly out of his own deep thoughts. "Funny you should mention her. I ran into her only last night and we were talking about you. She certainly thinks highly of you -went on at great length about what a fine woman you are."

"She did?" The answer was always the same, always incredulous.

"Yes," my father would say, "she spoke beautifully about you."

After the gossip had made her shamefaced exit my mother would turn to my father. "Did you really see Mrs. So-and-so last night?"

And of course he had not. "I never heard of the woman in my life before today," he would say. As I say, I have used this method of counterattack with orchids many times in similar situations, and it has never failed me.

There is one problem guest for whom no hostess can be held accountable, and that is the guest who, all unbeknownst to her, arrives at her party to find himself face to face with someone for whom he harbors a grudge, latent or declared. For the sometimes embarrassing, sometimes funny, sometimes rowdy scenes that may result from this situation there is really no pat solution. You just need to keep your head and do whatever seems best in the particular circumstance. When and if an argument starts that threatens to become too heated I have found that the safest bet is to throw out some outrageous piece of fabricated news, guaranteed to arrest all ears. "Have you heard that So-and-so" - mentioning somebody's grandmother - "is going to have a baby?" Or, "Dreadful about the Empire State Building collapsing that way, isn't it?" you might say. It should be, anyway, something within the realm of possibility if not probability. Whatever it is, by the time your listeners realize your remark is a little wide of the truth, the crisis will have passed.

A battle fought in the open has at least the advantage of giving the hostess a chance to step in as referee. But when a grudge is nursed in silence there is nothing she can do -assuming she is aware of it at all - but leave it to the people involved to work it out in their own way. One of the cleverest maneuvers I have ever seen in a situation like this was at a dinner party in Rome, where Clare Boothe Luce suddenly, and very much to her surprise, found herself having to cope during dinner with a distinctly hostile fellow guest.

What had happened was this. Clare had only recently arrived to take over her ambassadorial duties and, as is the custom, the elite of Rome had paid its respects by calling at the Embassy to leave cards. Among the callers was the Infanta Beatrice, daughter of the ex-King of Spain, and wife of one of the most important men in Rome, Prince Alessandro Torlonia. About six weeks after Clare's arrival I went one afternoon to the Palazzo Torlonia to play backgammon with Alessandro. I asked him if he had met Mrs. Luce. I knew that Clare was not popular in Italy at that time. In the first place, she had made one or two unfortunate speeches: being new to diplomatic procedures, she had simply said what she'd been told to say. Later she learned better and wrote her own speeches. Then, too, she is beautiful, and to the Italian mind a beautiful woman belongs either in the kitchen, the drawing room, or in bed. Certainly not in politics. Anyway, with some notion of myself as a public relations agent I went on to Alessandro about Clare's great intelligence, her graciousness, her abilities. She would prove to be, I said, one of the best ambassadors America had ever sent to Italy.

All at once Torlonia exploded. "Don't talk to me about that woman!" he said. "My wife left a card at the Embassy with her own hand - my wife! A princess! Daughter of a king! And your Mrs. Luce didn't even have the courtesy to acknowledge it!"

I tried to soothe him. I explained that Mrs. Luce could hardly be blamed, that she could not so soon be expected to know who every caller was, that it was the fault of the Embassy staff for not telling her. But he would not be soothed. He insisted it was an unforgivable insult and one he would not forget. On the following night I went to a dinner party given by my friend Countess Attolico. There were twenty ambassadors there that night, two at each of ten tables, and when I arrived I saw that Clare was acting as hostess at her table and saw, too, to my dismay - because I know Alessandro - that he had been placed at her left, with Count Zoppi, Undersecretary of State in the Foreign Office of De Gasperi's government, at her right.

There wasn't time to warn Clare. There was nothing to do but trust to her exquisite social sense. "Watch this," I told the others at my table. "Alessandro is a bad boy, and he'll do something outrageous, I know."

Clare talked first to Count Zoppi. After a while she turned to Torlonia to say a few words to him. Torlonia, with great deliberation, turned his back. Clare could not believe her eyes. Baffled, she turned back to Zoppi. Then, in her most charming manner, she tried Torlonia again. Again he gave her a broad show of back. Clare is not a woman who needs diagrams: this time she caught on. Without hesitation she leaned across Torlonia and launched into an animated conversation with the people on his other side. She didn't merely ignore Torlonia. She made such a show of cutting him out of the conversation that she was almost leaning in his lap, forcing him to sit there like a very chagrined lump of clay. Thus she saved her face. His snub could have reacted seriously against her, but she turned it into a personal victory for all to see. There is a postscript. The following year, when I was again in Rome, Clare gave a party and asked me to come early to be there when the others arrived. I agreed, a little puzzled by the request, because I had never known her to give large parties and had assumed this would be one of her customary small gatherings, designed solely for good conversation. Well, I was wrong. They were all there that night, a hundred strong. All the people who had been most bitter about her the year before. She had won all of political Rome, and all of social Rome as well. I have no doubt that the great finesse with which she had bested so formidable an adversary as Torlonia had helped lay the groundwork.

These, then, are the people who can kill the best-planned party cold, if you let them. I hope I have succeeded in showing you how not to. And if some of the methods employed seem harsh-well, perhaps they are. Still, it has always been my belief that the least must be sacrificed to the greatest, and if you have to hurt or ruffle the feelings of one unruly guest to ensure the pleasure of the others, there is no alternative but to do so. You'll be a better hostess. What is more, you'll earn the everlasting respect of your guests - even the unruly ones.