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The Art of Preparing a PartyBy Elsa Maxwell
( Originally Published 1957 )
A good party doesn't just happen. True, you may give one on the spur of the moment that turns out well. I've done it myself. But don't count on its happening twice. In the long run only design will assure its successful repetition. Design and infinitely painstaking preparation. When I entertain I plan every least detail beforehand. Only in this way is it possible to consistently turn on good parties with just as much certainty of what will happen as when you turn on your bath tap. Of course there is always the chance - not to abandon the simile - of the plumbing going berserk, in which case you may be in for an unexpected scalding. But an important part of the art of preparing a party is to prepare also for the possibility of things over which you have no control going wrong. Forewarned, forearmed. Always before a party estimate what could come about to throw your plans out of kilter, then decide your course of action just in case. In this way you will have the problem licked before it starts. Certainly disaster will befall you less often and less painfully if you have planned for every eventuality.
Consider, for instance, the plight of the hostess who has planned an out-of-doors dinner party and is so bent on having it come off according to plan that she resolutely closes her mind to the possibility that nature might not co-operate.
Everything promises to be fine. The night is warm, the stars bright, the moon high. Then, just as the first guests arrive, the first clouds appear. The wind rises, rain threatens. There is only one thing for it: the party must be moved indoors. Now it is at this point that the blind optimist, the planless hostess, is in trouble. Having refused to acknowledge the possibility of her luck failing her, she has no clear idea of how the transfer should be made. What is clear to her -to take a hypothetical but common enough case, given the circumstances - is that her first duty as hostess is to see to the comfort of her guests. So she runs about shooing them indoors, babbling refusals of the help they offer and are indeed only too anxious to give: clearly this distraught creature is not up to the efficient maneuvering it will take to give them dinner in any kind of time. But no. "Don't bother! Don't trouble!" she urges. "It's easily managed. Run along in and have another cocktail. Everything will be under control in no time." What happens, of course, is that "no time" stretches into a small eternity. And when, finally - tired, perspiring, disheveled - she announces that dinner is ready, it is to guests embarrassed at having been the innocent cause of her distress - bored and restless from waiting; in some cases, no doubt, logy from too many cocktails - and even if the meal has been cooked by a cordon bleu it will be a failure.
The clever hostess facing the same predicament knows precisely the procedure she will follow. She has, to begin with, worked out an alternate plan for serving dinner indoors if need be. Also, she understands that emergencies foster a special kind of camaraderie in people, and she is prepared to take advantage of the fact. So, keeping her humor high, she calls on all hands to help - the men to carry in tables and chairs, the women to relay linens, cutlery, and the like. No one minds. Indeed they love the rush and clatter of it. It is the unexpected, it is action, and it brings the party together in a common adventure as nothing else could. Not to belabor the bright side-naturally the hostess won't be happy to have her plans misfire, but she'll have a good party going all the same, thanks to her own foresightedness and consequent good management. A weathered-out garden party is obviously not a risk the average hostess runs very often, if at all, but these two instances of hostess behavior in a pinch do nicely as an exemplary preface to the broader business at hand: the need for careful planning to guarantee the success of any party, indoors or out.
Start your party planning with those mainstays of any job of organization - lists. Never trust to your memory. Decide what's to be done, and write it down. With so many, many details to be seen to, the most neatly pigeonholed mind in the world may slip up.
The first list is, of course, the guest list, but at this, the practical planning stage, that should be an accomplished fact -invitations issued and the majority of acceptances and regrets received. After all, you can't very well make practical plans to entertain unless you know how many are to be entertained. The guest list, then, is the premise on which the practical planning will be based, and it should be kept near at hand for ready reference as you get on with the rest of the paper work. And there will be, if you are as systematic as you should be, a good deal of it: menu, marketing list, wine list, and so on. But I'll come to these basic lists in a moment.
First let me caution you to start your preparations as far ahead of time as possible. Leave nothing to the last. In the case of a very large party, when you are likely to be dealing with caterers, decorators, entertainers, possibly printers, allow yourself at least a month or six weeks. (I exclude elaborate balls, which may take several or many months.) In the case of a small, at-home party, a full week ahead is none too soon to start. Large or small, there is always going to be a good deal of ground to cover, and it is always later than you think. Try to get a bit done each day. Make a calendar of the days leading up to the party, and, drawing on your basic lists, note what is to be done on each: these to be ordered on Monday, those errands run on Tuesday, and so on. Such a day-to-day schedule is the best possible insurance against being faced with a rush of last-minute odds and ends on the day of the party itself, which should be the most relaxed day of all for you.
First of your basic lists should be the menu.
Where you hold your party, home or away, will of course be a determining factor here. For one thing, if you are entertaining out in a hotel or restaurant or club you will necessarily be limited in your choice of food by what the kitchen in question has to offer. All the same, select the menu with just as much care, if not freedom, as you would for a party at home. If you don't know the place - ideally, you should - you will simply have to put your trust in the maitre d'hotel or banquet manager and take his recommendations, picking and choosing from them as your knowledge of food in general, and of the likes and dislikes of your guests in particular, tells you to. In this, I have always found it best to stick to the classic French or American cuisine. Most especially, in an untried restaurant don't be tempted into ordering anything too esoteric or exotic. You never know until you taste it, and then it will be too late. If, as is preferable, you know the restaurant and its cuisine of old, tell the maitre d'hotel what you'd like to have for your party, but, again, be guided by his counsel. That imported sole you went mad over last month may not now be available. And, too, chefs come and go in the best of places and their chefs-d'oeuvre with them.
When your party is to be held at home, design the menu to fit the kitchen, the manner of service, above all the capabilities of the cook. Here again, don't stray too far from the conventional in your choice of foods. Better by far to have simple, familiar dishes excellently prepared than to attempt the different just for the sake of being different. A foreign flavor to a menu is all very well, and in America today there is a growing taste for foreign foods, but not when it is so foreign to the average palate as to be unpalatable.
Also, never serve food to guests that you have not served to yourself beforehand. If you are your own cook, kitchen-test new recipes yourself. If you have a cook in the kitchen and plan dishes that are new to her, put them on the family menu one night during the week preceding the party so that you may taste and judge and make such suggestions as need making in time for her to experiment at her leisure. You don't want a case of stage fright in the kitchen on the night of the party.
Cook or no cook, always-always, that is, unless you have that rare thing these days, a fully staffed kitchen-try to plan menus around dishes that may be prepared, or largely prepared, beforehand-dishes that will wait. This is especially true, of course, if you are your own cook. There is nothing more unsettling to a guest than the hostess who spends what should be that leisurely hour before dinner perched nervously on the edge of a chair, one eye on the clock, and poised to spring for the kitchen on an instant's notice. Build a recipe file of dishes that not only wait, but improve with waiting. All members of the stew family have this happy faculty, by whatever names they go: boeuf Bourgignon, boeuf Stroganoff, ragouts, goulashes, fish or meat curries and the like. Another advantage of these dishes is that, at an informal buffet supper, they may be eaten with a fork: no hazardous skirmishing with knives necessary. Obviously not everything on your menu can be prepared beforehand. Some things will have to be left to the last - mixing the salad, buttering the rolls, a casserole popped into the oven, the coffee made, and so on. For the inexperienced cookhostess, nagged by the worry of having to make everything come out on time, and together, a timetable of these things is a comfortable prop to rely on: this to be done at such and such an hour, that at such and such, and so on. Post it in the kitchen within easy consulting range - along with, incidentally, the menu, written out course by course and complete down to the last radish. How many hostesses, I wonder, have had the maddening experience after a party of coming upon some lovingly prepared little side dish resting forgotten and untouched in the icebox? With a detailed menu before you to consult before and during the serving this won't happen.
If you entertain often, and with normal overlapping of guests, keep a menu file so that you don't serve the same dishes to the same people too often. If you entertain seldom-perhaps not more than once or twice a year on any kind of scale - then the ban on sameness may be lifted: indeed, if there is a dish you do particularly well and that has proved itself at parties past then it is not only right but sensible to repeat: just as people go back often to restaurants to satisfy a hunger for the specialty of the house, so they may come to look forward to enjoying a specialty of yours. But again, this for the infrequent party-giver only. The specialty doesn't exist that your friends will want as a steady diet.
At all events, if you are doing it yourself, keep it simple, keep it to dishes you can make ahead of time - the day before if possible - and, whatever you do, have enough. Have more than enough, both of food and of drink Never allow yourself to get into that anguished state of mind an hour before your party begins brought on by sudden misgivings that there may not be enough. Which brings us to the marketing list.
With the menu planned, and the number of people to be fed known, make a list of foods to be ordered. And be generous. Figure precisely what you will need of this or that per portion, per person, then add at least one-quarter to the total. In ordering meat, for example, it is customary to figure one pound of unboned meat per person. Spare your nerves and order oneand-a-quarter pound instead. Leftovers needn't be wasted in these safely refrigerated times. And if you should have to throw something out later, that is preferable by far to putting some hungry guest in the position of going back to the buffet table for seconds, only to find that if he takes them no one else will be able to.
When your marketing list is complete, check it over for anything that may be ordered in advance, and do so. Don't trust to luck that your butcher will have this or that particular cut of meat on hand on the day you want to cook it. Even if it is nothing out of the ordinary, early ordering will ensure your getting the quantity you need and the quality you want on the day you want it. Canned goods and such dry groceries as will keep should be laid in now, as well as wines and liquors. Leave till the last only dairy products, and market produce that must be bought garden-fresh to be at its best.
Food and drink settled, consider next the party mise en scene - lighting, flowers, decorations if any. Presumably you're not going to want special decorations for every party you give (though I could wish it were otherwise: a party, after all, however small, should always have a festive air about it, and gay nonessentials are the very essence of festivity) -but balls and special celebrations, such as patriotic and religious holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, showers, call for special treatment, and a great part of making them special is the imagination and resourcefulness with which you transform an everyday room into a room that reflects the spirit if not the letter of the occasion.
Decorations need not be expensive. A little cash, a lot of ideas, and the neighborhood five-and-dime are all you really need to turn your party room into anything from a snowy Christmas landscape to a Fourth of July picnic grounds. Of course, if you want to and can afford a decorator-and you should for a very large party in a very large room: it is one thing to trim one's own living room, quite another to turn to as carpenter, electrician, and painter, all of which skills are needed to do a satisfactory job on something of ballroom size; a decorator will hire technicians for these jobs, and supervise the work as well -if you want to and can afford a decorator, anyway, find one willing to listen to your ideas and carry them out. In other words, a good one - one, who recognizes that the atmosphere he creates in a room for you must be as true a reflection of your taste in decorating as the guests who will presently occupy it are a reflection of your taste in people. Once he has your ideas he can then turn his talents to interpreting them in his own terms. In this, he should be given his head. After all, you're not paying him simply to do as he's told. In hiring a decorator you are availing yourself of the training and experience of an expert. Talk over your ideas with him, come to an understanding of the particular atmosphere you want to create, and leave the rest to him.
Be generous about your flowers, but not so generous that you have the place looking like the star's dressing room on opening night. On the other hand, don't skimp on them. One stiff bouquet brought in for the occasion is almost worse than none at all. Try to strike a happy medium, but if you err at all, err on the side of luxuriance. The kinds of flowers you have will, of course, pretty much depend, after personal preference, on the season - on the assumption, anyway, that the average housewife does not go in heavily for orchids or other such hothouse extravagances - and they should be gay and pretty, and decorative without looking institutional: some flowers, like gladiolas, while handsome in a garden, seem to have been designed by nature to adorn hotel lobbies. Aim for originality in the choice and arrangement of your flowers, as in anything else, but have them in keeping with the character and personality of your house. And always plan to have flowers delivered to you no later than noon on the day of the party, so that you will have ample time to arrange them as you wish. Never earlier than the day before. Even normally hardy leaves and flowers react unpredictably to changes in room temperatures, and tired, droopylooking flowers are as bad as looking tired and droopy yourself.
Proper lighting is essential to a pleasant atmosphere, and by proper I mean light that flatters, that cheers without dazzling, that is intimate without inviting eyestrain. Too many of our modern methods of lighting are seemingly designed with a view to annihilating the human race. We will only be perpetuated, after all, so long as men are attracted to women and vice versa, but how there can be any hope for mutual attraction between the ghoulish faces that stand revealed by the contemporary idea of good lighting I cannot imagine. The general aim seems to be to do away with any and all pleasant illusion. This is accomplished in one of two ways: either the lights are cunningly concealed somewhere in the vicinity of the ceiling, casting a pale, indirect, ghastly green glow on the room and its occupants, or, crueler still, there is the relentlessly direct type-the spotlight that hangs immediately above your head, opaquely shaded to allow its full white glare to do its worst on you, for all the world like those naked bulbs the police - the movie police, anyway - shine in the face of a suspect in the hope of breaking his spirit. They know what they're doing. It's enough to break the most upright spirit. But direct or indirect, the result is the same. Make-up might as well not be used. Every line and pore and hollow is mercilessly disclosed and magnified, on young as on old.
To flatter, lights should be placed to cast a glow roughly at head level, a little above or a little below, but never so far above or below that facial features are cast into sharp relief. Anywhere from three to seven feet above the floor, give or take a little, and depending on whether it is a standing or table lamp, is a generally safe area. Also, lights should be soft, spread an even glow throughout the room, and on the warm side. Somewhere toward the end of Lady Windermere's Fan, Oscar Wilde acknowledged the value to women of warm light when he had one of his characters say, "I have never admitted that I am more than twenty-nine, or thirty at the most. Twenty-nine when there are pink shades, thirty when there are not." No question about it, warm rosy light is the kindest to all of us, men and women, and who would fly in the face of kindness?
In the room where you receive your guests have the lights bright enough to be cheerful without glaring. In the dining room softer lights are pleasant, candles pleasantest of all - just so there are enough of them to do the job. Men hate to eat in the half-dark, and women look washed out in it. In any case, study the lights in your rooms before you give a party, dimming any that are too strong, brightening any so low they cast any part of the room into shadow.
Houses, like faces, have a way of showing the normal wearand-tear of time, and only a well-staffed house, or one managed by a woman in whom perfectionism amounts to mania, will go for very long without sagging or wrinkling or spotting a bit here and there. But when you entertain your house must look its best -clean, shining, nothing rundown, no untidy shelves or corners, no tarnished silver or clouded mirrors. Pleasant, pretty, well-ordered surroundings - elegant surroundings if you can afford elegance, a generally expensive commodity - are important to good entertaining.
The finest dinner in the world served in ugly or shabby or not-quite-clean surroundings would lose its appeal, and the room or rooms in which you entertain should always be made as pleasing to the eye as it is within the power of your skill and your pocketbook to make them. For that matter, not only when you entertain. At all times. You want to put a special shine on your house when you entertain, yes; to make things pleasanter for your friends, perhaps also to impress them a little. That's natural enough. But what about between times? What about your family? How often do you think of treating them to the little extra touches that satisfy the soul along with the stomach? Paradise is lost, in my untried but observant eye, the day a wife finds it just too much trouble to pour the catsup into that pretty bowl and, instead, plunks the unlovely bottle on the table just as it came from the store. Nowadays, of course, the trend is all toward simplification in our living, and I've no very serious quarrel with that. But there is such a thing as oversimplification, and carelessness about small niceties is its natural child. Take eating in the kitchen, which more and more people are doing - I do myself when I am at the farm at Auribeau, and I love it. But eating in the kitchen, even the big streamlined, gadget-filled laboratories that pass for kitchens today, seems to give many women the idea that they are circumstantially relieved of any obligation beyond making the meal wholesome. How it is served or how attractive the table looks doesn't matter. If the meal is balanced, that is enough, and aesthetics be hanged. Well, the divorce rate is awfully high in this country. My hunch is that if a little of the slavish attention paid the creature comforts were to be diverted to a concern for the spiritual comforts, a lot of families would be happier. Eat in the kitchen by all means; but make it charming, make it romantic, make it gay. Make it a point of pride for your husband to pass on to the boys at the office the next day. Put a vase of flowers on the icebox. Put candles on the kitchen table and turn out the lights. And take off that apron. Never was a less romantic garment devised.
But let's get back to those lists. The house may well need special attention before your party, and the next program to plot is what's to be done and when. There will be, perhaps, that neglected spot on the carpet, upholstery in need of touching up here and there, something to be mended, something to be polished, something to be waxed, etc. Make a list of whatever household tasks need doing, and assign yourself one or more of them for each day preceding the party. Chores of this kind require a certain amount of physical exertion, and they should be well behind you on the day of the party. Not only is it important that you be relaxed when you greet your guests, your house must be too. Houses, again like faces, can have a nervous look to them. Never let guests walk into a room in which the flowers are still quivering in their vases from that last-minute flouncing, hastily thumped pillows sighing back into shape, the faint aura of furniture polish filling the air. With sensible planning your house should be ready to receive the most inquisitive eye on the morning of the party.
But having put your house in shining order for your party, don't expect it to stay that way once things get under way. Accidents will happen, and if you're going to worry about something being spilled on the now pristine carpet, or a cigarette burn on a burnished tabletop, then you shouldn't entertain. As a matter of fact I'm not at all sure the militantly house-proud woman shouldn't be restrained by law from ever entertaining at all. You all know her - the woman who glides about keeping a beady eye peeled for a wayward cigarette ash, a carelessly placed glass, with all the subtlety of an MP on patrol. Men in particular loathe this kind of vigilance, smacking as it does of the suspicion that the lady of the house fully expects the boorish in them to pop out the minute her back is turned. Back in the twenties, the playwright George Kelly spoke out for his sex in no uncertain terms against this kind of woman. The play, Craig's Wife -for those of you too young to remember either it or the motion-picture version in which Rosalind Russell later starred - concerned a woman whose passion for her household gods eventually drove everyone, including her husband, to abandon her, leaving her to find what comfort she might amid the spotless upholstery and bric-a-brac. Mrs. Craig was not, sad to say, a greatly overdrawn portrait. Many hostesses suffer, and their guests with them, from craigitis. I can sympathize, of course, with the perfectly natural desire to protect treasured belongings. Even though I have never been, and have no wish to be, a householder in my own right, I can understand that when time and energy and love and money have been poured over the floor plan of your dreams, it is only natural to want to guard it against unnecessary damage. I admire beauty and order and gleaming tabletops as well as the next woman, but not to the exclusion of all else-including my friends. There is little more discomfiting to a guest than the hand darting in with a timely ash tray, the agitated mopping up when a drink is accidentally spilled, the anguished wail when a spot of gravy splashes onto Grandma's best lace cloth. Face it. These things are going to happen, not with malice aforethought - unless you are drawing your guests from a school for vandals or out of trees - but because accidents do happen in the best-behaved companies and there is little you can do to prevent them. Take what precautions are necessary in the way of coasters and ash trays (and of these, the larger the better. Whoever first conceived of those midget affairs deserves to have all his furniture reduced to ashes) and trust to the good manners of your guests for the rest. Of course, if your teen-aged youngsters want to have the gang in, you will probably do well to take extraordinary measures. In that case, if they are to be let loose among the heirlooms, why not simply cover everything up? Plaster aluminum foil over precious wood surfaces. It will save the furniture, save your nerves, and look festive besides.
Always check the seating capacity of the party rooms against your guest list to be sure there will be a place for everyone. (The exception here is a cocktail party, which, if large and your room small, may require a reverse procedure - chairs being moved out to accommodate standees.) Borrow chairs fron another part of the house or from a neighbor or rent them, if you haven't enough in the living room; and in the dining room never try to squeeze more people around the table than it will accommodate comfortably. No one is going to enjoy eating dinner, elbows pressed to sides. Plan to set up a small extra table, if need be, if it is only for an overflow of two. Even if you are serving a buffet, guests to sit where they will, be sure you have chairs to go around.
For a seated dinner, decide in advance how you will seat your guests, and if the party is to be for eight or more, put the seating arrangement on paper. Draw a diagram of the table, or tables, with placement of chairs indicated, and write in the names of who is to sit where. (I suggest you do this in pencil: if you are typical you will be making frequent changes.)
Start by putting in your own name as hostess, then place the host opposite you. (If you haven't a husband or other male member of the family to act as host, borrow somebody else's husband, or ask the man you know best.) Next, if there is a guest of honor, male, place him at your right. If there is a guest of honor, female, place her at the host's right. If there is no guest of honor-someone, that is, for whom the party is expressly given-choose as you see fit the woman who is to occupy the place of honor at the host's right. The rulebook dictate here is that the oldest woman present is given the place of honor, but unless you are entertaining a frankly grandmotherly old lady, I don't suggest you abide by it. Even if you are very young, the last thing a mature woman guest wants is a reminder that she no longer is. Or if, on the other hand, your women guests are all pretty much of an age - particularly of what is jocularly referred to as a "certain" age - no one is going to love you the better for putting the stamp of seniority on her. My own preference in deciding the guest to sit at the host's right is to choose the woman who is strange, or relatively strange, to the group. Singling her out for the place of honor flatters her, and gives her a sense of belonging in the group she almost certainly didn't have when she arrived. In any case, for whatever reason, when you have selected the woman to sit at the host's right, put her husband, if she has one, at your right. If she is unmarried or, anyway, unescorted, apply the same standard: put at your right the man who is a relative newcomer to the group.
With the guests to occupy the places of honor thus established, decide next what woman is to sit at the host's left, then the man to sit at your left. After that, if no protocol is involved, seat them as you will. I suggest, however, that if you move in pretty much the same social circle most of the time you make it a habit to note, when you are a guest at a dinner held not far in advance of your party, how your hostess has seated any who are also on your guest list. You don't want to put the same people together again too soon. Also, insofar as it's possible, take into account the personalities and likely degree of congeniality between guests you seat together. I know of no grimmer moment than the one of entering a dining room, spotting the man you'd rather be killed than sit next to, and discovering all at once that this is indeed to be your fate. You've come looking forward to a nice dinner party, and this happens! It is death. As a hostess you can't always be expected to know the personal likes and dislikes of all your guests, but when they are people you know reasonably well you can at least make an educated guess.
When you are having a very large party, such as a dance, and you have several or many tables, seat the most important woman at each in the place of the hostess, and the most important man opposite her as host. Not, preferably, the lady's husband. I am a great believer in separating at parties people who face each other across their own tables at home night after night. Protocol must be observed, of course, if you are entertaining royalty. In such a case, the highest-ranking man present is customarily given the hostess's place at the head of the table, and the hostess sits at his right. The host keeps his place, with the place of honor at his right going either to the ranking gentleman's wife or to the woman of the highest rank. After that, guests are placed in descending order of importance.
At very large parties where protocol enters in, seating guests at round tables for eight or ten is a good idea, because nobody can tell who's sitting at the head and who at the foot. Personally, I prefer a round table for dinner at all times, though I am aware that in most modern houses, dining rooms (those that are left, anyway: the dining room as we once knew it seems to be giving way to a little extra footage, with table, in the living room) -that most dining rooms, anyway, are proportioned to house rectangular tables. But there is an intimacy to be had at a round table, a sort of charmed-circle feeling, that is pleasant, besides being conducive to general conversation.
But round or oval or rectangular, the place the hostess occupies at the table will be considered the head, and the host's the foot, and this being so the direction conversation takes will be determined by these two positions. For this reason it is always well to tell the host who you, as hostess, will talk with first, the man on your right or on your left, so that he may gauge himself accordingly. At a table for ten, for example, if you turn first to your right, and the host turns first to his right, someone along either side is going to be left to talk to himself. The same thing will happen at a table for twelve if you start at your right, the host at his left. Here again, of course, a preconceived plan may go awry. Your second choice in conversants may innocently blunder in on you first, and the wise host will keep an eye cocked in your direction before he makes his first move.
Check the linen, glassware, silver and china you plan to have on the table, to be sure all is as it should be, and also look over the serving dishes that will be used for each course for possible tarnish or chips. No one needs to be told that the party table should be as appealing to the eye as possible, but here again don't just settle for the conventional. Try to add an out-of-theordinary touch to the setting or service that will put the stamp of individuality on you as a hostess. One of the nice individual touches the Duchess of Windsor gives her parties, for example, is to serve long narrow loaves of French bread in baskets just the size of the loaf. Another is the way she serves butter, in small round deep china jars, one to each guest.
The Duchess is unquestionably one of the most important hostesses in Paris, and she is an exemplary one. She knows food. She knows wines. Her flowers are always wonderfully arranged - she now grows her own orchids - and she has a remarkable faculty for remembering individual tastes. "I think you like your coffee without sugar," she will say to a guest; or, "I think you'll enjoy this tea - it's the Chinese blend you like so much." This is a commendable trait in any hostess and all to the Duchess's credit. Too, she understands how to place her guests correctly. With her natural spirits and humor she is hard to equal as a hostess. I don't say this in regard to large parties such as the ones I give, but her dinners are always perfect, both at her house in Paris and at the Mill at Gif. I always salute a good party-giver, and both Their Royal Highnesses are very good at their special kind of entertaining.
Many hostesses who entertain on a large scale, formally and often, make a practice of putting menu cards on their tables so that guests will know what is coming and not overdo on the first course if the next one or two are especially to their liking. Menus are by no means necessary to the party table in the average household, even a household with servants, and they would be positively idiotic on the table of the hostess who does her own cooking and serving. Still when they can be used in good taste they add a nice touch of elegance to the table. The customary form is a single card, approximately 3" x 5", or q." x 6" in size, with either the monogram or crest of the host centered at the top. The menu is then written in below under the heading LUNCHEON or DINNER, and the date added at the bottom, for the benefit of the guest who may want to carry the card off as a memento. The better clubs, hotels, and restaurants keep their own blank menu forms on hand for private parties, and will fill them in for you when you entertain out.
Always be sure ample provision is made for guests' coats and hats, even if you have to turn out a closet of your own things to do so. Nobody wants to see his best coat jammed into an overflowing closet from which it will presently emerge one large wrinkle. If your house or apartment is small, and closet space limited, at least make enough room to handle the men's coats and see that adequate shelf space is cleared to accommodate their hats. Women guests should be given the use of a bedroom or dressing room where they not only may put their coats but also may retire to primp. Ideally men, too, should have the use of a room to themselves, but if that can't be managed they will have to be content with hair-combing and tie-straightening in the bathroom. One more precaution I urge is on you who keep pets you dote on: take a good long objective look at the darlings before a party and consider honestly how lovable they will seem to your guests. Do they beg? Do they bark? Do they bite? Are they so endlessly friendly that any old lap seems made for them? And if the answer to even one of these four questions is Yes, don't let them loose at your party. A well-trained, mannerly dog or eat is always a pleasure to have around; but animals who demand attention by jumping, pawing, drooling, cuddling hairily into laps, should be firmly banished. If you haven't a back yard or spare room or cellar where they may be isolated, board them out with understanding neighbors, or with a vet. In any ease, don't expose your guests to their undoubted charms. There is an even greater charm to passing the time at a party unharried by the attentions of small, furry animals.
If your party plans include cards or other games, be sure you have ready and at hand all the necessary paraphernalia: score pads; sharpened pencils; full clean decks of cards (count them: cards have a way of disappearing); poker chips, if that is -your game, etc. I also recommend having rulebooks available to players. The written word of authority is the only sure way to put a stop to disputes that might otherwise go on into the night. Also, when you plan cards, decide in advance what guests you want to have play together, and if there are to be several tables write down the names of the players to be grouped and put a list at each table. Never let there be that post-dinner, pre-game confusion and delay of deciding who is to play with whom.
My own preference in games is bridge. After that, poker. Canasta I go along with, though not very gladly. But bridge - well, Somerset Maugham has called it "the most entertaining game that the art of man has devised," and that is my sentiment exactly. I feel genuinely sorry for people who don't play it, for they are missing, if they only knew it, one of the most diverting amusements in life. I love to play it and I am not at all bad at it, given a good partner. As a matter of fact, I'm not at all bad at any card game, a fact I put down to a piece of advice given me years ago. "Always play for more than you can afford to lose," Winston Churchill once told me during a session of six-card bezique at Maxine Elliott's. "That is the only way to learn." And it's true. A beginner at bridge will learn to play better if he plays for higher stakes than he cares to lose, and also if he plays with better players than he is. Of course, good players who find themselves saddled with a beginner may not be too happy, but they are certain to cheer up (all except the beginner's partner, that is) when they find the beginner prepared to lose in order to learn.
But in bridge, mixing the bad with the good is a circumstance that should be left strictly to chance. It is the most class-conscious game in the world, and good and bad players should never deliberately be put together. The bad players will only be unhappy, and the good players will at the least be bored and at the most outraged to the point of mayhem. If you are in any doubt about the game of a prospective guest, do a little private sleuthing among his friends. Anything's fair in the interests of providing a good game for all players.
Also, keep husbands and wives apart. More divorces must surely begin at the bridge table than any place else. It is seldom you find a couple who play with equal skill, and the better of the two isn't going to feel constrained to conceal his displeasure with a partner at bridge who is also his partner in marriage. A husband, say, trapped at a table with a wife who is an inept player will almost invariably be outspoken in his criticism of her, to everyone's discomfort, or, if he is one of the rare ones, capable of extraordinary self-control, he will nonetheless show his pain by virtue of a face that hangs to his knees and the resolve plainly written on it to have this out with her the minute they're alone. It is an even more disastrous combination than a good violinist married to a woman who fancies herself a singer.
As a matter of fact, not only do I advise against letting husbands and wives play together, I also recommend that you keep them as far apart physically as possible. A wife, let us say, playing dummy at a table next to the one where her husband is deep into the struggle to make a difficult slam contract will inevitably feel a powerful urge to kibitz. So she hangs over the back of his chair, breathing - with various critical inflections - down his neck. The harassed man stands it as long as he can, finally erupts, demands heatedly that she leave him alone, and the scene all too often ends in a good, name-calling family fight. Put them at opposite sides of the room, I say, where they won't be able to see or hear how the other's game is going, and where the distance will act as a deterrent to wandering.
Duplicate bridge is fun - IF you have players who are evenly matched, or at least in the same league. This is bridge played as a contest, after all, and there is no fair competition possible when you pit amateurs at any game against pros. Actually, since the whole idea of duplicate bridge is to demonstrate skill, it should be reserved for good players only. You can't always collect a roomful of champions, but given a majority of experts, the average good player will rise to the challenge. Not long ago, for instance, I dared to pick up a gauntlet tossed me by John Crawford -whom I believe to be the world's finest cardplayer -and accepted an invitation to be his partner in a small unofficial duplicate bridge tournament at the Regency Club in New York. On the final tally we scored third, and so giddy was I at having held my own in that climate of expertise that I accused John of having made two bad doubles! Yes, we are still good friends. The point is that, right or wrong about those doubles, with a partner like Crawford to support, I played my best game, with every ounce of concentration and skill that was in me.
From the hostess's point of view there is no easier form of entertaining than a card party. After all, all the guests ask for are chairs, a table, and a deck or two. They do not need to be entertained; they entertain themselves. Conversation is barred, unless you are playing that abomination of abominations - chatty bridge. In any case, it is the best way I know to pass the hours between dinner and bedtime at an at-home party, and some avid cardplaying hostesses I know in New York have launched a new kind of dinner-with-cards party, one in which dinner is kept secondary to the game. Guests are invited to come early, around six o'clock, to play bridge or Canasta while cocktails are served. A simple buffet dinner interrupts the playing at about 8:00 or 8:30, after which the guests are allowed to get back to the serious business of the evening. This is a good plan, especially on week nights for working people who must rise early, as it allows plenty of playing time (well, not quite plenty; card addicts can never have enough), without dragging on deep into the night.
Parlor and word games will never take the place of cards as solid diversion, but they are often fun and an excellent means of buoying up a sagging party, or of unbending a stiff one. So long as they are fun. I can see no point at all in playing games that make you feel you're back in the schoolroom. What difference can it possibly make to your greater happiness in life that you don't know the exact angle of the list of the leaning tower of Pisa, or the name of the highest peak in the Andes? I like games that hinge on wit and mental agility -on intelligence, too, but not on the kind of intelligence that rests its case on a talent for hoarding little-known facts. Twenty Questions, for example, bores me to the nearest exit when the object to be guessed is so esoteric or obscure as to be lost to anyone but a practicing encyclopedist. Besides, games like Twenty Questions have the disadvantage, at a party, of being largely one-man performances, the guesser holding the floor for the run of the game, with the rest of the company, between Yeses and Nos, put in the position of being mere interested spectators. The best party games are those in which all players participate equally. For example, there is a variation on Twenty Questions that I like - first because, being limited to ten clues, it goes faster; and second because the clue-giver alone knows the answer. All the others collaborate in the guessing, which makes for good lively general conjecture and talk. That is What (or Who) Am I? And to illustrate, here is a set of questions I posed at a recent party which had everyone guessing like mad until Auskine Hearst finally got the answer. Can you?
1. I am a piece of rock.
2. I am very old.
3. I have played an important role in the history of languages.
4. I am valuable, because I brought light into abysmal darkness.
5. I was stolen.
6. I am in England.
7. The country of my origin would like me back, but I am not able to go.
8. Historians quarrel over me, but they have to abide by me.
9. I am not a jewel to be worn around the neck.
10. I am prized because I am the only one of my kind in the world. What am I?
Got it? (To see how well you did, turn to the last page of this chapter.)
One final word on parlor games, whatever your fancy: don't force them on even one unwilling head. Here the minority, unfairly perhaps but necessarily, rules. One slightly sulky or balky player will spoil the fun for all the rest, and as there is clearly nothing to be gained by engaging in a pastime no one is going to wholeheartedly enjoy it is better simply to drop the whole idea and make a mental note not to invite the spoilsport next time you're in the mood for games.
Let us assume now that the day of the party has arrived. All is in order, all preparations made. But how prepared are you personally? Relaxed? Unworried? Nothing more pressing to do before the party begins than bathe and dress at your leisure? That is how it should be.
Always plan to keep the day of the party to yourself. Don't make lunch dates, or any other outside appointments, including the hairdresser. Have your hair and nails done the day before. Know what dress you are going to wear, and be sure that it is pressed, spotless, zippers working, all buttons in place, and that the accessories to go with it are in similarly perfect condition. Also, in the matter of dress, don't plan to wear anything designed to turn the eye of every woman at your party green with envy. Be as chic as you will, but keep to the conservative side. Your role, remember, is to please your guests, and you won't be pleasing the women much by appearing in something that will make them feel dowdy by comparison.
Schedule your afternoon, if it is humanly possible, to include a nap - a really beneficial nap, nightgowned, in bed, shades drawn.
Be dressed and ready for your guests at least half an hour before they are due. If your nerves are still a bit edgy, you can use this time to advantage by soothing them with a final, reassuring survey of the premises. Or, if you wish, by a still more direct method. In the course of assembling the material for this book I asked a few top hostesses among my friends to let me in on their particular secrets of success. Nedda (Mrs. Josh) Logan confessed that while she is usually torn between anxiety and hope almost to the last, just before the party she overcomes her qualms, first, by ascertaining that no detail has been overlooked, that the flowers are perfect, the food and drink ample. Then, said Nedda, "I take a couple of very good drinks before the party starts, and the rest of the evening I seem to be carried along with the excitement of giving it." Nedda is also considerate of her guests' possible unease on arriving: "I ask the bartender to give everyone a very strong drink for their first. I feel this starts the party going."
Well, tranquillize as you will. One task only remains to be done in this final hour before the party, and that is to air the rooms thoroughly. Always receive your guests in a cool, freshly ventilated room, one from which all stuffiness and cooking odors have been cleared.
This done, sit down and relax. If you have prepared well there is nothing more you can do. Except enjoy your party.
(Answer to puzzle : The Rosetta Stone)