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Unusual Dinner Parties

Tired of throwing the same old shindig? Look here for a little party inspiration.
By Peggy Healy Parker |

The grand pooh-bah of all 20th-century party throwers was Elsa Maxwell. Known for her mirth and girth, she was so popular that the royals of Europe and high-society types the world over paid to attend her shindigs. And what parties they were! Who wouldn’t be bewitched by the great pianist George Copeland playing “Clair de Lune” at an al fresco party in Venice as the moon climbed over the Adriatic and guests indulged in a New England-style clambake? An outrageous imagination combined with a desire to make her guests feel at home earned Elsa a reputation as the world’s most famous hostess.

Elsa believed that amusing and provocative people make a great party, but she left nothing to chance, giving limp interludes a shot in the arm with casual, sometimes corny, elements. Break down reserve, loosen inhibitions, and by all means deflate the stuffed shirts. Now, because Texas shirts are not as stuffed as some others (Big Tex notwithstanding), hospitality here comes quite naturally. As evidence, we offer a suite of unusual parties. Adapt them as you will, and let the fun begin!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Sarah Palisi, brilliant young technology CEO, won “An Evening to Remember” at a charity auction. It’s a formal dinner hosted by dedicated philanthropist Esther Smith and fabled Neiman Marcus model Frances Campbell, grand ladies known for grand entertainments. Egads! What to wear? Like Scarlet, I’ll think about it tomorrow.

Suddenly, tomorrow is here. I rummage through my closet and slip into a black chiffon skirt (safe) and a black leotard top (equally safe). I throw on a never-be-without-one red wool cape for dramatic effect.

Pulling into the driveway, we’re hailed by a valet parker. Wait! Look again. Curly blonde tresses? Isn’t that our hostess Esther Smith hiding in that valet uniform? We soon learn all was not what it seemed.

Inside, a French maid, leggy in fishnet stockings, starched apron, and ruffled cap, tries to take my wrap, provoking a tug-of-war. I’m keeping it in spite of the tropical weather. Into the living room we go, ushered by the maid. Hold on. The “maid” is a dead ringer for Gwen Irwin, the organizational wizard.

Meanwhile, the butler glides from room to room, giving concentrated attention to each guest. It’s our co-hostess Frances, of course, still model slim, gray-blonde hair pulled back from her face in the best Hollywood glam style. She is elegant in her version of livery: tuxedo pants, embroidered white shirt with pouf sleeves, green cummerbund, string tie.

It’s a perfect Dallas evening, balmy and sweet. Champagne flows. Conversation bubbles. Champagne bubbles. Conversation flows. We’ve moved to the terrace now, bobbing and nodding in harmonic convergence, a congenial group. Above us, pots of red geraniums on fretted balconies keep mosquitos at bay, while threads of conversation flutter on the breeze. “What’s that wonderful dot.com idea your friend cooked up?” “Talk to Ed, he’s the venture capitalist.” “Tell them about the cookbook you’re writing.” Sarah, crisscrossing from group to group, connects everyone.
A bell rings for dinner. We’re shown to our places, chairs pushed in, napkins laid across our laps. Frances and Esther have collaborated on the amethyst chargers under burnt orange dinner plates, antique flatware, calligraphied menus rolled and tied with mauve ribbons, finger bowls fragrant with rose petals.

The first course is a sublime ceviche soup concocted from a recipe Frances coaxed out of her cook in Mexico. Waiters ladle the bisque carefully into yellow bowls. Double take! Isn’t that noted set designer Winn Morton with artist Harry Lewis, who, in black tie and aprons, are hustling in course after course of apricot-glazed pork medallions, portobello mushroom tarte, butter lettuce salad, and hot caramel crepes with ice cream?

Espresso is served with bittersweet chocolates and Port older than Methuselah. Then Sarah orders the “servants” to join the royals-for-a-night. Presto! Democracy is restored. We revel in good conversation, good gossip, and the warmth of old and new friendship. Sarah smiles contentedly as the evening enfolds us like my red cape, now puddled on the floor.

Gayer than Laughter
For 23 years running, arts lover and patron Bonnie Leslie has celebrated the creative genius of Charlie Chaplin by throwing him a party. She fell for the derby-hatted fellow during a film retrospective. She fell even harder after a missionary friend revealed how he was able to reach villagers in remote Africa by tying a white sheet between trees and projecting a Chaplin movie on it. The villagers doubled over at the antics of the little tramp, silent champion of the downtrodden.
Bonnie’s first Chaplin party was in a New York walk-up with six guests squeezed together. These days, it’s held at the studio/shop of designer John Phifer Marrs. Charlie himself greets his fans in the form of a life-sized cutout procured from Bloomingdale’s New York where it served as a prop for a black-and-white fashion window.

One late arrival makes an entrance dressed in a black, Victorian opera ruff with hand-stitched grosgrain ribbons. Soignée decorator Suzy Kaye showcases her craft with a body-hugging, sheer net top, silk screened with a “document print” usually reserved for wallpaper. Bonnie is turned out in fawn pants and turquoise linen jacket—she was perfectly groomed, perfectly chic.

Suddenly Greg Cotton, who catered the food, bursts into a literary spoof of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Fall in Love.” People push aside porcelain planters and brass bumbershoot stands to get closer. “All famous writers in swarms do it; Somerset and all the Maughams do it,” belts Greg. As strains of “The Brontes felt that they must do it, Ernest Hemingway could—just do it,” fade out, there’s a rush to the buffet table laden with chicken quesadillas, melon and prosciutto, and Willie Wonka spring flower cookies with pastel icing. The real gerbera daisies, pink ranunculus, and lime green and lavender Parrot tulips, echo (ever so designerly) the colors of the cookies.

Under Bonnie’s direction, a partygoer snaps shot after shot of the guests. The photos with apt captions will be painstakingly pasted into one of the little documentary books Bonnie’s known for. The evening unreels as the hostess holds court like Cleopatra, while guests pay homage to her and to dear, dead Charlie.

Elementary, My Dear Watson
A bewildering case I myself had to solve: what to do for a milestone birthday party for Linda Faulkner? As the former social secretary to the Reagans, Linda produced impeccable dinner parties in D.C. and Moscow. As a public relations wiz, she organizes events for the demanding likes of the Young Presidents Organization. And as an etiquette instructor, she chaperones dinners for newly mannered 10-year-olds at the perfectly pedicured Dallas Country Club. Entertain Linda? Where was Sherlock Holmes?

Aha, a clue! Linda loves Sherlock Holmes and even has a nook outfitted with Baker Street
club chairs and an Edwardian desk  complete with many hidden drawers. With this in mind, I whip up invitations on my trusty laptop: “Sleuths are invited to find and wrap a book, poem, music, or other expression from any year ending in 49.”

To keep things simple I make nasi goring, an Indonesian curry that has  something for everyone: shrimp, beef, and chicken plus dozens of condiments. A one-dish dinner will preclude racing back and forth to the kitchen or stressing over rolls in the oven. For the most collegial seating, I use place cards—proper because there will be eight of us and fun because I collect them. Uh-oh. Virtually all of my sets are framed or mounted. Luckily, I find a dollar bag at an estate sale containing old place cards with exquisite drawings of birds flaunting real miniature feathers. Alas, they’ve been used, the wonderful, old-fashioned names penned in brown ink. That gives me an idea.

Everyone knows Linda, but not everyone knows each other. To break the ice I pose a question: “Would you have put The Bridges of Madison County into a millennium time capsule?” As the debate begins, I sneak into the kitchen to top off the nasi goring with fresh coriander. By the time everyone is seated, James Waller’s florid bestseller had been dumped on history’s scrap heap in favor of To Kill A Mockingbird.

Now the place card stratagem. “You’re each to assume a new identity,” I announce. “That of the name on your place card.” Linda confesses that though she is now Lady Caroline living in baronial splendor in Nether Walsing, she was once a trapeze artist rescued from her former life by an ardent admirer. One guest, transformed into “Cecil,” begins speaking with a German accent as he removes an imaginary monocle. Another attendee, now “George,” gestures mutely to indicate he’s been reborn as a pre-talkies villain.

We sing “Happy Birthday” as I carry in the cake—chunks of Weir’s dark chocolate fudge topped with raspberry sorbet. Then Linda unwraps her presents, which include a tiny book containing historical tidbits from 1949; a 50-year-old issue of Life; an original Bicycle Thief movie poster; and a copy of “Scivias,” a tract written by medieval nun Hildegarde von Bingen in 1149.

“Intriguing,” says Linda. “The details contain the vital essence of the whole matter,” says Sherlock (in spirit). Case closed.

Tips from the Special Events Files

Helpful hints to make your party memorable.

Dramatize the invites. A three-dimensional invitation won’t soon be forgotten. One Tyler beauty whose Christmas gala was to feature New York cabaret pianist Steve Ross mailed out cardboard boxes containing green invitations and little red toy pianos.

Theme it. Apply the theme from postage stamp to party dress. The price of admission to a “Bette Davis” hen party was to recount an anecdote about the movie star. Photos of Mizz Davis adorned the table. After dinner, the “girls” watched a video of The Old Maid and did impersonations of Bette in such famous roles as arch Margot Channing (All About Eve) or evil Baby Jane (What Ever Happened To…).

Personalize it. A Houston hostess sent white tablecloths and packages of colored markers to the more artistic of those invited to celebrate a friend named Buck. The returned cloths comprised a cartoon gallery guests could tour before dinner. The “Buck Rogers” table depicted our hapless hero holding onto a rocket for dear life; “The Buck Stops Here” showed Buck presiding in the Oval Office; while the “Buckaroo” table featured Buck riding a bronco—hat and derriere in air.

Name the tables. At a chichi party for maritime lawyers, tables were named after various ports of call. It was more fun for them to be seated in Rio de Janeiro, say, than at Table 23.

Add the spice of the unexpected. Invitations to a surprise 40th birthday party commanded each guest—man, woman, or child—to come wearing a white beard. Imagine how smugly our birthday boy smiled when he walked into a roomful of friends and family members who had wizened like Abraham, while he retained his boyish good looks. Even at the threshold of—ohmigod!—middle age.

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