According to the mid-century florist Constance Spry, by midday on the date of your party you should have turned “the contents of two tins of turtle soup into a pan”, added a glassful of dry sherry and left it “ready for reheating”. Your main course, Spry wrote in her 1961 entertainment manual Hostess, sauté of beef with button mushrooms and jellied stock, should be ready. The pancakes for your crêpes pralinées must be “spread out” primed to be baked, smothered with praline butter and rolled “in the shape of a cigar”. You must have trimmed your flowers to below eye level and shined the silver. The sherry glasses should be polished and ready to quench the thirst of the turtle-soup eaters.
The resulting evening would, in theory, have had the shape and appearance of a dinner in one of England’s finest country houses at the time Spry was writing the book. But rather than taking “a thirty-six person staff” — as it would have in the 1930s, according to butler and writer Arthur Inch’s own handbook, Dinner is Served (2003), this meal could be prepared and served entirely by a lone woman. (There is no suggestion that a man attempt it.)
The years following the second world war saw a slew of such hosting guides, each promising to unlock the secrets to gracious party-throwing. Done right, they tantalise. A party can unlock access to a new milieu and even advance your career. Do parties today still carry the kind of social weight they did back then, or even at the tail-end of the 1990s when another author, Sally Quinn, who was married to the then Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, irreverently dissected Washington’s glitzy social scene? And is there anything we can still learn from these doyennes of entertaining?
The party scene has certainly evolved for women. In Dinner is Served, which draws on Inch’s lifetime experience as a butler serving Churchill and the Queen Mother, and, later, as technical adviser on Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2010), he notes that not only were ladies seated for dinner first but that, in the name of chivalry, ladies should actually already be seated “before the men enter the room”.
Writing in the 1940s, before university was a possibility for most women, American interior designer Dorothy Draper’s Entertaining Is Fun! advised women to be prepared for conversation by reading one good daily newspaper, one weekly magazine, one monthly magazine and one current novel and one non-fiction book. She also urged them to see a play and a motion picture every month — undoubtedly good advice, but there’s something faintly sad about the belief that the principal value of a woman’s cultural education lay in helping her to become a better dinner party companion.
These guides were, in other words, an expression of the possibility of — or hope for — social mobility. This was a relatively novel aspiration when, following the war, women who had taken on work traditionally reserved for men decided not to return to domestic labour, taking up jobs with more progression and freedom. This created a new class of more financially independent, upwardly mobile women.
This was the case for Spry, a Derby-born railway clerk’s daughter who went on to become florist to the queen. Indeed, Hostess was aimed precisely at these socially aspirational, newly middle-class entertainers, who might have had “scant opportunity of observing how a house in all its hospitable occasions is run”, and at the society girls who had large houses and social standing to maintain but lacked the servants to carry it off. By the time Quinn entered the social scene in the 1970s, however, women had “claimed new roles,” as she wrote in a piece for The New Yorker. “It became a point of honour to say, ‘I never entertain.’”
While party-throwing has regained its place in society, times and tastes change. Today, some of these suggestions for charming your guests seem more likely to hamper your prospects of doing so. Spry recommends that, should a buffet table become too dry with sandwiches and pastries, some relief could come in the form of “stuffed grapes or cherries”. A salad niçoise, according to Rosemary Hume, who provided the recipes for Spry’s Hostess, involves slicing the top off a tomato, scooping “out the seeds, season[ing] the inside” and filling the space with tuna, olives and salad dressing. For an element of surprise, “replace the top” before serving. This kind of playfulness should, however, be strictly limited to the kitchen: “never be funny with flowers,” Spry cautions ominously.
Colour co-ordination is another trend we can consign to history. Quinn describes one Washington hostess who used to match her outfit to her hors d’oeuvres and her interior scheme — “first it was mint green, then a soft peach” — so that, should there be a spillage, it wouldn’t show. Quinn does not quite suggest readers match their curtains with their snacks, but she does remind hostesses that, “it can sometimes be jarring to walk into somebody’s house that is all done up in pastels and floral chintzes and see the hostess in a garish black, fuchsia, and orange geometric print.”
A greater loss is the sweetness and carefulness of Spry’s social decorum, which has also gone the way of her stuffed grapes. Today, it feels like the dominant mode in many social settings is playing it cool. For Spry, introductions are a non-negotiable part of the host’s role: “the finest dance band, the most delicious food and the gayest decorations will not make up for neglect in seeing that introductions are properly taken care of.” She likes to give a clue as to what topic of conversation might unite the new acquaintances, recalling a party where she was seated next to a surly, unspeaking woman, when the footman passed her a note: “Dear C, the lady next to you is interested in goats.” “Mercifully,” she writes, she maintained “an entirely impassive countenance under the impact of surprise”, and went on to have a flowing conversation with the former goat keeper.
Quinn is in a different business. Her gossipy guide describes the ultimate Washington evening: the President “coming for cocktails and then leaving so that everybody could relax and talk about it”. You can get away with “inviting a few people with the personality of an oyster,” she writes drily, but too many and they form “a critical mass”, liable to create “a black hole at the centre of your party”. Not one for modesty, she makes it clear she was the best hostess in town. The Party includes serious advice on what to do when some guests have accepted for cocktails only, but it becomes “obvious that they find your party more fun than where they’re headed”.
Some of this social advice does now read as overzealous. Still, a dose of pomp and ceremony would be welcome in the contemporary atmosphere of not-wanting-to-look-like-you’ve-tried, which prizes casualness over playfulness or experimentation. American chef Robert Carrier’s Entertaining (1977) provided a themed menu for every occasion, no matter how mundane: “Come for a quiche and a salad” or “Let’s make it a fondue party”.
In In the Kennedy Style (1998), Jack and Jackie’s social secretary Letitia Baldridge described how they gave their routine political entertaining a dose of fun. Baldridge pioneered trading white linen for coloured (for which Inch scolds them in his butler’s guide) and spiked punch for hard liquor — an upgrade that caused a morality scandal at the time, but which was later credited by John as “the greatest thing that’s ever been done for White House entertaining”.
Julia Sherman, who currently writes the Salad for President blog, was similarly drawn to the drama of Martha Stewart’s Entertaining (1982) while researching her own cookbook Arty Parties (2021). “She is actually quite playful, with themed meals, like a Russian dinner where you freeze a fifth of vodka in a hulking cube of ice with roses set throughout. It’s theatre, with all the inner workings and effort happening backstage.” You can have the fun without the fuss, though, reckons Sherman. “For a tempura party, [Stewart] has the hostess frying all night for her guests. My tweak on this would have my guests do it themselves!”
As it did for the Kennedys, Sherman believes that a well-executed cocktail party can still open up lines of communication. She caveats that “it’s only really relevant in certain workplace scenarios.” Her husband owned his business, for instance, and instead of booking out a restaurant for their company parties, she would often host. “People really appreciated the intimate nature of it,” she says. “It gave them access to the boss in a different way”.
But beware, over-ambition is the entertainer’s most likely downfall. For Kate Young, author of the Little Library (2017) cookbook series, which translates meals from literature into recipes, the richest and most instructive party scene of all is the infamous blue soup dinner in Bridget Jones’s Diary. “She was trying to make three dishes from a Marco Pierre White cookbook,” recounts Young. The episode is structured like a Greek tragedy, with over-ambition her fatal flaw. “We see her go to Borough Market and shop for it, we see it being enormously expensive . . . we see her staying up the night before the party to make the base of the soup. And we see her cook it down so far that eventually it’s unusable.” In the end, Bridget’s failure becomes a satisfying reversal of stereotypical gender dynamics. “The joy is, then, that you get to see Mark Darcy come in and save the day,” says Young, by cooking up an omelette with Bridget’s failed fondant potatoes.
Quinn recounts the night she invited Nora Ephron and Carl Bernstein for dinner and decided to use her new pasta machine for the first time. Instead of fresh spinach tagliatelle, she produced “slimy green squiggles”. Her culinary lapse portended a failure of another kind. A few weeks later Quinn held another dinner for the pair, just after Ephron had discovered Bernstein was having an affair. Midway through the evening, “Nora stood up, asked for a bottle of red wine (we were drinking white) and poured it over Carl’s head.”
The Party begins with an explanation of how Quinn, a journalist and political columnist, could have written a book on the frivolous subject of parties. She explains her reasoning: entertaining is “part of social life”, essential to diplomacy, politics and business, but it has a happier purpose too. “I’ve decided that there are a lot worse things you can do in this world than to give people some good conversation, some good food and wine, some interesting and genial companions, pleasure, and a sense of wellbeing”.
Chuckle-worthy and antiquated as these guides often are, they are a reminder that while entertaining is joyful it can also be stressful. Doing it badly can make you feel terrible; doing it well brings enormous satisfaction. We might take away a little of Stewart’s theatricality, a touch of Quinn’s realism, something from Spry’s kindly manners. And if it all goes the way of the blue soup, there’s always Mark Darcy’s omelette recipe.
Baya Simons is a writer and junior editor on HTSI
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