I had to learn the hard way, and as a very young woman thrust into a life that was the social pinnacle of artistic circles was expected to match the fashionable best of some pretty experienced hosts and hostesses. I hadn’t a clue, not only as a hostess but as a guest, but the more I attended, the more I learned. I was thinking today of some of my triumphs and more pertinently, my disasters, which in fact taught me more by illustrating how not to go about things.
The first time me and my husband Roy, barely in our twenties, green and fresh from a working class life, were invited to a top notch kind of soiree was at the London home of a new friend, who I’ll call Michael Culkin, because that’s his name (later of Immortal Beloved, The Hours, Downton Abbey). An actor, a raconteur and Bon Vivant, Michael decorated his swanky home with new, modern artists, the like of which I’d never encountered, and was connected enough to ask the cream of society to his famous dinner parties. I was impressed with the flowing champagne and the delicate hors d’oeuvres of hard boiled quails eggs accompanied by a little side dish of celery salt and I watched carefully as those in the know dipped each one in the salt briefly before consuming the egg whole. I later stole the idea for many a dinner – they’re delicious but terribly fiddly to successfully shell without breaking them apart when they are cooked! (Food Tip: boil for 3 minutes with covering water and a tablespoon of vinegar, plunge into cold water, tap gently all round then peel under the water for ease of shell removal).
Anyway, when the time came to serve food and be seated, Michael separated Roy and me, placing his most famous guests selfishly nearest to himself, to my horror. It’s the old party trick of mixing your guests to create an atmosphere, but with no social practised skills, certainly not on a par with the illustrious guest list, Roy was the only person I knew in the room and I felt anxious. This was no intimate dinner, the grand table seated 20 people and I was between strangers. To my left was Cosmo Fry, heir to a fortune and recently crowned Britain’s Most Eligible Bachelor. To my right was the editor of The London Times. There followed an excruciating evening for me, feeling horribly out of my depth, whereby my fellow guests on either side of me proceeded to turn away from me and utterly ignore me all night, conversing with whomever was to the left or right of them. It’s difficult to look busy and engaged by yourself for several hours. Tentative attempts to break into their conversations were snubbed and dismissed. Of course, now I know they displayed dreadful manners. Now, fearless and intimidated by nobody, I’m difficult to shut up at dinner and wouldn’t stand for that nonsense for a second. I also know how to engage people in conversations and draw out the best in them but that night I was a shy kid who was isolated quite unkindly and felt like she had nothing to offer.
I learned to keep my dinner parties small, where the whole table can communally converse and nobody feels left out. I learned to arrange guests to where they know at least one person or have something in common. I learned to make every guest feel special and interesting. At a subsequent dinner I made damn sure to be noticed by bringing desert – an large exploding chocolate missile, molded in the shape of an actual bomb, which showered the table with exquisite gifts hidden inside after you lit the fuse. I’d arrived with a bang.
Later, when we moved to Los Angeles, we found ourselves friends with the Scottish singer/songwriter B.A Robertson (The Living Years) and his wife Karen, who threw the most wonderful parties, Karen being an accomplished cook. B.A, who wrote songs for Disney among other things, was called ‘The most well-connected Brit in LA’ and regular guests at their dinners were Michael Crawford, Sir Tim Rice, Michael Eisner, Rod Stewart, Lulu and the like. From Karen I saw how to do it correctly, often simple but delicious comfort food with a twist of gourmet for homesick Brits. Tim, by the way, is a wonderful man who was the complete opposite of my first nightmare fellow guests, and could be approached and conversed enthusiastically with on a vast array of subjects, such is his encyclopaedic mind and charming manner, although you’d have to later watch out for B.A’s small son Rory, who was the cigarette Nazi. If you sneaked outside to imbibe, he’d be on you in a second, scolding in his wee Scottish accent, “No Cigaretting! No Cigaretting!”
I grew confident enough to host our own dinners and was proud to be able to invite and feed honored guests such as Julian Lennon, Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne, Mick Jones from Foreigner, Lisa and Ken Todd (Beverly Hills Housewives) and Hans Zimmer, the Oscar winning composer, but the man who gave me the most pre-dinner jitters was the President of Epic Records, Dave Glew. I was as nervous as a badger in a brush factory, conscious of getting it just right for Dave and his wife Ann. During the course of opening pleasantries, his wife let slip that Dave was a bit of a neat freak, laughing at how everything on his desk had to be aligned just so. I’ve a fascination with OCD, which was in its early stages of being explored and discussed as a condition, and I recognised immediately that he had definite leanings towards it. I dragged him over to my Art Deco cutlery console table and opened up the drawers for his inspection. There, aligned with military precision in their felt-lined custom slots were dozens of knives, forks and spoons in all sizes. Dave was in love. He asked for more, so I took him to the sock drawer. From that minute he adored me and it was plain sailing. I found out that everyone, no matter what their status, is very human and you just have to hit upon what makes them tick. Ann had one more thing to teach me before she was done. The next day a huge bouquet of gorgeous lilies arrived with a gracious hand-written thank you note. That’s beautiful manners right there.
This post was first published January 15, 2013