Monday, August 02, 2010

The Lively Art of Entertaining!

Our book today – the last in this latest, incredibly protracted, almost Egyptianly cursed string of Nine Lives – is from way back in 1957 (surely the Duchess of Newcastle was still alive and kicking?): it's The Lively Art of Entertaining by the incomparable Elsa Maxwell, the most famous daughter of the lovely little town of Keokuk, Iowa.

Entertaining here means parties, which were marvelous multi-voiced instruments for Maxwell, massively complex instruments which she conducted with the consummate skill of a symphony maestro or the lighting-master for the Super Bowl. She knew as well as anybody how evanescent they are – genuine masterpieces of planning, work, and improvisation are forgotten in a season or two, and even once-in-a-lifetime constellations more often than not lack their Pindar or Plato to get the details right (and they'd require one – good party-scenes are devilishly difficult to write; they've defeated some of the best writers in history, whose dullest chapters are usually party-chapters). But that didn't matter to Maxwell – she'd found her one great skill, and good fortune had provided her with the perfect time, place, and means to give it expression. And in typical fashion, she imagined her own lineage, stretching all the way back to Queen Hatshepsut:
Externals change, but the human heart does not. It's an old truth and one we all rediscover from time to time in our lives, yet never have I been made so vividly aware of it as when I stumbled on the records left by this ancient queen and realized fully for the first time how ageless and honored is the heredity of entertaining. Four thousand years ago, could not Hatshepsut have chose to reward the achievements of her travelers merely with titles and lands, the customary royal perquisites? She could have; no doubt she did. But she didn't stop there. She added to her thanks the most heart-warming gesture of gratitude a woman can make: she gave a party.

Well yes she did, and that tone – preening, yet oddly approachable – permeates this book. Maxwell maintained she wrote it mostly for women, for her fellow hostesses in venues large and small, and the heartwarming thing to say here would be that in reality, she wrote it for everybody who's ever tried to reach out to another person. But no – she really wrote the book for herself, to be about herself, because in every good party, regardless of what the lady herself tells you, the hostess is the focal point, the only irreplaceable person. Maxwell loved talking more than almost any human being who's ever lived, and her favorite subject was herself. This isn't necessarily bad – somebody once said of her that she deserved a Puccini opera (she replied “Yes, but do I live happily ever after or knife myself?”), and he was right – but it does shape all the anecdotes in The Lively Art of Entertaining. They start off innocently enough:
If it was difficult in those free-and-easy days to persuade people to put on fancy dress, it has now become next to impossible. Even so, I still do what I can to dress up my parties. For example, when I gave a ball recently to honor Stavros Niarchos I decided that, since it was he who made my cruise to the Greek islands possible, I must pay him a fitting tribute. So I asked all the women to wear a headdress or tiara, synonyms of elegance, and to my amazement two thirds of them actually showed up in tiaras.

But then they get the Maxwell touch:
Mine, incidentally, would have been at home at Niki de Gunzburg's Bal des Valses, as it had belonged to Empress Elizabeth of Austria. Harry Winston, the jeweler, lent it to me, and it was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen – all diamond roses, exquisitely entwined. With it, at Mr. Winston's suggestion, I also wore the Portuguese diamond which one of the Kings of Portugal had sent into Brazil, and which finally reached New York. This was a single diamond of great purity and weight, valued, I believe, in the neighborhood of half a million dollars. So with these two adornments I had, for the first and, no doubt, last time in my life, roughly a million dollars on my person.

The Lively Art of Entertaining (when Rizzoli re-issued the book in 2005, they retitled it How To
Do It
, and it's doubtful Maxwell would have approved; she wouldn't have minded the risque, but she would have sniffed at the crudity) doubles as a field guide to all the various types of guests regular hostesses are likely to encounter during the course of their adventures. The drunks are here, and the tee-totallers, the carpers and the gadabouts, the dreaded bore (her advice: seat them all together – never sacrifice a good guest to their terrors), and one other category, perhaps inspired by a poor soul whose wife insisted he accompany her:
Worst of the offending guests, because his offensiveness is negative and therefore difficult to define, is the show-me guest – he 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 the 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.

If our hostess could be hoodwinked, it would be a fairly easy way to cadge a new book – but we must not think our hostess could be hoodwinked, not on these elegant battlefields she knew better than anybody. Whether it was a string of barges floating up and down Venice's Grand Canal or a pig-calling contest in an Upper West Side dining room, there was no fete Maxwell couldn't accomplish, and this charming, glowing book is her best shot at having anybody remember it all. It's one of our most entertaining entertaining memoirs, from the real Hostess with the Mostess.

1 comment:

Presidents and Pies! | stevereads said...

[...] of all sub-species of human: the Washington hostess. The archetype of the breed was the mighty Elsa Maxwell, and one of her great predecessors was Isabel Weld Perkins Anderson, the wife of Larz Anderson, who [...]