Seeking holiday party inspiration from the legendary entertainers of yesteryear.
Written By JACK SUNNUCKS
With the holidays upon us, chances are you’ll be throwing or attending a festive soirée—or both. Drinking out of paper cups filled with lukewarm Champagne, wearing tinsel as a necklace, sporting glittery eyeshadow—these are the trappings of the modern Christmas party. At VIOLET GREY, however, we’re feeling nostalgic for a more glamorous time of fine wines, smoked salmon canapés, big hair, and even bigger personalities.
Here, we present some of our favorite iconic hostesses, from Sue Mengers, the über agent who knew how to fill a room with stars (or, as she called them, sparklies) to Elsa Maxwell, the ne plus ultra of entertainers of the international elite in the ’40s. We also threw in Kate Moss, just for good (and modern) measure. We hope to amuse and ultimately inspire a truly divine seasonal get-together. Remember: Having a good time is very Violet, after all.
THE ULTIMATE HOLLYWOOD HOSTESS
Hostess stats: Mengers, a diminutive woman with enormous glasses and an even more enormous personality, established the template for the Hollywood super agent. In her ’70s heyday, she represented Faye Dunaway, Robert Redford, Candice Bergen, Cher, and best friend and icon Barbra Streisand. “A bulldog with charm,” was how Michael Caine described her peculiar brand of charisma.
Parties: With this kind of client roster, Mengers’ parties were, of course, legendary. “My own mother wouldn’t have got in if she was standing outside in the rain,” she hollered after a particularly successful night at Chez Sue. According to the New York Times, “For nearly 20 years, without a single velvet rope or red carpet in sight, Sue Mengers, a retired Hollywood agent, brought the biggest of names to her table for intimate Saturday night dinners that would often end past midnight in a haze of wine, smoke and gossip about movies, politics and the entertainment business.” Mengers loved to do a rigorous placement to ensure each guest was entertained; she also rang a bell next to her hand to announce each course.
Cuisine: Unpretentious—chicken pot pie or brisket. Mengers couldn’t cook, and she smoked marijuana constantly.
Venue: Mengers held court in her Hollywood Regency home, a stone’s throw from the Beverly Hills Hotel, resplendent in a muumuu in her white-orchid-filled living room. “At Sue’s,” remembers Graydon Carter, “everyone was funnier, and quicker, and smarter than they were anywhere else. And as a result, everyone went to her place.”
THE CHARITY EMPRESS
Hostess stats: “You might as well live,” was one of Taylor’s favorite sayings, and she lived as though her entire life was a party until the grand age of 79. Some of her greatest work, however, was as a philanthropist for HIV/AIDS charities. After her dear friend Rock Hudson died of the disease, she founded AmFAR, and in the course of her lifetime raised more than $270 million to help fight it.
Parties: Aside from her glittering fund-raising galas, Taylor also liked to entertain lavishly at home. Or, more precisely, in the hotels she called home, especially during her time with Richard Burton. For her 40th birthday, Burton threw her a party in Budapest and gave her the Taj Mahal diamond. For another, he had 20 of her closest friends dress up to the nines. According to biographer Sam Kashner, “She loved not only Beluga caviar and Champagne but American fare like cheeseburgers, French fries, and, of course, chili from Chasen’s”—and had said chili flown to her all over the world.
Guests: Michael Jackson, Shirley MacLaine, Dennis Hopper, Cher, Patti LaBelle, Madonna, and Taylor’s beloved dog, Sugar.
Cuisine: Taylor loved all alcohol just as much as food—Jack Daniels, mimosas, and Bloody Marys rated highly.
Venue: Hollywood’s largest event spaces in order to squeeze in as many donors as possible. When Taylor wasn’t fund-raising, however, she liked to welcome guests to the bedroom of her Bel Air mansion to admire her jewelry, her framed photographs of famous friends, and her dogs.
THE PROFESSIONAL HOSTESS
Hostess Stats: Maxwell was a theater pianist and gossip columnist before becoming the most famous party thrower in the world from the ’20s until the late ’50s, mixing stars of the stage and screen with royalty, designers, and intellectuals. “The best you can offer your guests is the unexpected,” she wrote in her book How to Do It, or The Art of Lively Entertaining, published in 1957.
Parties: Her most legendary fête in 1927 was a “Come as You Are” party that instructed guests to arrive dressed as they were when they received the invitation. She also threw the most extravagant scavenger hunt ever seen in Paris, which included items like a black swan from the Bois de Boulogne, the red pom-pom on a French sailor’s hat, and a music-hall star’s shoe.
Guests: Rita Hayworth and Aly Khan, Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Salvador Dalí.
Cuisine: Diana Vreeland’s ris de veau à la Lyonnaise, Cole Porter’s cherry compote with red wine, and Joan Fontaine’s Andalusian gazpacho.
Venue: The Waldorf Astoria, The Principality of Monaco, the streets of Paris.
THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE DAMNED
Hostess Stats: Not only is the British supermodel the glorious wild child of the century, she is also adept at both leaving and entering a bash looking sublime—as well as an accomplished hostess.
Parties: Moss’ greatest achievement was her 30th birthday, called “The Beautiful and the Damned.” The theme was taken from the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel of the same name. Moss, done up in midnight blue sequins and a perm, aimed to conjure the debauched atmosphere of ’20s New York in a host of suites at Claridges. Revelers quaffed Cristal in rooms strewn with roses and hearts saying “With love from Kate,” thoroughly debauching themselves (ahem) to a Rolling Stones soundtrack.
Guests: Naomi Campbell, Stella McCartney, Grace Jones, Alexander McQueen, Marianne Faithfull.
Cuisine: Beluga caviar, Champagne.
Venue: For Moss’s 40th, she eschewed her usual haunt of Claridges and had a 100-hour party at her house in the Cotswolds. The tabloids lambasted her for this, but it sounds quite fabulous to us.
MARIE-HÉLÈNE DE ROTHSCHILD
THE SOCIETY SWAN
Hostess Stats: De Rothschild’s soirées of the ’60s and ’70s were legendary. Her husband, the Baron de Rothschild, described his wife as having “a fabulous appetite for life, emotions always at their height, a spontaneity with a thousand facets, as ever-changing as the sea. And charm, which defies description.” Two of the society maven’s most noted events were her Proust Ball, held in December 1971 to celebrate 100 years since the author’s birth, and her Surrealist Ball in 1972.
Parties: For the Proust Ball, 350 guests dined on foie gras served on mauve tablecloths in her palm tree–bedecked dining room. Guests dressed à la Proust; that is, in grand Belle Epoque style. Elizabeth Taylor arrived in diamonds and ornate black lace, and the party made it into Vogue. The Surrealist Ball involved Magritte invites, a dessert shaped like a full-size naked woman, and guests in their finest surreal getups, giving the evening a distinctly illuminati air. The hostess wore a gigantic golden deer mask replete with antlers and diamond tears. Guests made masks out of collaged pictures of “Mona Lisa,” foodstuffs, and, in Audrey Hepburn’s case, a birdcage. Dinner plates were covered in fur, tables were painted with clouds, and the bread was blue. Perhaps their greatest coup was securing the attendance of Salvador Dalí, who lent authenticity to the proceedings.
Guests: Salvador Dalí, Elizabeth Taylor, Marchesa Luisa Casati, Audrey Hepburn, the Duchess of Windsor, Princess Grace of Monaco.
Cuisine: Consommé, quenelles of lobster, duck stuffed with foie gras and foie de canard and decked with pineapple, small mirabelles with a delicious prune jam.
Venue: The Château de Ferrières or Hôtel Lambert, the 17th-century palace on Île-St-Louis in Paris.