Sunday, December 5, 2010

How to Do !t by Elsa Maxwell

How to Do !t -- the cute exclamation point is not a typo -- is subtitled OR The Lively Art of Entertaining, and as you plow delightedly through the first several chapters, you may think that this is the most unique and truly interesting, entertaining, book you've read in years. Carrying on, you may find it turns a bit repetitive, but that is partly because few people anymore need our author's detailed advice on good party-giving. Most of us socialize only with our own families, and so are puzzled by any idea of artificiality in company, or of making an effort because you are supping with strangers. Did you know, for example, it used to be a rule at dinner that you talked to the person on your left, and then at the change of courses, to the person on your right? This was to ensure that everybody got talked to at some length. Families needn't bother with that. And when was the last time anyone ever enjoyed the bizarreness of a scavenger hunt? Our authoress invented them, but also lived long enough to notice how many parties were becoming television-watching appointments.

And who was our authoress? She was Elsa Maxwell. She occupied a strange position among the jet set from the end of World War I to her death in 1963. There had been great political hostesses before her time, wives of powerful men living in great, gaslit capitals, giving balls and receptions where political things incidentally got done, where wheels were greased and egos (literally) fed. And there may be women today who still give A-list parties for small groups of the rich and famous, but who remain obscure themselves.

Elsa was different in seemingly having no power, yet rising to such prominence that nation states came to her when they wanted to do little things like create a postwar tourism industry. See: Greece, and the two-week Yacht Party, 1955. She rose to such fame that the general public could break into warm and excited applause when she appeared on game shows. (You can surf YouTube for an old clip of Elsa sailing, be-gloved and all, on to the set of What's My Line. Her affected, squawky Munchkin voice is startlingly annoying.) She rose to such fame that she could introduce How to Do !t with this story, whose emotional ring she fully expected her public to understand:

Of all the parties I have given, there is one that stands out in my memory as perhaps the most rewardng of all. Certainly it was the smallest. I had a guest list of one! Yet never have I known a happier fulfillment in my role as hostess than I did on that evening when I entertained a girl I had never seen before, and may never see agian.

Her name, let's say, was Alice. Alice was young, a widow, and having a heavy time of it making ends meet in the Brooklyn flat she shared with a friend. One day I received a letter from her. She knew, she said, how mcuh I love music, that I went often to concerts and the opera. She had read in my column about the places I dined and the people I met. "Oh, once, just once," she wrote, "to spend and eveing as you do!"

So I invited her to do just that.

I booked seats at Carnegie Hall for a concert Toscanini was to condeuct. Before the concert we dined at El Morocco and Alice had the time of her young life watching the parade of Hollywood and Broadway and society that came and went. People stopped at our table to chat: Walter Winchell, Leonard Lyons, a former governor of Pennsylvania; and when, as we were about to leave for our conceert, Alice came face to face with Betty Grable I nearly had to assist my little friend into our taxi.

I don't think two people ever had a better time ....

Most of Elsa's parties were not tete a tetes. She hosted must-see (and must-be-seen-at) occasions for diplomats, movie stars, prima donnas, writers, and aristocrats; somehow this dumpy native of Keokuk, Iowa leaped, in 1919, from being an odd-jobs girl in a traveling Shakespeare troupe to hosting an "exquisite" dinner for Britain's Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour at the Ritz in Paris. Her career was made then. Her parties do sound as if they were great fun. At an early success, she writes, "cabinet ministers had the time of their sedate lives blowing feathers off an outstretched sheet."

You and I may have no need to host an affair like that, although it does sound more fun than watching television. In fact How to Do !t's introduction, written by one Simon Doonan, warns us that of course no one would dream of consulting the book for advice on entertaining anymore. We are meant only to use it as a microscope through which to view the "psychological case history" of Elsa, name dropper extraordinaire and all around "attention junkie."

On the contrary. I found the book most enjoyable for Elsa's plain, hearty prose and her knowledge of human nature, gleaned at forty years' worth of parties. That it all happens to add up to party giving advice is simply, we might say, gravy. Pretend she is looking over your shoulder with a clipboard, and consider:

  • Making a guest list? Mix interests, she says, and mix age groups. Who could be more intriguing than an elderly soul who has seen the world? Yet what old soul could fail to be fascinated by the young Marlon Brando? (Who indeed?) 
  •  Watch out for the shy. "A little of the lion lurks in every mouse, and there is nothing like alcohol to bring it out." 
  •  Watch out for wolves -- even if they tend to be only as wolflike as a woman permits them to be. "No really attractive man will be guilty of wolfishness. No really attractive man needs to be. It is always the creepy little fellow with the look of having spent his early years hoping vainly to make the team who fancies himself a Lothario... just be sure you stop it."
  • You've got an inebriated guest? Tell him he's had enough, bluntly, but accept your own responsibility for a "too-liberal pouring of liquor." It's your party. 
  •  There's been a horrible spill? Of course you must prepare for the evening in perfect detail, but "accidents will happen, and if you're going to worry about something being spilled on the now pristine carpet, or a cigarette burn on a burnished tabletop, then you shouldn't entertain." 
  •  Your teenagers want to "have the gang in"? By all means. Just cover everything up. "Plaster aluminum foil over precious wood surfaces. It will save the furniture, save your nerves, and look festive besides." 
  •  And suppose, incredibly, it rains on your garden fete. Be "clever" about it. Accept your guests' help in bringing things in and getting dinner. People are drawn together by mild emergencies and a "common adventure." Everyone will sit down to eat far faster and in a far gayer mood if they are allowed to help in the fuss, than they will if you keep them standing around watching you cope frantically amid the thunder and lightning, assuring them it's all right.

And what of that killer of parties, the Bore? This problem brings out Elsa at her best:

My method of protecting others from bores is, at a large party, to seat them all together at one table. This not only serves the initial purpose of isolating them -- it has a really electrifying effect on the bores themselves. Bores, like other dumb creatures of the field, instinctively recognize their own kind. They don't know why, they just do. A bore therefore, put with a group of other bores, looks about him, correctly sizes up his companions, and -- since, as I have said, it will never enter his head that he is one of them -- will instantly decide that it is up to him to make the best of a bad situation by injecting a little life into things. Now when you have, say, ten people sitting together, each privately self-sworn to show the others what a rollicking good fellow he is, you are very soon going to have a rollicking good party going. I have found to my astonishment and delight that the bore table at my parties invariably turns out to be the merriest of all. Bursts of wild laughter erupt from them, their tongues seem never to be still, you find yourself craning your neck to hear what is causing all that gaiety. 

Presiding over splendid, fun evenings and making partygoers happy was an art, and one that Miss Maxwell is proud to think she can trace back from ancien regime France to Renaissance Italy to the hetaerae of classical Greece to ancient Egypt's Queen Hatshepsut, whose hieroglyphs call her, among other titles, "renewer of hearts." At this remove we could be rather cruel about it, agree for her part Elsa was a gossip columnist first, and say that generally her guest lists amounted to a roster of mid-twentieth century Eurotrash, who attended her soirees for God knows what reasons. Her "cooking party" in Hollywood was an affair, surely, that Clark Gable's publicist told him to go to and wear a toque at. (But why?) And because she was a professional, she did things that no modern hostess entertaining family would do, barring some catastrophic extenuating circumstance. She threw out party-crashers and sometimes even Bores, and claims to have controlled drunken women by going up behind them and "giving their pearls a twist."

Not fun. Being a guest at an Elsa Maxwell bash must have been a terrifying experience sometimes; you must have had to keep a sharp eye out. In the end not many people came to her funeral, despite the thousands of dear friends and "darlings" whom she had worked hard to amuse around the world for nearly two generations. Modern day commentators, here and here, seem to gloat a little bit over this. I think some of them regard it as cosmic retribution for her having said bad words about homosexuality, despite enjoying a lifelong lesbian relationship herself. But judging the turnout at somebody else's funeral strikes me as a bit of hubris in itself. When it comes to that we can all only hope for the best.

As for her legacy, I think it must lie not in ballrooms or yachts or scavenger hunts, or the farm at Auribeau "not far from Cannes" where she spent summers with "Dickie" Gordon, but in her writing. A minor legacy, perhaps, but still a private hour with Elsa and a little something to eat and drink -- a little party of two, a la Alice -- is fun.   

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