Some of my sweetest memories are of my parents’ social life. My mother was happiest preparing for a night out, silk skirt rustling, leaving the scent of perfume behind her every step. The pure joy of anticipation was palpable. Her face glowing, she looked, to my eyes, beautiful.
On those evenings when my parents entertained, I could hear her laughter above everyone else’s, as my sister Jane and I sat on the stairs, straining to pick up fragments of adult conversation over clinking glasses. Mom had already pored over her cookbooks, selected a menu (caterers were not an option), cooked for days and chosen her guest list with care. My dad, of course, was in charge of bonhomie and the bar. On rare occasions, they employed a bartender, but usually, their hospitality was simply the product of their own energy and imagination.
While Jane and I were sometimes introduced at the beginning of the evening, we were not the outgoing children they may have been hoped for, and we soon scurried back upstairs, voyeurs again. My mother’s creative hospitality extended to elaborate birthday parties for each of us, too. Part of family lore is the story of my first birthday when, it is told, I said to each departing guest, “Thank you for the present.” I was well into my 20s and a mother myself before I realized this was a complete and wishful fabrication. I well recall, however, a friend’s 9th birthday party, given on Sadie Hawkins Day at dusk, that involved much running and chasing as shadows spread. It was then that I first uttered the words, “I had the time of my life!”a harbinger of the many occasions that would provoke the same sentiment.
Those Alabama evenings were, for the most part, quite modest, worlds away from the excess of Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski, who hosted a party for his wife on the island of Sardinia, flying guests in for a fete that featured an ice sculpture of Michelangelo’s David spewing vodka and a birthday cake in the shape of a woman’s breasts with sparklers mounted on top. Most Nashville parties fall somewhere between Alabama and Sardinia.
As someone who is a professional party voyeur today, it’s a damn good thing I enjoy them. Festive times tie a community together, and those who share an experienceeven that most dreaded of social occasions, the tribute dinnerhave a communal memory, stronger than any shared film or television program. If you go, you’re part of the story. TPAC’s 20th anniversary event, for example, retold the story of its founding through the acting talents of Joel Gordon and Sandra Fulton. If you weren’t there, it’s a pretty safe bet that you haven’t seen them in any other production.
I’ve never attended a partyprivate or paythat wasn’t carefully crafted with hopes of pleasing the guests. I go with an open mind, and look for certain intangibles. A party is a flame of theater that flickers for a few hours and is gone. Setting, costume, music, food and players each contribute to a party’s specific character. The alchemy might be hot, like September’s “Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues” at the Belcourt; campy, like a recent 50th birthday party with a tongue-in-cheek tacky theme (with clothes hanging on a line and a boat in the yard for decor); or bohemian, as when artistic people from across the creative spectrum draw together in all their outré glory.
The most important factor is that the festivities reflect the hosthis or her tastes, personality, idiosyncrasies. If you’re invited, the message is, “come see what I think is a good time.” Even Nashville’s mega party thrower, Vanderbilt, which entertains weekly, if not nightly, hosts affairs that are indicative of whatever segment of the university is seeking your support, thanking you for your support or informing you about something they hope you’ll support in the future. (This is called cultivation.) I count on learning something new about wine from Tom Black, meeting other writers at Alice Randall’s, tasting something extraordinary from the cuisine of Cissy Akers or feeling like royalty at Alyne Massey’s table.
The other factor, if you’re hosting, is to relax. Other than illegal stuff, there’s not much that can go wrong, and if it does, it’ll make a good story. While fundraisers can get super-competitive, there’s very little schadenfreude at a private party. After all, you’re inviting either your friends, people you’d like to get to know better, people who have entertained you or, in the best of worlds, simply people who make you laugh. Sure, you might run out of food or drink. Either the party’s over at that point, or someone will go out for more. The entertainment didn’t show? Spin some CDs. Even when something breaks, it can make the evening memorable. I can measure the good time at my house by how many driveway lights are mowed down. My biggest regrets, though, are always the people who couldn’t come.
As a potential guest, I love getting the invitationa little bit of hope in an envelope, and a little redemption, too. Whatever gaffes I may have committed in the past must have been forgiven. An invitation ignites anticipation, gives you an idea of what to expect and what to hope for. And it should give you some idea of what to wear, even if it doesn’t spell it out. (You figure out what “Music City festive” means.)
The most irresistible invitations are created especially for the event. Laurie Eskind’s 40th birthday invitations were individual collages of beautiful scraps of paper and fabrics, designed by a friend. It not only said Laurie was special; it said those who were included were special friends.
Most critical, of course, are the guests. While it’s fun to mix personalities, my favorite fantasy party is to invite only people who have made me laugh out loud in the past year. One caution: There are folks in Nashville who, for business or marital reasons, don’t relish being in the same room. The wise will be sensitive to these relationships, and at the very least, prevent unpleasant surprises. Make a choiceor let both parties know, so they can make a choice. Unless, of course, you have a taste for tension and broken stemware.
Lovely dinner parties in the homes of friends of any age are rare, or maybe I’m just off the lists. If you have the privilege of dining at a table with china, silver and crystal, you are lucky indeed. Send a thank-you note or flowers. Veteran hostesses advise that we get over the feeling that we have to include whole clumps of friends. Pick some and ask the others next time. And if you want to be penciled in on someone’s calendar, extend an invitation yourself. Don’t expect to be invited every time, even if the hostess is your best friend.
What I love about covering parties is that those who attend expect to be seen, intend to have a good time and make an effort to be amusing. While the Belle Meade crowd sports couture, and music people may wear spangles, you can also find blue jeans and warm, funny, smart people across the Nashville spectrum. Now that the holidays are upon us, invitations are already flying. (It goes without saying to respond promptly; don’t make your hostess guess how many she’ll have to spring for.)
A recent reunion party of Vandy SAEs brought together a far-flung group of friends from college. What was it about those spontaneous theme partiesChinese New Year, Hokey’s wake, Groundhog Eve, moat partythat somehow forged bonds that are deep and indelible? Guests that night peered into each other’s eyes, seeing 20-year-olds inside faces decades oldermagic no plastic surgeon can sell. Thirty-year-old tunes were spinning, and somebody brought half a dozen scrapbooks. One of the fellows was rumored to have cancer, and people were trying not to talk about that. He’s probably the biggest character of the group, the card shark with the exotic foreign childhood, the wildest talesthe best liar.
Now, if you’re married, you’ve either been the one ready to go or the one who wants to stay. This party was about to shift into the next gear, and the good doctor was ready to leave. I could stay until it all wound down, or go home with the man I chose 25 years ago. I like to leave before the bitter end anyway, so that the party continues, its glisten preserved in memory, never littered with crumpled napkins, empty glasses and filled ashtrays. But this time, tears accompany my mental keepsake.
That party is still going. Under a perpetual harvest moon, the house is filled with light, music and happy people, young again. Sure hope the card shark is lying. Me? I had the time of my life.
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