Author Interviews
4:25 am
Sun December 15, 2013

Satan's Naked Women, Gatsby's Cocktails, And Other Literary Fetes

Originally published on Tue December 17, 2013 11:31 pm

Throwing a perfect holiday party is no simple task. Do you want a swanky cocktail party, an intimate dinner party, or a huge New Year's bash? A whole host of decisions revolve around the menu — and don't forget your gluten-free or vegan invitees. Then there's the decor (is tinsel too much?), the music (festive, but not cheesy) and, of course, the guest list.

To offer some inspiration for a memorable holiday gathering, NPR's Rachel Martin chats with Suzette Field, author of A Curious Invitation: The Forty Greatest Parties in Fiction. A party promoter based in London, Field has compiled a guide to literature's most famous and fabulous hosts and their soirees — from Plato and Proust to Jay Gatsby and Winnie the Pooh.


Interview Highlights

On deciding which parties to include in her book

I wanted the mix to be as eclectic as possible. I didn't want to deal with all 19th-century balls, so I wanted to sort of have Proust rubbing shoulders with [Winnie the] Pooh and to make sure I went as far back as medieval Japan and as far forwards as Jackie Collins and Hollywood Wives.

On Jay Gatsby's legendary parties, from The Great Gatsby

Well, of course we're going back to 1926 and the age of Prohibition, and Jay Gatsby threw a series of parties in the hope that his girlfriend from the past, Daisy, would drop in. And Jay throws these lavish parties, and puts on a large midnight feast. He serves cocktails that people have forgotten and that the younger guests have never even tasted before. And they don't know who the host is, and he sort of stays in the background.

On whether hosts can have fun at their own parties

Compare [Gatsby] to Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, and you're looking at Inez Bavardage — she's the natural hostess, and she kind of makes sure everybody forms conversational bouquets, which is just wonderful imagery in terms of how parties congregate into these little circles of friends, while she flits about and plays the hostess. So some people enjoy it, some people don't.

On the guests at the Bavardages' parties

All the men are white and over the age of 35 and have a certain bank balance. And all the women, they come in two varieties: they're either social X-rays or lemon tarts, and the social X-rays are being slowly supplanted by the lemon tarts, who are shapelier versions of the wives [of the men] ... A social X-ray is a woman who is emaciated and normally married to a high-net-worth man and is kind of trying desperately to hang on to her looks ... It's not a particularly appealing description, but it certainly is a humorous one.

On how to approach a party which, like the Bavardages', might not sound like fun

The advice I would give is probably just to keep the conversation light and fluffy. Otherwise, the one piece of advice I learned out of looking at the Bavardage's party was more the idea that there are these conversational bouquets and at one moment, Sherman McCoy is kind of ostracized from the bunch, and he describes the agony he's going through at being a social outcast.

And I'm sure we all kind of can recognize that moment, where we're somehow left out of the party and we can't quite talk to anyone, or when we first arrive at a party, and waiting for our friend to arrive. And I think the really good thing that Inez fails to do at this point but one should always do is to look out and make sure that this doesn't happen to any of your guests, and to just kind of go, "Oh!" and introduce them to someone. Because that's what parties are about, end of the day, is everybody getting to meet new friends and start new lives, and all the things that parties can bring.

On the best bash she found in her research

My favorite party is [Mikhail] Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, and it's Satan's Rout. And he basically allows all the denizens of hell one night off eternal damnation once a year and chooses a different city in which to host it in, and he chooses Moscow. And Satan is the perfect host — all the women who attend are naked, but you get this cream, beforehand, delivered to you. And if you put it on, you look the most beautiful you've ever looked. So I think, with that, all of us would be quite keen to partake. And all the men are in black tie, and there's a full symphony orchestra, and fountains of cognac ... Actually, I recreated this party for my book launch in London.

On the appeal of more subdued affairs

Dinner parties are perfect. If you think back to something like Plato's Symposium, which is one of the most beautiful parties where not much happens and everyone gathers together and talks about love, and each person comes forwards with a different conversation. So, you know, that's my ideal dinner party. I don't need anything else, and it's one of my favorite literary parties, which isn't at all excessive and very easy to recreate.

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There's the question of what gift to give around the holidays, and then there's the question of what kind of party to throw: swanky cocktail party, intimate dinner party, huge New Year's bash, and who to add to the guest list? We invited Suzette Field to give us some advice on throwing a memorable holiday affair. She's a party promoter who plans elaborate extravaganzas around London. Suzette Field is also the author of "A Curious Invitation," a book that chronicles the 40 greatest parties in fiction. She explains how she chose which legendary gatherings to write about.

SUZETTE FIELD: I wanted the mix to be as eclectic as possible. I didn't want to deal with all 19th-century balls, so I wanted to sort of have Proust rubbing shoulders with Pooh and...

MARTIN: Winnie, that is.

FIELD: Yes, Winnie the Pooh - and to make sure I went as far back as medieval Japan and as far forwards as Jackie Collins and Hollywood Wives.

MARTIN: Let's delve into some of these. Let's start with "The Great Gatsby" and Jay Gatsby's legendary parties - kind of a natural for this book, but set the scene for us. Who was invited to these affairs? What did they wear? What's the entertainment?

FIELD: Well, of course, we're going back to 1926 and the age of Prohibition. And Jay Gatsby threw a series of parties in the hope that his girlfriend from the past, Daisy, would drop in. And Jay throws these lavish parties and puts on a large midnight feast. He serves cocktails that people have forgotten and that the younger guests have never even tasted before. And they don't know who their host is, and he sort of stays in the background.

MARTIN: So, is that just the nature of things, that as a host you forfeit having any real fun at your own party?

FIELD: No, 'cause if you sort of compare him to Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities," and you're looking at Inez Bavardage - she's the natural hostess. And she makes sure everybody forms conversational bouquets, which is just wonderful imagery in terms of how parties congregate into these little circles of friends, which she flits about and plays the hostess. So, some people enjoy it, some people don't. And there was motivation behind Jay Gatsby's parties. And when Daisy actually attends one, she doesn't like it and he stops doing them.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You mentioned Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities." Let's talk a little bit more about that. I mean, these were the consummate hosts, the Bavardages. And to get an invitation to one of these parties, this was quite a coup, right? What kinds of people showed up to these?

FIELD: All the men are white and over the age of 35 and have a certain bank balance. And all the women, they come in two varieties: they're either social X-rays or lemon tarts, and the social X-rays are being slowly supplanted by the lemon tarts, who are shapelier versions of the wives.

MARTIN: What's a social X-ray?

FIELD: A social X-ray is a woman who is emaciated and normally married to a high-net-worth man and is kind of trying desperately to hang on to her looks.

MARTIN: That's not a nice image.

(LAUGHTER)

FIELD: No, it's not. It's not a particularly appealing description, but it certainly is a humorous one, so.

MARTIN: It doesn't really sound like a fun party. I mean, if by chance you were to procure an invitation to such an affair, what kind of advice would you give a guest attending this kind of shindig?

FIELD: The advice I would give is probably just to keep the conversation light and fluffy. Otherwise, the one piece of advice I learned looking at the Bavardage's party was more the idea that there are these conversational bouquets and at one moment Sherman McCoy is kind of ostracized from the bunch and he describes the agony he's going through at being a social outcast. And I'm sure we all kind of can recognize that moment, where we're somehow left out of the party and we can't quite talk to anyone, or when we first arrive at a party, and waiting for our friend to arrive. And I think the really good thing that Inez fails to do at this point but one should always do is to look out and make sure that this doesn't happen to any of your guests, and to just kind of go, oh, and introduce them to someone. 'Cause that's what parties are about, end of the day, is everybody getting to meet new friends and start new lives, and all the things that parties can bring.

MARTIN: You have made a career for yourself throwing parties in London, running something called the Last Tuesday Society. Tell us about that. What do you do?

FIELD: The Last Tuesday Society is an organization inspired by William James, and he ran a small society at Harvard, which, of course, became the Metaphysical Club. So, we kind of took the idea and decided to reinvent it. We throw parties. We also throw talks and lectures. So, it's all about taking different aspects of art and culture and reinventing them.

MARTIN: So, what do you think? In all the parties that you have profiled throughout this book, which of these events do you think you would want to insert yourself into? Which party do you think is just the best time?

FIELD: My favorite party is Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita," and it's Satan's Rout. And he basically allows all the denizens of hell one night off eternal damnation once a year and chooses a different city in which to host it in, and he chooses Moscow. And Satan is the perfect host. And he has all the women who attend are naked, but you get this cream beforehand delivered to you. And if you put it on, you look the most beautiful you've ever looked. So, I think, with that, all of us would be quite keen to partake. And all the men are in black tie, and there's a full symphony orchestra, and fountains of cognac. And...

MARTIN: Get me on the invite list.

(LAUGHTER)

FIELD: Exactly. I actually, I recreated this party for my book launch in London.

MARTIN: Suzette, I just imagine it's a very brave friend of yours who decides to have their own party to invite you to. You're setting a very high bar. I don't know if you'd be satisfied with, you know, a pot roast at my house on Thursday night.

FIELD: Oh, well, dinner parties are perfect. If you think back to something like Plato's "Symposium," which is one of the most beautiful parties where not much happens and everyone gathers together and talks about love, and each person comes forwards with a different conversation. So, you know, that's my ideal dinner party. I don't need anything else, and it's one of my favorite literary parties, which isn't at all excessive and very easy to recreate.

MARTIN: Suzette Field. She is the author of "A Curious Invitation: The Forty Greatest Parties in Fiction." She joined us from the studios at the BBC in London. Suzette, thank you so much. It's been...

FIELD: Thank you.

MARTIN: ...such a pleasure to talk with you.

FIELD: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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