I’m always ragging on the New York Times, but last week the Times published one of the most delightful articles I’ve ever read: 22-year-old Eva Hagberg’s story about the smashingly successful dinner party for 16 she threw by following the advice out of an etertaining guide written by Dorothy Draper, a pre-World War II grande dame who died some 13 years before Hagberg was born.
Entertaining guides are a dime a dozen these days, but Hagberg, who shared a walkup apartment in Manhattan with three roommates, had no idea how to cook, and had never given a dinner party in her life, turned to Draper’s classic Entertaining Is Fun!: How to Be a Popular Hostess, first published in 1941and out of print for years until its recent rerelease. Hagberg realized that behind Draper’s talk of aperetifs, maids to greet the guests, and green-turtle soup for the starter course, there was a warm, cheerful, can-do spirit that could be easily adapted to the 21st century
“According to Mrs. Draper, success rests on five ingredients: a cheery hostess, delicious but simple food, enjoyable guests, a party atmosphere and an element of unexpectedness. These seemed well within my grasp.”
Instead of the fancy pastas and prune chutney-and-fois-gras finger sandwiches that many of today’s entertaining guides counsel as de rigeur, Dorothy Draper counseled that strapped hostesses could feed their guests on as little as 50 cents per person, as long as the liquor was plentiful and good. Roughly translating that figure into $6.27 in today’s dollars, Hagberg fed her guests tuna-noodle casserole, assorted salads, and peanut butter sandwiches on Wonder Bread–but accompanied by a case of decent wine and preceded by Gray Goose martinis and Johnny Walker. Hagberg also observed un updated version of Draper’s seating rules:
“Couples were separated, with the most talkative and outgoing guests carefully interspersed among shyer ones. My valiant boyfriend, playing the part of Mrs. Draper’s ‘well-trained husband,’ sat opposite me, anchoring the far end of the room. Mrs. Draper advises that in arranging the seating one should follow the European custom, disregarding ages. ‘Let the judge have the fun of talking to the debutante, and give the college boy a woman of 40,’ she writes. She also cautions against clustering all the fun at one end of the table or around one person.
“‘I was placed next to Pete’s girlfriend, Jenny, and he was sitting next to my girlfriend, Kate Lynn,’ Adam Nemett, 23, a filmmaker, told me later. ‘I remember discussing a swap.’ (They decided not to.)
What Hagberg and her guests learned that the old-fashioned rules of party etiquette–good manners, generosity, a touch of formality, and a hostess in firm control but determined that no guest lacks food, drink, and companionship–that were ditched as “unnatural” by the people of my generation–are back in full swing among young people because they make for good parties. Hagberg writes:
“The party did seem to inspire my guests to follow the niceties of old-fashioned etiquette, providing R.S.V.P.’s to their invitations (albeit by text message), bringing gifts ($12 wine) and showing up on time (within an hour, anyway). ‘I think people were aware of the fact that this was a more structured event,’ said my friend Kate Lynn Schirmer. ‘As soon as you’re in an environment like that where there are certain social prescriptions, people put on slightly different faces.’
“It turns out that Mrs. Draper was right: entertaining is fun. Even if the results were not what she might have had in mind, I think she would have been proud.”