The Dinner Party

Posted on: January 21, 2010
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The Dinner Party
By Joan Kaplan

 

 

Tonight’s gathering would be the ninth in a series of twelve Saturday night dinner parties spanning the three-month holiday summer season. Invitations to these dinners, which began promptly at seven-thirty and concluded just as promptly at ten-thirty, were treasured, envied, guarded jealously. Women orchestrated clever but transparent opportunities to ingratiate themselves with the host or hostess in an effort to qualify as potential guests. Men feigned indifference, but worried that important business deals could be born, nurtured or consummated in their absence. Receiving the rare raised-gilt-edged note card with the invented family crest requesting their presence was a triumph not to be taken lightly. Inclusion marked the recipient
as desirable; exclusion meant social and professional ignominy.

 

Other parties in the community were pleasant, other homes lovely, other guests amusing, but the evenings at this house were distinguished by many things: dining amid an extraordinary art collection in surroundings of unsurpassed luxury with equally extraordinary food and wines, not the least of which was their excess – staggering levels of excess. The hostess, renown for having been unable to choose a satisfying dinner at an over-priced restaurant one mid-week evening, had famously ordered one of everything on the menu with accompanying wines for each entrée, then picked at each distractedly, drank copiously from the array of wines, and dined primarily on bread sticks and locally churned salted butter.

 

Clearly, she was incapable of restraint, and not only in food and libation. Through hard work and a successful succession of increasingly noteworthy marriages, she was now Mrs. So–So and So and had assumed a hyphenated name that revealed at least some of the triumphs of her mating endeavors. Lovers were not indicated, although generally well known, especially the famous CEO who refused to marry her but softened the disappointment with a healthy seven-figure parting gift wrapped around a velvet box from Buccellati containing several delightful baubles – easily resalable rubies that looked especially pretty in their matching crimson carrier. Each of the seductress’s husbands had divorced their first wives to marry her; they had gone on, suddenly independent and independently wealthy, to thrive happily as lawyers or journalists in careers cut short by their sacrifices as wives and mothers. The CEO had married for the fourth time and his new wife, drenched in a constant supply of jewels and other anticipated, appropriate gifts, apparently succeeded in making him exceedingly happy.

 

It was true that the hostess was still relatively young and, with the help of her surgeons, looked gloriously glamorous for a woman approaching a half-century of life filled with considerable living. She had the requisite size zero body demanded of haute couture, with perky breasts recently improved, long slender legs, and shining saffron hair that tumbled across her emerald eyes and down across lovely, usually exposed, shoulders. Her face was stunning but not at all soft; her mouth set hard and determined, unsurprisingly unsmiling. She was a determined woman, skilled at getting precisely what she wanted when she wanted it, and managed her several households as if she were a CEO running a highly profitable venture.

 

Rumor had it that her current husband had negotiated the acquisition of their home with company money, as well as the costs of building, rebuilding, renovation and customization. No matter, the deed was in their joint name as were all the furnishings and other valuable accessories with the exception of the art collection. That continued to be acquired and enlarged through a tax-deductible foundation that saved the couple considerable amounts of money. Some newcomers to the village who were not invited to her dinners reported, less graciously than others, that the costs of entertaining were also borne by the husband’s company. This morsel of potentially incendiary gossip did nothing to diminish the appetite of others eager to be included.

 

Staff members, rumored to be overworked and underpaid, came and went with alarming frequency. But there were always others to take their places – cooks, maids, gardeners, pool boys, handymen, drivers, and soon-to-be exhausted estate managers. The most successful and longest employed were imported from Europe or the city (the gardens had been designed and installed by experts from England, now maintained by local illegal Mexican immigrants; the current cook had be hijacked from a famous restaurant in Paris; the linen maid came on weekends from the house in the city). Local workers had heard too many stories of the precision of the hostess’s expectations and the promise of her displeasure to consider working for her.

 

That was natural since most of them had been born and lived in this sleepy village all their lives and were accustomed to a different code of behavior and civility. Adams, lying high on the border between New York and Connecticut, was a picture-book old New England town, a true refuge from urban sophistication, genuinely rustic on its New York side and properly refined on the Connecticut side. And the name, of course, was nothing less than presidential. Even in the heady days of the 1990s, its rolling hills and sparkling lake harkened back to the days of gentlemen farmers, who still held on to the values and traditions that had marked the generations of their families who had been born and died in this sylvan retreat. Discretion and moderation had been the standard by which all had been measured. Their homes were typical columned 17th and 18th century colonials with names like Beaverbrook, The Stone House, and Watermill. They were homey with warm, small comfortable rooms; worn plaid and floral prints covered their sofas and chairs, roughly hewn exposed beams lined ceilings, and slightly polished wooden floors showed the stains and grooves of two hundred years of having been walked and run and lived on.

 

These New England Yankees kept old jeeps and trucks for years, wore worn, clean but mended clothes that could have been new when their grandparents bought similar shirts and trousers. They rowed back and forth on the pristine lake in wooden boats big enough for only two, and none had been in a private plane or helicopter or desired the experience. Their wives were the women they had married after Harvard or Yale, and their children and grandchildren still came for weeks or a month each summer to vacation in the family homestead, soaking happily in sunshine and layers of family memory and history.

 

Perhaps it was that very quality of retreat from urban commerce and sophistication that made Adams so appealing to city dwellers. The little village was now bursting with new part-time families and swarming with new trophies of all kinds: wives were young and if mothers, they were mothers to infants or very young children who were accompanied by their nurses and nannies. Children from previous marriages did not visit for longer than a day, if they visited at all. Houses were new and enormous, built on the foundations of old precious properties bought, demolished and expanded in size while diminished in charm. Swimming pools and tennis courts decimated centuries of thick historic trees, and the lovely stone walls that had marked grazing land for the once plentiful farm animals no longer in residence were disappearing. Muddied jeeps were replaced with shining Land Rovers. Wooden rowboats were superseded by whizzing aluminum speedboats from which the lake suffered: a scrim of green scum that had never been seen before began to color its surface and the howling of motors drowned out the familiar singsong of its birds. Nature’s millennial old gardens, free-flowing and unencumbered by geometry, were laid out in perfect circles and squares that Nature herself must have abhorred.

 

In a decade the village had begun to change. The sudden rush of New Yorkers,
Palm Beachers, Newporters and Hamptonites, with their bloated bank accounts and insatiable appetite for whatever was newest, best, and most obvious, threatened to destroy the very qualities that had made Adams their summer and country home destination. Only the Historical Preservation Society, controlled by the gradually disappearing aged dowagers and few remaining Brahmin, could prevent, for a time, the most egregious violations of the community building standards. They ferociously upheld building restrictions and dedicated themselves to maintaining every possible zoning requirement. One outraged newcomer bought his hundred-acre property only to sell it immediately when he was forbidden to install a helicopter pad.

 

There was, however, a handful of accomplished playwrights, novelists, theater people, and intellectuals who had bought their homes decades ago and preferred a low profile, eschewing the party circuit for more genteel recreation. They played tennis on the prep school courts, shared small dinners and barbeques with close friends and family in their casual backyards, and greeted one another warmly when they met in the cozy post office on the village Green. The seemed immune to the swirling social jockeying that surrounded them. On a rare occasion one of these couples might appear at the parties they were constantly invited to attend and then, naturally, never attend another.

 

Tonight’s diner guests included none of them and none of the original Adams families’ current property owners. It was a party planned for newcomers and each one of them had spent days in preparation. The women spent countless hours deciding what to wear, choosing carefully the latest country-elegant outfit from their oversized closets and considering, with the disciplined focus of a Madame Curie, the most recognizable jewelry that would best flatter them, their outfits, and their husband’s accomplishments. Rings were enormous, earrings long and complicated, necklaces tiered, and bracelets thick and wide. Even the most nearsighted required no help from glasses or contact lenses: the sparkling diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires shone so brightly they were impossible to miss at any distance. The men prepared by gathering their latest ideas for investments, divestitures, mergers, and acquisitions. They would wear dark trousers, hand-made pastel Oxford shirts with sleeves rolled to the elbow, and no tie. They would all look exactly alike. Power, ambition, and immense personal prestige hung in the balance.

 

At precisely seven-thirty the guests arrived, all within several minutes of one another. The hostess, knowing the women would be parading sparkling precious jewels, appeared draped only in pearls – endless, luminous pearls of every imaginable size. Her flowing tunic and skin-tight, ankle-high trousers were a pale rose silk, the perfect background to the dozens of strands of rare natural pearls that covered her chest in an armor of glowing nacre, the circlets that danced up and down her forearms and the teardrops that dripped from her ears. And on the fourth finger of her left hand, in lieu of a massive diamond, of which she had several, she wore a rare black pearl the size of a walnut, surrounded by the tiniest, purest natural white pearls one could imagine. They were exquisite, and so was she. She wore delicate equally pale rose silk sandals with slender four-inch heels; each had a single pearl the size of a grape at its tip. Each woman at the party realized that nothing they wore, no jewel they displayed, could outdo what their hostess had assembled.

 

The men agreed that she was stunning and accepted her superiority over their wives as simply what was expected. Her husband looked proud, held her arm affectionately while they greeted their guests, and then left her to engage immediately in conversation with one of the men he thought might know something about art.

 

She was magnificent but she looked tired, exhausted really, bored rather than animated. Those who knew her well were not surprised. They knew that she had spent the last two days guiding the gardeners as they worked their way through the gardens to cut and trim the lilies, roses, and dozens of other flowers they would mass along the baronial table – it would seat thirty as it always did for these dinners – and supervising the man who came from the city to dress it with her. Teams of maids would be touching up lace placemats and linen and lace napkins; others would spend the entire week re-polishing the enormous silver service, a dozen sterling candelabra, and flatware for a five-course dinner. Special handlers would study her china room with her (larger than most people’s dining rooms), to select the dinner service, or combination of china, that would be chosen from more than one hundred complete services, each for thirty-six diners. Each was antique; all had been bought at auction from well-known English, French and Italian estates. And, of course, the house and outside staff would be cleaning, polishing, sweeping, watering, trimming – doing everything and anything required by her standards of perfection.

 

It was understandable that she was tired; her friends understood that, especially since this was only the weekend’s main event, to be followed by a brunch the following morning, and at least once or twice by smaller dinners given during the week. Some of those were held outside, casually, on the enormous patio that overlooked the lake and ran the length of the side of the house. Some were buffets served at the pool, where an art dealer guest who attended once never to return had remarked to his wife, “The food is exquisite. It looks like a Dutch painting of the 17th century, superb color and texture, full, lush abundance, a ravishing still life. And there is nothing to eat.” Other “get togethers” were held in the many alternate inside areas: overlooking the sculpture garden, in the music room, in a secondary dining room or in the movie theater, on the terrace of the guest house or within one of its wisteria-clad pergola.

 

But for any of them, casual or formal, inside or outside, the hostess’ presentation was always theatrical and unparalleled. The flowers were always extraordinary, the themed tables inventive and colorful, the food and wines superb. She threw herself wholly into creating each event and it was in the creation that she found her most enjoyable moments. When the guests finally arrived, she was spent, less interested in them than she had been in the preparations for them. She was pleasant to her guests, but never absorbed in their conversation.

 

Cocktails took so little time that there was virtually no opportunity to mingle meaningfully with other guests one might want to explore ideas and opportunities with. Strategies for maximizing opportunities were well honed, but often unsuccessful despite best efforts. The host and hostess ultimately controlled everything. The guests could benefit greatly by being there, but might not. It was if a great game were being played and all the players, knowing the rules, submitted to them and willingly accepted the outcome. An outsider might say that it was strange that so many powerful people would expose themselves to such manipulated vulnerability. But they were outsiders, and did not understand the value of opportunity measured against the risk of disappointment, the humiliation of exclusion. It was simply crucial to be where things happened.

 

Uniformed maids served drinks for precisely fifteen minutes before dinner was announced; everyone then rushed into the massive main dining room to find their place card and discover whom they would be seated between. No one dared alter the seating arrangement. Only the hostess, attending someone else’s dinner, was known to casually exchange place cards so that she could sit next to preferred guests.

 

The hostess and her husband sat at the heads of the long table, unable to see one another down the length of the enormous table and through the maze of candles and flowers. After the appetizer, soup, main course and salad were finished they would exchange seats so that each could grace a different set of guests with their presence for dessert. It would be served, followed by tiny translucent cups of exceedingly strong demitasse. No one would request a second cup; there would be no time. Promptly at ten o’clock, the host and hostess would rise, thank their guests and dismiss them with a familiar “Good night” that repeat guests had come to expect and no longer found insulting. The guests would be gone and the house quiet by ten-thirty. The host and hostess would retire to bed, the staff erasing any sign of the dinner, except for the flowers that remained on the dining room table. They would be rearranged by the hostess in the morning, and repurposed for Sunday’s brunch and the next set of guests.

 

Among tonight’s guest was a close friend of the hostess, if indeed any woman could be called her close friend. This youngish woman had recently become engaged to a lovely man who did not have the kind of money that would, in their social set, be deemed worthy of interest. He was unsophisticated and simple, but he truly adored her in a way she had not known before. She had accepted his proposal, although the hostess and others who knew her believed she would remain engaged but never marry him. Her money and her extravagant lifestyle depended on her lover, whom she had not given up, and never would. He was long married; his wife had been hospitalized with a chronic illness that had left her bed-ridden for years. She knew about his liaison with this much younger woman, and fully accepted the arrangement that worked well for all of them. The guest’s fiancée knew it too, accepted it, and did not expect that his wife-to-be would stop seeing her lover or accepting his support and occasional visits even if engaged, or married to, someone else.

 

This “friend” – ten years younger than her hostess – had already begun preserving her waning youth with various procedures that kept her eyebrows high and face wrinkle-free. Her large breasts had been reduced and lifted, her thighs and stomach streamlined by extensive liposuction. Even her ankles, calves, and knees had been trimmed, with great pain but high value. Feigning a stomach ailment she insisted was incurable, she drank only liquids, had her cook pulverize all solid foods, and dutifully spent one awful half hour on the treadmill each weekday morning after her breakfast was served to her in bed by her maid.

 

She looked lovely, if artificial, and was unable to erase her broad Brooklyn accent despite continuing and arduous efforts by a speech therapist. She appeared at the dinner beautifully dressed with medium-sized diamond earring and an enormous Harry Winston solitaire she had just received as an engagement gift. Unable to afford it, her fiancée, understanding how important it was to her to have a ring of this size and quality, had agreed that having it mattered more to her than who had actually bought it.

 

He went with her to Winston’s to pick it out, but neither asked or worried about where the money would come from. She told everyone that he had wanted to buy her a country house, but why, she had asked, would they want to be tethered to their own home when they could rent a different one each summer and then travel throughout the year guiltless that an owned home was not being used. So, she had preferred the ring and it was hers, paid for by her acquiescent lover. Huge, flawless, and impossible to miss, it was perfect. Lights were not required anywhere near her.

 

Another friend of the hostess was older than she by ten years, a victim of several surgeries that gave her face that shiny stretched look that several of the women at the party, looking very much the same, recognized in their own mirrors, knowing that she had endured a total reconstruction from forehead to breastbone. Her eyes seemed smaller that the hostess remembered; her normally thin body emaciated. Her first husband had given her wonderful jewelry, some of which she wore this evening, and much money when he left her for a woman their daughter’s age; her new husband gave her nothing but his youth and supposed vigor in bed.

 

Husband Number Two was tall and well built, but his simian face was thick and unattractive, surrounded by mouse brown hair that had already thinned. His bulbous lips leaked a thin yellowing stream of saliva. He was astoundingly dumb and irreparably ordinary. His pretense at intellectualism was embarrassing, even to her. He argued for whatever he had read in the newspaper that very day, exclaiming that because he had read it, because it had actually appeared in print, it must be true. Those who daily devoured The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, perused The Washington Post and parsed The London Times could not recall having seen what he referred to with such passion. Others said he read only the New York Post and USA Today. But she adored him: he was young, enjoyed her first husband’s money, loved their trivial life of travel and indolence, expected and received her loyalty. She had acquired a companion and lover; he had acquired a benefactor. It was a union made in heaven.

 

Other guests included the aging daughter of a famous Hollywood studio owner whose heyday in the thirties and forties enabled her to live an extravagant bi-coastal life with a man whom she never married but had left her husband and children for. They had been together for forty years. Another was a squat, sloppy woman who would attract no special attention entering a room or walking down the street if her name and accomplishments were unknown. She needed no surgery, fancy clothes or extravagant jewels. She dressed in black, had built a vast empire in real estate, owed nothing to anyone for her success, and had married a rather distinguished doctor as a late-in-life husband. No one cared what she looked like; she was far too rich to be judged in any way.

 

Others included successful men with ordinary wives who were learning to be extravagant. A few were European, drawn to Adams for the country homes the devalued dollar made easily affordable, even for only a few weeks a year of short, intensely over-scheduled visits. The conversation was flecked with French and Italian, and an occasional English accent, especially from the requisite one or two visiting British artists whose entire output of work the husband had recently acquired. They appeared in artist attire, simply dressed with no accessories except the oil-stained studio hands that could not be scrubbed clean.

 

With so many at the table, conversation was limited to those next to and across from each guest. Where one sat and whom he or she sat next to and across from were critical if the evening were to be successful. And, of course, no husband and wife, companion or lover ever sat next to each other. Many of the guests were frankly relieved at this arrangement but, judiciously, feigned annoyance only on their way home.

 

The serving staff had learned to ignore the guests’ conversation, invariably insensitive, insulting to them both in its content and in its blatant disregard of their feelings. They chose not to hear that “locals” had no God-given right to live in Adams, as, in any case, the rising value of real estate made it almost impossible for them to do. Real estate – the purchase or sale prices of homes, who had bought or sold what property – were always the dominant subject of conversation, brutal and careless and very much at the expense of those young waiters and waitresses whose families were in fact being forced out of their homes, unable to afford rising taxes or outrageous offers impossible to refuse. The guests then dissected the credentials of the newest property owners and dismissed the relevance of the oldest.

 

“Did you hear that Tim and Linda refused to buy the property they loved most because it was being sold by André Valmain’s estate?”

 

“Why, for heaven’s sake? That makes no sense. They could have stolen it at the price it was being offered!”

 

“Yes, but Valmain was gay, you know, all those fashion designers are gay, and they wouldn’t dream of living there. He died of AIDS.”

 

“Ah, makes sense.”

 

“Did you hear that Susan and Rick have separated? No doubt they’ll divorce.”

 

“And the house? Who’ll get that extraordinary house?”

 

“Trust me. Susan is a sharp cookie. She won’t walk away without it. And she’ll get a fortune in child support for those two babies they had together.”

 

“Did you hear? Leonard has cancer. He won’t last a year.”

 

“Marion will have to sell.”

 

“No, she’ll never give up the house, despite all the debt she‘ll be left with. She’ll manage to save it and stay somehow.”

 

Useless, superficial, inconsequential misinformation traded, gossip honed to a sharpened point, disregard for good taste ignored, unknown, unnecessary. Twenty-eight guests spoke, joked, sought and surrendered as little information as possible. The host and hostess did not speak very much at all. They had perfected the art of seeming to listen.

 

Only the few, almost whispered, sidebar conversations held any substance. Two men agreed to buy the company of the man who sat across from them although he didn’t yet know he would be selling it. Two women, leaning across the man sitting between them who had not spoken a word, established without a doubt that a third woman’s daughter – four seats from the foot of the table – had had an abortion and would not marry the would-have-been father.

 

Dessert was served. The hand-churned ice cream was melting on the rare Waterford dessert plates under the weight of warm Bing cherries, as if it had not the will or intention to remain cool and firm while witness to these hotly debated issues. The coffee was finally served; tiny demitasse cups were quickly emptied. Then, as if on cue, the hostess pushed back her chair and rose from the table, saying “Thank you for joining us this evening.” She looked completely drained. With the exception of a clear gloss on her lips, she never wore makeup; by now her face was pale and tiny lines traced little webs of age and boredom around her eyes. A new surgeon would have to be found. The pearls hung, glorious and glowing, but even they seemed limp and no longer glamorous. The evening was over.

 

“Well, my darling,” her husband said as they quickly undressed for bed – a maid having turned down the covers and removed the collection of pillows of varying sizes cascading against the tufted headboard, “another successful evening. Your table was magnificent, the food was excellent. It went well. As always.”

 

“Michelle’s ring is not real,” his wife replied, referring to her younger friend’s engagement ring. “Did she really think I would be fooled? I know Winston’s and that ring is one of those copies made from some new synthetic material.”

 

“Perhaps she has the real one in the safe?”

 

“Don’t be ridiculous! You should have learned by now not to doubt me. He couldn’t afford that ring, she couldn’t get Jacques to buy it, and she doesn’t have that kind of money. The whole charade is absurd.”

 

“I hope you didn’t say anything to her,” he murmured, knowing that she had.

 

“Why not? She would have known I knew in any case.”

 

“But what’s the difference?” he asked.

 

“Everything. If you have the real thing, you wear it. What’s the point of having it if you don’t wear it?” This was the woman, he remembered, who had refused his first gift to her. “I do not wear silver, of any kind,” she had said with considerable disdain and absolute disinterest, handing him the necklace he had taken care to have made for her at Tiffany, She slipped on her newest La Perla negligee and slid into their custom-made, oversized bed. “I’m tired. I’ll see you at breakfast.” She blew him a weak imitation of a kiss.

 

He understood, tied his bathrobe and walked quietly into his dressing room, outfitted in the European tradition of which neither had any personal experience, and prepared the bed that he slept in on the many nights she preferred to be alone.

 

Telephones buzzed the following morning. The ring was a fake. The Valmain property was back on the market. The ugly, young, truly dull husband was exhausted from servicing his much older wife. The real estate tycoon closed a deal on a new commercial development. Her husband accepted a position on a corporate board. One woman had gone home with a man not her husband; his wife had gone home with the woman’s husband. Outfits were cleaned, pressed, re-labeled by place, occasion, and date of wear, and hung back in their oversized closets. Jewels were re-boxed, rewrapped, and, in some cases, returned to the jewelers from which they had been borrowed.

 

New guests prepared for the late morning brunch they were so eager to attend at that extraordinary home, and maids and cooks worked feverishly to assemble the food and wines and place settings that would adorn the newly flowered, festive tables on the long outdoor terrace. The sun shone bright, innocent and pure, the lake rippled under the scrim of green scum; motor boasts roared and the birds fell silent. On the village Green, Sunday morning services concluded in the Congregational church while aging doubles partners walked happily out onto the prep school tennis courts, mingling graciously with the handful of accomplished playwrights, novelists, theater people, and intellectuals who had bought their homes more than several decades before and preferred a low profile, eschewing the party circuit for more genteel recreation.

 

A year later the hostess filed for divorce and ran off with an astoundingly wealthy man whom she had met only months before – he had been the unexpected companion of a dinner guest at one of her own dinner parties – surprising her husband and no one else. The hostess and her lover summered in Europe, where they married in a quaint Italian country church on an elaborate estate owned by his family, while the extraordinary house that had been the scene of so many extravagant, exquisite parties sold within a week to a couple just moving to the country for a price considerably less than it has cost to assemble.

 

The hostess’s younger and older friends no longer spoke to her, or to each other, and no longer attended dinners in northwest Connecticut on the New York border. The real estate tycoon sold her company and became its Chairman Emeritus; weeks later her doctor husband left her for his office manager’ assistant. Jewels were acquired and auctioned off at Sotheby’s and Christies; companies and other houses were bought and sold. Great quantities of money were made and lost. The holiday season came and went and as fall transformed New England with brightly colored leaves and crisp evening breezes, Adams welcomed yet another season.

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