I love to entertain, as extravagantly as I can. I also enjoy being a house guest.
But tell me, where are the 'properly' run households of the day before yesterday?
Where is that perfect place where monogrammed damasked linens, and flowers were changed daily, and one fretted lest one forgot to sufficiently tip the second footman
who had so unobtrusively, so expertly, unpacked one's bag, shined one's shoes, pressed rumpled clothes and drawn one's bath? What became of this meticulousness of times past? Even were one fortunate enough to be asked to Windsor or Sandringham to 'dine and sleep' today, virtually the only domiciles left with
footmen to spare, how unfortunate to learn that still smart liveries include pre-tied neckties, with unsightly fastenings unhidden even from the Queen!
No, nowadays the pleasure of one's company ordinarily entails quite a few concessions to accommodate others and changed circumstances. However, whether one aspires to be "esteemed as a guest" or deemed to be "unexcelled as a host", the means of success are the same matter in the end, of remembering the golden rule. Only take care to adjust it, just a little, to consider, not what you might like, but instead, what it is that your guests or host would most desire.
Sound simple? It isn't; it is in fact the most difficult social grace note to master. By some small fraction, being a considerate and engaging visitor indeed entails greater skill than being a gracious host. As a guest one has fewer resources to call on, apart from beauty, charm, cleverness or being always agreeable.
But there it is: the first duty of guests, who are always welcomed, the sometimes exhausting business of trying to be 'unfailingly positive'. Regarding a week-end spent in the country as an opportunity to rest in comfort, is only sometimes the reality when one stays with friends. Partly this results from the way in which informal manners and casual households in our contemporary world invite one to become temporarily a part of the family, as in more inhibited times, even in the most modest cottage, one never was.
Yet, no more than now, not every person in the past who had children confined them always to the nursery or kept their dogs only in a kennel or outside. But the decorum of yesteryear was, such that if one were known to be awkward with little ones or to abhor pets, prevision would be made to keep a valued guest's discomfort or annoyance at a minimum. It was allowed then, which today is never the case, that one might just not adore one's host's family or animals, and polite pains were taken to make any unhappy encounters infrequent at worst.
At the Delawanna, an 1860's former farm at Delaware, New Jersey, a country house with a dozen guest rooms, I have frequented for over twenty years, art dealer Hal Bromm
and his charming partner, Doneley Meris, a grief-counselor,
are prodigious hosts of great thoughtfulness.
They have always kept two cats, who serve the practical purpose of keeping the place free of mice.
But they are assiduously kept off tables and away from offendable house guests, hence their pets are hardly imposed on one as they are in more slapdash households. Wonderfully sweet, Don has an unnatural capacity to show affection for almost everyone, animals included. As a perfect balance, Hal is, how does one say it best, more circumspect?
He still, for example, addresses little children as real people without any condescending sing-songy pseudo baby-talk. Alas, having no children of his own to help preserve this healthy sense of proportion, finding reasoning with cats far more difficult than with children, even Hal has succumbed to the mania of 'loving pets'. This affliction has my highly-educated friend, to my astonishment, turning from an eloquent discourse on fashion or politics at lunch, to relate the latest exploits of Tom or Malcolm! By far, much worse, such misplaced affection sometimes finds him senselessly cooing undecipherable drivel, whilst stroking one cat or another, as he would be disinclined to ever stroke a friend.
Without a live-in staff, Hal and Don nonetheless make an effective team, and moreover, Hal is quite good at persuading guests of the fun and helpfulness of pitching in. In some houses, one finds that helping out is almost compulsory; in the majority, it is greatly appreciated. When one helps to form an especially large house party, any gathering that outnumbers one's hosts, really, hoping to lunch before three, or dine before ten o'clock, it becomes merely a matter of self-interest to assist.
Most of the time, at most places I go, I contribute bouquets of flowers. Even so mundane, but time-consuming, a task as shucking corn is welcome too.
How full of promise, like a springtime garden, before the havoc of drought, pests and weeds, are children!
Howsoever obnoxious our hosts' demanding five-year-old might be, usually one can eventually communicate with most children. One day they might just create a new coiffure for Senator Sasha Obama, or cure cancer. No cat is likely to be so capable and no dog ever could be. Enjoying greatly, occasional exposure to future generations of humankind, is basically why I cannot abide the four-legged creatures so many have as inadequate substitutes for offspring.
So it's easy to imagine my consternation, when told by my dear friend Edna, that she was unable to join us, to 'dine and sleep' after all. Didn't she realize what trouble it had taken to persuade my host how, although they'd never met, what a delightful addition she'd make to the weekend? And still Edna had gone off, driving eight hours to Ohio to take her daughter's ailing Corgi to the vet, when any of a half dozen other people could have done so with less disruption.
"Felecia's" Standard Poodle, Fifi, is the ultimate challenge of any truly fastidious guest.
The two had returned from a fashionable training camp that had my friend convinced that she was the head of Fifi's alpha pack, as well as her master. Having cost several thousands, "Felecia" was also convinced of Fifi's superior intelligence.
Belied by a frightful 'mess' we met, returning from the East Hampton beach one Saturday, "Felecia" explained, " She won't go unless I walk with her---because I'm her leader..." Still, all in all, notwithstanding Fifi's rebuffed attentions, by merely stamping my foot as she rapidly approached, I managed to preserve 'my space' and avoided the kisses and leaping caresses indiscriminately lavished on others that summer.
Cooking, washing up, dancing when we went to chic clubs, thinking of things to do, beyond drinking or smoking, I was, she said, "Felecia's" favorite guest, "You take the trouble to be agreeable and I appreciate that."
Short of making oneself ill, it's hard to know how far one ought to go toward preserving harmony. In part, it probably depends on how much one wishes to be invited back. One morning, my having declined to take any hits from her little custom-blended cigarettes at breakfast, "Felecia" had snapped, "And stop stamping your foot: you are making my poor dog paranoid!"
By the time we drove to Bridgehampton to have a cozy supper with my friends Sally Ede and Tony Victoria, tensions had dissipated enough to restore a sense of civility that might have prevailed for the remainder of my visit, had it not been for Sally's superb cosmos and Tony's exceptional Pinot Noir.
Having expressed my sorrow at the prospect of returning to the hot city the next day, Sally responded, "Oh, Michael, you sound so sad. Perhaps you should come and stay with us?" "Michael has been sad and disagreeable, since he awakened!" retorted "Felecia."
Wine, spirits and even smoking, after noon, can greatly promote the conviviality of most occasions. As in many things, their use must be measured and proportionate to assist our greater enjoyment, rather than to induce a state of false euphoria. To ignore the imprudence of overindulging is to court sure disaster.
"Had I also gotten high at breakfast perhaps I'd have been pleasanter then, or perhaps comatose?"
"What else could I do but smoke, seeing you continually terrorize my dog?"
"Have I no recourse to defend myself from Fifi, if you will not protect me from her assaults?"
"You knew I had a dog, why did you come?"
"Had I realized I'd be utterly defenseless from your pet, I'm sure that I would not have."
"When one spends a good deal of money to entertain someone, the least one expects is that they try to be agreeable!"
It had all required but a few frantic minutes. Seemingly, "Felecia's" dramatic exit, creating a shower of gravel as she sped off in her Saab, had required roughly the same brief interval. So had her speedy return from Sag Harbor, accomplished in record time, in order to deposit my clothes on the driveway.
"Wow!" exclaimed Sally, appreciating the duty of an accomplished hostess to comfort a distraught new guest, with humor, or by any other means available. "I've always wanted to do that to a man!"