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What were the best parties in history — and what were they like to attend?

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Since the dawn of time, all of humanity, from the most learned
philosophers to the humblest working stiff, has wrestled with the
question: What makes a great party?

One thing seems certain: The most famous celebrations were not the most enjoyable, and vice versa. From ancient Greece to the modern day, the bashes that have made it into the history books were often political affairs, swimming in luxury and stacked with official guests — kings, presidents, plutocrats, and assorted stuffed shirts. But how much fun was it really attending, say, one of Louis XIV’s soirees in Versailles? The evidence is that, for all their splendor, they were a pain in the neck for invitees, who had to nearly bankrupt themselves to buy the latest fashions, and tied themselves into knots performing the most obscure rules of etiquette. The night was all smiling insults, snide mockery, feigned politeness — worse than being an American at a Parisian fête today. Would it have been any better attending one of the glam Edwardian dinners so beloved by Masterpiece Theater, or the soirees of our Gilded Age magnates? Edith Wharton found such events stultifying, the conversation brittle, the guests as fragile as crystal.

And what about the so-called “Party of the Century,” Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball in 1966 New York, which mimicked the bals masqués of Louis XIV? It was the ultimate name-dropping event; nothing gave bragging rights like being one of 540 guests chosen by Capote with Byzantine cunning and cruelty.  But stripped of its hype, the party was less the century’s festive climax than a relic from a fading age — a swan song for the uptight ‘50s rather than a harbinger of the raucous ‘60s — and was looked on with bemusement by those who would really shape the century as a waste of time and money.

Even reading Deborah Davis’ enthusiastic book on the event, The Party of the Century, one begins to suspect that it wasn’t quite as fabulous as nostalgic memory has held. Many guests reported that the mood was flat and self-conscious, despite the fact the Capote was flitting about squealing, “Aren’t we having the most wonderful time?” (It was “one of the more terrible parties I’d ever seen,” scoffed one guest, the writer Alan Pryce-Jones. “It never got off the ground.”)  The masks were supposed to encourage mingling, but the event remained hopelessly “ghettoized” (as another disappointed guest put it) with few people leaving their own elite cliques — one of the more serious failures of any party. Candice Bergen reported wandering about by herself, bored, and left early; Andy Warhol evidently watched on with perplexity, paralyzed by the fact that he had not been allowed to bring a friend. The Rat Pack invitees were attending wilder parties any day of the week, so Frank Sinatra and his entourage finally moved on to a nearby bar, ignoring Capote’s plaintive pleas for him to stay. Guests soon started following suit. The last people to leave were Capote’s In Cold Blood friends from Kansas City.

Capote’s party, like Versailles, still stands as a dizzying social spectacle (and, yes, it would have been pretty fascinating to attend — especially if you gate-crashed, like two young New Yorkers who happened to be hanging around the hotel that night). But there are so many lesser-known parties in history that turned out to be genuine fun.

As we all know from experience, a party cannot be great though lavish expense alone. Nor will a stellar guest list guarantee fireworks. There must be some hidden alchemy, some improbably cocktail of personalities or sense of occasion. The host can provide the raw materials, but the rest is really out of his control. It’s as if a secret spark causes a gathering to combust, leaping out of its complacence into something magical.

This column will consider some of the more off-beat parties through the ages, to see how our very sense of fun has changed. Just like our sexual habits, the way we celebrate in company — a function of our unquenchable gregariousness — has gone through spectacular somersaults over time. In fact, a party is a perfect filter through which to grasp a whole historical epoch: If we look at what guests wore, what they spoke about, how they behaved, what they imbibed, what made them laugh, even what dining utensils they used, we can glimpse the secrets of their inner lives. In short, looking at past celebrations, like past sexual customs, can bring history back to vivid life.

As with any “best-of” list, the choice is personal and capricious. De gustibus non est disputandem — there’s not accounting for taste. Not everyone wants to have food fights with Renaissance artists or swill port with Jack Kerouac (although I can’t imagine why not). And there is something to be said for undiluted opulence: In the words of Mack the Knife in Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, “One must live well to know what living is.”

But highfalutin or bohemian, all parties have common elements from a guest’s point of view, creating a narrative arc with which we can all relate. It starts with snagging an invitation and ends when the last guest leaves the venue. What happens in the festive hours in between — the permutations of fashion and cuisine, drinking habits and entertainment, taboos and secret rites — is where the meat of the past lies. • 8 July 2008

 

Tony Perrottet’s book, Napoleon’s Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, is a literary version of a cabinet of curiosities (HarperCollins, 2008; napoleonsprivates.com). He is also the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.

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