Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Elegance of Gene Hovis




While I was reading a 1990 issue of House & Garden a few months ago, I came across an article that I can't seem to get out of my mind. The feature was on the Manhattan home of the late Gene Hovis. For those of you not familiar with Hovis (and that included me until a few months ago), he was a North Carolinian who came to New York back in the 1950s to seek fame and fortune as an actor. Although that career did not pan out, Hovis did find success as a well-regarded cook and food authority, eventually becoming the creative-food director at Macy's as well as the food editor at H&G. He also gained notoriety as a charming and sophisticated host, entertaining much of New York society at his Manhattan apartment. I just love this story: a small-town Southern boy ventures to the big city and woos the A-list with his down-home Southern cooking- and eventually winds up on the International Best Dressed list.

But back to this article. I think what struck me most about this home is its elegance and graciousness- something that unfortunately seems to be lacking in many homes today. Yes, the home is rather formal, but formality and comfort are not mutually exclusive. I'm wondering if Hovis decorated his home with his guests in mind. First, how could one look bad in such lovely surroundings- plum colored walls, soft lighting provided by candles and antique parchment lampshades, and richly upholstered furniture. And how could one not feel cosseted sitting at such a beautifully appointed table? It really seemed like the ultimate home in which to entertain.

Gene Hovis did not achieve success with his cooking skills alone. He had charm and grace and he seemed to spend much time ensuring the comfort and happiness of his guests. And in this age of computers, BlackBerrys, and frenzied schedules, perhaps it's time we start to focus again on some of life's pleasures such as entertaining at home, pulling out the fine china and crystal, and making our guests feel special. Perhaps the timing's right for a return to graciousness.

FYI: Hovis planned his menus around the likes and dislikes of his guests (another mark of good hostmanship). According to Hovis, Pat Buckley liked red beans. Carolina and Reinaldo Herrera are also bean people. Slim Keith's favorite dish was chicken potpie. And Bill Blass loved apricot-raisin bread pudding. Hovis also stressed that the food he prepared was simple and straight-forward, something to remember when we're planning our next dinner party!



Many of Hovis' antiques were American and English. He was able to amass his collection by buying what was not in vogue at that time.


A beautifully set table was a Hovis signature.


How fabulous is this? Look how organized Hovis was. This photo has inspired me to do the same for my linen collection (which unfortunately is not as large as that of Hovis.)


If this were my closet, I'd die and go to heaven. Look at all of that antique china, crystal, and silver! And in a marbleized painted closet no less!

Image at top: The host with the most Gene Hovis. All images from HG, Dec. 1990.

20 comments:

  1. You are so on my wavelength at the moment about the suggestion to have dinner parties at home, using all the good stuff. Recently we've been having pre-dinner drinks and going out to a restaurant, but last week's effort to entertain at home was a wonderful success. The only downside is "the good stuff" has to be washed by hand, so keeping numbers small is a good idea; and I agree, nothing too fancy on the menu. The guests' enjoyment comes from the ambiance as much as anything.

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  2. Well of course I love this story and am so happy to be introduced to Hovis. Another gracious Southern guy who charms NY.

    His home is quite warm and appealing. Beautiful pieces.

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  3. Jennifer - Suzanne Cooper also showed her extensive collection of linens and china; I was as envious of the storage as I was of the pieces. Hovis seems a gracious host indeed.

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  4. Anonymous10:29 AM

    What a great reminder of a man with terrific style. And it also got me thinking about the whitebread contents of shelter magazines. There's been a lot of discussion in the media about the lack of black models on the runway and in fashion magazines. I'd say there is a dearth of black homeowners in shelter magazines—and Asian homeowners and Hispanic homeowners too.

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  5. Very elegant apartment, very serene. And I find the china closet jealous-making in the extreme.

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  6. Peak, my recollection is that a lot of the dinner parties he held were fund raisers for the New York Public Library. I think I would be more inclined to be generous in an intimate, chic setting like this than in a large rented tent on someone's tennis court, wouldn't you?

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  7. What a guest list! I had worked with Bill Blass as an antiques dealer and I found him to be very low key, charming and gracious; a true gentleman.He would be a delightful lunch or dinner guest.You make some excellent points as to why Gene Hovis was a great host. He was interested in his guests and must have been simply fun and interesting to be around. The environment he created is indeed luxurious,but as you point out, comfortable. And the food: Simple food well prepared is key.Serve what you do best. Most guests do not want food that is too rich and different. A steaming pot pie with flaky crust will make mosts guests happy. I would love his bean recipe!

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  8. Absolute dynamite this post! A return to graciousness is long overdue.

    Thank you for introducing me to Mr. Hovis. I'll see what other tips of his I can dig up. Did he decorate his home with his guests in mind? He was Southern, I'd be surprised if he didn't.

    And, it's high time that my linen closet received some attention, too.

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  9. I just read Hovis's obituary in The New York Times (20 February 2004). He launched his catering career with recipes from his maternal grandmother, who was the daughter of slaves. And his 1987 cookery book was "Gene Hovis's Uptown Down Home Cookbook" (Little, Brown, 1987). Which I am going to find right now. The money quote from the obituary? "Gene knew a lot of top people, but his parties were never stuffy," said friend Jean Bach. "And the mix of people! Really, sometimes you'd be amazed at who was sitting next to who."

    Not a bad invitation rule to follow: surprise.

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  10. OMG! His linens and China collections are amazing. I think I might just be right next to you when you knock on those heavenly gates. :)

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  11. I remember this article.
    Am guessing that there might be a subtext to your post, to the effect that the Gene Hovis sort of person has become extinct. That, or the fact that shelter magazines are simply no longer inclined to run this sort of feature?

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  12. Nell E6:07 PM

    Great post! (There were many whole-issue keepers from H & G in that era.)

    Prompted me to seek more info on Gene Hovis (and to see if any of his recipes were on the web). Did find this lovely memorial/profile on NY Social Diary that your readers may enjoy:
    http://www.newyorksocialdiary.com/list/im/101im.php. Now plan to seek hout his cookbook - "Gene Hovis’ Uptown Down Home Cookbook." Thanks for the introduction.

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  13. Well, perhaps we should all have an elegant dinner party together! I should have mentioned that I have a copy of Hovis' cookbook. The poor cover of the book does not do it justice. Haven't tried any recipes though.

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  14. Nell E12:58 AM

    Love the idea of a virtual dinner party. Ordered GH's cookbook from an Amazon seller...can't wait for delivery. Yes, TW, wish there were more articles like this in shelter magazines. Noticed also that article was by Brooke Hayward Duchin - loved her book "Haywire."

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  15. Thank you for introducing me to Mr. Hovis. Now I'm smitten, he was most definitey the host with the most. The closet where the crystal, china, and silver are. Fabulous!

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  16. What a wonderful posting, I also love his style and panache and would have loved to have been on his invitation list. I also love the closet and linens. I adore them! I am off to check on the link provided by nel e, to get more.

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  17. You can't beat southern charm and hospitality. Thanks for the info on Hovis. I also adore that china and crystal stocked closet... Fay

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  18. I see some goblets in that china closet I would sure love to have ...

    -Lana

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  19. Jennifer, thank you for re-introducing me to Mr. Gene Hovis. I ordered the cookbook from amazon, since I love and cook Southern dishes very well. I had seen several pieces about the late Mr. Hovis on NYSD and other places. Thanks for recommending the cookbook. I am enjoying it.

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  20. Anonymous8:23 AM

    There's a great deal of wisdom in this "cookbook" which is more than just recipes: how to care for your linens, what kind of box lunch will make a train journey more enjoyable, etc. He was a style guru when being such a thing really mattered.

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