Friday, November 05, 2010

By Invitation Only

Last week I was in San Francisco visiting my sister and attending the Antiques Show (I'll post about that later), and this week has been spent dealing with jet lag. Why I get jet lag after trips to the West Coast only, I haven't a clue. The long flight out there was made tolerable thanks to The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, Dominick Dunne's 1985 book based on the infamous Woodward murder case. I'll explain later why I was reading this book. Throw away the intrigue, sex, and murder, and you still have an interesting book thanks to Dunne's exploration of New York's old moneyed elite.

One custom, for lack of a better word, that Dunne mentions is displaying invitations on one's mantelpiece. The younger Mrs. Grenville, a former showgirl who hooked the wealthy young scion to the Grenville fortune, observes that her well-bred mother-in-law does this. "Engraved invitations, piled one upon the other, were propped against the mantelpiece." Later, the arriviste asks Mrs. Grenville senior "Is that what you do with invitations?... Pile them up like that on the mantelpiece? It looks very smart."

Well, you know, I never thought about this before, but the showgirl was right. It does look very smart. I only have one mantelpiece in my home, and it's in the living room. Piled up invitations wouldn't really work there as it might be a little too messy and a bit too personal for a public room. But in a sitting room or bedroom, it can add some pizzazz. It's cooler and a bit more nonchalant than a bulletin board, don't you think? The only problem today is that so many invitations are sent electronically. A print-out of an Evite just isn't the same as an engraved invitation.

And speaking of Dominick Dunne- as I was writing this post, I was informed that
Stair Galleries will be auctioning off the estate of Dunne on November 20. Take a look at the website to view the lots as well as photos of his New York apartment and Connecticut house, including his living room with the La Portugaise fabric.

When I read Dunne's bit about invitations on the mantelpiece, I immediately thought of John Peixinho's Newport home. He too displays invitations on his mantel in his bedroom. Looks like he is quite popular!

Kenneth Jay Lane displays his social obligations on his bedroom mantel as well. Something tells me that Kenny's invites are to some pretty swell parties.

No bulletin board could hold the number of invitations that Nicky Haslam receives. After all, he is one of London's most popular guests. Here are his invitations in his former London flat.

And at his country home, the Hunting Lodge (and former home of John Fowler.)

(Top image from Tiffany's Palm Beach; Peixinho photos from House Beautiful, Don Freeman photographer. KJL photo from Private New York: Remarkable Residences; Haslam photos from Sheer Opulence)


  1. Hmmmm- I am in full agreement that invitations grouped on the mantle piece can look cozy and old fashioned (and give your guests potential hours of sureptitious fun as they strain to read them while pretending not to even notice their presence). But to my mind, at least, they smack too much of an attempt to brag about your social conquests. It's bad enough to hang your Ivy League diploma or display your Boy Scout merit badges, but they, at least, are evidence of some real achievement. Fancy invitations laid out for all to see speak to me of a wannabe with a badly misplaced sense of priorities. Moreover, in England, social circles used to be much tighter, and it was highly likely that your guests would have been invited to the same events whose invitations you were displaying. The massed display of invitations on the mantlepiece was little different from displaying the Christmas cards you had received. Today, it's more likely that many of your guests may not have received the same invitations as you, and their ostentatious display risks hurt feelings, envy or disdain. And who wants that over something as trivial as a party invite. If I may be so bold, Dominick Dunne often got it very wrong when describing the habits of the East Coast, old money, Social Register types. I would put money on a bet that Elsie Woodward and her friends never displayed their invitations anywhere but on their secretary's desk

  2. I'm with Magnus. I do leave my invitations in plain view, because I'm forgetful. If I'm having a crowd, I put them up. It is ostentatious to put up your party invitations and somewhat hurtful to those who see what they were not invited to. Not that I have so many these days anyway. I'm less popular and there are fewer parties!

  3. Anonymous9:58 AM

    You've just reminded me how much I loved that book! It makes me want to pick up some of his other works I haven't visited. I really miss Dunne's writing for Vanity Fair now that he's left us.
    One scene that sticks with me after all these years is when she gets dolled up to meet her future mother-in-law. The mother-in-law is appalled that this future member of the family is wearing eye make-up in the middle of the day.

  4. I think the point of putting the invitations on the mantle IS to brag to your callers so they would be put in a public room.

    And I enjoyed this book, too! I got it from a friend who was downsizing before a move and now it's not going to leave my collection

  5. That is a good book. I keep my "current" invitations in a silver toast rack on the desk in the kitchen. Especially favorite invites I file away -- for inspiration.

    I've never noticed this before, good observation. Oh, wouldn't I love to see and study all of Nicky Haslams invitations.

  6. I have been placing invitations that are(divine)+sent to me by snail mail on the mantel for a very long time(is that my southern upbringing-hmmmm wonder if) Another great idea for display: around the inside of the frame of a large mirror or artwork that will hang above a grand piece of furniture..if no fireplace is available. Thanks for a great post. love to you+love your post, from another "sunshineY" day in Southern CA. xx

  7. Magnus, you make some very interesting points. I will say that it was difficult to find photos of mantelpieces adorned with invitations. Displaying memorabilia and ephemera on mantels seems to be more popular.

  8. Like the idea of displaying cards and invitations on a mirror. I think that the reason I like the idea of displaying cards/invitations is that it prevents a room from looking too perfect. That said, I don't practice what I preach!

  9. As early as 1774 I observed my friend Prince Talleyrand displaying his many invitations on a table in his toilet. Although he could often be a snob and a show-off, his display originated from the sincere need to organize his upcoming schedule. He once told me that seeing them created anticipation and gave him pleasure. The Prince's friend, Madame Necker, continued the habit and, from her and her Salon it spread to Court and throughout society.

  10. I hope you enjoyed your time in our town! :)

    There is nothing better than a good old-fashioned and beautiful invitation. I am all in favor of being green, but email invitations cannot be touched and felt, and definitely not displayed. But then again we may see e-vites displayed on i-pads soon.



  11. This was a common practice when I lived in England in the early 90s - among students at University, if you can imagine. As an expat I had none to display, but I loved to sneak a peek at them in others' rooms. While some invitations were from very, very grand folks, it never seemed pretentious, somehow - mostly because it was so casually done. I love the idea but here in cow country it couldn't be done so effortlessly, and so I don't.

  12. I agree with Magnus. I think it's rude, boastful and potentially damaging to display invitations. Invitations should go directly to your desk and stay there.

  13. Piro- Thank you for an insider's account of this custom's origins. Who knew? Glad you do!

  14. Hi there! Yes, of course Nicky's invites are legendary but he doesnt think of them snobishly - after all, only intimate friends come across them as they are in the sitting room. Between you and me, many of our grand clients dont have 'invites' of their own to place on the mantle so we have been known to bring our own to photoshoots!! SHHHHHHH........