Monday, December 13, 2010

A Master of Entertaining

You know that I love my vintage design magazines, and I mention often that there is much inspiration that can be drawn from their photos and articles. But inspiration aside, these old mags can also pull you into a fantasy world, one in which thoughts of "Wow, I'd love to live in a glamorous apartment like that" or "Good grief, I'd give my right arm to be able to host that kind of party" prevail. It's the latter sentiment that I felt when I first read a 1967 House & Garden article about a Christmas party hosted by designer Richard Nelson. In fact, I was planning to post about this gorgeous party when I found out that Richard is one of my readers. I figured what better way to turn fantasy into reality than by speaking with Richard to find out the whys and wherefores of this captivating party.

A little background first. Richard is a noted interior designer who began his career in New York in the late 1950s. In fact, he was Sister Parish's assistant for a few years, helping her with such projects as the famous White House redecoration for Jacqueline Kennedy. After his stint with Parish, Richard decided to strike out on his own, setting up shop in Manhattan and later in Newport, the city that Richard now calls home. Richard recalls that the 1960s were a heady time for a young New York decorator. It was not uncommon for him to spend most nights out on the town- in black tie no less. And if he wasn't out and about, he was entertaining at home. Richard remembers hosting seated suppers for 12 to 13 guests on an average of four to five nights a week. Yes, you read that correctly.

Now let's stop for a moment and think about that. Four to five nights a week. When Richard told me this, I actually didn't know what to say. Can you imagine? Of course, I had to ask him how in the world he entertained with such gusto and maintained his business. He said that he usually had help when he hosted dinners, although he always participated in the preparation of the meals. And sometimes to keep things simple, he would order in Chinese from a neighborhood restaurant and serve it on his Chinese export porcelain to make it special. Now that must have really been something else.

The 1966 Christmas soiree featured here took place at his former apartment on the Upper East Side, part of two Civil War brownstones that had been combined in 1917. Richard's apartment consisted of a dining room and a music room that was connected by an enclosed walkway. (That's the festive looking walkway above.) The music room had a 20' high ceiling, making it the perfect setting for a very tall Christmas tree. The dining room, decorated in the 1920s by Charles of London, had a ceiling that was covered in painted canvas meant to look like leather. (You can see it in a photo below.) The walls had been decorated with old japanning and antiqued mirror, but by the time Richard moved in the walls were beyond repair, hence the painted finish that you see below.

Seeing that this was to be Richard's first large party in his home, he opted for a lavish and elegant black-tie affair. He hired Donald Bruce White to cater the event. In 1966, White was just beginning his career, later becoming one of Manhattan's premier caterers. (In fact, I've shown his apartment on my blog. Click
here to see it.) The delicious menu included smoked turkey, pâté en croûte, shrimp and parsley tree with curry dipping sauce, and of course, that croquembouche. If that wasn't enough, his friend Mabel Mercer entertained his guests for an hour and a half, after which everyone danced until 4:30 in the morning. But after the last guest left, Richard did not have much time for relaxation. A few days later, he hosted a party for friends' children so that they could see his Christmas tree. The event was replete with little presents, cookies, and juice, something that he still does to this day.

Though the setting of Richard's dinners may have changed- he now lives in an 18th c. Colonial house in Newport- his style of entertaining hasn't. He still makes sure to serve delicious food. And more importantly, he never forgets the point of entertaining: to have a good time with good friends.

That is Richard, above, wearing white-tie and tails. The footmen's liveries were made at a shop around the corner from his apartment.

The music room decorated for the party. The small tables and gilt chairs gave guests a place to rest between dances.

A view from the music room to the garden courtyard beyond.

The buffet was laid in the dining room. Note the painted canvas ceiling.

The smoked turkey was sliced quite thin and then reassembled for serving.

During the early part of the party, a harpist played while guests drank champagne and chatted.

After the 11pm buffet supper was served, Mabel Mercer sang for guests.

A few days later, friends' children visited to see Richard's Christmas tree.

All photos from House & Garden, December 1967.


  1. I'd love to attend such events 4 to 5 times a week!

  2. Jennifer - I can't tell you how much I LOVED this post. It just doesn't seem like life is this gracious and elegant any more. Oh to have been an invitee at one of Richard's stylish chic affairs!

  3. I looked through the post. Loveed the gallery in the first photo. Charmed by the party. Impressed by the turkey so well carved that it could be reassembled (I'll start practicing immediately), enjoyed the text and pictures. And THEN, in the next to last picture, you saved the zinger. Mabel Mercer sang.

    That truly is the peak of memorable

  4. John J Tackett9:40 AM

    What a great post! I have had the great pleasure of meeting Mr Nelson, and I can attest to his being as gracious as he is talented! I would also suggest a post about his Newport shop The Red Unicorn, if one is not already in the works.

  5. Mr Nelson's approach to entertaining and decorating
    was inspiring to read about~but what really knocked me out was the idea of engaging the great Mabel Mercer to perform for his fortunate guests. That took
    the evening to another level of hospitality! I used to
    see her in NY clubs in her later years and worship at the shrine~but to have her in one's own drawing room!

  6. The 60s, just before technology took off, before the late 60s unrest, etc. was such a fairy tale. Life was well lived and New York was amazing. Great Post--but I really do not know how the caterer managed to get the turkey to look like that.

  7. Although I was only a pre-teen during this era, I remember it well and I remember how we dressed for parties...there were certain things you did back then, in a very certain way, and dressing appropriately for events was one of them. This post brought back memories of my own family Christmas gatherings. Although on a much smaller and less grand scale, it really was a most special event at my family home. Thank you for sharing, as always!

  8. How I loved this post+Thanks Jennifer. xx

  9. I'm certainly old enough to remember 60's entertaining--private deb balls with 10 wheel drive. We used to sit on my friend's older sister's bed and watch her get ready for the parties, with falls in her hair, and her Mother's jewelry. We thought our lives were going to be just like that, but the paper dress parties ended with the horribly, recession, and politically riddled 70's. The 80's weren't even close to being as chic. What an amazing time it was.

  10. Anonymous6:20 PM

    I had the good fortune to be a guest at Mr. Nelson's Newport home in the summer of 2007 - exquisite. Love the post. And the footmen. KDM

  11. Hard to know where to begin. This is such a lovely post. I'm in love with the abundance of flowers/evergreens in the walkway and the view to the courtyard is just beautiful. But the tradition of hosting friends' children each year for their own party sounds so special. The nights and days in that apartment must have been magical.

  12. What is it that Liz Lemon says? "I want to go there."

    A sliced and reassembled turkey? Liveried footmen?