Why do we do it? Between the idea of entertaining and the reality, lies the need to do the shopping, cook the dinner, peel the cat hair off the easy chair, retrieve the dog bones from under the couch, find a place to shove all the magazines and books that have overflowed the bookcases, polish the silver, replace the burnt-out bulb on the front porch . . .
All so we can look as though we always live in a spotless house, with three or four tasty courses lined up in the kitchen waiting to be served.
Oh no, we say to anyone who inquires, it was no trouble at all . . . doesn't everyone live like this?
Well, no, they don't, and some people haven't the energy or the inclination to pretend. Five minutes before 80 people were arriving for drinks, it occurred to one man I know that perhaps he should do something about the large hole in the living-room ceiling where the plaster had come down. The arriving guests were allowed to steady the ladder as he applied his freshly mixed plaster. This same man never starts cooking until the last guest arrives; what if he went to all that trouble and no one came?
Sometimes this host is not even home when the guests arrive, having discovered that he is out of ice or beer or gin and gone off to get it, leaving a cheery note on the door. One reason people keep coming to his parties is to see what he'll do next, but mostly they come because the company is good, the drink keeps flowing and if you feel faint before the always-late dinner is served, he has no objection to your elbowing your way into the kitchen and making yourself an egg.
The best parties are given by people who are relaxed about entertaining. People who are too concerned with the impression they're making should remember what happened to Nicolas Fouquet, finance minister to Louis XIV of France.
Fouquet invited 6,000 people to a little bash to meet the king and, to show all and sundry what a nice fellow he was, he spent a fortune, including among his party favors saddle horses and diamond tiaras. "Luxe insolent et audacieux," was the judgment of the king, who also suspected where the money to pay all this luxe had come from. He popped Fouquet into prison, where the fallen minister had time to rue the desire to impress his guests.
One more cautionary tale, this one set in New York City in 1897 and involving a Mrs. Bradley Martin, who was concerned about all the people suffering from financial depression. It would be patriotic, she decided, to give a fancy dress ball at the Waldorf. Of course, it would impress her friends but -- oh so much more important -- it would provide jobs for the costumers, milliners, waiters, pastry chefs, chamber maids and any other of the deserving poor who might be lolling about. Ignoring all the ominous precedents to do with luxe and Louis, she asked her guests to dress as if they were to be presented at Versaille.
It was a fabulous evening -- one newspaper reporter called it "a delirium of wealth" -- and the Bradley Martins were said to have spent a quarter of a million dollars in their effort to dance the country out of its depression. One who heard and believed was the tax assessor. Like Louis XIV, he was a man who couldn't bear to see so much money separated from the state, and he doubled the couple's tax assessment, causing them to flee the United States for England.
See what happens when you show off? Relax. Entertain on your own terms, whatever they may be.
If you can't cook, don't set off on a crash course the day of the party. Buy the food from a caterer or a take-out store. Light the room with candles and kerosene lamps; use your best china and silver and let the setting take precedence over the food. (Candlelight is terrific in any case, disguising your guests' wrinkles and any cat hair and dust balls you've missed.)
If you're an adequate cook but not a great one, do a very simple meal and serve good wines. Even if you can't tell a Bordeaux from a Bud, most wine stores have experts who can.
Some people, perfectly good cooks and witty guests, are nevertheless intimidated at the idea of entertaining and are convinced that whatever they do, it will all go wrong.
Well, of course it will. Something will burn or not taste quite the way it was meant to, or a mousse will mush instead of setting, or three people will call at the last minute with the flu, or three more will be added to the party by guests asking to bring their guests. At least one person will spill a glass of red wine on the rug (a good reason for having orientals) and a wine glass will get broken and maybe a plate.
The way to get used to all the things that go wrong is to entertain often. If the thought of having a large dinner party terrifies you, have a small one. Invite your best friend over one night a week for a month. Then invite your best friend and one other person . . . then one more.
Eventually you will discover that you are the relaxed host to a large and happy group.