Dinner parties are both a relic of a bygone era and the most modern way to entertain today. When author Daniel Cappello set out to document what makes a dinner party special, he turned to a selection of noted and celebrity hostesses like Ivanka Trump. Each answered a list of questions about parties, style, and hospitality in her own handwriting.
Cappello, the fashion director at Quest Magazine and a former longtime assistant editor at The New Yorker, previously wrote a book about his alma mater, Harvard, and its university cohort (The Ivy League, Assouline). Max Luxe spoke with Cappello about his new book, Dinner Diaries: Reviving the Art of the Hostess Book (Assouline)
– What was the inspiration for the book?
I grew up with parents who loved entertaining, and dinner parties were a very essential part of what we did with friends and family. That tradition has certainly carried through with me. It didn’t occur to me to do a book about entertaining, though, until I happened to be hosting a dinner party one night where one of the guests (who himself is a generous and fun host) decided we ought to change up the music because he didn’t love the vibe I had chosen for the night. He started looking for where my iPod was docked so he could put on a playlist of his own, and I was appalled! I couldn’t believe someone would dare to criticize a host’s or hostess’s choice on anything, let alone try to act on changing it. Part of the joy of a dinner party, for me, at least, is to relish in someone else’s tastes for an evening. I’ve often been inspired to do something I’d never have done before just by observing other hosts.
At some point, I happened to be telling this story to my publisher, Martine Assouline (who is herself a terrific hostess), and she walked over to her very impressive bookshelf and pulled out a vintage copy of Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette. She opened it up to the section on dinner parties and asked if maybe my sense of propriety was stuck in the ’50s. Do enough people even have dinner parties anymore? Is the art of the dinner party dead? Have good manners and etiquette become antiquated? We started asking all these questions, and I told her I believed enough people still do cherish the finer details of the dinner party—and that I would poll some of my friends and acquaintances who had impressed me with their sense of style and entertaining. The result was a resounding yes—that the dinner party was very much alive, and that people still cared enough about it to document their own by keeping menus and invitations and place-card settings, or with iPhone photos or even old-school hostess books. So Martine and I set out to poll some great modern hosts and hostesses in the form of a Proust Questionnaire, and the result was this book, full of some very traditional and some very contemporary views on entertaining.
– Can you give us some tips for elegant home entertaining?
Elegance is a state of mind, a state of being. Fundamentally, it’s about being true to your own sense of style. If you want to achieve truly elegant home entertaining, you have to own your own sense of style. If you’re a traditionalist and love silver candelabra and flowers and antique china and formal seating arrangements at the dining room table, your guests will feel special spending a few hours in your very traditional ways. If you’re more relaxed and prefer quirky evites, relaxed family-style buffets or passed plates around the kitchen island followed by freestyle dancing after dinner in the living room, then your guests will indulge in the fun. Whatever your style, you should command it. One of the tips I offer in the book for hostesses is that, as hostess, you are the director—so you set the tone and scene for the evening. Being confident and in command—and enjoying your own dinner party as much as your guests—is the ultimate elegance. Your guests will follow your lead and truly enjoy themselves.
-What did you learn while working on the book that was surprising?
Well, it’s funny. In some of the research that reached back to the days of, say, the 1950s picture-perfect housewife, there were some funny suggestions I came across. For instance, one authority back in the day told stressed-out wives to retreat to the kitchen and lie flat on their backs, against a cold kitchen floor, to regain their composure. I just imagined a beautifully coiffed housewife in a cocktail dress sneaking into the kitchen, swallowing a Valium with a vodka martini, and taking to the floor.
In truth, it’s not such a ridiculous scenario. I’ve had freak-out moments of my own hosting dinner parties, and maybe I should have gone into the kitchen and stretched out on the floor to take a few deep breaths to recover. Any host or hostess will tell you to expect the unexpected and to learn to go with the flow. One of the most formal women I interviewed for the book told about how her chef once mixed up salt and sugar in a dessert recipe. A guest took a bite and shouted out to warn everyone not to touch the dessert. She said she always has a stock of very good ice cream in the freezer for such situations. So if the flourless chocolate cake turns sour or the soufflé flops, there’s always some really delicious ice cream on hand. And who doesn’t love an indulgent ice cream for dessert?
We say that practice makes perfect, but you can’t always perfect the dinner party, so I learned a lot of fun tips from hostesses on how to turn a potentially bad situation into a fun or memorable evening.
– What’s the funniest anecdote from the book?
I think the funniest—or most telling—part of the book is the response to the question about what makes for a bad guest at a dinner party. Many hostesses I polled said a drunk was a bad guest (while many others suggested a drunk made for a good guest). I suppose it depends on what kind of conversation or mood an intoxicated guest can stir up at a party. The funniest response for me, though, was when one of the participants polled said a bad guest shows up late, and a very bad guest hits on your husband!
– What’s your next project?
I have a few ideas for another possible book with Assouline. I have truly loved the process of working with Martine and Prosper Assouline. Their luxury-book house is celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year, and they have an amazing aesthetic for luxe books and products. I never know where our initial thoughts or conversations will eventually lead me.
I’m also in the process of researching a historical Renaissance figure to whom I may or may not be related down the ancestral line. Either way, I’m working on a book about her exciting life and times. I’m also working on a performance piece with some theatrical producers. So I’m looking back in my family history and looking inward to potentially take to the stage myself.