Foremost hostess in the Hollywood social whirl Carole confesses here her secrets of success.
By: Julie Lang Hunt
It looks like a long, hard winter for Hollywood hostesses.
You see, Carole Lombard is back in the social scramble, and that’s very bad news for all the party experts in the movie territory.
Last Autumn, when she opened her new gem-of-a-little-house for a series of smart parties, Carole was a dark horse in the hostess line-up, but she finished the fabulous gay season of ’33 and ’34 two laps ahead of all teh established favorites. Now, even the social die-hards out here concede first place to her, on the strength of her perfect little dinners and brilliantly managed buffet suppers.
Last Winter, in the midst of one of her large cocktail parties, I overheard a veteran hostess exclaiming over the apparent success of the gathering. She said:
“Just look at her (indicating Carole), not a furrow of worry on her. Why, she actually manages to be casual wit a hundred guests under her roof!”
And right there, in the wailing lady’s lament, lies the secret of Carole’s social sorcery. She is casual, or seems to be, which serves up just as well. Her guests are never conscious that hard work and thoughtful planning have gone into the party they are enjoying. An evening in the Lombard home seems to unfold itself on a magic carpet, where even the food manages to appear as the inspiration of the moment.
And by this time, if you’re not frantic to know how Carole does it, you’d better skip the rest of this story, for it is dedicated to only those who are interested in the fine art of modern hospitality.
According to Carole, her casual manner in the drawing room is a luxury she earns with a right smart bit of work before each party. She says:
“I wouldn’t think of giving a dinner, even a small one for six people, without at least a week of planning. This gives everyone in my household time to organize details. It gives me time to plan a menu, my cook time to carry it out, and the stores time to order any special or out-of-season foods. And then it gives me time to arrange my own engagements so that I won’t be all tired out for it.”
With her companion-secretary, Madalynne Field, Carole works out the plans for each social gathering like a set of blue-prints. Her system runs something like this:
On Thursday, Carole decides that a week from Friday she will have Mr. and Mrs. Dick Barthelmess, Mr. and Mrs. Clive Brook, Ronald Colman, and Mr. and Mrs. Norman Taurog for an informal dinner.
On the same day or the next, Carole and Madalynne will telephone the guests, and if any of them are busy on that date, other individuals from her large circle of friends are substitute immediately.
Not later than Friday evening, seven days preceding the dinner, Carole works out a complete menu, including hors d’oeuvres, and gives it to Edgar, her cook.
And for those of you who are servantless, let me explain that Carole Lombard’s party formula can be handled without the aid of caterer or cook. Carole works eight and nine hours daily at the studios and she must have trained servants to carry out her orders, but her system of planing a dinner can be followed to the letter by the clever housewife who must do her own cooking and shopping.
Now let’s see, where were we? Oh, yes, the menu is completed, and you can depend upon Carole to avoid all food that is merely fussy and decorative.
“The success of a party doesn’t rest entirely upon the food,” Carole told me. “But you can bet your last dollar it will be a flop from the start if the food is one shade less than excellent.”
The Friday night dinner might possibly include cream of mushroom soup, salmon in lime aspic, Cuban chicken and wild rice and purée of peas, and ice-cream with marrons glacés.
And right here let’s take time out for the ambitious hostess to make a mental note that the salad course in this dinner is out because the fish course is in. If Carole should decide upon a salad, she would eliminate the salmon and probably order French endive with beets, marinated in French dressing.
But Carole says she refuses to follow and rigid set of rules for her menus. She is very likely to serve corned beef and cabbage with all the trimmings to her group of English friends who fancy a boiled dinner, or Italian and Spanish dishes for the clique that leans to Latin flavorings.
Edgar, it seems, can cook in any language, and if necessary, can even accomplish a few tasty morsels in Russian.
Not later than Wednesday the flowers are ordered. On Thursday Madalynne, or Carole, if she is not working, checks over playing cards, score cards, pencils, backgammon boards and anagram sets.
Dawns the day of the dinner, and Carole is almost sure to be hard at work at the studio until six o’clock or later. She is certain to arrive home tired, and it’s a nine to one bet she’ll be late as well, but she takes time out for a visit to the kitchen. Every dish is inspected, the canapes looked over, and if there’s a last minute change, Carole is informed, so there won’t be any sudden surprises for her when dinner is served.
Next comes dining-room duty where the table is carefully checked, and then a swift look about the living-room at the flower arrangement.
And then, at last, she is free to shed her work-a-day fatigue and go about the business of emerging from her dressing-room cool and casual, as becomes the successful hostess. But by this time she is probably thinking, “Why did I ask anyone here tonight — I can’t make it — I’m dead.”
But she’ll make it, and like it. The reviving process calls for a good soak in a warm tub stinging with pine salts, and if that doesn’t work, a small glass of sherry sipped while she relaxes in the soothing water is bound to turn the trick. Carole says she never fails to step out of her cold shower humming and actually relishes the prospect of guests.
“I try to get downstairs in time to greet the first arrivals. It’s really the ideal way to start things, but I won’t rush myself to a pitch of nerves to accomplish it.”
“I am careful about my make-up and my hair, even if the last guest is waiting, because a good half of this hostess ease is knowing that you look your best.”
And here is another gem of advice from Carole for every woman with hostess yearnings.
“An at-home costume or hostess gown is absolutely essential for the woman who entertains, for two reasons. First, this type of costume is extremely flattering, and that does wonders for any woman’s poise, and secondly it eliminates the possibility of appearing overdressed in case a guest shows up in a simple daytime outfit.”
“If a woman has a limited wardrobe, it would be wise to sacrifice a second dinner or evening frock for one hostess gown. She’ll soon rate it the most valuable asset in her clothes collection.”
Cocktails and hors d’oeuvres are served with the arrival of the first guests. And another sage warning from Carole —
“Don’t serve hors d’oeuvres unless they are superb,” she says. “There is nothing more dismal to the palate than a mediocre bit of fish and egg heaped on a piece of too soggy or too brittle toast. Until you can attain hors d’oeuvres that cause oh’s and ah’s, serve your cocktails unaccompanied.”
I really believe that Carole’s long list of unusual canapes and hors d’oeuvres are responsible for a good measure of her successful parties. When her maid brings out a platter of piping hot chicken livers that have been broiled and then skewered on toast, the aroma never fails to draw bravos from the initiated guests. And then there is the master stroke of fresh shrimps stuck with toothpicks ready to be dipped into a chilled bowl of sauce that is a sublime blending of chives, chili sauce, mayonnaise and tabasco.
“The zero hour for any dinner,” Carole told me, “arrives along with the coffee and brandy. At that moment even a party that has started off at a rollicking pace can and will curl up and die, unless the hostess is on her toes.”
Carole carefully avoids tragedy by permitting her guests to plan their own amusements. The harrowing business of herding everyone for games is eluded by the simple plan of having bridge tables, backgammon boards and anagram sets or any other likely entertainment spread out in the playroom while the guests are still at dinner. Then those who wish to play games will migrate of their own accord to the tables, while those who find the conversation diverting will gather, without prompting, in sociable corners.
“Fortunately, I have a number of friends who are excellent musicians,” Carole continued. “Music, if it is good and also impromptu, is a hostess’ most benign ally. When an evening at my home finishes up with all the guests crowded around the piano singing at the top of their voices, I know the party can be checked off as a success.”
Another item in the Lombard dinner ritual that should be well heeded by the inexperienced hostess is the absence of all food following coffee and liquors. High-balls are made for those who desire them, but sticky candies are never pressed upon unwilling guests and midnight sandwiches are absolutely out.
The buffet supper is a less delicate instrument than the dinner, according to Carole, and it is a great boon to the hostess who must entertain now and then for large numbers of guests.
Carole’s suppers, which she works out beautifully in a really small house for as many as forty guests, are famous because of the distinctive dishes and because there is always room in which to enjoy the grand food.
Small tables of four are distributed through the rooms and in the garden when the weather permits. If the garden isn’t available, the guest list is pared down, because Carole know the only party that can be crowded with guests is the cocktail gathering.
Among the delicious things I’ve tasted at Lombard buffets are casseroles of creamed mushrooms and sweetbreads, chafing dishes of Maryland chicken, casseroles of frog legs (I didn’t ask how this one is made; it’s too complicated for me!) and deviled crab meat served hot and steaming in shells of white china.
But there is another important ingredient besides exquisite food and splendid management in Carole Lombard’s recipe for clever “hostessing,” and that is originality.
She has displayed a fine flare for creating parties based on an idea, usually an absurd idea at that, and carrying them to a sublime finish.
Hollywood still talks about her famous hospital party, inspired by a series of small ailments among her friends. Carole decided to turn a regulation informal dinner into some hilarious fun at the last moment, and with the help of a surgical supply house she changed her drawing-room into a hospital ward.
Carole met her guests at the door in a nurse’s starched white uniform and issued long hospital robes which were donned over dinner outfits.
Then she had escorted them to white hospital beds complete with names and charts hanging over the footboard.
The butler, disguised as an intern, served clinical-looking drinks that were sipped through glass tubes, but proved to be pleasant enough cocktails. Dinner was rolled in on an operating table, and the eating utensils were the less terrifying of surgical instruments.
I would not advise the unskilled hostess to attempt anything as complicated as Carole’s clinical dinner, unless she is very certain about the humor and spirit of her guests.
Another fillip added to the social season was Carole’s Roman banquet, prompted by a friend’s regret to a dinner invitation because, to put it in her own words, “She was too tired to sit up straight at the table.”
Carole assured the fatigued friend she wouldn’t have to sit up for her dinner, and provided mounds of pillows that served as Roman lounges in her drawing-room. Dinner was served to ten reclining guests on low individual tables.
And while I’m taking the Lombard hostess formula apart to see what makes it tick so precisely, I must not forget to underscore the most important rite in her list of “do’s.” And that is to forget the hostess role with the arrival of the first guest.
Plan, work, scheme, and manage to the hilt beforehand, says Carole, but the moment the party starts, forget you’re running it, and pretend you’re one of the guests.