A few years ago, Dorothea Johnson, former etiquette writer for the Washington Star and entertainment lecturer for the Foreign Service Institute, received an invitation to "A Party."
"It said, 'Regrets only,' but I phoned the hostess anyway to ask her what kind of party it was," Johnson recounted at a recent lecture, "and she said, 'Oh, just a party.' I asked her, 'What should I wear?,' and she said, 'Oh, anything.' So I asked, 'What are you wearing?'
" 'Oh, I haven't given it a thought,' came the reply."
Johnson said she got out her I'm-not-sure dress, which is a basic black, "and my husband saw it and got out his I'm-not-sure suit--a three-piece gray." They arrived at the party only to discover everyone else there dressed more casually "except a liaison from the British Embassy who said, 'I say, aren't we overdressed?' "
Hostesses should be kinder to their guests, said Johnson, a veteran of countless parties here and in the 20 other posts where her Marine family has been stationed.
More Than When and Where
Invitations should let guests know a lot more than where and when the party will occur, she said. Johnson usually states the nature of the party (dinner, brunch, etc.) and gives the guests some idea of who else will be there ("You know the Daniels, don't you? And we're having a couple who just moved here from Maine"), how much food to expect (appetizers or a full-course dinner), and an idea of what the host and hostess will be wearing.
All of this information should be issued by phone, she said. "I lecture to people in the diplomatic corps, and all over the world hostesses are having trouble with invitations. I haven't sent out an invitation in eight years."
Reminder in Mail
Instead, she gets a yes or no by phone, and then follows up with a reminder in the mail about a week before the party, giving the same details and including a map for newcomers. She issues the telephone invitation one to two months in advance because "around here, you have to get your bid in early."
Then she gets out her calendar and breaks down the preparation for the party into several steps, doing as much as possible in the days and weeks before the party occurs.
"I try to do almost nothing the day of the party, so I can be relaxed for my guests," she said. She said this is the key to a good party. "If you're relaxed, your guests will be relaxed and will leave your place happy."
It's easier to stay relaxed if you start with the kind of party with which you're most comfortable, she said.
"You don't need to copy your neighbor or your friend, although I'm not above stealing a good idea here and there."
Keep Menu Simple
She also emphasized that the food one prepares is not the key to a successful party. "If the food is splendid or elaborate, but you're a nervous wreck, what do you think your guests will remember?" Simple food that can be prepared in advance and heated up quickly does best, and no more than three courses are necessary (main dish, salad and dessert).
You should also check with your guests before planning the menu, especially if you plan to serve foods that may be taboo to many: pork, seafood, foods cooked or soaked with liquor.
Johnson avoids serving fowl with bones ("I don't think guests should have to struggle with it") and anything that requires cutting, if the party is a buffet. "I've seen too many accidents happen when people hold their plates on their laps and try to cut," she said.
Some Washington hostesses she interviewed for her column confessed that they use the same menus every year and that it doesn't bother them. "They say that people don't come for the food, anyway."
Here are some of Johnson's party props:
--Pink light bulbs. "These make the women look beautiful and the men look handsome, and hide the dust," she said.
--Tablecloths. She makes them out of inexpensive cotton or sheets on sale, and protects them from dripping wax by charring her candles before the party (lighting them, blowing them out and pinching off the charred wick). She also wards against spills from hot drinks by filling cups no more than three-quarters full--and serving them in the living room, if possible.
A last safety precaution is to set the table first with service plates--large glass plates that remain on the table throughout the changes of course. "I was once complimented on my fine Swedish crystal plates until I just couldn't stand it," she said, "and had to confess that they're Pyrex pizza plates I bought for $1.29 each from the PX (post exchange)."
--Menus. Johnson writes out a copy on anything from informal note paper to paper bags (for a picnic) and places them between the place settings.
--Seating. She makes up a chart ahead of time and uses place cards, because she believes that saying, "Oh, just sit anywhere," means you don't care. Another Washington hostess uses place cards as a conversation piece. "She makes up clever names for each of her guests," Johnson explained. "I'm always Emily Post Jr. A retired Naval officer was the Old Man of the Sea, and one fellow--a really shy man--was the Swinger."
--Guests of honor. Honoring a special friend is a great excuse for a party, Johnson said. Remember that an honored male guest sits on the hostess's right and an honored female guest to the right of the host. The place of honor in the living room, she said, is the right-hand side of the couch--a place that more than one unfortunate member of the diplomatic corps has unknowingly usurped, she reported.
Soup in Cups
--Hors d'oeuvres. Johnson doesn't serve these anymore, substituting a soup course that she serves in cups while her guests are still in the living room.
--Buffet. A clever way to bring people to the buffet line is to slip the men names of women they are to escort, she said, or draw seasonal decorations (such as Christmas trees and shamrocks), cut them in patterns down the middle and have the two genders match up the halves. "That way married couples don't always sit together."
Johnson also advises hostesses to try sitting everywhere they expect their guests to sit (including the floor) to see if it's comfortable--and reliable ("I've seen chairs break on guests")--and serving beverages from a tray after everyone's been served their food rather than have people balance a plate, silverware, napkin and glass as they wander about looking for a place to sit.
--Conversation. She advises using Eleanor Roosevelt's trick with the alphabet: "She'd start with 'A' and think, apples--Aren't the apples lovely this year? If that bombs, she'd go to 'B,' books--Has anyone read any good books lately? One night, they say, she got home and told F.D.R. about a terrible evening--she'd gotten all the way to 'W'!"
She also helps ensure good conversation by never inviting only people from the same office or occupation and inviting "at least one new couple" to every party.
--Working women. She's seen some splendid parties done all with carryout food, "and nobody knew but the hostess and me." By setting the table the night before and coming home early enough to dump the carryout into pots and scoop ice cream into fancy dishes, you can pull off an elegant party--without having to ask your guests to help.