A new handbook for playing host has us assess the hospitality rules set out in ‘Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette’. While some sound absurd, others still resonate charmingly.
While Ms. Leahy’s advice is thoroughly modern, “Notes on Entertaining” reminds us of another book written almost 70 years ago. Despite its title, “The Complete Book of Etiquette of Amy Vanderbilt”, first published in 1952, was much more than a convoluted encyclopedia of pinky-out formalities. Offering advice on everything from formal dinners to tackling living-room laurels, Amy Vanderbilt’s guide to “Martoni”-era America taught how to entertain at home with style and polish. (Fun fact: Its illustrations came courtesy of Andy Warhol, in his pre-pop art incarnation as a commercial illustrator for hire.)
As our uneasy truce with COVID-19 is making public social gatherings questionable, entertainment at home is experiencing a revival almost like it did in the 1950s. But as we plan our next dinner party with Ms. Leahy’s book, we can’t help but wonder: In 2021, can Vanderbilt still teach us a thing or two about hospitality – As guest or host – or is the time and tide out of date his advice? Here, some samples of Vanderbilt’s knowledge and our verdict on whether the inscriptions still resonate in 2021.
rules for hosts
provide a menu
Formal dinners are accompanied by a printed menu, writes Vanderbilt: “Always in French. Written in script, or script-like handwriting.”
Decision: A home printer makes it easy, and a little theater is always fun. But the French tres can come across as corny.
make a pitcher
If a carefully planned meal is the highlight of the evening, a host who considers himself a mixologist can “delete the emphasis on dinner and put it unnaturally on what should be a casual process, Vanderbilt writes. “Mix only one type of cocktail.”
Decision: The idea of pre-selected cocktails can be irritating to some guests. But the logic behind it has its merits.
follow the leader
When dinner is announced, “the hostess usually leads her female guests into the dining room with the men, the host brings the rear,” details Vanderbilt. The men step forward and hold the chairs as the hostess indicates where each woman is to sit. Then, at his behest, the men themselves sit down.
Decision: Even if you want to resurrect this forgotten eating ritual in the name of social anthropology, your guests will need stage direction and dress rehearsals to pull it off. Simple can also be elegant.
turn the table
Vanderbilt explains, “In the middle of the meal, the hostess gently ends her conversation with the gentleman on her right … and turns to the gentleman on her left.” “Others should watch out for this turning point and do the same.”
Decision: While a good host ensures that all guests are engaged in conversation, the move, including boy-and-girl seating, seems too disciplined for modern tastes.
Boors. deal with
Use diversionary tactics when creatively turning a friendly fight into a “weirdly controversial” guest war. “If you have a game room, ask someone to take her to table tennis,” suggests Vanderbilt. “If she has a talent like playing the piano, the shrewd hostess might say, ‘Joe, we can’t all follow you in debates, but I know I’m dying to hear you beat that boogie-woogie. Am.”
Decision: Diplomatic, but perhaps naively optimistic, given the level of bipartisan contention in 2021.
get down Tonight
“There are occasions when the rugs can be rolled back and the room is cleared for dancing to the music of the radio, phonograph or an accordion.” According to Vanderbilt, “A good host tries to dance with every female guest at his party.”
Decision: Dated gender roles and compromises aside, sounds good.
tuck them in properly
Taking care of your overnight guest’s needs doesn’t end with clean sheets, a fresh set of towels, and a cheerful “see you in the morning.” According to Vanderbilt, you can hardly call yourself a host unless you send your guest to a bed equipped with the following:
- nightwear including bathrobe and slippers
- face towels, laundry, bath towel, soap
- Razor, shaving cream, clean brush and comb
- Enough bedclothes (more than enough if in doubt)
- a bed light for reading
- Current magazines, a mystery, or a favorite bedtime reading
- Facial tissue, cold cream, toothbrush and toothpaste
- Enough pillows to allow reading in bed
- cigarette and ashtray
- Hangers for clothes, including trouser-skirt hangers
- Bedtime snacks—a dish of fruit on the bed table, a plate, a knife, and a paper napkin
Decision: A lovely sentiment, but perhaps a little too much for Norman Bates modern guests with average expectations. You can scare them.
rules for guests
keep it clean
Vanderbilt advises guests, “Never pour gravy over rice, noodles, or anything other than meat on a plate.” “It’s an insult to dishes to fill everything on your plate with gravy or catsup.” Incidentally, if you want to eat your potatoes with gravy, you dip a forkful of molasses over the meat.
Decision: It probably didn’t even come back in 1952. This is America, after all. Gravy is mother’s milk.
wait a while
“Except for some very good reasons discussed earlier with the hostess, no guest may leave a private home less than two and a half to three hours after a formal dinner,” Vanderbilt rules.
Decision: A quirky artifact from a far more compassionate, social and less manic era. forget it.
Tune in and shut up…please
Vanderbilt was no snob when it came to television. While it was up to the host to tell those already invited that TV would be the main event, Vanderbilt has stern words for those who accept the invitation: “Guests behave poorly, if once settled, they are persistent. go on chattering that prevents others from hearing what is happening. They should keep calm and watch and listen or remove themselves from there.”
Decision: Wisdom for the ages. It is a shame that there is no technology that can effectively silence those who refuse to respect the viewing experience.
stick to the plan
Dates and times for the arrival and departure of weekend guests must not only be clearly communicated, but they must be treated as a contractual obligation. As Vanderbilt notes, if guests suddenly decide to play their visit by ear depending on the season, a hostess may be left high and dry with “a lonely bachelor and a big leg of lamb on her hands.” Maybe, or flood with guests and make a little rooster for Sunday dinner.”
Decision: Anyone who’s ever spent the day cleaning the house and stocking the fridge for a weekend guest who comes back at the last minute will agree: Making good on social obligations is never out of vogue.