MY SIX DINNER GUESTS
by Shaun Costello
I’m sure that everyone has pondered, from time to time, who exactly they would invite, if they had their druthers, and could choose from the vast list of possibilities, living or dead, that have occupied this planet at one time or another, to be guests for an entertaining and eventful dinner; and I’m certainly no exception. But what would be the criteria? First, I think, they should offer the possibility of entertaining company – good story tellers and raconteurs. Second, their contribution to the world, as I know it, should be incontrovertible. Third, the time frame of their lifetimes should be recent enough to give me a comfort level familiarity with their accomplishments, physicality, and behavioral traits. No need to drag up history’s behemoths – after all, this is a party. So, we can automatically eliminate dinosaurs of yesteryear like Jesus, Leonardo da Vinci, Joan of Arc, Aristotle, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Torquemada (although I’m tempted), Charlemagne, Themistocles, Mozart and Napoleon. Besides, none of the aforementioned spoke English, which will be the lingua franca of this little get together. So, let’s stick to fun folks from the Twentieth Century, who are liable to make me laugh, engage me in insatiably interesting conversation, and sometimes simply make me stare in awe. None of my selections are still among the living, not that having died is a criterion, but merely a coincidence. Like top ten lists, this assortment of dinner companions reflects the subjectivity shuffle – your guests, I’m sure, would differ from mine. But, for whatever it’s worth, here’s who I would invite.
In alphabetical order:
Julia Child 1912 – 2004
Chef, Teacher, OSS Spy (Yes, she did work for Wild Bill Donovan in Ceylon during WWII), and an unusual and endearing Television Personality – The woman who taught America how to cook. Her seminal volume Mastering the Art of French Cooking forever changed America’s palate. Her performance on her cooking show was courageous, and hilarious. Julia, in the midst of explaining some culinary technique, dropping a goose to the floor, and simply picking it up and continuing on as though nothing had happened. The woman was unflappable. Nora Ephron’s immensely popular 2009 film Julie & Julia introduced a whole new generation to Child, delivered by Meryl Streep’s uncanny performance. Julia was married to State Department “Spook” Paul Child, and the couple suffered greatly at the hands of Tail Gunner Joe McCarthy and his House Un-American Activities Committee. After all, the Childs hosted dinner parties where many languages were spoken, and by people who might, at one time or another, have listened to classical music – grounds for suspicion in post WWII America. But most importantly, Julia was a gal who liked a good party.
Clarence Darrow 1857 – 1938
Mercurial trial attorney, charter member of the ACLU, and defender of the undefendable – Sometimes referred to as Attorney for the Damned. Darrow argued for the defense in two of the most notorious trials of the Twentieth Century. First, the Scopes Monkey Trial. John Thomas Scopes, a young high school science teacher, was accused of teaching evolution in violation of a Tennessee state law. In Tennessee, in 1925, a state law had been passed making it a misdemeanor to teach, in public school, any theory that contradicted divine law, as written in The Bible. What began as a small incident, mushroomed into a national circus, as both sides brought in their giants. Darrow in the defense of young Scopes, espousing science and reason; and William Jennings Bryan, Bible Thumper supreme and two-time presidential candidate, to argue for Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
It was the first trial to be broadcast on radio. Scopes was of course found guilty, and fined $100, which Darrow refused to pay. But Bryan and his Bible Thumpers were made to appear foolish in front of a national radio audience. The court’s ruling was finally overturned in 1968. The second was the Chicago Thrill Killer Trial. On May 21, 1924, two wealthy Chicago teenagers, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, decided to commit the perfect crime. They would murder without motive, save for the thrill of it. They lured a 14 year old Bobby Franks to a remote area and killed him, hid the corpse, and thought they had covered their tracks. But the body was found, and evidence revealed Leopold and Loeb’s involvement. There was no doubt of the thrill killer’s guilt, so Darrow surprised the nation by entering a plea of guilty. The Chicago District Attorney wanted the boys to hang, and Darrow was a staunch advocate against the death penalty, so the trial became, not just about a senseless and brutal murder, Darrow had put the death penalty itself on trial. On August 22, Darrow gave his final summation. It lasted two hours, and is often referred to as Darrow’s greatest piece of legal oratory. The judge ruled for life in prison, and Darrow had won one of his greatest legal victories.
Charles Eames 1907 – 1978
The husband and wife team of Charles and Ray Eames were industrial and graphic designers, artists, film makers, and joyful creative mavericks. Eames brought fun to furniture. His design genius reshaped the way we looked at structures and the furnishings that filled them. Greatly influenced by architect Eliel Saarinen, and his son Eero, who would become Eames’ partner in many projects. But more than anything, Eames was not afraid of fun, which influenced everything he created. Somehow, I think he would get along well with Julia and Clarence Darrow, and I can’t wait for the banter between courses.
Richard Feynman 1918 – 1988
Theoretical Physicist, raconteur, and bongo drum aficionado, Feynman will probably be best remembered for his testimony before a Congressional committee investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. He had figured out what had happened, and his name would be forever linked with O-rings, the rubber sealers that failed because they were temperature sensitive, a fact that NASA had overlooked. But beyond being a genius, I’m thinking that this dinner needs a bongo drum player.
Dorothy Parker 1893 – 1967
Writer, critic, poet, satirist, acerbic wit, and foundational mainstay of the Algonquin Round Table. I’ve had a crush on Parker for most of my adult life. She was so extraordinarily clever, and so maddeningly sad. What better dinner guest could there be, particularly with a few drinks in her. How delicious. Too many quotes to list, but here are two you might recognize:
“Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.”
“That would be a good thing for them to cut on my tombstone. Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.”
Billy Wilder 1906 – 2002
Born Samuel Wilder in Sucha Beskidzka, Poland, Wilder would live to become one of Hollywood’s greatest directors, and his undeniable talent as a raconteur would make him a mainstay on Tinseltown’s dinner circuit. If Wilder couldn’t make it, Arthur Hornblow Jr, Hollywood’s storied dinner host, would simply cancel the event, or reschedule for when Billy had some free time. If you were planning an event like mine, wouldn’t you want Hollywood’s greatest story teller?
DONATE ANY AMOUNT THROUGH PAYPAL
I WISH I’D SAID THAT
By Shaun Costello
I’ve always envied those few whose witty weaponry enabled them to defuse an impossible moment with the turn of a phrase.
Sherwood Anderson when reviewing cowboy hero Tom Mix: “They say he rides as if he’s part of the horse, but they didn’t say which part.”
Dorothy Parker: “That woman speaks eighteen languages and can’t say ‘no’ in any of them.”
George S Kaufman: Once asked by a press agent, “How do I get my leading lady’s name into your newspaper?” Kaufman replied, “Shoot her.”
I wish I’d said that, but of course no one asked me. Of all the great verbal kick-turns I’ve read, my favorite happened at a Beverly Hills dinner party back in 1940.
Arthur Hornblow Jr. was one of Hollywood’s most successful producers. From 1933 to 1942 he had a hand in the production of some of Paramount’s biggest hits, before moving on to a stellar career at MGM, producing for luminaries like George Cukor and Billy Wilder. Hornblow’s fame as a producer was equaled however, by his legendary reputation as a party host. His dinner parties were storied events, and making his guest list meant you had “arrived” in the motion picture community.
The massive dining table was set according to the measurements and procedures followed by the staff of the Royal Family for state dinners at Windsor Castle. Each dinner guest was provided with their own personal
servant, who stood at attention behind each chair awaiting the call to the most menial of tasks. The wines served were of the great vintages from the finest Chateau’s of Bordeaux and Burgundy. The guest list read like the who’s who of Hollywood Royalty: Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Robert Taylor, Claire Trevor, Spencer Tracy, Kate Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Bing Crosby, Olivia DeHaviland, Bob Hope, Cary Grant. All dressed to the “Nines”. At their peak. Walking on air.
On this particular evening the name of Herman Mankiewicz had been added to the guest list. Manky, as he was universally known, was one of Hollywood’s mercurial talents, responsible for the screenplays for Citizen Kane, The Enchanted Cottage,
Dinner at Eight, and many others. He was also one of Hollywood’s most notorious drunks, leaving a disgruntled and embarrassed list of dinner hosts in his wake. Arthur Hornblow Jr. had avoided inviting Manky to one of his extravaganzas, fearing bad behavior, and the possibility of an unfortunate incident. But Manky, whose barbed wit and scintillating conversation made him popular on Tinseltown’s party circuit, could not be put off forever. So on this particular evening a nervous Arthur Hornblow Jr. could do nothing more than hope for good behavior from his mercurial guest. He gave strict instructions to the staff to limit Manky’s wine service at dinner and to watch for signs of unusual behavior. That done, Hornblow continued fussing over details he felt necessary in order to present a fabulous evening to his fabulous guests.
The pre-dinner cocktail reception out on the terrace was accompanied by a string quartet, while Hollywood’s finest chattered amongst themselves, totally oblivious to possibility of the existence of anything unglamorous in or out of their own perfect little world. Manky held court with a raconteur’s glib concoction of facts and fables, and his audience loved every moment. Hornblow gazed at the assembly through the window and smiled.
The crystal bell tinkled the announcement of a dinner at the ready, and the guest list with the grace born of celebrity and assurance glided through the huge doorway into the dining chamber, the epicenter of Hornblow’s mansion. Everyone found their appropriate places with Hornblow at the head of the enormous table, and his wife Myrna Loy sitting opposite. The wines were greeted with ooohs and ahhhs, and each course served was a tour de force in epicurean perfection. Arthur Hornblow Jr, surveyed his table with a sense of satisfaction thinking to himself. “Well Arthur, you’ve done it again. Everything is as it should be.”
Gone unnoticed amidst all this perfection was an unusually quiet Herman Mankiewicz. Although his wine flow had been curtailed at the dinner table, he had consumed seven or eight martinis during the pre dinner festivities and was plastered. He sat staring straight ahead, weaving ever so slightly to his left and then his right, then slightly forward and suddenly vomited into his soup.
What followed was the longest pause in the history of Tinseltown. No one moved. No one made eye contact with anyone else. Fifty dinner guests sat silent and motionless, perhaps hoping on the off chance, that God might appear and, in his benevolence somehow make things right. But God went unneeded on this particular evening. Manky, seemingly recovered from his trance-like stupor looked down at the evidence of his mischief, then slowly lifted his head and turned in the direction of his horrified host and said, “Not to worry Arthur. The white wine came up with the fish.”
I wish I’d said that. I wish I’d been there.
© 2006 Shaun Costello/New York Times Sunday Magazine