At the start of a 1966 dinner in Acapulco for the Bloomingdales, a beautiful woman of stunning taste (judging from everything around us), came out of the kitchen quite cooly frantic. The staff were fighting, she said, leaving, and taking the food with them. But with people like our hostess, Merle Oberon, there is always Plan B, even if it meant Bloomingdale. As Betsy stared at the dining table that was empty and threatening to stay that way – except for impeccable crystal, bone-white china, and Devonshire-cream colored roses by the dozens – Alfred Bloomingdale said wait a minute, then drove off in a cloud of gravel dust. He returned carrying buckets of KFC. They all had “a marvelous time,” Cecil Beaton later wrote in his diaries. “Those manners again,” I wrote in mine. In Europe the KFC could be upgraded easily, but at that hour the store would be closed. In New York your solution is only a phone call away, and anywhere else – well, just call your favorite restaurant, sob on the phone, and send a sober guest to pick up the food. Or so the conversation went until Beaton said maybe we don’t need food at all, just the art of table decoration. An easy suggestion with a full belly, even if with poisonous fried chicken.
“Not Queen Alexandra’s giant arrangements of English roses, Oscar and Whistler’s blue china pots full or iris and aquilegia, or Proust’s orchids” purred Audrey Hepburn. “Certainly not Constance Spry’s cabbage leaves and old-man’s-beard,” I added. “For me I would be guided by Colette. For her it was all about having imagination that was not, perhaps, as striking as Cocteau’s last-minute wooden toys from the quai for a dinner with Picasso, but grand enough in a simple way with enormous bunches of perfect grapes for the table–at a lunch of tuna fish omelets. Not all of us (except those in the room) can afford no flowers at all but just a tureen of Augsberg silver, or like Chanel and Lady Cunard a simple large golden object in the center of the table. But certainly we can, like Lady Colefax, burn fresh rosemary in the hall to the dining room.” Not to be outdone by my nonsense, Cecile continued: “Pauline de Rothschild at Mouton always went over the top with great style using mounds of heliotrope and wisteria (vying with the perfumes of the Mouton en carafe), but now she does miniature rock gardens with moss, lichen and dwarf trees.” I could not let that pass, nostalgic for whatever Pauline had several times put en carafe for me, and put in my last digs. “David Hicks has given up Rothschildian excess and gone in for beheaded tulips, heads only, floating in boxes like chocolates. In the country I ask my guests to go out and collect whatever they want to see on the table, as long as it’s legless. Or just take them to the Chelsea Flower show before lunch and have no centerpiece at all. More politically and correctly left wing.” “Darling,” said Merle, “stop acting as if you were the Young Giant still suckling from Grimm’s clearly bisexual hermaphrodite giant.” That stopped all conversation dead, and all went back to fried chicken. // Jeremiah Tower
Queen Alexandra English Rose (photo: vwgarden.blogspot.com)