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What We Can Learn (Even Today) From a 60-Year-Old Book on Entertaining

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I have long been an admirer of the fearless and utterly unpredictable style that legendary interior decorator Dorothy Draper infused in every space she designed. No one before or since seems to have had the ability to combine bright, contrasting colors, bold stripes and patterns, and oversized architectural details (frequently all within the same room) the way she did.

I recently found myself wanting to know more about the nuances of who Dorothy was as a person and, in the spirit of research, I picked up a copy of Ms. Draper’s 1941 book Entertaining is Fun: How to be a Popular Hostess. I assumed it would be quick read that would serve as a looking glass into the quaint home-lives of mid-century Americana. Upon reading, however, I quickly discovered that this book is about far more than how to throw a successful party.

Draper's bold, signature black and white marble floor at the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan
Draper's bold, signature black and white marble floor at the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan Photo by The Carlyle

What Ms. Draper is really trying to tell her audience through this book is how to be the leading lady (or man) of your own life—it’s about escaping the natural tendency we all have to get stuck in the rut of our everyday existence. Draper refers to it as the “Will To Be Dreary,” the voice inside you that says “I could see if anyone would be interested in getting happy hour drinks tonight, but binge watching Fixer Upper sounds like less trouble.”

The will to be dreary's pull is strong, but if you know its there, entertaining friends and family can combat it like nothing else. Ms. Draper knows that, like a balanced diet and regular trips to the doctor, entertaining is good for you. “This is a book on making living fun,” she writes, “On having your friends to the house, and on how to give them a good time. And, incidentally, on how to give yourself a very good time as well.”

The foundational point of all Ms. Draper’s entertaining advice is to stop making excuses for why you don’t entertain. She begins by listing all the things you don’t need in order to invite a few friends over to your house.

You don’t need pyrotechnics… Not that we’re opposed.

What you don't need to entertain, according to Draper:

  • A lot of money
  • A big house
  • A well-trained staff
  • Expensive, elaborate food
  • Professional entertainers
  • A luxurious setting

While reading this, a flood of excuses I’ve told myself for not having people over immediately came to mind: It’s hard to find parking around my apartment, my roommate and I don’t share the same friend group, there’s not a specific reason to have a party, i.e. a holiday or birthday. The list goes on and on.

Ms. Draper urges readers to call these excuses what they really are: alibis. All of my concerns about having people over could have been easily ameliorated. People can take Uber. My roommate and I could join forces and mix friend groups. And really, who needs a reason to have a party? National Margarita Day, anyone? Flag Day is coming up.

Of course, there are ways to guarantee that your dinner party is a success. None of them, however, cost a great deal of money.

Dorothy's do list for hosting:

The added charm of twinkle lights at a party cannot be overstated.
The added charm of twinkle lights at a party cannot be overstated.
  • A hostess who expects to have a good time. “Stop thinking about what is or isn’t correct,” Ms. Draper writes, “Instead, think about you yourself… Plan your party so that you will have a good time and your guests will have the time of their lives.
  • Some clever touches which give your home a party feeling. (This can be as easy as a quick trip to the dollar store for string lights.)
  • Friendly guests who come prepared to enjoy themselves.
  • Delicious food, appealingly presented.
  • Some element of unexpectedness, which can be as simple as a snack no one has tried before.

The purpose of all these "do's" is to create a sense of excitement and provide an easy conversation starter. In the age of the internet, today’s unexpected party element is tomorrow’s cliché—but that’s just part of the challenge. Any wedding guest today has participated in more photo-booths drowning in props than they can count, but has anyone seen a GIF booth? Thinking of something new and different gives guests something specific to remember your party by.

Binge watching the Leftovers while eating all the leftovers😛

A photo posted by Katy Stanchak (@katysavestheday) on

A package of mini-Eggos and chicken nuggets can give party-goers a Chicken ‘n Waffles appetizer they likely haven’t seen before.

Entertaining is Fun: How to be a Popular Hostess is rife with more practical tips on entertaining as well: Make sure all guests have somewhere to put their drinks. Provide a mirror at your entryway for one last look before entering the party. The front door should be well-lit.

All of these tid-bits are secondary, however, to the fundamental do's and don'ts listed above. And let’s be clear, she doesn't imply that the word entertaining refers only to a large group of people or a certain level of difficulty in preparations. She's talking about the rewarding act of inviting people into your life. As she says, “All that you have to do is to open your front door (and incidentally your heart.)”

What are your go-to, easy-to-prep treats to serve at a dinner party? Drop your favorite recipes in the comments.

Tags: hosting, entertaining