Legendary Paris Dinner Parties

Scads of American memoirists have rhapsodized about their wonderful meals in Paris’s restaurants, but Janet Flanner, who for decades wrote a fortnightly “Letter from Paris” column for The New Yorker under the pen name Gênet, preferred to recall the dinner parties.

It requires a certain longevity spent in a city before invitations to dinner begin pouring in. Flanner arrived in Paris in 1922, running away from her marriage in order to create a new life with her female lover, Solita Solano, in the Left Bank neighborhood of Saint-Germain. She had a voracious appetite for the aesthetic pleasures of France, including its food. Raised in Indianapolis, Flanner discovered that “eating in France was a new body experience.” Initially she took her meals at a favorite bistro on the rue Jacob around the corner from her apartment. Run by a Frenchman from the Jura region on the border with Switzerland, Le Quatrième République always served the same meal of pâté flavored with wild thyme, a hearty stew or escallops of veal, and salad with goat cheese, washed down by a carafe of Jura’s famed pelure d’oignon wine, colored a light pink like onion skin. However, by the fall of 1925, when Flanner began writing her column for The New Yorker, she had become  a central enough figure in the expatriate Paris literary scene that dinner party opportunities arose frequently.

The first decades of the twentieth century in Paris were a golden age for dinner parties. Rather than aiming for domestic cozy affairs, hosts and hostesses conceived of their parties as great acts of theatre. “Dinner parties are still recited in Paris like legends,” Flanner gleefully related to her readers, giving the example of a fabulous feast thrown by the fashion designer Paul Poiret in 1911, a decade before her arrival in the city. Taking The Arabian Nights as his theme, Poiret set up a seventy-five foot table in his garden, where guests dressed in Orientalist designs (many by himself) dined on thousands of shrimps, three hundred lobsters, melon, goose livers, and nine hundred litres of champagne. The food was served by “black slaves” (the golden age of dinner parties was not a golden age of racial sensitivity or social awareness), while nearby “paler female slaves lay feigning sleep on an immense golden staircase erected beneath the trees.” To recreate the feeling of a traditional Arabic medina, Poiret hired rug merchants, beggars, and sweetmeat sellers to stroll among the crowd advertising their wares, while live parrots squawked  from the bushes to which they were chained alongside monkeys and cockatoos. You can hear the regret in Flanner’s tone that she didn’t have the opportunity to share in this feast. (The reclining female slaves may have especially appealed; she was a great admirer of the female form.)

Paul Poiret, Fancy Dress Costume, 1911Design by Poiret for his 1911 Arabian Nights dinner party

The American expatriates who flocked to Paris in the 1920s tried to follow the example of their reluctant hosts by orchestrating fabulous dinner parties of their own. According to Flanner, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald gave a “famous dinner party” on a houseboat anchored in the Seine that “was the only social American event that achieved a kind of historical importance almost as if it had been French.” I have not yet been able to discover more about the Scott party that Flanner had in mind, but the sources are full of accounts of a dinner party on the Seine hosted by expat golden couple Gerald and Sara Murphy, the models for Dick and Nicole Diver in Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (1934).

Perhaps the Murphys were taking a page out of the playbook of Poiret, who according to Gertrude Stein had once hosted a fabulous party for Picasso on a Seine houseboat, where he presented Picasso’s muse Fernande with a wonderful spun-glass fantasie to wear on her hat, which she later gave to Alice B. Toklas.

The Murphys held their famous Seine party in June 1923 to celebrate the premier of Igor Stravinsky’s new ballet Les Noces (The Wedding) for which the couple had helped to paint the sets. Again, Picasso was invited, along with Stravinsky, Diaghilev – the founder of Ballet Russes, and many of the other artists involved in the production, as well as the writers Jean Cocteau, Tristan Tzara, and Blaise Cendrars, and society figures like Winaretta de Polignac (Stravinsky’s patron, the heiress daughter of the inventor of the Singer sewing machine, and an open lesbian). Forgetting that the flower markets would be closed on Sunday, the day the dinner was held, Sara Murphy scooped up piles of toys from a Montparnasse bazaar to use as center pieces. During the party Picasso arranged the toys into an enormous sculpture. The guests partied till dawn, when Stravinsky performed a daring leap through a laurel wreath bearing the words “Les Noces -Hommages,” and then everybody went home.

Gerald Murphy "Cocktail" (1927)
Gerald Murphy “Cocktail” (1927)

No doubt a great deal of champagne was consumed at the party for Les Noces, as at all the Murphys’ dinner parties. A Paris dinner party was not complete without champagne. When King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Paris shortly before the outbreak of World War II, according to Flanner, they were served two magnums of champagne bearing the dates of their births. Flanner wasn’t there, but she still wrote with great appreciation about the party, where Egyptian quails were “presented heaped on silver salvers borne by four hundred costumed footmen so carefully liveried that even their white wigs had been made to order.”

At other parties to which Flanner was invited, she had an opportunity to share in the champagne. At the weekly Sunday night dinners hosted by Modern dance legend Isadora Duncan on the rue de la Pompe, guests seated on low divans “supped principally on champagne and strawberry tarts.” Isadora, Flanner wrote with both regret and respect, would spend her final thousand dollars buying champagne for friends without any regard for her next meal. Duncan’s mentor, the Illinois-born Folies-Bergère dancer Loie Fuller, was similarly generous. In the final years of her life, Flanner recalled, she gave “great confused dinners for gourmet friends at which she nibbled only fruit and cucumbers, for which she had an odd passion.” Edith Wharton, on the other hand, served excellent viands at her dinner tables, but “the wines for which she cared little” were selected by her butler and were “less choice.”

Loie Fuller at the Folies-Bergère (1893)
Loie Fuller at the Folies-Bergère (1893)

Having now spent five months residence in Paris, we were invited to our first true French dinner party last weekend. In all fairness, we have been invited over for dinner here before, but our hostess on those previous occasions is British – married to a Frenchman, but fundamentally an outsider like ourselves. She is an outsider, however, who has spent nine years living in France and consequently gave us a very important tip for our upcoming invitation: bring champagne.

We always bring decentish wine to friends’ houses when we’re invited over for dinner. During our first decade throwing dinner parties together, Tim and I lived in California, where bringing wine is de rigeur. But since our friends were always strapped for cash, like ourselves, the wine was rarely any good. Finally Tim, who has never been overly concerned about causing offense, began to instruct our friends that they had to bring something other than “two buck Chuck,” the cheap wine vinted by Charles Shaw which sold for $2.00 a bottle at Trader Joe’s in the early ’00s. When it’s our turn to be guests we abide by the same rule and buy something a little nicer than vin ordinaire. But not that much nicer, because neither of us have great palates for wine, so it’s hard to get excited about parting with the big dosh.

When you’re invited to a French family’s house for dinner, our English friend forewarned, you are expected to be generous and bring champagne and flowers, at least. They take their dinner invitations very seriously. Thus prepared we bought a nice bottle of champagne and a large lemon tart from the fancy bakery around the corner to take with us. The champagne seemed to be well received. After kisses all around (not just adults kissing other adults, and adults kissing children, also French children are expected to kiss other children), the adults drank the champagne and the kids drank champomy (sparkling fruit juice), while we snacked on grilled peppers, tapenade, and spinach squares.

Champomy - sparkling fruit juice, like champagne for kids
Champomy – sparkling fruit juice, like champagne for kids

Dinner was an ultra-traditional blanquette de veau (veal stew) made in a large enamel casserole with heaps of tarragon and leeks. After dinner came a cheese plate (Mont d’or, camembert, comté, chèvre, mimolette, and a hard cheese from Sardinia), salad, and finally the lemon tart and coffee. Would it offend North American readers if I disclosed that cigarettes were smoked at the table during appetizers and after dinner? Not by me, but by all the other adults – this is the one respect in which Tim exceeds me in acculturation.

Feeling sleepy, and thinking we should call it an early night and not impose ourselves any longer, I made our farewells only to discover that it was nearly midnight. By the Murphys’ standards, the night had barely begun. But in our quiet lives, this is surprisingly late to finish dinner. We stumbled home stuffed to the gills, or to use my favorite French idiom, gavé comme une oie (stuffed like a foie gras goose). Before we left, we promised to return the invitation, a little daunting given our small apartment. But I am sure that after a few glasses of champagne our guests will hardly notice.

Additional posts on the theme of dinner parties:

The American

The Dud Avocado

Author: Rachel Hope Cleves

Professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Author of Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014), and The Reign of Terror in America (2009). My new book about the notorious writer, Norman Douglas, will be out in October 2020. Now working on a project titled "Good Food, Bad Sex."

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