Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The parties I wish I'd gatecrashed

The Great Gatsby, Warner Bros (Picture:

The festive party season is officially in full swing. The concept of throwing a party is as old as time itself, bringing together potent combinations of friends, acquaintances, rivals and strangers for the sole purpose of pleasure and amusement, often with explosive results. 

That's why The Party often sets the scene for pivotal moments in history, literature, movies and of course every single episode of Gossip Girl, not to mention real life. Just imagine how many friendships and relationships have begun or ended at an office Christmas party or a wedding...

What makes (or breaks) a party?

The truly legendary parties are more than a sum of their parts; the guests, music, free drinks and frisson will only get you so far. The only thing really necessary for a good party is a good mood - check your inhibitions at the door together with your coat, otherwise a party will almost certainly fall flat.

Case in point: Truman Capote's famously lavish Black and White Masked Ball of 1966 brought together all of Hollywood, royalty, fashion, politics and the art world, and is nostalgically referred to as the Party of the Century. But how much fun did the herds of A-list guests really have? Was the Majarajah of Jaipur dancing on the tables with Sammy Davis Jnr.? Did Tennessee Williams watch the sunrise with Mia Farrow and Andy Warhol?

Er, apparently not. Despite its now mythical status, the actual gossip from that night seems to be fairly thin on the ground. There were no tales of dramatic showdowns, drunken debauchery or uninvited guests. The mood is said to have been bitchy and self-conscious, and despite Capote's loud protestations, Frank Sinatra and his cronies slipped out early in favour of a nearby bar - effectively shutting down the party.

Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow at the Black and White Ball, Plaza Hotel, New York, 1966

Likewise, Gatsby's flashy New York parties of the roaring twenties may have been beautiful, but would they have been any fun? I'm not saying I'd have turned down a coveted invitation from the enigmatic Jay Gatsby, but behind his decadent garden parties, where "men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars”, there was... nothing much. Women who didn't know each other's names chattered away falsely over cocktails, husbands flirted around while their wives hissed in their ears, and all the while, Gatsby kept himself isolated from the action, barely recognised by his own guests.

But sometimes, for whatever reason, all the elements just come together to form the Perfect Storm of Parties, creating something that will be talked about for years. Here's what went down at the parties I wish I'd crashed... 

The Mad Hatters Tea Party

Alice in Wonderland (2010),Walt Disney/Tim Burton

Where else but Wonderland could you find yourself at a trippy tea party with a Mad Hatter, a March Hare and a Dormouse? Well, quite a few places dotted around London these days - including the Sanderson Hotel which runs a signature Mad Hatters Afternoon Tea, complete with 'Eat Me' labels, lollipops that turn your mouth from hot to cold, and multicoloured sandwiches. However the original literary version remains the most random and brilliant, inverting the traditional social convention of 'taking tea' into something curiously psychedelic.

The Great Cheese Party of 1837

In 1837, the President of the USA took out a newspaper advert inviting members of the public to come to the White House and share his 1,400 pound wheel of cheddar. The result was a feeding frenzy.

A year previously, a New York farmer had presented President Jackson with the giant cheese, which weighed the equivalent of 10 x Barack Obamas (probably). Jackson let the cheese age for more than a year in the White House, before holding the Great Cheese Party just before he left office. It was said you could smell cheese from half a mile in every direction from the White House; quite the legacy for his successor.

Ten thousand people swarmed to the White House for a slice of the action. Two hours later, all that remained of the cheese were the crumbs that had been ground into the carpet and smeared on the silk curtains. 

Why Cheese Day hasn't turned into an annual American holiday is beyond me. Sounds like a brie-lliant excuse for a party! (sorry).

The Hangover

The Hangover (2009), Warner Bros

When an evening begins with the ominous toast: "To a night we'll never forget," you're just asking for trouble. But luckily for Bradley Cooper et al, it turns out that pulling out your own tooth and stealing a tiger from Mike Tyson can actually have a life affirming effect on your friendships and relationships.  

Every group has it's own 'Alan'. If you think yours doesn't, it's probably you. But don't worry; the ultimate loose canon Alan was the reason that this particular Vegas stag do has come to define a generation and is now the yardstick by which we measure the epicness of all parties - despite none of us actually witnessing it. The less you remember of a party, and the more random props/animals that turn up the morning after, the more successful it surely was.

Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens

Image from

Its hard to believe that ugly SE11 was once home to the most famous and hedonistic pleasure gardens ever seen in this country, as described in Thackeray's Vanity Fair. 

Every weekend, 18th century socialites, peasants and celebrity courtesans alike were able to pay the small entry fee into Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, a grown-up playground of delights which hosted masquerades, circus performers, fireworks and even hot air balloon launches. 

The main promenades were lit by thousands of oil lamps, but it was most notorious for the dark and plentiful nooks and crannies in the shrubbery, where all manner of naughtiness ensued.

The gardens lost their sparkle in the mid 19th century when they became known for crime, prostitution and seediness and eventually were forced to close. These days, all that remains of the gardens is a sad and unremarkable little park in built-up Vauxhall; a hangover from its glorious heyday.

Netherfield Ball, Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen's Regency Balls, despite the formalities, were surprisingly sexually charged; a ball would have been the only place a man and a woman could make physical contact in public, not to mention the fact that eligible men were tasked to dance with as many women as they possibly could. Romantic sparks must have been flying around the room left right and centre.

And Jane Austen doesn't disappoint at Netherfield Ball in Pride and Prejudice. The highlight of the evening came after Elizabeth had been cornered by the repellent Mr Collins for the first two dances, only to be dumbfounded when sulky Mr Darcy, who had rejected her at the Meryton Ball, asks her for the next dance. 

The visible spark between the pair gave fellow guests plenty to 'OMG' about the next day and has done wonders for men everywhere who, like Darcy, aren't quite the life and soul of the party. Instead of being written off as party poopers, they have been rebranded as the mysterious heroes, quietly smouldering in the corner and rescuing you from dancing with creepy men.

'Parents are out of town' teen parties

10 Things I Hate About You (1999), Touchstone Pictures

Finally, how could I write about parties without mentioning the keg-fuelled teen blow-outs that define all American coming-of-age movies? 

In my school, these orgies of destruction were practically forced upon all those foolish enough to let slip that their parents were out of town; it was your time, nay, your duty to step up to the mark and take one for the team. 

In my eyes, the archtype of a teen house party is Bogey Lowenstein's party in 10 Things I Hate About You, where the entire school crashes a geek's cheese and wine evening and turns it into the crazy party of the year - but in hindsight our Sixth Form equivalent was probably something closer to an episode of the Inbetweeners. The Last of our House Parties resulted in a cake sale in the common room to fund the damage to the house - Mum stopped going away so much after that, and the party, it seemed, was officially over.

Merry Christmas!

Thanks for reading and good luck surviving the party season! After all, there aint no party like a Christmas party. If I've missed one of your favourite all-time fictional or historical parties, please add your comments below.