The Seven New Rules for the Proper Boston Host

Suzy Socialite, I’m not. But in my years writing about the way this city lives, I’ve certainly done my time on the party circuit. Beacon Hill rooftop bashes, Nantucket croquet matches, South End boutique openings—if you could swill a highball at it, chances are I was there. And until recently, I thought I’d seen every kind of revelry this town had to offer.

Suzy Socialite, I’m not. But in my years writing about the way this city lives, I’ve certainly done my time on the party circuit. Beacon Hill rooftop bashes, Nantucket croquet matches, South End boutique openings, campaign celebrations, black-tie benefits for these-or-those children—if you could swill a highball at it, chances are I was there, taking notes on the sidelines and (depending on the highball count) pulling the occasional mildly humiliating move on the dance floor. And until recently, I thought I’d seen every kind of revelry this town had to offer.

Historically, Boston has played the cool nerd to the rest of our country’s in-crowd cities. Sure, we’ve had our cutting-edge moments (the Revolution, the Pixies, gay marriage), but that damn Puritanical strain has long had the same effect on our celebratory instincts as it has on our wardrobes and the closing times of our bars, leaving our upper-crust private parties with all the panache of a grade school cafeteria. “I remember growing up in the Back Bay,” says bon vivant and formidable host Lisa Pierpont, “and regularly being served Ritz crackers in six-story mansions.” Well, no longer. Today those Ritz crackers had better be pieces of brioche toast bearing seared foie gras, served on platters specially decorated to tie into the night’s outlandish theme—or the next time the host sends out an invite, she’ll find herself entertaining a half-empty room. Big money and old-fashioned rivalry have pushed the city’s party-givers into a kind of social brinkmanship—one governed by a new set of rules.

RULE 1: Special occasions are passé. “Just because” is excuse enough. Last winter the owners of a renovated manse in Topsfield held what from the driveway looked like any other suburban soiree. It was only after you got inside, past the positively Dickensian snow-covered front steps and the strings of white lights that twinkled tastefully from the home’s distinctive arches, that the exhaustively planned pomp became apparent. As apron-clad caterers scurried about with the single-minded tenacity of carpenter ants, 200-plus designer-dressed guests armed with icing guns and top-shelf cocktails hovered around oversize gingerbread houses laid out beneath sparkling chandeliers. The 10 structures—so large a temporary insulated wing was needed to accommodate them—had been shipped to Boston by the very Manhattan firm that redesigned the house they sat in. The guests had been invited to decorate the gingerbread structures, which would be donated to Children’s Hospital, and they were being judged on their efforts. Celebrity chef Barbara Lynch was doing the scoring.

“I was just in the kitchen, taking a break,” remembers one guest, “and in walks this woman covered in icing. She looks at Barbara and says, ‘Do you have a blowtorch?’” The woman’s group, it seemed, wanted to melt a pile of marshmallow goop onto the chimney of their house, in an attempt to simulate billowing smoke. “And Barbara actually had one. Everybody just stood there dumbfounded as this woman marched off with it.”

Between jovial sessions of torching and piping buttercream onto sugary edifices (under the guidance of imported French pastry chef Jean-Louis Lagalle), guests tossed off their aprons—custom silkscreened with the event’s insignia—and lolled at candle-lit leather banquettes, nibbling on truffled popcorn and seared squab and washing it all down with splashes from a sculpted-ice vodka bar. But none of these details ever made the gossip columns the next morning, and, aside from the donations of gingerbread, the event served no charitable purpose.

This wasn’t a party thrown by or for socialites. In fact, though labeled a housewarming, it was in reality a party thrown for its own sake—a lavish event put on to spin in its own momentary swirl of social weight and weightlessness, unquestionably to show off a bit, and to celebrate, ultimately, itself. And despite the extravagance and detailed production that went into it, a night of this magnitude is hardly an anomaly these days. Astronomical cost notwithstanding, similarly opulent Boston bashes are becoming as commonplace as skinny jeans on Newbury Street, and at a level of exorbitance once reserved only for weddings.

Even jaded partygoers are floored by the explosion. “I’ve just never seen so many fantastical parties hit this town,” says Pierpont. “What’s next, Paris Hilton at the Heart Ball?” Actually, that’d be a step down: Last May the annual fundraiser for the American Heart Association featured a keynote address by Bill Clinton.

RULE 2: It may be unfair, but your private bash will be compared with charity balls and office blowouts. Plan accordingly. “People are so much more savvy about entertaining,” says party planner Jennifer Hawkins, who with partner Trintje Van Winkle produces everything from private soirees to MSPCA fashion shows. “Parties are so complex these days, we literally create blueprints.” (Blueprints? Seriously? Why not demographic pie charts, or dress rehearsals staffed by hired extras?) Interestingly, it’s the city’s increasingly extravagant charity events, not to mention über-glam boutique openings and lavish corporate parties, that are ramping up the expectations for private affairs.

At the biannual Moondance benefit for the Esplanade in September, the dress code was “diamonds and denim.” Bling was in abundance (female attendee in fuchsia crêpe de Chine, fingering her diamond and platinum choker: “Yes, they are real…”), and the crowd dropped some $260,000 on auction items like a lunch date with Walter Cronkite, marathon training with Uta Pippig, and a meet-and-greet with James Taylor. Community Servings’ LifeSavor event keeps getting more grand—this year it involved 85 different intimate dinners held in high-end restaurants and luxury homes, plus a fancy dessert bar–cum–after-party at Julien—and the annual Storybook Ball, a fundraiser distinguished by its fairy-tale décor, just netted an unprecedented $2.8 million for the Mass General Hospital for Children.

Since 9/11, corporate entertaining has been on a similar trajectory. “CEOs and executives decided to entertain privately in their homes,” says Holly Safford, owner of the Catered Affair. “So suddenly, the wines they were ordering were better, the caviar was top-notch, and the champagnes went up in price.”

We’ll delve into the unavoidable money question a bit later on. But suffice it to say that all this profligacy can be tough for the private host to compete with—especially when you consider that charity events often see their costs cut in half thanks to sponsorships and in-kind donations (Winston Flowers, for instance, has been known to donate thousands in florals to aid certain causes). “You look at what it looks like they spent, versus what they actually spent, and there’s a big difference,” says publicist and regular partygoer Wendy Goldstein Pierce. “Even so, people take the perception of extravagance home with them, and it ups the ante for their next house party.”

“One person hosts an over-the-top party, and people suddenly realize this is what their parties could be like,” adds Marion Kassler, who throws anywhere between 15 to 20 parties every year for the Greater Boston Food Bank. “They realize this is the kind of high style they’re looking for, and they try and outdo each other.” Publicist Chris Haynes of CBH Communications, a regular on the private entertaining circuit, puts the dynamic in starker terms: “The expectations are sky-high. If you don’t do one party right, people won’t be coming to your next. You’re only as good as your last party.”

RULE 3: Etiquette, schmetiquette. Bring out the wheel o’ shots! “Ten years ago, what used to be very important, but is almost ignored now, was etiquette,” says the Catered Affair’s Safford. “Now it’s far more about impressing guests with over-the-top menus and providing them with anything their heart could desire.” To be sure, the most buzzed-about parties are no longer about proper attire or proper presentation. Or proper anything.

The greater the anticipated hedonism, the more guests will trip over themselves—and through any kind of weather—to get to a fete. One frigid night in January, the snowdrifts were four feet deep and counting, but anyone who’d been lucky enough to make the guest list of venture capitalist Ofer Nemirovsky’s birthday bash had better things to worry about: namely, doing whatever necessary—doubling up on babysitters, sharing cabs—to get themselves to the South End’s Villa Victoria, where the B-52’s were preparing to take the stage. And get there they did, by the hundreds. Sporting beehive hairdos, platforms and bell-bottoms, vintage Pucci and black sequined shirts, white eye shadow and foot-high Afros, they marched past the lighting and sound trucks parked outside and through an entrance teeming with security. Inside, caterers served sippy-cup margaritas and lobster rolls on trays lined with Fritos. Images of neon go-go dancers bounced off the walls as real live showgirls performed a ditty for the birthday boy.

Somewhere after midnight, after Fred Schneider had sung “Happy Birthday” and silver Mylar confetti had been shot from cannons on the second-floor balcony, a cluster of rowdy male revelers made their way from the “bar”—a giant shot-selecting wheel that guests aptly named the Wheel of Misfortune—over to several large inflated plastic sheep, which (for reasons never entirely clear) were part of the décor. The men then deflated the unsuspecting livestock, donning their remains as costumes for the rest of the night. Their guys-gone-wild buffoonery, which would have been vulgar elsewhere, seemed almost appropriate for—almost a tribute to—the tenor of such an outrageous party. Here were grown men acting like frat boys, and guests were eating it up as just an unexpected, but not unwelcome, encore to the evening’s entertainment.

RULE 4: Yes, it is going to cost you. Ah, money: the elephant in the ballroom that no one, or at least no one in Boston, wants to discuss. “I never hear people throwing out numbers,” Pierpont says, “but they’re definitely much higher than they used to be.” Party professionals are equally mum, though off the record they’ll tell you that $500 per head is the new norm for private events, with $150 the bare minimum. Planners and caterers estimate that even for small, 20-person soirees, hosts are signing off on budgets of at least $10,000.

Some very upscale firms (none of which will publicly admit it) won’t take parties for less than $100,000. “You’ve got to be willing to drop some coin if you want people to remember it,” says Haynes. “It’s amazing,” adds another planner, “but right now, $30,000 for 100 people won’t get you a huge event.”

RULE 5: It’s not a party if there are no wigs involved. Besides the cash, what does make a party memorable? It’s all about originality and relaying a sense of intimacy—even if you’ve packed your pad with 500 guests, says Alexis Contant, vice president of the Boston Design Center. “In New York, my clients were Vanity Fair, InStyle, Carolina Herrera, and Apple,” recalls the former marketing VP. “Throwing parties for people like that, I learned early on that you have to capture a guest’s attention very quickly.”

Sometimes that means the Fritos at Nemirovsky’s bash (one of his favorite snacks, naturally) or the custom silkscreened aprons at the gingerbread party. Occasionally, it means much more. “I’ll never forget a 40th-birthday party I catered on the North Shore this year,” Safford says. “It was thrown by a husband for his redheaded wife. The invites had a cute redhead logo and were titled ‘Party Like a Redhead.’” When guests arrived, they were handed red wigs—from pageboys to flips—and orange sugar-rimmed cosmos. The home was decked out with orange lava lamps, and the glassware had been custom-painted with the party’s emblem. “We did a buffet of retro comfort food that included the wife’s favorite dishes,” Safford says. “There were 75 guests, but people left feeling like they’d been let into a very special, personal celebration.”

RULE 6: If it’s a party for kids, pin the tail on the donkey ain’t gonna cut it. Lora Khederian spent six months planning her daughter’s high school graduation party—a seemingly reasonable lead time, considering the production values involved. Rich parents have always splurged on their kids’ bar and bat mitzvahs and sweet sixteens, of course. But thanks to a trickle-down effect from ostentatious grown-up parties (and also maybe because those who host the kiddie set can’t use booze to set the mood), it takes some doing to truly wow an underage crowd.

For her daughter’s shindig, Khederian put up four colossal tents behind her Wellesley home. In one, acid green and plum silk swags hung above casino tables jammed with teens playing Texas hold ’em; in another, a troupe of belly dancers shimmied to piped-in ethnic tunes. A 17-year-old’s jaw dropped as she laid eyes on the mini Casbah in yet another tent, where translucent burnt-orange curtains and red Oriental carpets flanked 10-foot-tall palm trees. “Oh my God,” she said, dropping next to a custom-built copper and leather table. “I can’t even believe all this.” In front of her, kids were lined up at an oxygen bar, taking flavor-infused hits of air and swilling mocktails out of fuchsia mojito glasses. The entire senior class of Noble and Greenough, plus a handful of lucky chaperones, turned out for the occasion.

“Graduation is such an emotional thing for kids, so we asked our daughter
and her friends what they wanted,” says Khederian. (What Khederian herself wanted was “to outdo all parties. And in the process, we essentially created another universe,” according to Marc Hall, creative director of events for Winston Flowers, who helped plan the blowout.) “One wanted a toga party, another suggested a pool party. But then someone threw out the idea of a Middle Eastern nightclub theme—it was perfect. Our goal was to make all the kids feel welcome and proud of what they’d just done. Not everyone gets to go to the prom, or gets to go to Harvard. But everyone got to come to this party.”

RULE 7: There is such a thing as too much of a good time. (Well, almost.) No one wants to be a party pooper. But amid all the exhibitionism, you have to wonder: Are our priorities getting out of whack? Are we swapping Brahmin reserve for soul-rotting shallowness? They’ve got wild parties in Miami and L.A., too. But no self-respecting Bostonian would want to live in those places.

“There’s definitely more pressure around parties now,” lamented a tiaraed guest at the Moondance ball, over the din of auction bidders. “You’ve got to be creative in throwing them, and even in what you wear when you’re just showing up.” (Later she would lean toward me, cast a glance at a tableau of thirtysomethings strung with ostrich bags and black denim gloves hovering near a group of old-money Beacon Hill types sitting demurely with napkins folded in laps, and whisper, “You can tell the old guard from the new right away. They fall into two camps: those who get their teeth whitened, and those who don’t.”) At least for now, though, Ms. Tiara is willing to accept the tradeoffs that come with our evolving social mores.

“It’s exciting,” said my new acquaintance, brightening. “It used to be the same people at the same parties, saying the same things. Now you go out, and you don’t know what to expect.”