Whenever I try to explain my childhood in the bohemian 1970s on the South Fork to a new friend or someone from away, the words “interpretive modern dance” come into play. Not because I or any family member ever participated in or studied interpretive modern dance, but because every social event or art opening of any size inevitably featured a thin older woman in scarab jewelry and gypsy skirts flinging her limbs agilely to the party music like she was Martha Graham.
I found this a chuckle at the age of 8 or 9.
The adults in my life came of age in the 1950s, and while many of them had logged hours on the analyst’s couch they were, as a generation, what the kids today call “un-therapized.” They were unrepentant in their belief that any and all emotions should be given full, unfettered, free range at all times. They were artists and intellectuals, and therefore a display of artistic temperament was always appropriate. They gave themselves license to behave in ways that would get you banned from a bar today; they could all — it seems to me from a 50-year remove — have benefited from the advances of cognitive behavioral therapy.
The theatrics kept the parties spicy. I went to many, many, many social gatherings thrown by that generation of post-Expressionists, ex-beatniks, and battle-scarred civil rights campaigners, and rarely did a shindig come off without one of the adult guests mounting a histrionic display of temper or creative tragedy, or indulging in some sort of public breakdown. It was as if the display of high emotion proved their creative bona fides or something. The interpretive modern dance would devolve, with all eyes watching, into a rumpled heap of tears and Indonesian hand-dyed skirts on the lawn of Elaine Benson’s gallery, or a muscular sculptor who’d had too many Scotch and sodas and was going through his third divorce would put a fist through a wall.
I’m making the parties of the 1970s sound like no fun, but actually I loved them!
The bohemians and publishing-world denizens of midcentury were raging party animals compared to the average Hamptons adult today. Much has been lost.
There were hand-carved bangle bracelets shaped like safari animals, there were 10,000 tumblers of Beefeater Gin. There was jazz improvisation on trombone and saxophone. It was noisy. The buffet tables were heaped with dishes and platters and ashtrays. People took pots and pans out of the kitchen cupboards and banged out a rhythm section while someone played piano, and they all sang songs from their own childhood. “Fly Me to the Moon.”
Dinner parties, picnic parties, book parties, opening-night parties, holiday parties with frozen lemon mousse. Hurricane parties where several households packed into their station wagons and evacuated to one bigger house in the village, where the wind blew and the elm tree limbs bent to the ground outside in the black night beyond the rain-whipped glass.
A big part of the appeal of the 1970s house party, for a kid, was that we were ignored. The adults were the center of the action, not the children. We were like ninjas, like spies, creeping through our parents’ friends’ bedrooms, hiding under piles of coats, stealing a beer, eavesdropping on couples who’d slunk out for a private moment on the porch. It was always dark outside the windows, and hot inside the house, and we’d play games of mayhem. Climb Around the Room was a game in which your feet could not touch the floor and you moved around the party house swinging on doors (with your feet on the doorknobs) and hanging from towel racks like a monkey. Eyeglasses got broken and shins were bruised. We were feral. The boys had long hair with knots and the girls had crocheted vests or dresses made of patchwork quilts.
I can remember the first time I ever encountered cocktail franks (a.k.a., cocktail wieners), tiny little doll-size hot dogs that even then, in the 1970s, were a joke food, an ironic hors d’oeuvre served as snotty commentary on the American middle class. Oh, ha, ha! I loved the cocktail franks and stood by the chafing dish and ate many of them one night. No one was paying any attention.
And now we get to the “nowadays” section of the newspaper column in which I complain about the sad state of affairs, in the party department, These Days.
Where has all the fun gone?
The addiction to Instagram is, obviously, pernicious. Have you seen the advertisements for the companies that bring plush, ottoman-size cushions, tiki torches, Bedouin tenting, and straw carpet-mats to the beach — a Hollywood production, the full props department — for the customer so the customer’s photos of the catered beach cookout look glamorous on Instagram? I’m fairly sure no one is having much fun at those cookouts. Parties are better when it’s badly lighted, chaotic, and no one can quite see what’s going on. Constant documentation is the enemy of a successful party.
I keep saying I’m going to throw an old-fashioned house party, like we used to do, but I haven’t kept my word, and this is, specifically, because I don’t want to have to clean up the morning after.
Who was emptying the ashtrays (a slush of ash and spilled sangria), hoovering up shards of martini glass, and digging the squashed blinis out of the antique kilim rug the morning after the hurricane parties and the opening nights 50 years ago? Barefoot poets with dirty feet left footprints, all five toes, like cavemen, on the white-cotton duck of the hosts’ couches.
The obvious answer here is that it was the women, the moms, who had to do the cleaning up after all these endless parties because . . . patriarchy. And I’m sure that most of the domestic effort did fall on the women’s shoulders. The men, the artists, the writers, the Important Ones, would serve up some special dish of food — their famous flaming Bananas Foster — to applause, but they weren’t scrubbing the red-wine stain out of the tablecloth with rock salt.
But it’s also true that 50 years ago the economy was such, and the class structure was such, that most families we knew had full-time “housekeepers,” who worked five or six days a week cleaning the houses of the moderately successful painters and the novelists who’d had a book make the New York Times best-seller list a decade before but were now working in advertising.
The housekeepers would cook beef-and-green-pepper stir-fry dinners for the children of bohemia and publishing, and they surely assisted in returning the house to rights on Saturday morning, when mom and dad, hung over, were sleeping in, and the kids had slipped out the front door, in the morning dew, mounted their 10-speeds, and ridden alone to Georgica Beach for a breakfast Creamsicle from the ice cream truck.