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The Art of the Party

David Coggins takes attendance seriously

Party IllustrationWhen you throw a party, you open your home to the scrutiny of an astute group of observers—your friends—and also perhaps representatives of an even more daunting lot—prospective friends. It’s a steep task, but a good host braces for the unexpected, and a great one welcomes i

The experienced host has a keen understanding of party dynamics and has at the ready everything from a spare umbrella to a fistful of Advil. The host keeps the lighting at a flattering level, and the introductions just as flattering, and makes it all look effortless. My father is adept at these matters but is convinced the whole enterprise will unravel if you run out of ice. “You can’t have too much,” he exhorts. “Put it in the bathtub if you have to.” It is the belief in the ice more than the ice itself that makes him a true host.

The host and hostess are the man and woman of the hour, but the guests have responsibilities too—they’re the talent, they fill the room, they mingle, they dance, they  flirt, and, hopefully, they don’t smoke clove cigarettes. They note the selection of liquors, the quality of the flowers, the balance of your guest list. They may peruse your library or even the medicine cabinet (sad but true—so hide any incriminating prescriptions). A good guest may give a toast; a bad guest may throw a punch. Self-appointed aesthetes will note your decor and hopefully approve. If they’re artists and you own their work, they’ll likely plant themselves in front of their masterpieces and try to steer the conversation around to their favorite topics.

Just as far more is expected of a host than setting out some chips or pickled herring, more is required of a guest than simply bringing a bottle of wine. The savvy host  devises a party with friends of different ages and demographics, sporting different amounts of facial hair and various heel heights. An astute guest responds in kind, ready with an anecdote, bartending and bussing assistance and, when required, air kisses, flattery and lies.

One key requirement of proper guesting: good circulation. Warm is the place in my heart for the friend who moves effortlessly around the room, engaging the striking film student and the tipsy wizened journalist. Don’t spend the whole evening in the corner talking to somebody you know intimately, like your wife or your analyst. Best to avoid your analyst entirely, lest your conversation be construed as billable.

The good guest understands that a dance party is not something to be inflicted on a room of unsuspecting revelers discussing the latest issue of the Paris Review. Do not hijack the stereo—at least until after the ouzo is served. Mr. Euan Rellie, one of the more social investment bankers in New York, says this is a rule that should be adhered to only loosely: “When they tell you to dance, dance. When they tell you not to dance, then dancing is optional.” He also reminds us that flattery should extend beyond the host or hostess: “Good guests are mildly provocative and mildly flirtatious.” Mr. Rellie is English, and it helps the allure of any room to have a few fine accents floating in the air.

Accomplished New York partygoers have strategies they’ve honed over the years. The writer George Gurley, longtime nightlife correspondent at the New York Observer, advocates what might be called social misdirection: “Find the person everyone’s ignoring and chat her up,” he says. You’re building intrigue, he explains: “Act like she’s the only person there. Ask her questions, listen, light up, make her feel good. She probably is the most interesting person there. Either way, everyone will be looking over, wondering why you’re so captivated.”

If working a room requires consideration, deciding when to arrive is even more fraught. Choosing the right time is trying to thread the social needle; it’s more art than science. Some hosts punish willful latecomers by serving a particularly desirable dish early in the evening. You never want to arrive after the caviar, smuggled in from Iran, has departed. Just as nuanced is the issue of being on hand at the bitter end. Darrell Hartman, a writer who’s reported on red carpet affairs for says: “There’s nothing inherently wrong with staying until the end. Fun things happen after-hours. Too many people leave parties too because they are obsessed with other people thinking they have many places to be.”Better not to seek greener pastures and look for the exit. The painter Duncan Hannah knows how to enjoy himself in any setting, though he finds inspiration where you might not expect it: the time-honored techniques of author Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People, 1936). “Asking questions saves time and creates sparks,” says Hannah. Mr. Carnegie also points out that you should know when a conversation is over. Perhaps that’s the ultimate advice for guests: Leave them wanting more. BG

David Coggins considers the highs and lows of party-going