Privilege Blog

Three Cocktail Party Stories

Cocktail parties are generally imagined as frivolous and sparkly. We assume clinking, drinking, even plinking. But it’s not always so. Doesn’t everyone remember some events as more than a fête, decades down the road?

1. A Christmas Throng At Princeton University, With Mistletoe, Punch, And Football

1975. My sophomore year at Princeton, 3 roommates and I threw a Christmas party. We were 2 Texans, 2 Californians. Now that I think about it, probably all lonely in New Jersey, one way or another. We hung ironic mistletoe, strung white lights, made sweet alcoholic pink punch, and distributed invitations by hand. We cleaned our rooms, and waited.

Come the party date. Imagine gray stone steps, worn from actual centuries of students shuffling. Imagine goofy Christmas music. Imagine all those college boys, for Princeton was then a 5:1 ratio of male to female, given permission to kiss girls under the mistletoe if they asked politely. Imagine so many people that the party wound back down those same stone stairs, and overflowed out the wavy glass-paned window onto a tarred roof below.


Imagine the last guests, lingering, picking up pink-stained napkins, and watching Dallas play Pittsburgh, in the new understanding that we all had families and rituals back home. I am sure we looked like privileged youth, (someone wore a camel-hair polo coat, surely) and so we were, but also teenagers, and only recently children.

2. An Eggnog Event

1977.  2 years later, my parents’ divorce hit hard. I realize now of course how easy we had it – nobody was impoverished, the children were not deserted. Be that as it may, the first Christmas Eve of split households will always be remembered as the night Mom Went To A Party And We Four Kids Drove Around Palo Alto Looking For Ice Cream. There was no ice cream for sale.

When another Christmas came along, a few years later, the idea surfaced for an eggnog party. I am not exactly sure how or why. Perhaps a conspiracy of cream and sugar. Mom’s compact white house filled up with people. Meanwhile, some of us, dressed in party clothes, gathered in the kitchen and dumped cream, eggs, bourbon, rum, and whiskey into a large cut glass bowl. We laughed, we had no idea what we were doing. Someone wondered aloud about raw eggs, someone else said,”Salmonella be damned.” It was probably my Uncle Win, the jolly family reprobate.


We brought out a ridiculously large silver ladle, monogrammed, and small cut glass eggnog cups. We served from Mom’s low pine coffee table, in the living room with the two new tansu chests and linen curtains. I think she used wood curtain rings. It’s possible my memory embellishes. But the smell of grated nutmeg, that I’ve got right. And the remembered sense that things might be OK.

3. The 40th Birthday Affair, In A Suburban Backyard

I threw my first and only solo large cocktail party in 1996. I had asked my then husband to take care of arrangements, but reclaimed the reins when it seemed that nothing would get done otherwise. Not a happy turn of events, but I don’t remember showing outward signs of distress. Planning a 40th birthday usually brings you to a shelf of Over The Hill printed paper plates, and mournful all-black invitations. I refused to go there, proceeding Full Theme Ahead, to all Retro Suburban Heaven.

The party was adults only, a Mad Men soiree before the time of Joan, Don, and Peggy. I printed invitations with martini glasses on our home computer, stuck pink plastic flamingos in the lawn, and, because we could be grownups again, set up a full bar in the open French doors of the master bedroom. Complete with white-coated bartender. My friends had children, as I did, mostly aged 10-7. In other words, we were all feeling our parental oats – no teens, no toddlers. We could Go. Out. We could Talk Loudly. We could Play Music.


That year my family gave me party caterers as my present. Servers carried finger foods on trays. My family also gave me a new lawn which wouldn’t bear walking on, adding a very light edge of risk. Imagine 70 parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, servers, crowded together on a small, triangular patio. Festively teetering. Some school mothers got me a teak garden bench for contemplation. I sat down. The photo of me in a little black dress, seated, laughing, is shelved somewhere in my house. Much else has changed.

What did these parties share? Crowded spaces, a ceremonial aspect to the alcohol, and tough times recently endured. Light: strung and white; refracted from a crystal bowl; gilt in the slowed sun of September. A brief burst of family – left behind, broken, emergent.

They say in literary theory that every comedy ends with a party of some sort.

Images: Princeton Alumni Weekly Neiman Marcus Flickr by Lone Cello Theory


36 Responses

  1. Lisa, OMG, this brought tears to my eyes, I feel I was there at each event with you. How nostalgic and poignant. As we say, those were the days, my friend.
    Now, you have a new life and will create some wonderful new memories. I raise a glass of champagne to you and your husband and send my very best wishes for a fabulously happy holiday season. Thank you SO much for participating with the rest of the members who have taken the time to post something special for us today. It means so much to me. xx’s

  2. I think flamingos are spectacular, plastic or otherwise.
    I have yet to taste alcoholic egg nog, only tasted the other version last year!

  3. A wonderful post, sounding so many different notes, managing finally to land on joy and hope heightened by the faint tones of melancholy and nostalgia yet ringing evocatively in the background. . . .

  4. Hello Lisa, Events are defined by the era that produced them, so it is so nice to have these milestones in your life capped by these memorable parties. I enjoyed every captivating memory, as well as the indomitable spirit that runs through them as a theme.

  5. Well, that was one fine ride and I thank you for taking us along.

    In France there is not that “Wow, we are still here!” aspect to the Holidays and that, I miss. Because it merits celebrating.

    With my Best Wishes for a very Happy Holidays from Provence,

  6. Very lovely and interesting events – right back in time. Love the Flamingos, love your post, Lisa!
    Best wishes for an interesting and good Pre-Christmas time and
    Greetings from the Périgord,

  7. I so enjoyed reading these stories. Surprisingly, I’ve had very few straight-up cocktail parties in my now extensive adulthood. Mardi-Gras parties, football parties, BBQ parties, Victorian Caroling parties, but never the kind of swanky soirées my parents used to have, with passed hors d’oeuvres and real mixed drinks, Arthur Lyman on the stereo. Damn, I need to remedy that.

  8. Lisa, that was wonderful to share in old memories!!! I too have a changed family and this Thursday eve will be hosting my very own Festive Dinner for our book club gals. A time for new memories to be made…
    Happy Festive December and thank you for your visit to Tassels!!!


  9. What a sweet string of pink punch to pink flamingos. Happy Holidays and many fabulous parties this month for you and your family! Your eggnog event reminds me of when my daughter was 3 1/2 months old, my adoption of her was finalized, we were sleep deprived, and somehow we threw a huge cocktail party wearing sequins with baby passed around. Joy wins every time.

  10. Dear Lisa,
    What a wonderful post for our BIO subject this month ….. I felt as if I was re-living your life …..poignant yet fun memorable times. Such a different take on a Cocktail Party and not at all indulgent. I loved it. XXXX

  11. You have addressed that bitter-sweet element of Christmas with such insightful words that it is truly refreshing.

    But I hope that this Christmas will be filled with more of the sweet, and that it will be a beautiful one for you, Virginia

  12. Loved your stories and I too, tend to associate parties held or attended, with other life events. Layered memories. Beautiful and poignant.

  13. I love this so much!

    And I love parties and alcohol and parties with alcohol!

    My parents have a cocktail every night. The first time my(now)husband and I took my(now)stepson to their house, my stepson said to his dad during cocktails, “Dad, that’s your third beer!” and my mom said, gently, “Byron, we don’t count drinks in this house.”

    1. @Patsy, Kathy, I do take your point, thank you :) but there was (and is) no need for the son to worry. 3 beers in a night is probably OK – lol! Unless you’re pregnant or in third grade…………

  14. I may have to commission Kitty Kelly to do an unauthorized take on these cocktail parties. High WASPS, free-flowing booze, and no drama?!?! Oh please…!

  15. There is usually a bittersweet element to truly memorable cocktail parties (either that or terrific embarrassment) and I loved reading yours. We can forget that Christmas is a lonely time for some; your post encouraged me to make sure I include them in my gatherings.

  16. Lovely stories, and, great comments, too – which you should certainly take credit for…it’s great to hear about real, well-lived life, not the usual glazed-over stuff.

  17. Lisa..I read your post and went back and read it again, checking dates and locations. We lived parallel lives (minus Princeton) around the same time on opposite sides of the country. Divorce..same time, six kids, with me, the eldest off to college. Long story, but I think we both enjoy a cocktail over that one. College parties…the best, family affairs..always interesting and my 40th, a surprise and one of the best parites I ever attended, at least what I can remember of it. I always dreamed of throwing a cocktail bash, a Grace Kelly, Katharine Hepburn…Gary Grant kind of bash with friends from all the countries we have lived in..small little detail about getting them there. Cocktail parties hold such promise…
    Lovely post Lisa… xx

  18. The mostly sparkly party I ever threw involved eggnog. My American housemate made it. Everyone (English) was going, ‘Does it really have eggs in? And you DRINK it?’ and then trying some and feeling suddenly joyful and festive. And yet I’m still too scared to make it myself, repeating weakly ‘Does it really have eggs in? And you DRINK it?’ even though I know how delicious it is!

    I love your stories posts.

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