Few names are as synonymous with “hostess” as Carolyne Roehm. A classic beauty who reigned at the top of 1980s New York society, Roehm has since gained renown as one of America’s most esteemed tastemakers, the author of a dozen coffee-table books about style and entertaining, and a gifted designer of everything from glamorous clothing to chic table linens. A member of the Salonniere 100, Roehm—who splits her time among homes in Manhattan; Sharon, Connecticut; and Charleston, South Carolina—has hosted unforgettable fêtes for members of the cognoscenti ranging from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to Downton Abbey and Gosford Park creator Julian Fellowes. Kick off your Manolo Blahnik “Carolyne” sling-backs, an iconic style named for Roehm, curl up on the settee, and listen in as one of the nation’s most gracious and gifted hostesses shares the secrets to her entertaining style.
How would you describe your approach to entertaining?
I’m a designer, so I’m very visual when it comes to entertaining. Designing a dinner party is like creating a stage set: the flowers, how I set the table, and the food are the scenery, and the guests are the actors on stage. I always want to create something special so people pay attention. I love the process even more than the party—all I want is for the guests to come and experience it, and I’d be happy staying in bed, watching TV, and eating a potato.
You’ve thrown so many parties. Are there any that stand out as your favorites?
One comes to mind because it was so much fun—it was based on peonies. I filled a long table with bowl-after-bowl of gorgeous peonies. I’ve also given a lot of Halloween parties that I’ve really loved because I put so much thought into them. I need to do one in Charleston. And there were the square dance parties I did at my country home in New York during the heyday of the ’80s. Those were really fun. Barbara Walters, Henry and Nancy Kissinger, Brook Astor, and the de la Rentas were all there, and everyone would really loosen up because no one knew how to square dance. It broke down all the barriers. I remember Henry Kissinger saying, “What is this square dance? I don’t understand.” And then he and Nancy would go out on the dance floor and have the best time. When his son got married, they did a square dance.
How and where are you entertaining most often these days?
I’m doing more at home in Charleston—mostly smaller dinner parties—because it’s a newer residence for me, and I want to get to know people. And I’m more inspired there because it’s a fresh palette. I do very little entertaining in New York City these days, although I do need to have a ladies’ lunch there.
How do you come up with your guest list?
I actually don’t think about it too much. I’ll just think, I’ll invite this person because he’s a friend of so-and-so, and this one because I owe her a dinner. When doing the seating, I do try to balance the energy level at the table. If someone’s shy, I’ll put him or her next to a talker.
Who would you most like to host at a dinner party?
I love history and would have loved to have met George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abe Lincoln. Shakespeare and Catherine the Great would have been wonderful guests, too. I really enjoy the company of creative people—other designers, writers, and fine artists. I’m not interested in talking to some billionaire unless he’s doing something really interesting. I also love to be around funny people. I love people who can make me laugh.
How important are themes to your parties?
I always have a theme. It could be based on a holiday, what flowers are in bloom, the season, or what’s really good in the food market. For example, in July and August in Connecticut, I’ll feature corn in whatever I do. I can actually go overboard at times. I’m always thinking about how fun it would be to do a party based on this or that.
Why do you love to entertain? Why are parties important?
Parties are an antidote to stressful times. Life is not easy—there’s a lot of noise out there now that we didn’t have to deal with years ago, including constant “breaking news,” the Internet, and social media, which have added an entirely new level of stress to society. It’s so important to have parties to have fun and forget about all that—difficult times are when we need to come together, to share what we have, and remain tight. They also play an important role in fundraising. In fact, in the ’80s, they were all about fundraising—people seldom went to private parties in those days.
Do you have any party pet peeves?
I have one HUGE one, and it’s gotten worse and worse: people who don’t respond to an invitation or who cancel at the 11th hour because the BBD—the bigger, better deal—came along, or they don’t want to make an effort. It’s SO RUDE! People are just so lackadaisical these days about replying. It just really dampens the appetite for entertaining, especially since it’s already hard to get a good group of people together because everyone is so busy.
Roehm with her mentor Oscar de la Renta in 1984
Who inspired your love of entertaining?
My grandmother—she was very talented visually, decorated beautifully, and always set a pretty table. She owned a gift shop, and I would go to the home-products market with her every year when I was a young girl. She gave me a blue-willow tea set when I was a girl that really inspired me, and my love of peonies comes from being in her garden. Oscar de la Renta was also a wonderful mentor, and I learned a lot about table settings from Bill Blass.
You have the most divine and extensive collection of dinnerware. How many sets do you own? And how do you shop for them?
I am to plates what Imelda Marcos is to shoes! When I shop for tabletop pieces, it’s very intuitive. I connect things visually all the time. For example, I was in an antiques shop recently, and I saw some pretty plates that reminded me of a certain tulip I grow, so I bought the plates.
What inspires your tabletop designs?
I love the Dutch flower-and-fruit paintings of the 17th century and am fortunate to own a few by Jan van Os. I’m very inspired by them, although I might occasionally put a little butterfly in here or there. I find buying postcards at museum stores to be a helpful source of inspiration, too.
Your tables are always so beautifully layered. Do you put a great deal of time into all the dinner parties you plan?
My partner Simon (retired businessman Simon Penniger) will say, “Carolyne, it’s just some kids coming over for spaghetti!” And I’ll say, “It’s been 16 years, and you still don’t get it! I don’t care if it’s the president of the United States or a group of teenagers. I have a certain look, and people have certain expectations when they come to my house, so I am always going to give it my all. It gives me great pleasure to give people the memory of a special evening.
You have such a wonderful sense of color. Are there any color combinations that you’re particularly drawn to right now? Do you like Pantone’s Color of the Year?
I have always had a great color sense—color combinations come easily to me. But following trends is not my strong suit—I don’t even know what the Pantone Color of the Year is! I love blue and white—it’s always in style and goes with everything. A friend once said that my headstone would say, “Here lies someone who worked really hard.” I said, “No, it’ll say, ‘Here lies someone who moved furniture and loved color.’”
I know you have a new book coming out this fall. Tell us about that.
Yes, this book will be my 13th, lucky 13. It will be out in October, and it will be very different and very personal. I’ve never really talked about the time I spent in the fashion business. When I made the choice to shut down my fashion-design business, my life fell apart. It was a very painful time. My new book will look at my entire life in design, from designing clothes, homes, and tablescapes to products. There’s a certain constant thread that you’ll see—things that I’ve loved since I was five years old, like red-blaze roses, polka dots, blue-and-white Chinese porcelain, stripes, graphic things, and peonies with pink and magenta in them.
Playing Favorites with Carolyne Roehm
Let’s play favorites. What’s your favorite party wine?
I love Casal Garcia Vinho Verde—I’ve been serving it for years. It’s inexpensive and delicious. It’s young and fresh and a little effervescent, so it’s great for summer, and the alcohol content is a little lower (9%, which is less than a beer).
I love Mottahedeh and old patterns like Blue Canton. I also like Aptware from Apt in France.
I love glasses from NasonMoretti because they come in beautiful colors. I’m also a fan of Baccarat’s Provence collection; it’s such a classic design. Williams Sonoma also has great glassware at a great price. That’s actually one of the great benefits of the time we live in—there’s so much affordable stuff out there that’s great-looking.
Oscar de la Renta has beautiful flatware, and I like CB2 flatware for hors d’oeuvres.
Favorite table linens?
I’ve just started designing my own placemats and napkins, so I love to use those. I also love E. Braun.
Favorite powder room candle?
I love Rigaud, Cire Trudon, and Manuel Canovas Empire Celeste, but they are very expensive. Capri Blue candles, which I discovered in Charleston, are wonderful and just $22 or so a candle.
Favorite powder room soap?
I tend to buy small ones that I find when I’m traveling. I love Ortigia soaps from Sicily. They’re very pretty. I also like Penhaligon’s Lily of the Valley soaps.
Photos via Carolyne Roehm
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