Steven Stolman says he’ll go to the opening of an envelope, and the fact that he’s such an appreciative guest is what makes him the most gracious of hosts. In addition to setting the tone for a party by creating the perfect seating arrangement and lighting, his modus operandi is to keep the booze flowing and the conversation fascinating by channeling his many lives, past and present. Among them: designer (once called “the new Lilly” by the New York Times); former president of Scalamandré; author of books, including Confessions of a Serial Entertainer and The Serial Entertainer’s Passion for Parties; and brand strategist. In true serial fashion, he has homes in New York, Palm Beach, and Milwaukee and hosts parties in every port. Steven sees the ability to entertain and be entertained as an Auntie Mame-given right, and he’s made it his life’s work to ensure everyone feels the same. Grab a glass of great French wine, meet us by the chaise, and listen in as Steven, one of the best party hosts in America, spills his entertaining secrets.
Steven and his mother cut the cake at his second birthday party
Do you remember the first party you ever hosted?
It was my second birthday party. What I remember most was the Chilly Willy theme—it was a total tabletop extravaganza. Even then, I was aware of decor. A bit later, when my parents would go on trips and leave me in charge of my youngest sister Stacey, we would always play dinner party, complete with my mother’s Georg Jensen silver and Rosenthal china. I would cook whatever I just saw Julia Child make on TV, and we would invite friends over, raid the liquor cabinet, and eat in the formal dining room with flowers and candles…the works. Once my sister even wore my mother’s diamond brooch. Who the hell did we think we were?
What do you wish you’d learned sooner about hosting?
That one should always hire enough help in order to truly be a guest at one’s own party. It allows one to relax. There is no greater detriment to a party than an uptight host.
Steven at his wedding reception. Photo: Matt Haas
What are the must-haves for any fabulous party? And, of these, what are the most important?
Wonderful, appreciative guests who are interesting and interested. Without them, there’s no point in having a party.
On what detail do hosts tend to place too much importance?
The food. It’s not about the food…ever. And I say that as someone who clearly likes to eat.
What was the most memorable party you’ve ever attended?
The Council of Fashion Designers of America Awards Gala in 1995. Princess Diana was there, and the aura around her was extraordinary.
What hosts do you admire and why?
The amazing Broadway producer Terry Allen Kramer. She stands with her staff behind the buffet at her annual Thanksgiving dinner and personally serves all of her guests. It’s the ultimate gesture of gracious hospitality, and her sweet potato brûlée is heavenly.
Steven at his home in Milwaukee. Photo: Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
You divide your time among three different cities. How does entertaining in New York differ from Palm Beach differ from Milwaukee?
New York and Palm Beach are both rather formal and traditional towns. People dress up for cocktails and dinner parties: blazers, velvet slippers, sometimes even a tie. In Milwaukee, if I wore that kind of drag to a party, people would fall on the floor laughing. Even in the ritziest suburbs, it’s all Packers and Badgers sweatshirts, jeans, and some kind of winter shoe or boot that ultimately ends up in a gigantic pile by the front door. At seated dinners in New York and Palm Beach, people like to be told where to sit and never expect to be seated with their spouse. In Milwaukee, if you separate spouses at a dinner party, they go into an absolute panic. I have never seen such terror as the looks on (usually) the husbands’ faces. Hostess gifts just don’t seem to be all that common in New York. People send a handwritten note or flowers the next day or even a well-written email. In Palm Beach, hostess gifts are over-the-top. It’s an absolute competition in cleverness…things like pithy little notepads, embroidered cocktail napkins, and all those scented candles that end up on the re-gift shelf of the closet. In Milwaukee, people bring food. You can plan a menu with all the precision you like, but come hell or high water, someone will bring a seven-layer dip or an ambrosia salad. Then you have to put it out—and wash the dish afterward for them to take back home. But there is a sweetness to the Midwest that is palpable—a total lack of agenda, which I find to be an incredible relief. There isn’t that gnawing sense that maybe somewhere there’s a better party, a chicer crowd. People are just grateful to be invited.
What would people who are from New York and Palm Beach be surprised to learn about entertaining in the Midwest?
In New York and Palm Beach, cocktail parties last no more than two hours. In Milwaukee, they go on all night. One needs to be prepared for a marathon evening. Even if you clearly specify that it’s cocktails from six until eight, no one leaves until the booze runs out.
What are your favorite drinks to serve?
I keep to the basics. A good but modest French red and white wine, vodka, and sparkling water for those who don’t imbibe. Maybe champagne around the holidays. I detest specialty cocktails. They are all too sweet.
Steven likes to serve Pigs in Blankets on his favorite French dinnerware
What about food?
I’m very catholic in my hors d’oeuvre tastes…so it’s pigs in blankets, cheese puffs, and tea sandwiches, regardless of where I am throwing the party.
You are an expert at so many things. Has anyone ever confessed to being intimidated to host a serial entertainer?
Never. I am known to be a good host because I am also a good guest. But there are folks who are simply terrified of entertaining or, worse, feel that they just don’t need to do it. I don’t know how they live with themselves.
A spray of orchids adds drama to Steven’s cocktail party buffet
How can you make an impromptu gathering memorable when you haven’t had time to plan and prepare for it?
It’s really a matter of being well-stocked at all times. By that, I mean a full bar, wine in the fridge, and enough glasses and ice. I don’t call that being prepared. I call that just being gracious.
You must have exquisite furnishings and textiles in your home. Do you worry about them when you’re entertaining?
No. The majority of our furniture comes from thrift shops, albeit nicely reupholstered. But homes are for living, and we enjoy ours to the fullest. Nothing is precious.
How do you like to break the ice at the beginning of a party when people don’t know each other well?
A stiff drink.
If you had to choose a single flower or object that would be the only decoration for your parties ever after, what would it be?
Candles. There is nothing kinder to people than candlelight, regardless of their age. That’s party planning 101.
You have said before that you hate host/ess gifts. Why?
Because they are so unnecessary. I don’t need another scented candle or an ice scoop that looks like a monkey. Where do people get these things?
Steven and his husband Rich Wilkie. Photo: Avenue
What should men keep in mind if they want to be well-dressed at a party?
Overdress. When in doubt, wear a tuxedo. That way, if the party’s boring, you can always pitch in and serve.
What topics are off-limits for party chat?
Anything that would incite a fist fight.
What is the most common faux pas that guests make? What about hosts?
Sticking together in cliques. You need to circulate. As for hosts, not being at the door to greet your guests is pretty lame.
What do you love about parties?
Being invited, of course!
Playing Favorites with Steven Stolman
I would not even contemplate doing a party in Palm Beach without wonderful Tim Edwards. He was the majordomo for Evelyn and Leonard Lauder, so he truly understands what gracious entertaining is all about. His staff is extraordinary, and he provides all service, bar setups, and wonderful hot hors d’oeuvres. I supplement that with some of my own stuff…tea sandwiches, crudités, and maybe caviar. In New York, nothing says party like the good old Party Box Brioche. It’s a big round gorgeous bread that is sliced and turned into a bazillion little tea sandwiches and then put back together. Pure genius.
Tom Mathieu & Company in Palm Beach are the finest floral designers I have ever worked with, whether it’s a single dramatic piece for the dining table in our apartment or a full-fledged charity gala.
A few of Steven Stolman’s favorite things
I alternate between Hermès Chaîne d’Ancre, which we received as a wedding present, or Reynaud Cristobal Coral.
Again, thanks to our wedding, William Yeoward Corinne crystal.
My parents gave us their wedding silver, purchased for them by my great-grandmother in 1954. It’s Georg Jensen Acorn and we love it.
Favorite table linens?
I am one of the few people who finds ironing relaxing. It’s a ritual of entertaining that really clears my head. Simple Sferra white linen hemstitched napkins and some kind of natural placemat…raffia or water hyacinth.
A scene from the Jingle Bell Ball, a Palm Beach party on which Steven and florist Tom Mathieu collaborated
Favorite powder room soap?
Favorite powder room candle?
Mrs. Meyers Geranium. I hate the way the vessel looks, so I tuck it inside a silver filigree holder.
Favorite party flower?
For big parties, a big explosion of spray orchids in a tall glass vase or yellow or white roses for dinners. But honestly, I made a big thing of white branch coral in a silver Revere bowl and usually just use that and tall taper candles.
Photo sources: Unabashedly Prep, Steven Stolman