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The Dish On Dinner

What’s the secret to a perfect dinner party? (Rule No. 1: Don’t invite Phil Spector.) It’s all about the seating. Power hosts reveal to Deborah Schoeneman and Sarah Bernard their recipes for success—and disaster.


Venue: Her Upper East Side co-op
Typical guests: Media mogul Mort Zuckerman, actress Marisa Berenson, artist Robert Wilson, designer Nicole Miller, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, vintage obsessive Tiffany Dubin, designer Douglas Hannant
Menu: Rare-tuna Oriental salad, chicken curry, banana-chocolate-chip bread pudding (catered by Robbins Wolfe)

It’s Tuesday night, and Daily News publisher Mort Zuckerman is on his knees, mopping up Marisa Berenson’s spilled drink. She’s sitting next to burning incense, piles of orange spices, and candles in the apartment formerly owned by both Valentino and George Gershwin. “It’s Wasp Indian,” says socialite Debbie Bancroft, the current inhabitant, who bought the decorations in Little India with her florist, Matthew David. Bancroft certainly knows her Wasp. Her husband belongs to the Woodward family, immortalized in a thinly veiled Dominick Dunne novel, The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, about a showgirl who shoots her wealthy Manhattan husband.

Bancroft looks calm, given that publisher Judith Regan, who only hours ago had threatened to arrive with Howard Stern and Roseanne Barr in tow, has just called to say she has the flu. “I heard all the build-up, but when I walked in the door, Debbie was pulled together like nothing had happened!” says the very social Chappy Morris, who often accompanies her to events. Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum phones from the Brooklyn Bridge to say she’s stuck in traffic. Over cocktails, Nicole Miller laments to vintage enthusiast Tiffany Dubin that some of her best early pieces, which she wishes she’d kept, are being sold on eBay.

Seating is delayed because Zuckerman and Berenson are stuck in the bathroom—he’s trying to coax up the balky zipper on her fly, a task that requires his reading glasses. Once he gets to the table, Dubin notes that her stepfather, Alfred Taubman, the incarcerated former chairman of Sotheby’s, says hi.

For someone who’s out almost every night of the week, Bancroft loves the intimacy of entertaining at home. “It’s like a lovefest,” she says. Berenson and Robert Wilson, who just met tonight, are finding plenty in common, as are Gotbaum (when she arrives) and Miller’s husband, Kim Taipale. “The people component is what it’s all about,” adds Bancroft.

Zuckerman remarks that he likes dinner parties because you always get the best table in the house. After Bancroft’s 6-year-old daughter, Serena, presents a chocolate birthday cake decorated with a lipstick pen to Dubin, the early-to-rise crowd, Zuckerman and Gotbaum, give up their seats to latecomers Louis Dubin and Beth Rudin de Woody, who had been at an engagement party in the neighborhood. It is another hour before the elevator creaks back up for a departing guest.

Venue: Loft in Chelsea’s Starrett-Lehigh Building
Typical guests: Designer Nanette Lepore, Paper magazine co-founder Kim Hastreiter, weaponry heir Chickie Ruger
Menu: Truffled duck-liver pâté, salad of radicchio and yellow beets with fig syrup, lemon chicken with saffron rice and green-pea purée, fruit compote, copious amounts of Perrier Jouët (catered by Serena Bass)

CRAAASH! Decorator Mario Buatta has brought a fancy wrapped package for host Hunt Slonem, but it drops to the floor with the sound of shattering glass. No worries, though. For in addition to being the king of chintz, Buatta is something of a prankster: He always brings a box of broken glass to parties to watch the host’s look of horror when it slips out of his hands (Candace Bushnell and Joan Rivers also recently fell for the gag).

Such antics seem perfectly at home in the Slonem residence, which has small pastel rooms containing eclectic collections of everything from preserved butterflies to ornate seashells. The large main room contains Slonem’s large oil paintings—devoted to chronicling the life of caged birds—and his numerous parrots. “It’s like a circus,” Buatta says approvingly. “I think those birds are going to swoop down on me. It’s theater!”

The birds never do attack, preferring to snack on water crackers. But the guests are getting hungry. The host’s brother, party columnist Jeffrey Slonim (curiously, they spell their last names differently), is still tinkering with the place cards. He’s trying to smoothly mix up Hunt’s old friends, like Chickie Ruger, with guests like caterer Serena Bass, who’s decided that Hunt is her new best friend. “He’s truly eccentric,” says the rather eccentric Bass, who designed the table, decorated with antique candelabras and towering white flowers. “He encourages me to go beyond.”

The war is on, but nobody is talking about Iraq (or anything of global import). Instead, they’re debating whether Hunt should have his own reality show and how Bass has hired extremely cute waiters. “What do I have to do to get a job with Serena?” asks Paper’s Mickey Boardman. And the host is definitely not one to instigate political debates: “I always think that it’s best to dwell on peace”—or at least pulchritude—“rather than the hysteria of unsettling world events.”

SAUNDRA PARKS, Floral designer
Venue: Flower studio
Typical guests: Earl Graves, founder of Black Enterprise; the Reverend Calvin Butts of the Abyssinian Baptist Church; wedding designer Amsale; André Leon Talley, Vogue editor
Menu: Flower salad, herb-crusted halibut, key-lime pie (catered by Great Performances), plus a cake by Sylvia Weinstock

Tonight’s theme at Saundra Parks’s studio is spring. Fists of cherry blossoms burst forth from antique hydrangea with blue, green, and red petals. Billowing lime-green fabric separates the dining room from the bar. A half-hour before guests arrive, Parks, still in jeans and a button-down shirt, is behind the curtain rearranging the place settings at the three round tables, each with its own flower theme. “I usually have only one table, but this time everybody RSVP’d!” She seats some couples together, but separates others. “I want to put them in the comfort zone,” she says.

Twenty minutes later, the first guest, photographer Peter Strongwater, arrives and marvels at the scene. “This is nicer than the million-dollar wedding I went to this weekend,” he says, grabbing a glass of white wine. As the room fills, everyone is talking about Iraq. “I’m a Southerner,” says one guest, “so everyone mistakenly thinks I’m for the war. Even my mother, who’s lived in the South 70 years, isn’t for it!” Moments later, Parks returns in a peach scooped-neck affair, designed by Douglas Hannant—also a guest—to herd everyone to their seats.

Parks asks the Reverend Calvin Butts, whose church she attends every Sunday accompanied by André Leon Talley, to say grace. Afterward, she eschews the halibut she’s catered for everyone else in favor of a chaste plate of steamed vegetables. “Amsale, we don’t see enough of each other,” she sighs to the wedding-dress designer. “We’re both entrepreneurs. We need to get together and share, my girlfriend!”

As Sherry Bronfman (the ex of Edgar Bronfman Jr.) powders her nose, the conversation nearby is less sunny: Internet entrepreneur Andrew Rasiej has started a firestorm by asking the pastor where the new generation of political leaders of the Harlem community is. “What about you?” says Rasiej, hoping to provoke Butts, whose wife quickly intervenes to note the daunting task of raising money.

At the hydrangea-themed table, Earl Graves, founder and publisher of Black Enterprise magazine, has instructed each of his tablemates to divulge his or her life story. “We are wildly dysfunctional in our functionality,” says one guest by way of explaining her clan. “Every member of my family lives within four blocks of each other on York Avenue.” “Oh, this is a very serious table!” exclaims Parks, before novelist E. Lynn Harris and WNBC’s Dr. Ian Smith take their turn.

“There’s a baroque sense to Saundra I admire, but I love the fact that she’s a Vassar girl,” says Talley, crowning himself with his red fedora as he leaves. “When we go to church on Sunday, part of the experience is her ministering to us through the beauty of her flowers.” Some need that ministering badly, it seems—there have been fights over who gets to keep Parks’s arrangements.

But tonight, she receives her own gift. It’s a framed photo of one of Bill Cunningham’s pages from the Times “Style” section featuring Parks in a very wacky ensemble. “Not many people want to acknowledge this picture,” says Graves, “but Barbara and I are brave enough!” “You still get invited back,” says Parks, hugging him. “How about next Wednesday?” he counters.

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