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The Best Cocktail Party Icebreakers Are Vintage Magazines

The author’s copy of Interview’s September 1981 issue featuring Fran Lebowitz sits next to the first issue of George magazine. Photo: Christopher Barnard

In her debut book, Entertaining, Martha Stewart describes hosting as “the desire to please someone in a personal way.” It’s a principle I’ve adopted as the host of many a cocktail party and seated dinner. But in addition to thoughtfully choosing a menu and tablescape, there’s another thing I’ll always curate to set the mood for a group of guests: the magazines I have on display. They’re not new magazines but vintage, from a collection I’ve built that mainly consists of landmark covers of the ’80s, ’90s, and early aughts (what many consider the medium’s golden age). Depending on the type of company I’m expecting, I’ll pull out specific issues.

For instance: Time’s 1996 cover featuring Ellen DeGeneres declaring “Yep! I’m Gay” never fails to elicit an “Oh my God” gasp from gay visitors. And when girlfriends I went to college with are coming over, I will set out Rolling Stone’s 1999 issue featuring an in-her-prime Britney Spears — a touchstone for our generation (old millennial). Once when hosting a small birthday party with very writerly guests, I put out the 1967 Saturday Evening Post with Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” essay. It was admittedly corny, and a little on-the-nose, but everyone gagged (so much that I genuinely worried someone would walk out with it when the night was over).

The magazines are ideal icebreakers, conjuring just enough excitement to get people talking at the start of an evening, something I’ve rarely seen coffee-table books do. Plus putting them out lets me show off a bit — which, let’s be honest, is part of the pleasure of having people over. Below, a starter pack of classic magazines that will add a personal touch when hosting any group or occasion.

An old millennials’ night in

Rolling Stone, April 15, 1999

I remember going to buy this issue at the Waldenbooks in my local mall after seeing a segment about it on Entertainment Tonight (I still have that same copy). It was such a bewildering moment that I’ve noticed most people around my age have a story about this particular magazine.

A best friend’s baby shower

Vanity Fair, August 1991

I got this issue with such an occasion in mind and have sadly yet to have a chance to use it.

For New York natives of a certain age

Interview, January 1974

I love how Interview’s early issues were like a folded-over newspaper, giving them a delicate but disposable quality. I’d put this out if I was expecting a guest who was around in the early ’70s, as such a person will inevitably have a Warhol story. Everyone does.

A Grammy party

Rolling Stone, September 16, 1993

An iconic cover that everyone will recognize. Come for Janet Jackson photographed by Patrick Demarchelier and stay for Woody Allen’s “no apologies.”

Dinner with a friend and her art-director boyfriend

Interview, July 1990

I think this is one of the greatest covers of all time but doesn’t get its due. It’s very representative of the Fabien Baron takeover at Interview (which I’m sure your friend’s boyfriend would lead with).

A party for an entrepreneur friend

Newsweek, March 22, 1976

Everyone knows people with an app they’re trying to get off the ground (or an as-yet-monetizable meme account). And who better to inspire them to turn dream into reality than the original — and most glamorous — start-up queen, Diane von Furstenberg. This issue is not cheap but is likely to only go up in value (like von Furstenberg’s company did over the years).

Bachelor/bachelorette cocktails

Playboy, January 1995

Circa 1995 Drew Barrymore is the only acceptable mood for such an occasion.

A Boiler Room after-party

After Dark, July 1976

A very specific get-together that calls for a very specific title. I have just about every issue of ’70s “entertainment” magazine After Dark. It specialized in gay icons like Bette Midler and Karen Black, and, of course, usually shirtless hunks of the moment like Michael York or Arnold Schwarzenegger (though ironically it never labeled itself as gay anywhere in print). The fashion and “spa” advertisements are far better than any of the features.

A moon-landing anniversary party

Life Magazine, August 10, 1969

This July marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. A splurge to be sure, but this issue is likely the only décor you will need for such a celebration (haters will say it’s Photoshopped).

Hosting Beltway friends

George, October-November 1996

At $200, it’s another splurge, but this is my most-prized issue of any I own. Cindy Crawford, Herb Ritts, John F. Kennedy Jr. — the glamour! (Only a Kennedy could try to make D.C. sexy and succeed.) You’d be surprised how many people who work in Washington don’t know about George.

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The Best Cocktail Party Icebreakers Are Vintage Magazines