We pay tribute to the First Lady of entertaining, ahead of the second part of the Betsy Bloomingdale: A Life in Style auction on 5 April in New York
‘Entertaining is not a frivolous endeavour,’ wrote Betsy Bloomingdale in her book Entertaining with Betsy Bloomingdale: A Collection of Culinary Tips and Treasures from the World’s Best Hosts and Hostesses. ‘I believe it is one of the great essentials of life.’
The legendary socialite and philanthropist kept a record of every dinner party she hosted from 1959 until her death in 2016. These notebooks contained lists of her guests, copies of the menus, notes on her choice of flowers, the wine lists and photographic records of place settings. ‘Giving a party or hosting a dinner is in many ways like a performance,’ she explained. ‘You are the producer, director, stage manager, and finally the actor. Dozens of details might go into the simplest occasion.’
Born Betty Lee Newling on August 2, 1922, in Los Angeles to Australian émigré parents, she married Alfred Bloomingdale, heir to the New York department-store fortune and co-founder of the Diners Club, in 1946. According to one newspaper’s obituary, throughout her life ‘she remained the dazzling queen of a beau monde that straddled Hollywood, the White House and the ateliers of Paris.’
When the great and good arrived at the Bloomingdales’ sumptuous Holmby Hills home in Los Angeles, it was the immaculately attired Betsy who made a point of personally greeting them. This applied whether the guests were close friends such as President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan, members of Hollywood royalty such as Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra and Joan Crawford, titans of business and politics, or the ‘natural conversation starters’ — such as ‘a professor at a nearby university or a local artist’ — she regularly invited along to spice up conversation around the dinner table.
‘Always introduce early arrivals to one another,’ Bloomingdale advised, ‘and if they’ve never met, add a detail or two that will start them talking. A skilled hostess knows how to make this look natural.’
Betsy Bloomingdale described a party as being like ‘a dance between hostess and guests, with everyone contributing something to make it a success.’ Success, however, relied on the adherence to certain rules, which included looking the other way when spills or breakages occurred, and insisting on ‘French leave’, which was the practice of guests not making a great fanfare if they had to depart early.
‘Everyone who was anyone in LA society congregated around Betsy Bloomingdale’
Kirk Douglas was one regular guest who appreciated this relaxed approach. ‘Kirk will be the first to admit that he has a reputation for leaving parties early,’ Bloomingdale revealed in her book. ‘Since he’s an old friend, I felt I could say, “Go ahead and leave when you want to. Just don’t say goodnight”.’
‘Everyone who was anyone in Los Angeles society congregated around Betsy Bloomingdale,’ observes Gemma Sudlow, Head of Private & Iconic Collections at Christie’s. An icon of style as well as a tireless entertainer, she ‘reigned supreme within southern California,’ adds the specialist. ‘There was a perfection that surrounded her in every aspect of the way in which she lived.’
Those fortunate enough to cross the threshold of the William Haines-designed home she shared with her husband on Delfern Drive off Sunset Boulevard were, says Sudlow, offered ‘a sense of who Betsy Bloomingdale was — which is to say fabulous in every respect’.
In 2008, when she was well into her eighties, Bloomingdale told Vanity Fair that ‘good food, generous cocktails, a little night music, and after-dinner games all make for a deliciously delightful evening… And a mixture of people with some marvellously wacky guests is also nice.’
There was no great secret, she insisted, to entertaining successfully. ‘You can have all the money and privilege in the world and possess no style,’ she explained. ‘You can spend a fortune on the most elaborate parties and leave your guests feeling bored and let down. Real style comes from within.’
When it came to style, Betsy Bloomingdale was, of course, out on her own. A permanent fixture in annual ‘best dressed’ lists, she championed Dior, as well as Valentino, Chanel, Courrèges and Givenchy. She documented what she wore with the same diligence with which she recorded her lunches and dinners — in her case, lots of colour, particularly red. Detailed notes were kept not only of when and where each gown had been worn, but also with which accessories, such as earrings and belts.
In 2009, High Style: Betsy Bloomingdale and the Haute Couture at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles displayed 60 of her gowns. At the show’s opening, Valentino succinctly described Betsy Bloomingdale as ‘the last of the great women of style’.