Sunday Reading: Nights on the Town

In 1997, Diana Trilling published “A Visit to Camelot,” an essay about the evening, several decades earlier, that she and her husband, the literary critic Lionel Trilling, spent at a White House party honoring Nobel laureates. The crowd, hosted by the President and Jacqueline Kennedy, included such notable figures as James Baldwin, John Dos Passos, and Robert Frost. When Kennedy offered a toast to the assembled celebrants, he remarked that there hadn’t been such a gathering of talent at the White House since Thomas Jefferson himself had “dined alone.” It was one of those nights that reverberates in the memory. As the Trillings made their way home that evening, they were giddy, so imbued with the afterglow that they danced their way into Union Station.

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As we enter our third pandemic year, it can be difficult to recall those moments when, like the Trillings, we could come together in carefree celebration. There are still many reasons for caution and vigilance; we are not out of the woods yet. So, as a kind of escape, we’re bringing you a selection of pieces about the enduring (and pre-pandemic) appeal of soirées, house parties, and other assorted nights out. In “Birthday Party at an East Side Town House,” Jamaica Kincaid recounts an uptown celebration hosted by a young assistant editor. In “The Queen’s Touch,” Paul Theroux reminisces about a dinner party in London one winter evening that featured a very special guest of honor. In “Seven People Dancing,” a short story by Langston Hughes that was first published nearly fifty years after his death, the host of a gathering caters to his guests while feeling an increasing sense of isolation from the proceedings. In “The Life of the Party,” Jane Kramer profiles Roz Roose, a woman known for throwing some of the most eclectic, dynamic functions over the years on the Upper West Side. Finally, in “You Were Perfectly Fine,” by Dorothy Parker, a young man experiences a hangover and is startled to learn from a female acquaintance how loquacious he had been the previous evening. “Oh, and the trees were shining so in the moonlight,” the young woman reports. “And you said you never knew before that you really had a soul.”

“Yes,” he said. “I said that. That was me.”

“You said such lovely, lovely things,” she said.

In our current moment, we know we must keep vigilant. But we hope that these pieces will enchant, and offer a bit of a vicarious break from our new normal.

Erin Overbey, archive editor

A photograph of the Kennedys inside a very large ballroom

The night the New York intellectuals partied with Jack and Jackie.

Hands, plates, and drinks

Friends, momentarily and randomly grouped together.

A photograph of a couple, huddled romantically at a party

“The pale young man eased himself carefully into the low chair, and rolled his head to the side, so that the cool chintz comforted his cheek and temple.”

An abstraction of dancers' legs, entwined

“The laughter bounced, like very hard rubber balls, around the room, not like tennis balls but like solid hard rubber balls, and Marcel laughed, too.”

A photograph of the high-rises of Manhattan's Upper West Side

The intellectual and artistic left that settled on Manhattan’s Upper West Side has always been famous for its hostesses—but no one threw a party quite the way Roz Roose did.

Illustrations of the author, Prince Philip, and the Queen

How far is it worth travelling to have dinner with Her Majesty—and Prince Philip, of course (you can’t forget Prince Philip)?

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