One piece of paper will make all the difference at dinner. Written in long hand on personal stationary, tapped into a spread sheet, scribbled on a cocktail napkin with a bartenders borrowed pen: It looms largest in the host's consideration. It will be the document on which the greatest party music was written or the first shot fired at an evening which will go down in unmerciful and memorable flames.
The guest list creates evenings we will never forget, and parties we try not to remember. I write from experience: I didn't get here because I do not have few scars from the great sport of Inviting. My engagement party, owning to the perfect lack of control of one person (who I well knew was careening party-train off course and pleading for a catastrophic drunken wreck), was, for my closest friends, an exercise in grace and meditation over cocktails.
This was an error born of misguided magnanimousness on my part. She is the wife of a friend, and we had witnessed her in action before in a glazed-over state of startled speechlessness, I suppose. I was nervous about her from the start and should have followed my instincts.
In the time that has passed, she is a persistent issue with regard to guest lists and chemistry. In perfect sobriety, she is one of the most deeply miserable individuals I have encountered. I have learned I cannot overcome her raging insults of other guests or her falling down drunkenness in the best of circumstances, but her grotesque bigotry and racism became apparent during that party as well, and she has never been invited back (to say the kindest thing I can of her, actually).
We often say how much we miss her husband. He was one of those people my Brother and I knew first in life and one of the best. But, sadly, this is the way it has to be. Please leave your wife at home is just not an option at the foot of an invitation. And we are years beyond the how did he end up with her? conversation. I do not write his name on lists any longer, I am unhappy to tell you. But it would be better not to have people over than to subject them to this person.
There are other names on guest lists when followed by other names, and still others, that present difficulties in creating a festive night for less obvious reasons than my example. The stories of how some names go together and then must be parted on a guest list are intriguing, fascinating, and sometimes emotionally horrific. By virtue of all that, many are glaringly obvious to the aware host if one gave it some thought. But some enormities of interpersonal conflict could easily be perceived as no greater than a nuance.
Nuance is the key to everything between human beings. As J.M. Barrie noted so wisely in the original text of Peter Pan, "It's not that it didn't matter. It's that didn't make a difference." You have no way to judge how relevant an old story is to those parties now, best to yield a wide berth to a thing that happened, but does not outwardly seem to make a difference.
For this reason, a good host has either the memory of an elephant or the record keeping ability of Thomas Jefferson. The host is the eternal keeper of old grudges and flames, dark facts, circumstances, controversies, occurrences, phenomenons, and statistics. Success at the party which manifests on an enchanted evening from the first scribbled nickname is determined by the grasp of history in the hand holding the pen.
Those are not just names on paper or bodies in the living room; They are mortals. While they bring a world of talents, experiences, and jovial conversation to the mix, they also bring the facts of mere mortality and human nature. An astute host holds a guests' scars as closely as their own and knows the fatal social flaws of all the dinner guests. One misstep, one careless invitation, and the night is laid to waste.
There are just a few people in this world whose hands I will not shake and across from whom I would not attempt to keep down a meal (aside, obviously, from war criminals, murders, savages and so on). I am reminded here of Pat Conroy's Beach Music, "I shook his hand, and I thought it would kill me." I know that ground so intimately.
To have arrived at the conclusion that I would sooner chew tin foil in a locked closet than sit across from one of my known scoundrels, I would have known the reprobate well at some point. As a guest, I am counting on the host to know as much and not to get me into that position. There is an inherent and critical sensitivity to sorting out relationships which have not mended if an evening is to succeed. When these differences are not obvious and the host is innocently clueless is when a guest may quietly beg off on a stomach ache and disappear into the night. Not that it will save the evening, just the guest from an uncomfortable situation.
It is not possible to know all the hot spots, but critical to try and recall that Kate is coming with her new boyfriend and consequently, it is unwise to also invite her ex and his new wife, and/or her gynecologist. If the party is smaller, no one has anywhere to go, conversation is guarded, and the night is a bust. Bring on the grappa, it is sooooo over.
Once all the divorces, bad investments, infidelities, and lies are sorted: It is my opinion there should be an artist, a musician, a pol, a lawyer, a horse trader, an adventurer, a war horse, a dryly amusing Brit, and a siren.
Now, that's a party.