How to Behave at a Party
(And other advice my dad gave me)
I grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, with a dad who had a lot on his plate. He raised my older sister, Mary, and me by himself after our mom died when I was 4. The responsibility of it all would stress him out sometimes. So if there was anybody who appreciated the chance to loosen up, it was my dad.
He loved people and parties. I have a very early memory of watching him shave—getting ready to go out to a big party. He would get warmed up ahead of time by pouring himself a vodka and tonic. I remember the sound of him stirring the drink, the ice clinking against the glass.
I liked to study my father in moments like this: his beautiful strong hands as he raised his cigarette to his mouth. He was cool. He had excellent penmanship. He was a snappy dresser. He wore kelly green preppy blazers with blue ascots. He was old-school elegant—a dandy. The kind of guy who got dressed up to go on an airplane. He loved Tennessee Williams and Elizabeth Taylor. When I was little, he told me, “You know, Molly, you bear a very striking resemblance to a young Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet.” I ate it up.
When I was a teenager, he gave me the best party advice: “Molly, if you don’t have a good time at a party, it’s your own fault. You should go up to the person who has no one to talk to and strike up a conversation. Ask questions! Take an interest in them! Extend yourself!” My dad took conversational etiquette seriously. When he told me and my sister a story, he expected us to pay attention. He’d even quiz us afterward to see if we were really listening.
Sometimes when he needed to clean the house before a party, he would take what he called “cleaning pills.” Dexamyl! A sweet little combo of an amphetamine and a sedative. He would clean all night long—cleaning, cleaning, cleaning! My sister would come into my bedroom as the sun was rising, crying: “Daddy is still downstairs cleaning! He won’t stop.” We would go down to the basement, and he would still be doing laundry, folding clothes, smoking a cigarette in a speed frenzy. Then, when the house finally was sparkling clean, he would play Judy Garland records: “Swanee—how I love ya, how I love ya…”
My dad would throw long wild parties with sexy, preppy Shaker Heights moms who drank too much and had skinny legs. I remember our local judge would come to these parties, too. They were crazy evenings that would invariably lead to everyone re-enacting Catholic rituals: drunkenly absolving sins, forgiving one another, and happily excommunicating the lot.
I grew up in a household entranced by the allure of the stage and screen. My dad wanted to be an actor when he was young, but he never had the confidence to pursue it professionally. When I eventually left to pursue his dream, he became my Gypsy Rose Mama. He would give me showbiz advice when I was starting out: “Put on your high heels, doll yourself up, and you march right into the offices of those Hollywood agents and tell them, ‘Hold the phone! I got talent!’ And don’t forget—use your singing voice!”
When I was a kid, my favorite day of the year was when my Catholic grade school put on its annual St. Patrick’s Day show. Each grade would perform a song-and-dance routine. Dad would be in the back of the auditorium watching proudly, waving to me, and telling everyone nearby: “That’s my Molly!” Some of my fondest memories are of being pulled into those grown-up parties, well after I’d gone to sleep—to perform. Dad would wake me up in the middle of the night—“Molly! Come down and play the piano!”—and there I’d go, scurrying down the stairs in my nightgown to play the one song I knew really well—“Climbing,” by Beethoven. I would finish the song, curtsy, and go back to bed. And as I lay back down listening to my dad perform to the delight of the crowd, I’d think to myself, What a loon! Thank God I’ll never be like that.