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Zan Thompson

An Elegant Afternoon Is Her Cup of Tea

September 25, 1988|Zan Thompson

The invitation was on heavy glossy paper, printed with a chintz design that would make the Laura Ashley people turn in their swatches. It bespoke gentility, graciousness and limitless time to enjoy both. It was an invitation to tea on a Sunday at the Rose Tree Cottage in Pasadena.

It was my first tea invitation in years. My heaviest tea attendance was during my college years when that's what young women did, among a great number of other things. The teas were largely bores because you were busy being grand for someone or squintingly examining some scared girl who wanted to be a member of the group. Awful.

Hats and gloves, of course. And then that slow death walk around the tea table. If you took a petit four, which always tasted like bath powder, a couple of thumbnail-sized sandwiches made of the obligatory watercress and/or cucumber, and a couple of cookies, would there still be room to balance your teacup?

Then you hoped to find a dining chair and groped around underneath to find a place for your tiny handbag and gloves. I never had more than one suitable dress. That's all right. Most of the rest didn't either. My whole senior year, I had two right white gloves. I carried one and wore one, because I had lost two lefts. You are the first to know my terrible secret.

The thought of having tea with Andrea Van de Kamp, the friend who had sent the manor house invitation, was delightful. And it turned out to be a fragrant oasis in the week. That's because Andrea has a magnetic field that can make them grin in Ashtabula and a roster of friends who are interesting and get things done. Andrea is president of the Independent Colleges of Southern California.

I walked into the Rose Tree Cottage, which is one of those places that make you feel it's your special find. I was shown in by a tall, slender woman wearing a linen and Battenberg lace apron over a black uniform. Her pleated organdy headband was tied perfectly horizontally over her eyebrows. She looked as the figure of Britannia herself would look if she were slender and serving tea.

There were dear friends there. The first one I saw was Caroline Ahmanson, a lady who combines enormous executive ability and feminine charm into one bright being. Her daughter, Margo O'Connell, was a guest too, and a delight to meet. I saw Lily Lee, Robin Kramer and Diane Reed. Joanne Kozberg was there. She's a close friend of a special friend of mine, Gayle Wilson. The two rooms of the Rose Tree Cottage were set with tea tables where this group was seated, a dynamic guest list. And no one had to balance a plate.

Edmund Fry, proprietor of this English redoubt near Lake Street in Pasadena, seated me and said, "I'm breaking in a new man. I hope you won't mind if he serves you."

Edmund is a tall, handsome Britisher for whom the phrase Decorations will be worn was minted. He was wearing a tailcoat and formal shirt and trousers, the shirt banded diagonally with a wide, red ceremonial ribbon and the left side of his coat was encrusted with medals. His wife, Mary, is a pretty woman of Scottish heritage who was born in Thomas, Okla.

Soon a man appeared behind my right shoulder, leaning in to pour tea and milk into my cup. He said, "Oh, I hope you wanted milk."

I looked up at the familiar voice and it was Andrea's husband, state Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp, dressed elegantly in tails and performing as a well-trained tea shop attendant should. He had come in early to have Edmund show him the fine points and to add some masculine zing to Andrea's party.

I had never been to the Rose Tree Cottage before and I am indebted to Andrea. In addition to Fortnum & Mason's Queen Anne tea, they serve scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam with a flavor I haven't tasted since I picked wild strawberries at the foot of the Cascades.

There are crumpets to buy to take home. They have shortbread, bangers and sausage rolls. There are Rose Tree patrons who drive to the tea shop whenever they're in town. One woman had a layover at LAX and took a cab all the way to Pasadena to enjoy Edmund's and Mary's hospitality.

The scones are made from a recipe 150 years old that came from Edmund's great-grandmother in Dorset. They freeze well and the shop air-freights them all over the world. In August, the shop sold 400 dozen.

And Rose Tree has the fripperies that make me feel as if I had just fallen from the pages of a Beatrix Potter book--Floris and Penhaligon fragrances and soaps, flowery fine china, Liberty fabrics, including tartans in cotton and wool blends. There are wonderful children's books, English greeting cards in watery pastels and a marvelous boot brush that looks like a hedgehog with a carved black wooden head.

Edmund was born behind the couch in the middle of the London Blitz and was a twin. His mother had taken refuge behind the couch, "and when it (the bombing) let up a bit, the nurse came along on her bicycle and delivered the first baby. Then she said to my mother, "You'll have to wait about 20 minutes more. You've another one." And out popped Edmund.

The Rose Tree is often crowded, in both tea shops that face each other across a walkway. Tea hours Monday through Thursday are at 3, 3:45 and 4:30 p.m. On Sundays hours are at 2, 3 and 4 p.m. Reservations are advised at any time and especially around Christmas when everyone longs for some gentling.

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