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ENTERTAINING : California Parties--Past and Future : THE SIXTIES

November 04, 1990|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | Huneven is a Times restaurant critic.

ON SUNDAY NIGHTS IN LOS ANGELES IN THE EARLY '60s, THE BEST FOOD AND THE MOST ILLUSTRIOUS COMPANY IN TOWN COULD BE FOUND AT THE HOME OF GENE AND ROZ WYMAN. That was especially true if you happened to be a Democrat. Gene Wyman was the Democratic state chairman, a National Committee member and, according to many, the best fund-raiser in America. Roz Wyman was L.A.'s first City Councilwoman, vice president of Screen Gems/Columbia Studios and the woman who brought the Dodgers to town. Between them they knew everybody.

And for more than five years, everybody showed up at the Wymans for Sunday night dinner. They included Teddy Kennedy, Tip O'Neill, Jill St. John, Walter O'Malley, Hubert Humphrey, Cyd Charisse, Jacques Cousteau, Sally Field, Dinah Shore, Rona Barrett, Walter Mondale, Janet Leigh, Pierre Salinger and hundreds of others.

But these gatherings were not about power, politics or show business. They were about friendship. Roz Wyman is a frank, warm, utterly unpretentious woman who does not look as if she belongs in her Bel-Air mansion with its rolling lawns and enormous pool. And Gene Wyman, a self-made man who started and built one of L.A.'s most powerful law firms, was known for his kindness and generosity. It was no accident that children and world leaders alike relaxed and enjoyed themselves chez Wyman.

Dress was casual. Humor ran high. The food was extraordinary. Bob Wyman, who was 5 years old when the dinners began, says: "It was a place where everyone could come for dinner and a movie and just be very comfortable as themselves. It didn't matter that you were sitting next to the governor. Nobody was pumping hands. Nobody was worried about getting a deal. Everybody was just happy to be eating great food."

Great food, indeed, was what got the Sunday nights started. In fact, the very first dinner had its inception as a cook-off between two very passionate cooks.

Roz, who was running for reelection to the Los Angeles City Council, was at a meeting with constituents when she learned that her cook had been called away on an emergency. She suddenly remembered that the governor and a few senators were coming to dinner. She tried to get a caterer. No luck. Finally one of her volunteers, Dorothy Colton, offered to take care of the meal. Roz demurred for a few minutes, then capitulated. "It was a weak moment," she says. "I was tired. I thought, what the heck!"

Less than two hours later Roz came home to find dinner waiting: scallops in an exquisite sauce, noodle souffle, a melange of fresh vegetables, filet mignon and chocolate mousse. "It seemed impossible; there was no way that kind of food could have been prepared in that amount of time."

The next day, Dorothy Colton received eight baskets of flowers--one from each one of the diners, including Frank Sinatra. Or at least, one of the cards was signed "Frank Sinatra." Says Colton: "I never knew if it really was Frank Sinatra, or if it was Gene playing a little joke . . . and I never wanted to find out for sure."

The next time Colton offered to cook for the Wymans, Roz was curious. "The first meal was so incredible, but I thought everybody's got one good meal in them. I wanted to see what would happen."

She came home to find another feast.

Shortly afterwards, Roz lost the election and Jackie Cooper hired her as vice president of Screen Gems/Columbia Studios. Producer Hugh Benson was assigned to show her the studio ropes. Recalls Roz: "One day, Hugh was in my office, and he happened to remark that he was the best cook in the world. I said, 'Oh, Hugh, you may think you are, but the truth is, I have a friend who really is the best cook in the entire world.' " Soon Roz had the two talking on the phone. They agreed to meet at Roz's house the following Sunday and cook. All Roz and Gene had to do was provide 20 people.

Colton planned the menu. Benson showed up with a suitcase full of custom-made Swiss knives. They cooked all afternoon. The meal was a great success. It took a number of such evenings before Hugh Benson finally admitted that Dorothy Colton was one of the greatest cooks he'd ever seen. Meanwhile, Sunday dinner at the Wymans had become an institution.

Everyone who came to dinner wanted to come back. All week long, friends would call and ask if the table was filled. Gene Wyman began to "take reservations." Politicians kept calling from Washington asking if there was still room at the table--should they take an early flight? The Wymans' closest friends were issued little gold cards with space for 10 punches. As their punches were used up, there was great speculation as to whether or not new cards would be received. They always were. "Gene loved having people at the house," Roz says. "He never wanted to say no to anybody. 'We can squeeze a few more in,' he always said.' " As a result, the number of guests could alter dramatically up to the last minute.

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