A recipe for successful entertaining during the Golden Age of Hollywood: Take one soupcon of food (almost anything would do). Add large splashes of alcohol. Mix in good company. Serve with relish.
In the end, the recipe's success was less dependent upon what was served than on who was served. Hollywood was short on sophistication about food and wine. What it had was plenty of money--and lots of style.
Consider screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, author of "Citizen Kane" and Hollywood's most famous man who went to dinner. Hostesses could count on Mankiewicz' sparkling wit to lend fame to the most ordinary dinner gathering. Of Orson Welles he once remarked: "There but for the grace of God, goes God." Of Charlie Chaplin: "If people don't sit at Chaplin's feet, he goes and stands where they're sitting." Of a fellow screenwriter: "It ought to be against the law for that guy to be alone with a typewriter."
One night, Mankiewicz was having dinner at the home of producer Arthur Hornblow, who considered himself one of Hollywood's foremost gourmets. In the midst of dinner, Mankiewicz began to turn green and all at once excused himself. The company was aghast. When he returned a few minutes later, he was looking better. Turning casually to his host he remarked, "Don't worry, Arthur. The white wine came up with the fish."
Mankiewicz was as famous for his capacity for imbibition as he was for his wit. Sam Goldwyn once lambasted Mankiewicz for his drinking and, to make his point, thrust a script by a younger writer under the veteran's nose, announcing, "This is what I mean by screen writing!" Mankiewicz read the new pages, looked up at Goldwyn and responded, "He should drink."
Perhaps. But not at the Goldwyns. The Goldwyns were undeniably the premier hosts of Hollywood. Director George Cukor called an invitation to Sam and Frances Goldwyn's the "hardest ticket in town." And yet director Henry Koster told a tale about a fabulous evening at the Goldwyns when they were celebrating a new film. The best of everything was served. But shortly after his departure, Koster realized his wife had left a glove behind. He dashed back, only to discover the rich and powerful Goldwyn pouring the remains of undrunk glasses of Lafite Rothschild back into a bottle.
Still, people clamored to go to the Goldwyns. Actress Katharine Hepburn recalls that the Goldwyns traditionally sat across from one another in the middle of the table, and their guests were placed around them. "You always knew where your career stood," she says, "by where you sat."
San Simeon was another coveted dinner invitation--and once again, the food was beside the point. At William Randolph Hearst's fantastic castle, diners were served in a vast room under a 400-year-old monastery ceiling. But amid the elegant plates and sparkling silver there were ordinary bottles of catsup and mustard.
Still, even when Hollywood ate hamburgers, it did it with style. One Hollywood denizen told of dining at the Kirk Douglas' and being served burgers from silver platters.
Mike Todd, producer husband of Elizabeth Taylor, once impressed guests by having their steaks specially flown in from Kansas City--an incredible extravagance. He was going to barbecue them and invited his guests to come inside until the fire was perfect. In the interim, a fox ate the steaks. Todd sent out for Chinese food.
If you were actually going out to dinner in Hollywood, you went to one of Hollywood's two and only favorite restaurants: Chasen's or Romanoff's. Anything else was slumming. Mostly, though, you ate at home. Movie-star cookbooks from the golden days are filled with fascinating recipes for such esoterica as Buttermilk Griddle Cakes (Gary Cooper), Meat Loaf (Mae Clarke, who insisted that "The beauty of a good meat loaf is that if there is any left it makes delicious sandwiches . . .") and chicken broth (Irene Dunne, who pleaded with her fans not to omit the nutmeg in the recipe. "It is just the touch of flavoring that adds zest to the broth.").
Few stars, however, were as candid as Clara Bow. She offered a recipe for Deviled Oysters on the Half Shell (see below left). And Bow gave due credit to her cook; cooking the oysters herself, she said, was simply too much for her.
DEVILED OYSTERS ON THE HALF SHELL
4 dozen shucked oysters, shells reserved
3 spring onions, diced
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup whipping cream
1/8 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon prepared mustard
1/2 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 mushroom caps
1/2 teaspoon parsley
1 egg yolk
Buttered cracker crumbs
Wash and chop oysters. Cook onions in butter three minutes, add flour and stir well until blended; add milk and cream. Add mustards, Worcestershire sauce, mushrooms and parsley. Stir in reserved oysters and 2-3 tablespoons of their liquor. Heat and stir just until mixture thickens and begins to simmer, then mix in egg yolk; place mixture in deep halves of oyster shells, cover with buttered crumbs and bake at 400 degrees about 15 minutes. Makes 32.