Not long ago, I picked up a fifty-cent copy of Sally Quinn’s The Party: A Guide to Adventurous Entertaining from a street vendor. I was interested enough by the beltway gossip and tales of DC hostesses and the faint whiff of notoriety that still emanates from its pages almost twenty years later. I learned the term Philadelphia Rat Fuck, thereafter referred to by the author as “a P.R.F.” And I do love an entertaining guide: say the words pink lightbulbs and I’m there. (I’ve been slavishly conjuring their flattering glow since I first read the tip in a 1980s copy of Sunset.) But ultimately, what intrigued me most about the book were the previous owner’s underlines.
Any scholar will tell you marginalia are the true window of the soul—or brain, at any rate. (Even if it’s just a window into your own immaturity via passionate collegiate commentary on bell hooks.) Jottings, doodles, highlights: there’s a reason between the lines is a cliché. It’s revealing.
But whoever owned this copy of The Party is an enigma wrapped in a question mark. She—and I do think it’s a she—is an erratic underliner. Granted, some of her passages are straightforward enough:
“Speaking of the cocktail hour, it should be forty-five minutes long.”
“For normal events, I don’t think a note is ever necessary.”
“If you are a confident host or hostess, people will relax and have a good time.”
And she starts off slow: for the first fifty pages or so, the pencil lines are infrequent, and when they do appear, they’re always to draw attention to a practical tip.
But then things take an odd turn. Here’s what the reader underlined: “The question of whether or not to invite people who have been disgraced is always an issue.”
After this, the underlines become ubiquitous. At times they feel random.
“This year everyone got a fax and a phone call.”
“However, at the last minute the White House announced that the President would be addressing the nation that evening.”
“However, when the other guests arrived they were on fire because the O.J. Simpson jury was due to come back with the verdict on the civil trial.”
“Even though the celebration had been a great success, I felt like one of those pilots who go through a dogfight with the enemy, calmly shooting everyone out of the sky, and later have a major panic attack.”
“Once the christening was over, lunch was served to the guests.”
“They often entertain in the solarium.”
“At first I thought his suit jacket was covered with dandruff and I was horrified.”
“Pavarotti took one look at the table and exclaimed that he was on a special diet and could not eat one single thing there.”
“If I see somebody who really has had too much to drink, I’ll tell that person not to drive and offer to call a cab.”
“We’ve already discussed lighting in general.”
“Forget after-dinner liqueurs.”
What was she up to? Was there a method to her madness? I tried in vain to find patterns, puzzling like an obsessive, convinced there was a coded message. Was she trying to analyze Quinn? Highlight gossip? Analyze style? There wasn’t enough consistency to allow me to formulate a working theory, and some of the underlines seemed so emphatic, and so bizarre—“the kimono sleeve of her jacket caught the flame”—that they blew my previous theories all to hell. She keeps it up the entire book. It was frustrating and exhilarating, much like the Rosetta Stone.
There are only two written annotations in this book. The first: “P.R.F.—see p. 42.” Here’s the other.
“Until she died, a year ago, every time I saw Evangeline Bruce she would tell me that that party was the best she had ever been to.”
Underneath is written, in pencil, “The gracious lie.”
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.