Henry Hudson, like many explorers, tried and failed to discover the Northeast Passage. The principal problem being that it didn’t exist. At least he manage to map most of the Eastern seaboard. During his 1609 expedition, he found himself in the territory of the Lenape people, who cautiously decided to trade furs and supplies with these trespassing white men, rather than attack them. To celebrate, Hudson threw a party that’s still being referenced to this day and I guarantee you have heard of it.
We’ve made it through our first covid Christmas-New Years holiday corridor. I saw “first” because I’m still seeing a lot of unmasked faces at the grocery stores. Most of us are missing going to parties these days. If you’re not missing it because you’re an actual book-definition introvert, carry on with your activities. If you’re not missing them because you’re still going to parties, I’d like to have a few four-letter words with you outside after the show. So I thought today we might live vicariously through some of the most remarkable parties, soiree, shindigs, salons, and dos ever thrown.
We all want to keep up with the Jonses, a phrase we get from a comic strip that ran in 1913. For Mr. and Mrs. Bradley-Martin of turn-of-the-last-century Manhattan, nothing could be more important. When climbing the social ladder one rung at a time became too frustrating for the new-money couples, they decided to go for broke, even if that meant literally. They would throw the social event of the season, nay, the year! They weren’t about to get bogged down with little details, like the fact that everyone *not in the upper crust was busy dealing with a serious economic depression.
The best kind of party, as everyone knows, is a fancy dress party. Costume party, to us colonials. Guests were to come dressed as a famous historical figure from the previous three centuries. You’d be hard-pressed to be the only person dressed as your favorite queen or general, as the guest list was a whopping 800 people long. And that was just the beginning. The Bradley-Martins’ social secretary, because of course they had one of those, drafted florid descriptions of the coming festivities for the newspapers. For example, “five mirrors on the north side of the ballroom richly but not heavily garlanded in a curtain effect by mauve orchids and the feathery plemusa vine. . . . The profusion of mauve orchids will stream carelessly to the floor, like the untied bonnet strings of a thoughtless child.” His prose succeeded in drawing a lot of attention across all social strata, from other socialites trying to get an invite, to the clergy and even the newspapers themselves, who took a rather dim view of the proposed extravagance. I’ll link to it in the show notes and website so you can judge for yourself.
The Bradley-Martins responded to this criticism by pointing out that their ball would “stimulate trade” by creating demand for seamstresses, hairdressers, florists, and the like, which getting irritatingly close to trickle down economics. The short notice for the guests, they pointed out, would mean no time to order costumes from Paris, so local tailors would get the work instead. Their rebuttal only served to bring more attention to the party planning, and there’s no such thing as bad publicity. The party would be held at the newly completed Waldorf-Astoria on Fifth Avenue, where the Empire State Building stands today. The hotel staff were instructed to do whatever they had to do to make the hotel look like Versailles during the reign of Louis XV, cost be damned. In addition to the 6,000 orchids, flowers were brought in from hot houses as far away as South Carolina and Alabama. Did I mention this party is happening in February? Heaps of roses were thrown against the walls and allowed to rest on the floor to later be crushed under the feet of the fancy people. There were enough flowers to hide the orchestra, not a quartet or a chamber ensemble, an orchestra, that played throughout the night. A company of 100 waiters would serve guests caviar-stuffed oysters, turtle, suckling pig, and foie gras, and pour out a staggering 4,000 bottles of Moet & Chandon in the five hours of ridiculous excess.
The evening of the party finally arrived, Feb 10, 1897. Regular folks gathered outside to watch the guests arrive at 11pm, eager to see the costumes the papers had reported the guests planned to wear. Mrs. Bradley-Martin dressed as Mary Queen of Scots in a gown with a 20-ft. train on her gown and over $2 mil in diamonds in modern figures. The famous Mrs. Astor managed to show her up with twice as many diamonds. There were fifty Marie Antoinettes, ten Madame Pompadours, and three Catherine the Greats. One London magazine estimated that the ball’s feminine revelers used more than 500 lb. of rouge, two and a half flour barrels of powder, and enough powder puffs to make a pile 10 ft. high and 6 ft. wide. I haven’t checked their math, but I like to believe it’s correct.
In addition to lookie-loos outside, there was also an obvious police presence, some 200 strong. Were they worried about champaign-drunk swells getting into fisticuffs? No, they had a very real concern that a riot would break out. Figures vary, but the Bradly-Martins spent $200-400k, the equivalent of between 4 and 9 million dollars, on the party, or $5-10k per guest. The US had been in a recession for twenty years at that point. Unemployment was high. Those who were working made an average of $400… a year, $7 and change a week. You could feed, clothe, and house a family with five children at a cost of $1.25 a day. While the little people struggled to do that, the millionaires enjoyed a party that would have paid a day’s wages for a quarter million people. The Bradley-Martins spent enough money to provide for nearly 900 families for a year…on a party that lasted for five hours, with a fleet of 400 carriages to take the guests home at the end.
When the total bill for the party got out, it got the attention of another city department, the New York City tax authority. They doubled the Bradley-Martins’ tax assessment, as well as raising the taxes of many of the guests, almost all of whom were millionaires. The power couple apparently felt the city was being ungrateful for all their generous economic stimuli. They packed up and moved into permanent tax exile in the UK.
Self-imposed exile is one thing, but our next host found himself changing out of his party clothes and into a prison jumpsuit. Presenting Dennis Kozlowski, former CEO of Tyco. The security system company, not the toy company. Kozlowski and another man were convicted in 2005 of stealing $150 million from the company and making a staggering $430 million more by artificially inflating the value of company stock. When you steal something, hypothetically, not saying you ever have, you generally want to keep it on the down low, real hush hush. Apparently, though, when you steal the equivalent of the gross domestic product of Dominica, you *need to show it off. Kozwolski used company money to pay for his $30 million New York City apartment, appointed with $6,000 shower curtains and $15,000 “dog umbrella stands.” He rounded out his attempt at a conspicuous consumption gold medal by throwing a rager so epic, it has become known as the Tyco Roman Orgy. And the company actually footed half the bill for the $2 million week-long 40th birthday party for Kozlowski’s wife Karen on the island of Sardinia in 2002.
The professional party planners must have known they had a job of work ahead of them when they were given the exacting instructions for the event. Here’s an excerpt from the memo:
Guests arrive at the club starting at 7:15 p.m. … Two gladiators are standing next to the door, one opens the door, the other helps the guests. We have a lion or horse with a chariot for the shock value. … The guests come into the pool area, the band is playing, they are dressed in elegant chic. Big ice sculpture of David, lots of shellfish and caviar at his feet. A waiter is pouring Stoli vodka into [the statue’s] back so it comes out his penis into a crystal glass. Waiters are passing cocktails in chalices. They are dressed in linen togas with fig wreath on head. A full bar with fabulous linens. … We have rented fig trees with tiny lights everywhere to fill some space. 8:30 the waiters instruct that dinner is served. We all walk up to the loggia. The tables are all family style with the main table in front. The tables have incredible linens with chalices as wine glasses.” You know people are operating in a different reality from the rest of us when they have Michaelangelo’s David peeing vodka.
Unlike the Bradley-Martin party, there are photos and videos of the Tyco orgy, which prosecutors included in their evidence against Kozwolski at his first trial. According to a press report of the trial, the tape also showed “five young women in scantiaphanous frocks cavorting around a swimming pool, half-naked male models posing in snapshots with female guests and a performance by music legend Jimmy Buffett.” No mention was made of how much of the $2mil price tag went to Buffett’s fee, but that concept in the back of your mind for a few minutes. There was so much more to the party that the jury didn’t get to see, like two men armored as Imperial centurions carrying the birthday girl into a faux arena, built for the occasion.
The jury that saw that footage didn’t convict Kozlowski. They didn’t get the chance. The judge declared a mistrial after a juror who apparently wanted Kozwolski to get off gave an “okay” hand sign to the defense table. During the second trial, prosecutors focused less on Kozwolski’s notoriously opulent lifestyle and more on the actual accounting. He and former Tyco CFO Mark Swartz were ordered to pay back $134 million, and pay $70 million fine. Even after his conviction, Kozlowski maintained his innocent, saying, “I was a guy sitting in a courtroom making $100 million a year [a]nd I think a juror sitting there just would have to say, ‘All that money? He must have done something wrong.’ I think it’s as simple as that.” He must have had one of those moms who tells you the other kids make fun of you because they’re jealous. It must be that and not, you know, the flagrant crime.
If the 1% in America fail to impress you, you can always head to the oil-rich Middle East. You have to live a seriously lavish lifestyle to stand out in a region where they built an indoor snow skiing resort in the desert and people buy Lamborghinis made with actual gold. Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei looked at that and said, “Hold my non-alcoholic beer.” In 1996, the Sultan decided his 50th birthday required not just a party, but a two-week long historical event. This was a man with 3,000 luxury cars and a 1,778 room palace, and pays his badminton coach $2 million a year, after all. For starters, the venue. Forget renting the party room at the Sizzler, the sultan had a stadium built for the occasion, in which they held a concert and a polo match. and a concert held in a stadium erected just for the birthday celebration. The 3,000 person guest list included many world leaders, including British royals, as well as celebrities. As far as entertainment goes, did you remember to think about Jimmy Buffett and his fee? If you scale up the wealth and importance of the guest of honor, a sultan deserves no less than a king. The king of pop, Michael Jackson, who was paid $16 million to perform at the party. He didn’t do one set and then pack out, but did four concerts. If you’re the kind of old-school person who dislikes the idea of goodie bags for guests, you’re gonna hate this next part. Guests were gifted a freaking gold medal. The two-week-long party reportedly cost $27 million, which scales up to about $40 million now. Did it put much of a dent in the ol’ checking account? Emphatically not. According to Forbes the party accounted for .1% of the Sultan’s net-worth.
Of course, Sultan Haji isn’t the only ruler to let extravagant amounts of hair down. And if one person’s 50th birthday was big, the 2500 anniversary of the founding of the Persian empire must be monumentous. At least that’s what the Shah of Iran thought in 1971 and he put together what is widely thought to be the most expensive party ever. Of all time. To give Iran more spotlight on the world stage, the Shah threw a party Scheherazade would have had trouble imagining. Three enormous tents and dozens of smaller one were erected in Persepolis, making it the swankiest “tent city” ever. The tents were air conditioned — can’t have people sweating through their designer clothes– and were bedecked with Baccarat crystal, Limoges china, and Porthault linens, by the same interior designers that helped Jackie Kennedy do up the White House. Among the 500 guests in the luxury pop-up were nine kings, five queens, sixteen presidents, and two sultans, including Princess Grace of Monaco and US Vice-President Spiro Agnew. Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie had RSVP’d for himself plus five, but showed up with seventy-two guests. Of course, you have to feed those 500 people and that required 7,700 pounds of meat, 8,000 pounds of butter and cheese, and 1,000 pints of cream, prepared by 165 French chefs and washed down with 25k bottles of wine. French hairdressers were also on hand in case anyone’s coiffure should fray, armed with 300 wigs and 240 pounds of hairpins, of which I’m going to assume, based on my own life experience, they had, like, three left at the end of the night. The Shah of Iran spent $90 million to celebrate the Peacock thrones. And that’s in 1971 dollars; today, that would be over $516 million. For perspective, the Shah spent 20% more on the party than the operating budget of the Tokyo Summer Olympics seven years earlier.
When the man known as Old Hickory, Andrew Jackson, was sworn in as president in 1829, he wanted to preserve the dignity of the office throughout the inaugural celebrations. Just kidding. He was a garbage person for a lot of reasons and his inauguration reception was completely on-brand. Jackson supposedly declared his inauguration would be open to anyone who wanted to attend. A crowd of as many as 20,000 people showed up to get their drink on. Anyone who’s had *two unexpected guests show up and get rowdy drunk can attest that things get out of hand quickly. The celebrants tore the place up! Jackson reportedly had to jump out a window to escape. White House had to lure the partiers outside with vats of free liquor on the lawn. The clean-up was so massive, with broken furniture strewn about, that Jackson had to ask Congress for $50,000 to redecorate. And Jackson ended his time in office the same way. As a last blast, Jackson held history’s biggest … cheese party. New York dairy farmers had presented the president with a 1,400lb/635kg wheel of cheese, brought to the White House by a cart drawn by 24 horses. The cheese in the foyer for two years. Rather than leave it for Martin Van Buren to deal with, Jackson again threw open the metaphoric and physical doors. Thankfully only 10,000 people showed up this time. The cheese didn’t stand a chance and was gone in two hours. The smell, described as “an evil-smelling horror,” hung in the air for months.
So many people have gotten their party on in colossal fashion, we’d better broad-stroke them. Need a reason to party? How about winning WWII? Russia had fought hard and suffered greatly, so when they came out on top, it was time to celebrate. The party started at one in the morning on May 9, 1945 when Germany’s surrender was officially confirmed. 22 hours later, the party finally wound down, because the city of Moscow was out of vodka. My former-sailor husband has a similar story about his ship docking in Portsmouth, England and the crew of the Harry S Truman drank all the liquor, all the beer, and most of the wine, and they were just celebrating being on shore.
Speaking of which, I found a great new old expression, “drunk by Naval standards.” It’s a British expression from the Age of Sail to mean someone is so off-their-face smashed that it’s hard to believe they’d ever been sober. There are plenty of examples, but a highlight was Admiral Edward Russell’s party for officers in 1694. He had the fountain on his estate drained and filled with punch. If you want to try it for your next get-together, mix up 250 gallons of brandy, 125 gallons of wine, 20 gallons of lime juice, 1400 pounds of sugar, 2500 lemons, and five pounds of nutmeg. Do the Townsends from 18th Century Cooking YT know about this? Russell had the punch served by bartenders in a canoe. They had to work in 15 minute shifts to avoid passing out from the fumes. The party ran for a week, during which the revelry stopped only long enough to put a canopy over the fountain to stop the rain from watering down the booze.
Not every drunken sailor story goes as well. Just ask King Henry 1 of England. The sinking of the White Ship in 1120 cost him his only legitimate son and heir William Adelin, along with an illegitimate son and daughter, and several other nobles, princesses, counts… basically everyone in the line of succession, leading to a succession crisis so severe it led to a civil war dubbed The Anarchy. So why did the ship sink? The two survivors of the wreck told a story of drunken revelry fueled by the 17 year old William’s decision, equal parts generous and ill-advised, to let the crew have at his private wine reserves. And that was before they even weighed anchor. More lives would have been lost, but some people saw how drunk the crew was getting and decided they’d get across the Channel some other way.
Dry land is no guarantee of safety, either. In Persepolis, many many years before the Shah’s big to-do, Alexander the Great convened a “symposium” in the city he’d decided to spare. Put aside any image you have of learned, bearded, toga’ed men discussing intellectual concepts. This symposium was back then an excuse to get drunk, *then argue about philosophy. The guest list included hetairas, highly educated and cultured sex workers. Among them was the hetaira Thais of Athens, who was still a bit cross about the Persians burning the Acropolis, so she supposedly convinced Alexander to burn Perselopis to the ground. What did Alexander think? Capital idea! When the sun rose on the hung-over soldiers and seducers, the ancient capital had been reduced to cinder and ash.
Heavy drinking by college students is nothing new. It even plagued the illustrious United States Military Academy at West Point, founded in 1802. The superintendent, Gen. Sylvanus Thayer, prohibited alcohol on campus in 1826. As the holidays approached, the students realized this new rule was going to be a real buzzkill. Thankfully for their eggnog intentions –this is back when eggnog was 1 part liquor to 2 parts everything else– whiskey and rum were easy to source from nearby taverns. A few nights before Christmas, three cadets crossed the river, had some drinks at Martin’s Tavern, and purchased a few *gallons of *whiskey to go. They bribed a guard on the dock to look the other way while they snuck the whiskey into the dorm.
Only two officers were assigned to monitor the North Barracks that night, Lieutenant William A. Thorton and Captain Ethan Allen Hitchcock. Nothing much was going on, so the pair retired around midnight. At about 4 a.m., noise from the cadets’ floor woke Hitchcock, who found a group of clearly drunk cadets and ordered them back to their rooms. That was when Hitchcock discovered a second party next door. The students there were so drunk, some of them tried or hide under blankets and one thought he could avoid detection by pulling his hat down over his face. This second group didn’t take the order to disperse as well as the first group had, and they decided to arm themselves with their bayonets, pistols and knives and go after Hitchcock.
The drunken cadets gathered their weapons, which Thorton and Hitchcock mistook for the party resuming. Returning to the cadets’ floors, Hitchcock met future president of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis, who ran into the party, yelling, “Put away the grog boys! Captain Hitchcock’s coming!” Hitchcock ordered Davis to his room, which probably saved him from expulsion and preserved his future in the military and politics. Thanks, Hitchcock. Other cadets began attacking Hitchcock. Thorton showed up and got more of the same. One of the cadets actually shot at Hitchcock, so Hitchcock ordered a student *not trying to kill him to go get the Commandant. The drunken cadets thought he was calling for the regular army from nearby barracks. More cadets got in on the action, about ⅓ of the student body, as rioters are wont to do, started breaking everything in sight, furniture, windows, everything, to the tune of $4k modern. The commandant finally arrived and the cadets were cowed into submission, bringing an end to the Eggnog Riot.
To celebrate the newly-minted relationshop with the Lenape, Hudson broke out his private brandy reserves, and soon everyone in the local tribe was drunk as hell for the first time in their lives. After sending Hudson on his way and dealing with some of the first hangovers in the New World, the locals began referring to the little forested island as “manahachtanienk,” roughly translated as either “place of general inebriation” or “that island where we all got wasted.” Today, it’s pronounced Manhattan. See? Told you you’d heard of it.