After wrestling for longer than usual to get into his formal attire for the Film Society Gala, my husband vowed never to put on his penguin suit again (or at least “not for a year!”). The humiliation of having to ask for assistance, first with the studs, then with the snap-on bow tie, was too much. Only the prospect of serenading the honoree, Martin Scorsese, on a memorable evening of film-buff camaraderie induced him to do battle with the dread suit of armor.
I beamed a look of lust, delight and approval at him, hoping he might be placated so that if an irresistible black-tie event should soon come our way, I wouldn’t have to hire a walker.
Getting men not just to dress up but to go to dinner parties at all is apparently a sufficiently widespread problem to have warranted an investigative piece in the style section of The New York Times . Men too tired from work, too busy or just stubbornly antisocial are the bane of upscale hostesses who, in that ritual cruelly resistant to the winds of change, must have an even number of male and female guests. Hysterical party-givers have recourse to drastic solutions: dressing up stray males, including the doorman; providing the escortless with walkers (escorts for hire, who don’t come cheap) and appealing directly to male guests by promising a hotshot chief executive for networking purposes, or a cuisine catering to their tastes. One desperation move involves sending the menu with the invitation in order to whet the male palate: Beef (rather than fish) will get him there, and a rich chocolate dessert will keep him from leaving after the main course. In one of those peculiar coincidences of global synergy, no sooner had we been hit with this East Side disaster story than a front-page article appeared warning of dwindling chocolate supplies. One had to wonder: Was there any relationship between the shortage of chocolate and the shortage of men? And what would happen if the situation were reversed; i.e., lots of chocolate and lots of men, and women became as endangered as, say, swordfish. If, through some fluke of biology, life expectancies were transposed, and women began dying off early while men outlived them by many years, would women, in the new social economy of supply and demand, become a scarcity, hence the more desirable sex? Would hostesses clamor for their presence, cooing, “It’s so nice to have an extra woman,” offering menus of fish and sorbet and a makeup specialist in the ladies’ room?
The real horror element in the party story and a gaucherie beyond belief was what the hostess under discussion did with the extra females: seated them all together, at a separate table, with her grandmother.
This happened to my mother once, and it so mortified her that she reddened every time she told the story. When she was in her 60’s and feeling vulnerable, a widow but a merry one, she went to a dinner party in Florida, all dolled up in an expensive new Diane Friese dress, and found herself seated at a table with five other widows. She never quite recovered from that humiliation. We’re not barbarians in this country, oh, no. We don’t send young girls into marriage at 15, or throw them on the pyre when their husbands die; this is suttee American-style.
I had thought to leave such etiquette-enshrined inequities behind when I came to New York. But at one of the first parties I attended, the hostess, a Southerner, grabbed me when I arrived and hustled me into the bedroom, where I found myself face to face with six other women. We were being held in quarantine until a sufficient number of males could arrive so that our hostess wouldn’t appear to be running a matchmaking service for spinsters. Instead, it was more like a brothel, with a staggered release of us party girls into the throng.
What is it about the single woman that still threatens and unnerves? You’d think that in today’s socially and intellectually fluid world of women professionals and professed egalitarianism, an unattached woman would no longer be seen as a pariah. The fact that she is suggests some primitive taboo at work.
We look upon her as we look upon disease, not as some accident of fate, but as a misfortune she has brought on herself, hence avoidable (by the rest of us who are by definition not like her) but contagious (if we get too close). The unattached woman is threatening by her very singleness, viewed as either a drag (nobody wants her) or a danger (everybody wants her). In this latter capacity, as a possible predator, she violates the sexual symmetry of even numbers–among two couples there can be cross-flirting, while the unattached woman, belonging to no one, is available to all. As females, we all have been or will be a fifth wheel at some time in our lives, yet when part of a couple, we shrink from identifying with the odd woman, who is too close to our fears of being abandoned, who pays for our fears by being marginalized.
The soirees I attend are more casual, less rigidly paired–we have extra women to our parties … but not too many. Among my friends and acquaintances, we look forward to lunches and even evenings with female pals; we no longer cancel such dates when a “better” (that is male) offer comes along. But we don’t regard each other as “exciting,” possibly because the impulse to ward off the fate of the odd woman (wave garlic in her face) has translated into an idealization of the male, that glorious and desirable rescuer. Adorable in his unself-conscious virility, he gets our juices going. And it’s not just a heterosexual mating dance programmed into our genes, but lesbians, too–Gertrude Stein relegating the wives of her famous men to Alice B. Toklas.
I confess to finding nothing in the world quite as attractive as a roomful of men all dressed up for a party, and this goes double for black tie. They’ve endured discomfort for our sake, agreed to rise to an occasion, mind their manners and check their mishegoss at the door. They’re elegant in spite of themselves, their uniform a symbol of their having agreed to participate in the art of socializing. The room is electrified by whiffs of mutual attraction, but any impropriety is held in check by the edge of solemnity introduced by “le smoking,” one of the sexiest costumes in Western civilization.
But even at a more casual party, in suits and ties, the guys look gorgeous, all clean-shaven, smooth and civilized, their chests filling their oxford shirts, plump like pillows or taut like ironing boards, their ties a delicate cross between individuality and conformity.
Proust pokes gentle fun at Albertine for confusing the delicious sensation of a smooth male cheek with the moral qualities to be sought in a potential husband–and whose virtue fades the longer he refrains from shaving. Although usually in agreement with Proust, here I’m completely on Albertine’s side: I consider the smooth-shaven cheek a moral triumph, a victory over entropy, one day’s staving off the forces of decay and untrammeled, engulfing nature, and penance for all those hours in whiskers and undershirts watching pro basketball (or in the case of Proust’s narrator, lying indolently and unshaven in bed). And it’s the men who don’t do it all the time–artists and writers and absent-minded professors, nonwalkers all, modest of wardrobe, meager of chitchat–who are the most winning when they do.
Of course, it’s a matter of individual taste. After seeing Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast , in which the leonine lover morphs into Jean Marais, Garbo is reported to have cried, “Bring me back my beast!” and who, Cocteau excepted, wouldn’t prefer the tender if bristle-faced lion to the jut-jawed (if whistle-clean) Marais!