I went to a swell party the other night. The temperature and light, the setting and night were perfect. The party was a benefit for the East Hampton Historical Society and was held at Swan Cove, a piece of property as pretty as any you’ll ever see in East Hampton.
My grandparents lived at Swan Cove in the 1930s and ’40s and many of their friends thought it was the most beautiful place they had ever lived, better than Villa America in Cap d’Antibes, better than their oceanfront houses next to the Maidstone Club golf course. And it is spectacular — three acres on Hook Pond providing the loveliest sunset views from pink stucco balconies.
The party invitation suggested jazz-age attire and promised Sara and Gerald’s “house cocktail” and favorite hors d’oeuvres. My greatest fear was that this would be a champagne-soaked, foie-gras-terrine, caviar-and-blini extravaganza that so many people assume my grandparents indulged in. They didn’t.
The cocktail hour at the Murphys’ was an important ritual. What was served, not so much. Most often it was Ritz crackers with cheddar cheese and a dab of chutney run under the broiler, or my favorite, homemade Melba toasts with peanut butter and crispy bacon. In summertime it could be hollowed-out cherry tomatoes filled with fiery horseradish-laced whipped cream. We kids would get virgin versions of the house drink in miniature glasses that matched those of the adults.
It was refreshing to see that the caterer, Brent Newsom, provided delicious and homey appetizers that Grandma and Grandpa would have enjoyed. I never saw a pig in a blanket served at home, but as one guest pointed out at Swan Cove, “who doesn’t like a piece of meat inside bread?” Indeed! There were lamb kebabs with tzatziki, tuna kebabs, lobster cakes, chicken satay, baby croques-monsieurs, and caramelized onion tartlets.
Some guests took the suggestion of jazz-age attire quite seriously. Perhaps the recent release (and mercifully rapid disappearance) of Baz Luhrmann’s “Great Gatsby” inspired the gents to dig out their straw boaters and ancient tennis sweaters. Many of the ladies wore gobs of strands of pearls, jazzy short dresses, and feather boas. One woman appeared to be channeling Zelda Fitzgerald with layers of floaty chiffon and a crazed, happy expression on her face. Yes, it was a good party.
My memories of my grandparents’ later years in East Hampton always include their housekeeper Mrs. Emil Wessberg, who seemed to be even more aged than they were, but spry and very kind. She was always roasting Iacono Farm chickens and making soups. Every evening we children were included in the cocktail hour. Once I had completed my assignment of passing a tray of house cocktails, I would hide under a piece of furniture with my Melba toast and virgin drink. Perhaps I thought if I were invisible the conversation would get racier.
I remember Alfred Hitchcock regaling Grandma with a horrible true story about the making of “The Birds” movie. He also had to rock back and forth several times in his chair before he could launch his considerable girth out of it. He drank martinis. Dorothy Parker would visit with her dog. She drank a lot. The Archibald MacLeishes and John Dos Passoses would visit often. Fernand Leger introduced the artist Lucia to the East End of Long Island and she stayed.
The Murphy house drink got the name “juice of a few flowers” when the playwright Philip Barry asked my grandfather what the heck he was concocting at the bar. “Just the juice of a few flowers” was his evasive reply. Barry was amused enough to use this line in “Philadelphia Story” when Katharine Hepburn (Tracy Lord) asks Cary Grant what he’s mixing up for her. The drink is the juice of a few flowers, all citrus — grapefruit, orange, lemon, and lime. The original recipe, found in Grandpa’s precise architect’s penmanship suggests rimming the glasses with coarse sugar but it was never served that way at home. I’m thinking he realized it makes for a messy, sticky, drippy glass and he abandoned the sugary part. It is a tart and fragrant cocktail infused with gin.
However, he invented an even better drink called “the Bailey” which is no more than fresh grapefruit juice, mint sprigs, gin, and lots of ice. Muddle, muddle, shake, strain, imbibe. Do not ever attempt these drinks with bottled, canned, or frozen juices, they won’t be the same.
Avid cooks, my grandparents also collected lots of recipes from their friends. Lillian Hellman’s Indian pudding is fragrant with ginger and perfect topped with vanilla ice cream. Bob Benchley would serve a fancy coleslaw topped with strips of smoked salmon. Pauline Hemingway once served them a lunch in Key West of cream cheese-stuffed peppers smothered in tomato sauce with salad, french fries, and Key lime pie. Katy Dos Passos would serve “mustache sandwiches,” actually tea sandwiches with chopped mustard greens. And I have never seen a recipe like Grandma’s for creme brulée, which contains no sugar in the base custard. It is the best version I have ever tried.
Susan and Peter Solomon were the gracious hosts of the party at Swan Cove for the historical society. The original house no longer stands, but their new house is true to the spirit and hospitality of the Murphys’. Now, how about some swingin’ Murphy recipes to inspire you for your next party?