The Washington Winter Show is Washington, D.C.’s first social event of the New Year. The Show, now in its 64th year, has always been a popular one with locals, in part because it benefits great local charities—The Founders Board of St. John’s Community Services, the Bishop John T. Walker School for Boys, and THEARC—and because they always get a varied group of dealers.
This year, the theme, “The Pleasure of Your Company: Elegant Entertaining with George and Martha Washington,” was accompanied by a loan exhibit of porcelain services (including some incredible export china), silver, and a harpsichord purchased by Washington in 1793 for his step-granddaughter Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis.
During the four decades of their marriage, George and Martha Washington hosted thousands of dinner guests, whether at Mount Vernon, at the General’s many Revolutionary War headquarters, or at the presidential residences in New York and Philadelphia. They were big believers in breaking bread with their friends and political opponents alike.
So it made complete sense for co-chairs Lauren Hilyard, Helen Lee Sale, and Sally Steponkus Roche to lure one of New York’s hottest event planners, Bronson van Wyck, of the family-owned firm Van Wyck & Van Wyck (and soon-to-be author of Born to Party, Forced to Work: 21st-Century Entertaining, Phaidon, Fall 2019), to be the star speaker at the sold-out Friday lunch and lecture.
Bronson van Wyck took to the podium after an introduction from committee chairs Marilouise Sibley Avery and Johanna Bayly Howe, explaining that he was very nervous speaking publicly; typically he would be onstage with his sister and mother, and one of them would get into an argument, “which felt very normal.”
He soon began to relax and starting speaking about how comfortable he felt in Washington, D.C. His sister, Mimi van Wyck, attended school here, “part of the Madeira Mafia,” said Bronson, and he was happy seeing his godmother, Dee Schwab, and old friend Rory Ackerly in the crowd. He reminisced fondly about the time his family spent here working initially on the Gore and the eventually the Bush inauguration.
Part of Bronson’s appeal is his mischievousness, and he couldn’t resist telling a story in which he jokingly compared himself to D.C.’s infamous gate-crashers, the Salahis, when he and his close friend Amy Porter Stroh strolled uninvited into a New Line Cinema’s party, given by Bob Shay, about 20 years ago.
Maybe that was when Bronson was bitten by the party bug, but he says his love of good times stems from his upbringing in rural Arkansas. The importance of hospitality was ingrained in him from a young age. As a child (his father is from New York; “My mother married him, brought him home and put him on a tractor,” says Bronson), with the closest city about 100 miles away, his family constantly invited friends and relatives over. When Bronson finally left the farm for an East Coast education, including Groton and Yale, he never forgot the warmth of his Southern upbringing.
Bronson has great Southern manners but he’s got a good amount of New York hustle too. As a result, Bronson’s parties are legendary. From entertainers Madonna and Puff Daddy to presidents Obama, Bush, and Clinton as well as large brands Chanel, Clinique, and Hermès, Van Wyck & Van Wyck is one of the top names in the event space. And that’s before mentioning the occasional roof-raising shindigs he throws for himself. As evidence of Bronson’s considerable imagination, one need look no further than the party he threw himself in Mykonos, Greece, last summer for a few hundred of his closest friends. He transformed an abandoned iron works with a Doric Temple into something out of Edgar D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths. He even brought in a Trojan horse. It did have a Homeric theme so hopefully someone wrote a poem about it.
His love of a party was clearly present when van Wyck landed his first job in the State Department as protocol aide to Ambassador Pamela Harriman in Paris. The woman known as the greatest courtesan of the 20th century and Bronson would share a couple of cigarettes after long evenings and she’d tell him stories of living through World War II at 10 Downing Street under her ex-father-in-law, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Despite such an illustrious beginning (or perhaps it was hard to find such a fun second job), there were a few false-starts in Hollywood and design until Bronson found his calling. His close friend and Vogue contributing editor Marina Rust asked him for help with her Maine wedding to Ian Connor. Bronson, together with Lynn, his mother, pulled off the wedding of the year featured in over 10 pages in Vogue. After that, the family went into the event business full-time and never looked back.
Van Wyck Events are as much marked by what they are not as what they are. Bronson noted that one of things he loathes doing is putting on black tie and eating rubber chicken at a benefit. It would be safe to assume there are no rubber chickens at any Van Wyck Event.
The well-heeled audience of D.C. ladies gave van Wyck their rapt attention as he went through an impressive and very professional presentation of his craft. Some of the guests looked decidedly awed at the video invitation, which included an array of sparsely clothed dancers and Duran Duran at his Homeric birthday bash, while Bronson went on to describe his tricks of the trade
“Lighting makes people look better and that’s important,” he said. Using a photo of the ballroom at the Plaza (“from Puff Daddy’s birthday,” he noted) Bronson showed how he “could change the whole world with lighting.” And not just how much light but where it should come from: above, from the side, and from below.
Team Van Wyck will often use common, ordinary materials to great effect—as they did for American Ballet Theatre, when they wrapped enormous cylinders with silver insulation paper in order to capture the mood of The Tempest, which was debuting that night.
Bronson believes that something should change every 20 minutes at a party. Either waiters bringing in food and drink or a fireworks show or dancers, but the main point is that with today’s short attention spans we are always looking for distractions.
When you are doing seating, divide your groups into talkers and listeners. “You need both”, according to Bronson, and his advice to guests is, “Aim to be both so you’ll always be asked back.”
An invitation is like the first move in a chess game. Bronson is agnostic about paper versus digital, but emphasized the importance of doing either well.
People just know what’s in front of them. So for the nervous host or hostess who thinks that people will know that the second order of flowers didn’t make it, don’t stress. No one will notice.
Serve salty hors d’oeuvres: “Salty hors d’oeuvres mean people will be thirstier, and when people are thirsty they drink more. If they drink, they flirt, if they flirt they make other people feel beautiful,” says Bronson.
As creating content for social media is now such an important aspect of a party, Bronson’s team will try and cater to that unless the client wants it strictly private. In that case, the team will use a fog or a smoke machine, which makes it impossible to take a great picture with your iPhone—an instant Instaban.
As for what to cut from the budget? Bronson does not find goodie bags to be essential enhancers to an evening (although was careful to note he certainly doesn’t mind receiving a gift).
And what ruins a party? “Running out of booze, running out of anything, ice…”
The secret to the firm’s success is not in the nuts and bolts (although never admitting anything is impossible as an anecdote about Puff Daddy’s request for snow in the ballroom of the Plaza clearly illustrated), but in the boundless joy Bronson gets from his guests when they’ve had a splendid time. As Bronson told the story of Puff Daddy’s thrill when snow started falling in the Plaza Ballroom, it was hard to tell who was happier in that moment, Puff Daddy in having his dream realized or Bronson in his capability to realize it for him.
Towards the end of lunch, Bronson used a Greek fable to illustrate his creed: “We honor the gods by honoring the guests.” And he pointed out to the crowd that every religion has some kind of aspect of hospitality to it. In these divisive times, Bronson believes that entertaining is more important than ever. He recalled how Martha and George Washington used to give a weekly Thursday-night supper after their cabinet meetings, which were so successful at bridging ideological gaps that they moved it to Tuesday night before Congress met on Wednesday. Entertaining well has always been a way to build relationships.
The ladies of Washington were very favorably impressed. As the parade marched towards the coat check, one Washingtonian was heard exclaiming to her friend, “And I just thought he was going to plug his book.”
Photographs: Mynor Ventura; Daisy Prince