Simon Doonan Tells Vault How to Throw the Perfect Party

The Wild Party

Andy Warhol once said, “I like to be the right thing in the wrong place and the wrong thing in the right place. Being the right thing in the wrong place and the wrong thing in the right place is worth it because something interesting always happens.” Andy, the social butterfly, was definitely onto something. He knew what makes a great party. You need a dollop of rightness and a heapin’ helpin’ of wrongness. It’s those unconventional and unexpected elements that make for a truly memorable evening. Whether the event in question is a corporate bash, a themed Bar Mitzvah or a full-throttle freaky rave, you need a little creative surprise, a soupçon of controlled chaos. Let’s break that down into a handy acronym and you will see what I’m talking about. How do you spell M-A-Y-H-E-M?

Why every gathering needs a little mayhem

M is for MUSIC

Booking the latest, hottest DJ is all fine and dandy, but if you are going to truly impress your guests you need a grand voilà! Why not hire a troop of tempestuous, tambourine-banging Hungarian gypsies? When they storm into your living room and your guests ask WTF, just claim that they are your long-lost relatives. Additional thoughts: M is for music but it also stands for midget mariachis. A pal of mine added sizzle to her engagement party by hiring a troop of tiny Mexican musicians in sombreros. These frolicsome little people threw themselves into the action, imbibing vast quantities of tequila and cavorting uninhibitedly with guests.

If blaring ranchero music is not your bag then you can always go New Age. In my neighborhood—I live near Washington Square in Manhattan—there is no shortage of raw bohemian talent. My personal fave is a dazed-looking flower child, a real counter-culture throwback, who sings rousing Icelandic folksongs while accompanying herself on the hurdy-gurdy. I have long fantasized about having her perk up our annual Hanukkah dinner. One day….

A is for ALCOHOL

I myself am teetotal, but I fully recognize that others might lack my ability to let rip whilst unlubricated. Simply put: Most people need to get liquored-up in order to have a good time. However, instead of just funneling cheap booze down the throats of your guests, why not get creative? Why not invent your very own specially named drink? Why should Arnold Palmer, Harvey Wallbanger and Shirley Temple be the only people to have a drink named after them?

When concocting your eponymous drink, do not shy away from bright colors: Perk it up with purple parfait d’amour or slosh in the crème de menthe and go for the green. When guests arrive, simply shriek, “You must try one of these! It’s a Simon Doonan!” and hand them a beaker of your lethal creation.

Y is for YAWN

If you sense that your party is sinking into a quagmire of tedium, then you must take drastic action. The solution is often simpler than you might think. Dorky party games like musical chairs and Twister can often do the trick. If that fails, then order up the ’70s funk and start a Soul Train line. Afro wigs optional.

H is for HOMELESS people

The most important component of a great party is an inclusive guest list. When considering potential invitees, feel free to cross-reference the delirious party scene in my favorite movie, Midnight Cowboy. In this 1969 classic, Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) and Joe Buck (Angelina Jolie’s dad, Jon Voight) stumble into a groovy party attended by a bewildering cast of freaks, including grandiose duchesses, sleazy rent boys, arty poseurs, smack addicts and the fabulous Brenda Vaccaro. Homogeneity is the enemy of fun. It’s all about the mix: I’m talking strippers and academics, politicians and traveling salesmen, felons, fluffers and fandango dancers. You get the picture.

E is for ERMINE

Do whatever you can to encourage your guests to overdress. Tell them it’s black tie. Tell them Lady Gaga is coming. Tell them Liberace is coming back from the dead. Nothing kills a party stone dead like a roomful of people wearing greige moderate sportswear.

M is for MANGIA!

Overly fancy, contrived food can make a party feel constipated. Keep it simple. No foam. No champagne-braised scallops with tangerine gelées. An unpretentious simple approach will surprise and delight your guests, as in chicken skewers, pizza and bologna sandwiches. Keep it real!

Et voilà! Your guide to creative party mayhem.

Let’s end with one more thought from Andy. This gem pertains to a very important subject: lighting. “I believe in low lights and trick mirrors. A person is entitled to the lighting they need,” said Andy, and I could not agree more. Like Blanche DuBois, I have always relied on the kindness of dimmers.

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Illustration by Maurice Vellekoop