Andrew Gimson

The whole tent stank of kippers

Lady Elizabeth Anson reveals to Andrew Gimson the pleasures and pitfalls of organising grand parties

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Lady Elizabeth Anson 'numbers President William Jefferson Clinton, Hans Heinrich Thyssen Bornemisza, Mrs Henry John Heinz, the late Mr Alfred Heineken, Princess Esra Jah, Mrs Basil Hersov, Mr John Paul Getty II, Mr Galen Weston, the then Mr and Mrs Tom Cruise, Mr Donald Trump and Mrs Ivana Trump and the University of Boston among her international clientele'. It is a glorious list, matched by an almost equally exotic list of British clients, ranging from nearly every member of the royal family to Sir Clive Sinclair and the late Mr Derek Nimmo. Lady Elizabeth has spent the last 43 years working for 'the very rich, the very idle, the very busy and the ones who simply haven't got a clue what to do', as she herself put it when she gave me tea last week. She organises their parties for them, which, in the words of the two-page biography of herself which she hands out, 'are always distinctive. The themes have included jungles, the 1920s, a circus, the French Revolution ...and even an Up Pompeii-style Roman rout.'

The material is worthy of Evelyn Waugh or Craig Brown, and would certainly, in the right hands, form a very funny television series. Yet throughout these 43 years the comic aspect of Lady Elizabeth's work, of which she herself is keenly aware, has seldom received the attention it deserves. In newspaper articles she is always described as 'the Queen's cousin', which is accurate - they both had Bowes-Lyon mothers - but tends to skew the picture. These faltering notes are an attempt to begin to put the balance right.

All sorts of things can go wrong at a party, which is one reason why people hire someone like Lady Elizabeth to take care of the arrangements. I am sure that things go wrong less often at the parties she runs than at most people's, for she keeps abreast of the latest technology and has what in military circles would be called 'grip'. But even she cannot guard against every contingency.

'I once had a frightfully funny time. I was giving a party in London for a lady in a block of flats, a very, very grand block of flats, and she lived on the ground floor, which was the garden floor, and she put up a tent that was quite slow in construction - they were known as temporary rooms and they did take a week to put up - and it meant the people in the basement were denied light from the moment this structure went up, so there they were in utter darkness in their basement and they didn't like my client at all anyway, so the morning of the party they decided to boil a whole lot of kippers. The whole of the tent stank of kippers.'

Catastrophe can strike in grander form. She remembers driving late one afternoon to Newmarket, where she was running a large party in the Jockey Club rooms, and coming upon the catering van tipped in a ditch: 'I opened the back and it was one whole mess of broken glass together with the ice cream that was going to be the pudding together with the kedgeree that was going to be the breakfast. It was a complete shambles.' This was in the days before mobile phones and late-opening supermarkets. The party ran three-quarters of an hour late.

A dinner consisting of five courses, each with duck in it, which Lady Elizabeth organised at the Dorchester for a large party of French gourmands, ran nearly an hour late because the place cards had gone missing in a taxi: 'They literally picked me up by my shoulders, those Frenchmen, and shook me, they were so angry.' At Claridge's, a large decoration which she had installed in the middle of the ballroom, 'a tree that sort of came out with wonderful branches', began to collapse. Lady Elizabeth got the banqueting manager to pretend to dance with her while they held up the tree until help arrived.

She has good advice for hosts struggling to know what to do with the bores they have felt obliged to invite: 'I've always said put all the bores together because no other bore realises the other person's a bore and they have a perfectly wonderful time.'

Her belief that even bores and very shy people can have a wonderful time at a well-run party illustrates the buoyancy of her outlook. This helps to keep her going even in difficult times: 'I'm actually a born optimist, which is thank God, because things are not good, things have not been good since 11 September ...I have a lot of foreign clients and if they decide to get married here rather than in their own country, the question mark at the moment is, are their friends going to fly or not? I think since 11 September it's put people in a sort of dithery mood about all sorts of things ...I've cut my staff right down since 11 September. I have two planners and myself, as opposed to four planners and myself. And I don't have an office junior any more.'

She is plainly rather astonished that Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas sold the photographic rights to their wedding: 'I think probably what baffles me about those sort of agreements is when it's with people who clearly don't need the money, so why are they really doing it in the first place? To be honest with you, it's the magazine's day and it's not your day've got to be aware, when you sign a deal like that, that your guests have got to be frisked of all cameras, which is a very complicated process, because so many people have the same camera ...I've had to do this in a church, to take everyone's camera off them, which is a bore; they're coming in late to the church and you've got to take the camera and really you ought to label it's a question of getting the right camera back to the right person ...there used to be a tremendous trick at one time about fur coats ...people would come in with their grandmother's scrappy old bit of squirrel, stay a very short time at the party and go and pick up somebody's mink.'

Weddings have become much more complicated, with field kitchens able to provide elaborate meals of high quality for many hundreds of guests, which means people can face a difficult decision about whether to dress correctly for the church and reception or for the party that evening. Lady Elizabeth does not approve of strapless dresses in church: 'I am old-fashioned about one thing, and that is very naked brides in church, because it's so simple to have such a very pretty cape or coat or something.'

In Lady Elizabeth's drawing-room there is a cushion embroidered with the motto 'Please, Lord, let me prove to you that winning the lottery won't spoil me.' When asked about this characteristic joke, she explained: 'My daughter gave it to me because I'm an avid lottery person. In the first year of the lottery I thought it was normal to win £10 every week ...I was up rather than down on the first year ...I've never won anything on it since, but the awful thing is one gets locked into this sort of thing because you know you've got your numbers, I mean, you know, you'd almost put your head under a bus if the numbers came up and you hadn't done it. It's quite clever, really, isn't it?' She spends £6 a week on the lottery.

A great swath of social history has passed before her eyes. London no longer sees the glittering spectacle of the military attachZs' ball, one of which she organised for her stepfather, the Danish military attachZ, in the early Sixties. 'Up until the eleventh hour that was the worst table-seating plan to do because, if someone suddenly went to war with someone or there was some disagreement across the world, the whole table plan changed, and it was a real nightmare of last-minute non-speaks.'

Lady Elizabeth's mother had the brilliant idea of making the military attachZs dance the Paul Jones, in which men and women are paired off in a totally unpredictable way, so that countries which were then hostile could no longer avoid each other: 'It meant that Russia had to dance with China's wife.'

The deb dance has vanished, but the cocktail has made a comeback. According to Lady Elizabeth, 'There are some very, very exciting cocktail barmen. It's a rea l art form. I employed before Christmas, actually at the Queen's Golden Jubilee party at the Ritz, the number one flair barman, the world champion. Don't be under the impression you're going to get a lot of drinks from him. It's all such showmanship. He cuts the lemon in mid-air for the martini and there are four glasses piled up. It's a complete cabaret. It's like being a very adept juggler, really, but more so.'

I began quite unnecessarily to describe some martinis I had mixed recently, though without cutting the lemon in mid-air. Lady Elizabeth listened attentively, and inquired with charming enthusiasm whether I had used vodka or gin.

Andrew Gimson is foreign editor of The Spectator.