Where, and How, to Enjoy the Best Holiday Parties

By Catherine Bigelow

A glimpse inside the City’s best seasonal blowouts

It may sound odd, but I cover parties for a living. Really. Many folks assume my reportorial beat is all fun and games. And for the most part, it’s kind of like that. I’m grateful for the front-row seat that allows me to share news ranging from philanthropic triumphs and cultural confabs, both cinematic and quirky, to the high, holy gala days of Hell Week.

Yet, it’s still work (transcribing notes, downloading photos, racing to the next black-tie gala). So that’s why I love December: It’s a short but intense, two-to-three week window of purpose-free holiday soirees! Mercifully released from assigned seating at lengthy dinners rife with earnest speeches, video tribute overloads and endless live auctions (all for noble causes, natch), it almost feels like I’m on vacation.

Leaving my notebook behind, I head out on this December do-si-do with just a few blank pages in my purse upon which to scribble clever cocktail party bons mots as San Franciscans celebrate this festive season.

That commences the first Thursday in December as Fine Arts Museums Board chair emerita Dede Wilsey hosts the season’s alpha fete — her storied Christmas party — followed by its omega, the Debutante Ball.

Mrs. Astor’s Ball Room

For 37 years running, #DynamoDede hosts the hottest holiday ticket in town. Like Mrs. A., Wilsey’s Pacific Heights manse easily holds 400 bluebloods. But Wilsey peppers her list with reigning politicos and cultural pooh-bahs. But there’s no “fashionably late”: at the stroke of 6:30 p.m., a well-mannered crowd queues at her door awaiting Wilsey’s haute hospitality: beauteous pink ribbon-trimmed boughs; toe-tapping tunes and a crack staff proffering silver trays brimming with cocktails and old-school hors d’oeuvres (hello, piping-hot onion puffs!)

Good Fellas

Thirty-four years ago, Saint Ignatius College Preparatory alums established the High Rollers Holiday Lunch. It’s a lively, men’s-only confab for decades-long friends (including Bimbo’s 365 Club owner Gino Cerchiai, YBCA Chief Producer Moscone Jonathan, Hyatt Hotels honcho David Lewin, construction king Kevin Brunner). “Life-enhancing” gifts (a concept still merrily debated) are exchanged and an exemplary High Roller receives a plaque bearing the HR credo: “It’s not about how much money you have. It’s about how much you spend in proportion to how much you have.” Few recall what those earnest words quite mean. But its annual recitation inspires heartfelt laughter among this band of brothers.

Joy to the World

International diplomats of the San Francisco Consular Corps and Host Committee are, annually, hosted in grand global style by our Protocol Chief Charlotte Shultz. Held at such locales as City Hall, Beach Blanket Babylon or the Gold Coast Getty manse, these internationalists savor a bountiful McCall’s cocktail buffet as they’re entertained by holiday jingles and costumed characters. But the fete’s highlight is a “State of the World” summation delivered by Charlotte’s “secretary” and husband, former Secretary of State George Shultz. And on December 13, Shultz, a proud Marine who continues to devote his brilliant mind to fixing our planet, turns 99 years young. Oorah!

Getty A-Go-Go

Every year, Ann Getty hosts a heartfelt fete celebrating the December 20 birthday shared by her husband, billionaire philanthropist-composer Gordon Getty, and their granddaughter, Ivy Getty. This year Getty turns 86, so Ann holds a truncated version of her storied soiree (always designed by Stanlee Gatti) for family and Gordon’s Saint Ignatius high school chums. But superlatives failed last year at Gordon’s 85th — Mrs. G. and Gatti transformed the salons of her manse (flanked that night by an exterior castle) into fantastical Hans Christen Anderson themes. And for 850 black-tie guests (roaming amid ice sculptures, caviar mounds and live bands), the warm Getty hospitality was a fairy tale come true.

Cool Yules

Artists, musicians and gallerists flock to fun-filled fetes hosted by two very cool couples: Chronicle Books CEO Nion McEvoy and Leslie Berriman, and architect Sandy Walker and his artful wife, Kay Walker. Much mirth is exchanged among friends, old and new, amid a vibe that’s creative and down-home, expressed with understated elegance. And whether their guests are counterculturists or well-heeled campers in the Monte Rio grove, these holiday boogies are definitely bohemian worthy.

Old Guard

Unless your great-great-grandfather owned a rail-road or invented some widget that changed the world, you’re probably not on the invite-only list for the Debutante Ball hosted by the Cotillion Club of San Francisco. Held at the Palace Hotel just days before Christmas, this storied event is the last gasp of a frenetic holiday swirl for the Social Register set. Some poo-poo this Gilded Age tradition (co-founded here in 1941 by social lioness Phyllis deYoung Tucker, grandmother of Nion McEvoy) as old-fashioned. But it’s truly a family party (many tuxedoed guests are some sort of cousin, once-removed), starring white-satined young ladies performing intricate quadrilles atop the parquet before taking a bow to their social milieu. And unlike Facebook, the Cotillion still reigns as the ultimate social network.

Holiday Guestmanship Do’s and Don’ts

Some folks, bewilderingly, require an annual reminder: Cardinal rule No. 1 remains “DON’T over serve yourself at the open bar.” Ever.

DON’T hog your host. If the crowd is thick, this isn’t tête-à-tête time. The trick: zero in at arrival, exchange greetings, move on to mingle.

DO consider exiting with finesse via the “Irish” exit or “French” sortie (slipping out unnoticed). Whichever country you choose, this spares your host interruption as she juggles engaging every guest.

Unless it’s an intimate fête, DON’T bring a gift. The sentiment is sweet. But requiring the host to off-put your objet detracts from party flow.

If you DO wish to gift (and bless your holiday heart), post party activate with a bouquet.

DO send a handwritten thank you. Texts or emails don’t cut it — especially if the soiree was spectacular or you pulled the above-mentioned exit tactic.

DO pregame on trenchant party talk. Just, obvi, keep light: no politics, religion or overly salacious gossip.

Like a shark, DO keep circling. Good guesting means introducing yourself and not hanging on to the three people you know.

DO refer back to rule numero uno, ensuring liquor-loaded lips aren’t loosened. Amid this month of merry, whether you reside on the Broadway Gold Coast or are hanging on to a rental, everyone carries some private stress.

So, please, DON’T display social drama in public. Instead, DO manage disagreements in that time-honored tradition: Go home, pull the curtains, then talk trash behind the offender’s back.

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