Guestmanship

What is there, asked Aeschylus, more kindly than the feeling between host and guest? Well, I can think of a lot of things as I take a retrospective glance at the summer and fall just concluded, and weigh the qualities of some of my guests. Most were exemplary, the kind of guest with whom I tend, nervously, to identify myself, but a few so totally lacked knowledge of what a guest should do, or has a right to do, that one wonders if some rudimentary instruction in this area isn’t in order—as a public service—before another summer rolls around.

Of course, hosts are not infallible either; as Max Beerbohm pointed out, the hospitable instinct is not wholly altruistic since “there is pride and egoism mixed up with it.” An invitation to dine at the Palazzo Borghese was the highest social honor to which a Renaissance Roman could aspire, yet the Borgias had definite shortcomings as hosts. Fifteenth-century historians recorded many fashionable Romans as making their way to the Palazzo Borghese for dinner, yet few were able to boast about it afterward.

But the differences between hosts and guests are more than merely circumstantial. Beerbohm—a more or less professional guest during his London years—also discerned a temperamental and general difference. “You ask me to dine with you in a restaurant,” he said, “I say I shall be delighted, you order the meal, I praise it, you pay for it, I have the pleasant sensation of not paying for it; and it is well that each of us should have a label according to the part he plays in this transaction. In every human being one or the other of these two instincts is predominant: the active or positive instinct to offer hospitality, the negative or passive instinct to accept it. And either of these instincts is so significant of character that one might well say that mankind is divisible into two great classes: hosts and guests.”

I, thus, am basically a host, and I am quite willing to confess to a variety of defects in that role, the most pronounced of which is intolerance of a thoughtless guest. On the island in New England where I live and entertain during the summer and autumn, I offer guests certain problems that they would not encounter on the mainland or in some place where isolation were not an element of circumstances. They are thrown into closer contact with me and with the other guests than would normally be the case, and while I, as host, must take this into consideration, I feel the guest, too, should bear it in mind and make whatever adjustments in behavior are appropriate. This does not refer to those lesser peccadilloes that are more likely to be amusing than disturbing—the practiced amorist whose zeal is inextinguishable, the seductress whose walk across the sundeck involves something vaguely isometric, the surly recluse who just wants to read and be left alone, or even the letter in a handwriting so bad that it resembles a ransom note written by an orangutan, and one can scarcely figure out what plane to meet. No, I’m thinking of serious misadventures, of thoughtlessness and inconsideration on a level that would classify a guest as someone who would not likely be asked to return.

A hopelessly bad guest can sometimes be entertaining. I think without effort of the fading film star who once visited me, and who spent the weekend responding to unseen cues from an imaginary scenario. When introduced to a male guest she smiled, recognized him, cut to him, let him hold her chair, cut to chair, sat down, cut to him. So it went for three days; falling into the spirit of the thing I went around with an idiotic smile on my face that threatened to become a rictus. Another time there was the beautifully poised lady who had that manner the well-bred frequently possess of suggesting that while they are never out of place, the particular world in which they are sitting at the moment most certainly is. And the male novelist who treated two other guests and me to a weekend of facetious, mincing preciosity which he was convinced was good literary manners. And the guest who visited me shortly before a national election, and spent two days vilifying my announced candidate with a stream of invective that was remarkable for its sustained invention and elegance of phrase. All of them tolerable in an intolerable sort of way.

The worst offense a guest can commit—the reader doesn’t have to be particularly discerning to note that this opinion is not a humble one—is to fail to come to meals promptly after the host or hostess has spent considerable time in their preparation. All too often this taut drama unfolds: The host announces to the guests at large that dinner will be served in five minutes. Conversation continues without interruption, ice continues to rattle in glasses, cigarettes are lighted. When dinner is served and announced, then only does the group come alive. One guest departs the room hurriedly to “freshen up,” another disappears to “get a jacket,” another to “straighten lipstick,” and still another on an unstated errand. The host or hostess sits alone at the head of the table and, resentment hardening with the sauces, watches the food turn cold. It’s a bad moment and one in which the seeds of misanthropy grow wildly.

The second gravest offense a guest can commit is to distribute his or her possessions throughout the living room or across the sun terrace and abandon them there. The tidiness or disorder that prevails in a guest’s bedroom is a matter of individual choice, but as a host I would like to maintain the public rooms, so to speak, in a reasonably uncluttered state. Books, when taken from the shelves, should eventually be returned, records should be replaced in their cases, the binoculars should go back where they came from, and the fireplace, if it contains no fire, should not be regarded as an incinerator. One memorable guest, a male, retired one Saturday evening leaving in the living room his camera, several lenses, a tripod, a sports jacket, a baseball cap, a full set of fishing tackle, a Wall Street Journal, a bottle of sun lotion, two bottles of vitamins, a pair of hunting boots he had acquired that day at L. L. Bean and displayed for general approval, a landing net for salmon, some personal photographs, and his airline ticket. I suppose I should have been grateful that he hadn’t fallen asleep on the sofa.

GUESTMANSHIP

The wine drinker who gets more enjoyment from the ritual than from the wine is high on the list of flawed guests. He invariably brings one bottle of some unassailable claret, most likely a Chateau Margaux, offers it as an unspoken standard of his expectations, and then sits in silent reproach as you fill his glass throughout the weekend with something less impressive. His lengthy discussions of enology, I notice, have never caused a fellow guest to lean forward.

One of the first rules of conduct for a guest is to keep the hell out of the kitchen until invited in by the host or hostess. This seems particularly difficult for the guest to grasp, and the gravitational pull toward the kitchen is hard to abort. The guest should remember that if help is wanted, it will be requested. Nothing unsettles the cook more than having a guest wandering around, lifting lids, tasting things, commenting, examining the herb shelf as though something important were being left out of the main course, and offering to make the salad dressing. After dinner, when the dishes are stacked in the sink, the tug toward the kitchen, like the ebbing tide, seems to flow in reverse.

Certain offenses are committed mostly by women guests, and others usually by males, and while I can’t explain why there is a sexual component of this kind in guest behavior, I know it exists. It is invariably a woman, for example, who takes down one of her host’s favorite books to read and by Sunday afternoon announces that she has only three more chapters to go. “I’ll mail it back as soon as I finish it,” she promises, nestling the book along with her tennis racket under her arm. In the past nine years the score with my guests stands: books taken, 39; books mailed back, 1. The burden of recovery, as with all borrowed books, is on the owner.

It is usually a male guest, although not always, whom the host or hostess encounters early in the morning when an effort is being made to freshen up the living room and organize breakfast before there is a general stirring about. The guest is clad in a robe and slippers, his hair is uncombed, and his hands shake. “Gotta have a cup of coffee,” he whispers hoarsely, “but don’t bother. I’ll fix it myself. Just tell me where the coffee is, and the coffee-maker, and the cream and the sugar, and where are the cups?” Separated from the coffeedrinker by only a narrow gulf in temperament is the cigarette smoker who runs out of cigarettes and, to avoid the devastating effect of deprivation, must be taken to the mainland store for a fresh supply.

GUESTMANSHIP

Once, a number of years ago, I entertained a group that drank rather heavily throughout the evening of their arrival, and when the last male guest staggered off to bed I noticed that although he seemingly was on instrument flight he nevertheless was making his way unerringly to the bedroom of a lady guest who had retired somewhat earlier. More to save the lady from an embarrassing situation than to maintain what appeared to be an unattainably high moral standard for the group, I guided the drunk to his own bed and saw that he was sleeping soundly before I retired for the night. Throughout the weekend the lady regarded me with so cold an eye and such poorly concealed hostility that I have been very hesitant to intercede in such circumstances since then.

Most guests, regrettably, like to play games, and although Scrabble, Monopoly, Othello, and all kinds of card games are kept on hand, I would rather die than play any of them. It took a long time before I learned how to keep a safe distance between me and involvement in play, and that was a chance discovery which occurred one weekend when, drawn into a game, I remarked in a rather sullen way that I was a poor loser. I went on to prove the accuracy of my remark with such startling clarity that I have since expanded it to note that I am also a poor winner.

I don’t know what can be done about the guest who comes directly from swimming to the house, trailing water across the living room and into the guest room. On the way back, still dripping, he explains: “Wanted to get my camera. Sorry about the water.” I am certain another lost cause is the lady guest who, looking patronizingly at me as an unmarried male, decides that I badly need help in redecorating the living room and rearranging the furniture. “Do you mind if I move a few pieces around?” she inquires archly. “I’ll put them right back if you don’t like what I’m doing. I think I can get a feeling of more space if I open up that area around the fireplace and put the sofa over by this wall. Anyway, won’t it be fun trying it?” No, it won’t be, and that unswept place beneath the sofa which is suddenly brought to light will be cleaned Monday morning when I move everything back to its original position.

There are minor offenses that I forgive with equanimity, such as the woman guest who comes out for the picnic on the rocks amortizing a green chiffon St. Laurent and wearing high heels, or the male guest who has to leave Sunday morning and must be driven thirty miles to the airport, a trip that will be duplicated during the afternoon for the other guests. These guests will find me the soul of understanding. I am, in fact, very close to what Aeschylus had in mind.