10 Hours, Two Theme Parties

Lizzie and Kaitlyn indulge in cowboy hats, cucumber sandwiches, and crime.

A collage from a murder mystery dinner party set in the Old West. A "Wanted" poster and a man lying "dead" on the floor.
The Atlantic

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Lizzie: Some summer Saturdays are lazy, languid, and planless, with no clearly defined structure other than the requirement that you eat at some point and go to bed at some other point. Others, through some combination of coincidence, clement weather, and calendar availability, are stacked with consecutive errands, events, and experiences such that each moment of the day must be accounted for, and any detours from said accounting could cause a dropped ball and risk potentially irreversible reputational damage, especially if you don’t have much of a reputation to begin with. This newsletter is about the latter kind.

What I mean is, after almost, quite possibly, definitely begging to be invited to any summer events worthy of chronicling in a newsletter, Kaitlyn and I were invited to two different theme parties in a single Saturday: first, a Queen’s Jubilee garden party in Park Slope hosted by Claire (known from previous Famous People hits such as “Celebrating 4/20 When You Hate Being High”) and second, a murder-mystery birthday party at the “Deadwood Saloon” in Crown Heights, hosted by our friend Sara. Of course we accepted both invites, Googled Can you wear a cowboy hat in front of the Queen, and vowed to stay on theme, no matter what.

Kaitlyn: It is theme-party season in New York, apparently. I guess it starts now and runs through Halloween? We have a roller-skating-and-disco-themed event next weekend, for Rebecca’s 30th, and we are still waiting for the details on the Watergate-themed party that Andrew claims to be throwing in celebration of the event’s 50th anniversary, which recently passed. Stephanie has been turning over summer yard-party themes in her mind for the entire pandemic, in pursuit of the perfect moment and the perfect theme for her triumphant return to hostessing. An Adam Sandler party has been imagined and discarded. An “album cover” party has been considered—wouldn’t you like to see a girl painted up as Joni Mitchell’s Blue? As Hounds of Love, including the dogs? At one time there was talk of “prom.”

All to say that we knew that we would have a ton of fun on jubilee-and-murder day. If we didn’t, well, then what were the next four months going to be like?

Lizzie: All theme parties are different, obviously, but they’re also kind of the same. Hosting one almost always comes with a long to-do list, and Claire set the standard even higher than usual. The morning of the party she sent an email to the attendees confirming that “the Jubbly” would not be postponed on account of a few clouds and that there would be a royal banquet of food and drink available for consumption: mint and Earl Grey iced tea, “disgusting” gin and Dubonnet (apparently this is the Queen’s favorite cocktail, and from my understanding it’s essentially Mad Dog 20/20 mixed with gin), Pimm’s, wine, beer, seltzer, canned cocktails, spiked chocolate-pudding shots, herb tea sandwiches, nova tea sandwiches, vegan cucumber sandwiches, an Eton-mess trifle, a vegan trifle with coconut cream, mini pies, and five flavors of Bjorn Qorn.

In this pre-party missive Claire also included links to some suggested reading materials on the Royal Family and related Jubilee rituals for any partygoers inclined to come prepared. Then, a reminder: “I’M NOT A MONARCHIST, I’M JUST A LOLER.”

Kaitlyn: I read that one on the train platform and I did LOL. The joke had a little something extra for me, I think, because I have lately been reading about actual American monarchists who are quite upsetting and are not interesting or hilarious thinkers at all. (Claire appreciates democracy and has nothing in common with those people … )

I was a bit antsy while going about my morning, I have to say. First of all, I had chipped a tooth earlier in the week, possibly on a frozen Oreo. And while I am generally amped to attend theme parties, a back-to-back-party situation does present the challenge of “day drinking” and then “drinking at night also,” which often ends in tears. To calm myself down I went to Crunch Fitness and did some lunges.

Paper decorations at a Queen Elizabeth-themed party—cut-outs of Queen Elizabeth's head on a string, over a fireplace.
Mantelpiece fit for a monarch. (Courtesy of Kaitlyn Tiffany)

Lizzie: I started the morning in New Jersey, having just attended a cousin’s wedding. Walking through the World Trade Center from the PATH is its own kind of workout, where you need to avoid running into the people staring at the ceiling and ascend the weirdly slippery stairs without falling. I managed to make it to Claire’s just 40 minutes past the 2 p.m. Jubbly call time.

The Jubbly was already in medium swing when we got there (Kait and I arrived together, by pure coincidence), and Claire’s apartment was decked out in full Jubbly regalia: There was the promised table spread fit for high tea, banners of the Queen’s face trimming Bernie the Landlord’s vintage fireplace, and a six-foot branch wrapped in string lights playing the role of Prince Philip’s favorite walking stick. This doubled as a visual gag and a potential photo prop for guests.

As the various groups of people in Claire’s orbit started to mingle, I turned to some of my go-to conversation topics, like celebrity sightings and being pro-overhead lighting. At one point I said, referring to some TV show, “Something different happens every episode”—the sort of observational delicacy that really makes you wonder if I might qualify for some kind of award.

Kaitlyn: Lizzie’s overhead-lighting stance (again: pro) really shocked the room. My first order of business at Claire’s was to apologize to Meredith and Julia for exposing them to strep throat when we had dinner at the Odeon more than 11 months ago. Next was to put on a plastic crown (not a monarchist!).

It rained just a little bit while we stood around eating our cucumber sandwiches and gin-infused chocolate pudding, talking about a real-estate problem that I was dealing with, which was directly caused by a recent recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant, not that anyone was really to blame. Lizzie and I counted the dogs present at the party—one, two, three, four! This never happens. If you’re lucky there is one, maybe two dogs at a party. In attendance were: Claire’s renowned dog Mars, whom I met once by accident while ruminating alone on a street in Bed-Stuy; Tiffany’s dog Puddin’, whom I knew from Instagram; and Darcie’s dog Coco, whom I had seen on Twitter. The fourth dog I did not recognize, and we weren’t introduced.

For the main party activity, Claire asked all her guests to pair up and complete wedding-vow-themed sheets of Mad Libs. Then each couple stood under a trellis and recited what they’d come up with, in hopes of winning a prize (Royal Family trading cards). They made promises like “to always play polo and record podcasts.” Their vows were “briney” or “rotund.” They got each other “wet and bothered.” You get the picture! Liz and I typically are joiners but we sat in the corner and looked at our knees to avoid being called on because our Mad Lib was not good and we’d used the word booger. At one point Claire spun to look directly at us, shouting, “Hello over there!” We froze. But it turned out that there was a 6-or-7-year-old boy standing behind us, separated from the party by a fence between his yard and Claire’s, staring at everyone.

Lizzie: My heart stopped then! It was a sign that maybe we weren’t long for the Jubbly. We hastily said our goodbyes, as we still had places to go and people to see. On the walk home from Claire’s, I stopped by Foodtown to get a Hal’s New York Seltzer in Fruit Punch (delicious and confusing; my brain expected it to be thicker) and some sort of frozen mac-and-cheese-with-broccoli “meal” to quickly put on top of the cucumber sandwiches in my stomach before I had to rush out to the next party. I ate it while watching the first 15 minutes of Fire Island, then put on my most saloon-appropriate dress and shoved a too-small cowboy hat into my tote bag for the subway ride.

At this point my feet hurt from wandering the streets of New Jersey and Brooklyn all day (16,000 steps so far), but a true cowboy wouldn’t let some barking dogs stop them from having a good time.

Kaitlyn: I was also flagging during the theme-party interregnum, so I stopped by the McDonald’s next to my apartment and grabbed a cheeseburger. Lately, I have been eating one cheeseburger a week. It makes me feel young!

En route to the Deadwood Saloon, I got into a dramatic text exchange with the outlaw Jesse Wales, also known as Nathan. He had asked me earlier in the day to remind him of the address of the party, which I had refused to do, as he was copied on all of the same emails as I was. Well, that will teach me because he wound up at some random place in Bushwick with an address that bore absolutely no resemblance to the actual address of the party, which, again, was in Crown Heights (other side of the borough, for those who don’t live here). “That’s just what I had in my head,” he said. Then he reasoned that it would not actually be disruptive to be substantially late because he was, after all, an outlaw, and therefore difficult to predict or pin down.

Sara—also known as Henrietta High-Stakes, the charming, shifty wife of the miserable saloon owner Harry High-Stakes—was very gracious about this suggestion and pretended that it made sense and that all was as desired.

Poker set and various bottles of alcohol sitting on a table. Candles, birthday cake.
The scene at the Deadwood Saloon. (Courtesy of Lizzie Plaugic)

Lizzie: As for our characters: I was playing Banker Bonnie, a snooty rich lady and long-suffering wife of Banker Bob, an absentee husband and, in the case of this party, an absentee character. Kaitlyn was Poker Alice, a card dealer with a dark past working the saloon’s poker tournament.

To begin the game, Sara handed out envelopes to each character that contained notes on our “objectives” for the evening, and fake money that we could use for extortion and bribery. This is also when the murderer was going to find out that they were, in fact, the murderer. From across the room, I heard Kaitlyn say, “I hope it’s Liz.” Well, if it was me, I knew who I would be killing first.

Kaitlyn: Hey! Good luck, because as it turned out, Poker Alice was a secret former assassin.

I was actually shocked to learn that I was a violent criminal. The information was gradually revealed to me by others’ aspersions throughout the party. What an odd experience! I was into it, though. I did feel some shame because, though Poker Alice’s biography stated that she grew up in England, I had not managed to perfect my British American accent in time for the event. (I’d only gotten so far as saying “Lisa!” in the style of Connecticut native Dorit Kemsley.) Also, I blushed way too much when I was required to ask Billy the Bartender to confess his true love to me.

Still, I found my first murder mystery exhilarating because the conversations were all so lively and unpredictable. One second you’re being blackmailed by a mysterious woman named Barb and the next she is explaining to you how she found her apartment, which is the ground floor of a converted cheese factory.

Lizzie: I really liked Barb. In the game, Barb helped me stage a holdup at my bank, and in real life she’s a jewelry designer.

I always say that I’m a better actor than Joaquin Phoenix, based on the performance I witnessed in the trailer for Joker, and this was the perfect opportunity to test that theory for a crowd. My Banker Bonnie had an accent that was probably inaccurate for the time period and, honestly, the patterns of human speech, but she was committed to living in the universe built by the anonymous storytellers at NightofMystery.com. I approached my objectives with the single-minded tenacity of a lamp-lover turning off the overhead light.

Around 9:30, we heard a scream and a character named Mitch fell dramatically to the floor.

Kaitlyn: After Mitch was dead, someone outlined his corpse in masking tape and we took a break from the game. Mitch laid there on the floor while we sang “Happy Birthday” to Sara.

After this point, the game really took a turn for me. Everybody was given a new, blood-stained envelope with further tasks to perform, and it seemed, not to be self-centered, as if almost everyone’s tasks involved accusing me of the murder or of a sexual affair. I didn’t feel like I could be the murderer, and I honestly didn’t know if I had participated in a sexual affair. So I just kept shouting that I was innocent and blew through all of my fake dollars bribing other people for their “secrets.” Unfortunately, the secrets usually turned out to pertain to me and how I was the murderer or a participant in a sexual affair.

I suspected “Gambling Jack” or his wife or the sheriff or Barb of the crime, based on no evidence.

Lizzie: My parents watch a lot of British murder mysteries, and I always like to try to guess who did it within the first 30 seconds of an episode. This time, because I was part of the action and not just a neutral observer, I felt incapable of fully grasping the plot or the cast of characters. Also, I was tired. Also, if this had actually been a British murder-mystery show, the murder would have been real and the victim wouldn’t have been making jokes about crypto later that night.

I guessed wrong. I wasn’t even close, honestly. Even after finding out who the culprit was, I didn’t fully understand why. But I was happy to be Bonnie for the night and I’d do it again, if I could just get the accent right.

So we didn’t solve the mystery at the Deadwood Saloon, but we did solve the mystery of how to attend multiple parties with pit stops in three neighborhoods and two states in just one day: Wear comfortable shoes, and for God’s sake, don’t drink too much Dubonnet.

Kaitlyn: The murderer was a tall man named Mr. Money, whom I had never spoken to. Oh well!