by Miv Schaaf
"It's a cocktail party!" the pretty woman would cry, merrily waving a thick creamy card before propping it up on the mantel. "Do come in for cocktails!" women caroled in movies. "Cocktail Hour!" say sidewalk signs in front of restaurants.
Setty, our youngest aunt, had fine linen squares barely bigger than soda crackers with tiny embroidered roosters crowing in the corners. They were cocktail napkins, she said, putting them under our glasses of milk. Even Mother had glass stirring rods, like little solid straws, with roosters on the tops. They were kept in their own dark blue flannel beds in the silver drawer under the long iced tea spoons we never used either. I had no idea whether cocktail parties were going on around me in Michigan; my only knowledge of them came from those Myrna Loy/William Powell movies. "Let's have a cocktail!" one would say, striking an instant note of gaiety, and at once the mirrored walls, glass tables, flower vases and triangular crystal ashtrays sparkled in response.
A merry to-do was made over the mixing, the stirring, the straining, the pouring; a great deal of badinage over the dryness of the martini. A settling of satin sofa pillows, tinkling of glasses, selecting of cigarettes and an exciting interplay of smiles and meaningful glances indicated that cocktails were the elixir of joy.
Then, finally, sitting at a table in a restaurant, the water glasses filled, the bread and butter before us, the waiter hovering for our order - how disappointing the taste of my first cocktail. Why, it did not taste at all the way those movies made them sound; it certainly did not deserve the frolicsome cheer of embroidered roosters strutting on linen lawns and perching on glass poles.
Where were the glamour, the satin pillows, the clear bowls of spring flowers, the air of innocent intrigue as Myrna Loy narrowed her nostrils, proffering the crystal cigarette box?
No, by the time age allowed me to have cocktails, the age of cocktails was gone. Art Deco was on its way out, triangles turning into rectangles in furnitureland, flamingos flying in fewer and fewer bathrooms and only William Powell wore a mustache.
You didn't meet for cocktails anymore; you had a drink before dinner. Glass in hand, you did not sit and sip and laugh and engage in banter and sip again - no, three quick gulps and you were through; hurry up, we're late. They don't have cocktail hours anymore; they have Happy Hours, which refers not at all to the merriment of the company but only to the price of the drinks. Since those childhood movies I haven't seen a straight cocktail party invitation; they're all no-host bars, which means the drinks are on you, kid, ante up. It not only sounds desolate, but also rude to have no host, as if no one were inviting you.
The purpose is no longer jollity nor bonhomie, but to make money - a fund-raiser, a political mixer, a campaign coffer fattener. I'd rather they didn't try to disguise them. Instead of a cocktail party why don't they simply call it a Money Raiser with Cocktails If You Want To Buy Them? And even these are fast giving way to wine and cheese parties. No more the spirited discussions over proper proportions of spirits, no more the smiling bartender in a fancy frenzy with the cocktail shaker (a pleasant little cadenza of the past now replaced by the bulldozer whine of a snarling machine), no more the exhilarating tinkle of ice, the happy glug of gin into glass, the cheerful plop of olive into martini.
Now it's "Red or white?" and that's it. Gloop - there she goes in your glass - or worse, plastic. So much for glamour.
Yes, cocktails, the cocktail hour, may have been a fad, a fashion foible, even a foolish phase, but I'm sorry I missed it. I can't believe Myrna Loy and William Powell would be capable of conjuring up a whole world of wit and sophistication orbiting around a cocktail glass if there were not something to it.
Miv Schaaf, now a Fieldbrook resident, wrote a column, Things, twice a week for 15 years for the Los Angeles Times.
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