What Would Nora Do?

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

I didn’t know what a house gift was until Nora Ephron taught me. We were both very young. She proposed that Esquire (where we worked) do a story on gifts to bring a host for a weekend visit “out East.” We didn’t use that term, of course, because back then one could still safely say the words “Hamptons” or “Vineyard” without being considered uppity or a twit.

She was clear that a tote bag brimming with delicacies from Zabar’s was a perfect gift. As usual, she was right—still is. Nora reasoned that what a host with a houseful of summer guests needs is stuff to feed the guests. Stuff the host didn’t have time to shop for, cook, or order. Stuff that didn’t stand a chance of being “OMG, what the fuck am I going to do with this?”


Bad House Gifts

I hate to tell you, but some house gifts are so bad that Joy Behar gives a “white elephant” party where tony hosts can unburden themselves of summer gifts that fell short. Here are some really bad house gifts:

A colorful glass twirling “thingamabob” for the garden. (Any idea how much the host paid for color-coded natural landscaping? If he or she wanted anything more for the garden, they’d already own it.)

A gorgeous plant. (Who knew the host is allergic to gardenias and that azaleas give the child hives?) The floral exception: a basket overflowing with a fortune’s worth of Phalaenopsis orchids (white) or a breathtaking bouquet of cut flowers.

A set of six “matchless” wooden plates. (Especially when the host is splinter-phobic and seats at least ten at summer dinners. Not to mention the home is French chateau–style, not a barn.)

Giving a good house gift isn’t easy: that’s why some people have a full-time person for such things. With this type of help, there’s time to give monogrammed beach towels. (Blue and white striped are the best). Why? I hate to say it, but chic hosts often like all their beach towels to be uniform.

Why is the monogram so special? Because then you can sort your towels from all the other blue-and-white striped ones at the beach club.


Rules of Thumb

My rule of thumb about house gifts is, with few exceptions, vastly wealthy friends and acquaintances still appreciate a gift that they would have been paying for if I hadn’t given it to them.

My second rule of thumb is, the homes where I’ve been a guest a) would have been unavailable to me unless I’d taken (at a minimum) a $140,000 summer rental, and b) the no-room-at-the-inn runs $1,000 nightly with a two-night minimum, thus c) my gift budget is generous.

House gifts I’ve given include the large jar of La Mer moisturizer, a pair of Manolo Blahnik mules (same-size, same-taste girlfriend), ten cases of liter-size Poland Spring water, a case of tennis balls (when the host was on a tennis kick), a case of the host’s favorite golf balls (when the host was on a golf kick), the tennis racket (just like mine) that the hostess wanted, the new putter the host had been eyeing, a bouquet of antique sterling silver ladles, a porcelain box engraved with a line from the host’s favorite poem (“Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be…” —Robert Browning).

Sally Bedell Smith, whose new book Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life (not a bad gift itself, combined with Richard Cohen’s She Made Me Laugh), says, “My favorite houseguest gift at the moment is A Year in Books, a monthly or bimonthly literary subscription from Heywood Hill in London.”

Judy Licht says her best gift “was actually from my brand-new in-law, Dr. Jane Salmon. A set of elegant cloth cocktail napkins in a geographically appropriate Hamptons patterned toile.” Let’s say a set of twelve Italian Le Telerie Toscane napkins, which will set you back several Benjamins. Like that.

Jackie Leo suggests a neutral cashmere throw (fine cotton if you can’t afford cashmere). “If your host has a child, a collection of baby lit or child lit books” always work; or a “hostess gift of luxurious soaps, sprays, and lotions.” (I plagiarized Jackie’s worst gift “thingamabob”—see “garden” above.)

My dear Barbara Goldsmith (RIP) once gave me a birthday gift of three Jo Malone fragrances. “Nora said no one can ever have too much Jo Malone.” That was then. Jo Malone now sells a $400 candle. Nora would give it a withering look.

She would, though, approve of an antique bread board set with “knife” carved into the knife handle and “bread” carved into the board. I know this because she gave them to me.

Almost every day I juice a lemon (for the electrolytes, after Bikram Yoga) or press a garlic clove with the Zyliss Susi Swiss professional grade aluminum press that Nora bequeathed to me. I tell you this because on June 26 it will have been five years since Nora died and I uncharacteristically burst into tears in front of the Television and Crime class I was teaching at Yale.

Each of these gift suggestions are from women who were friends of Nora. I wanted to remember her this month in precise words and glad thoughts (because she would be the first to tell you: “What’s the point of sad? I’m the one who had to miss the last five seasons of Girls. Eat this dessert—you’ll feel better.”).

Finally, here’s a gift for all of you: Nora’s Best Ice Cream recipe. I’m holding in my hand the piece of now yellowed newsprint she typed it on: “Here is the best, most foolproof ice cream recipe I have:

“4 cups sour cream, 4 cups sugar, 4 bananas, and 4 peaches. Blend bananas and peaches in blender and mix with the rest. Add some lemon juice and Myers rum. Put into the iron [Salton ice cream maker] container, insert the dasher (I forgot that) and turn on. Let it operate for 1/2 hour (it never seems to labor with this). Serve immediately or pack into plastic containers and freeze.

“The thing that is wonderful about this recipe is that when it is frozen, the consistency remains velvety.” 


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