Black-tie optional mid-week, in the middle of summer? What hostess would make such an audacious request of dinner guests, including advising the ladies to wear "gowns, jewels, bring out the bling, ladies!"
That would be uber hostess, glamorous diplomat and philanthropist Joanne King Herring.
"Your guests are the table decorations, so what they wear is really important," she says, describing last week's dinner at River Oaks Country Club as "a summer's night delight." Only the most assured hostess could pull off such a mandate and Herring managed it with grace.
"I don't like to have a dinner party unless there is someone exciting to entertain and I like having someone from out of town. I almost never have a dinner unless I have someone international."
For the woman who has entertained more than her share of European royalty, oil moguls and political leaders, orchestrating the perfect dinner party is fine art, a talent honed while entertaining everyone from King Hussein of Jordan to Saudi Arabia's Prince Bandar to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Herring's dinner parties at her River Oaks home and in Washington D.C. have enjoyed such notoriety over the years that the New York Times dropped in once to report on one of her most acclaimed rituals — moving dinner partners with every course.
The dinner table round robin was in play when Richard Yates, a Santa Fe, N.M,-based developer with an eye on Houston, co-hosted the dinner for 32. It was a heady group ranging from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to philanthropists Penny and Paul Loyd to Houston Chronicle managing editor Vernon Loeb.
And as is the case at every JKH dinner there were special guests of honor — Austrian Archduchess Maria-Anna Galitzine ("Call me Maria") and Russian Prince Piotr Galitzine, chairman of the American division of TMK, which brings us to point one in Herring's formula for the perfect dinner party.
The guest list
While some hostesses prefer their dinner guests to reside in the domain of pretty people, Herring prefers brainy and interesting. "I always have a few glamorous people," she explains, but the bulk of her dinner guests are "exciting, people that have actually done something in the world."
For the woman who has entertained more than her share of European royalty, oil moguls and political leaders, orchestrating the perfect dinner party is fine art.
Add to that recent dinner party Cheryl Byington, a striking blond (glamour, check) who happens to be BP's vice president of Discipline Capability for Upstream Finance (interesting, check), along with Stewart Title founder Stewart Morris and Rice University's director of public art Molly Hubbard.
"I like having people that don't know each other," Herring says, adding that including interesting people from all facets of the city makes for a profitable evening that "really adds to your world."
"I don't like to have a dinner party unless there is someone exciting to entertain and I like having someone from out of town. I almost never have a dinner unless I have someone international," she says. "They provide such a catalyst for conversation."
So it was only fitting that the mid-July guest list included Hong Kong-based entrepreneur and investor Allen Lin, who hails originally from Taiwan. He was introduced to Herring by METIS Financial Network CEO Joy Hou, a Taiwan native, living in San Diego. She also graced one of the two dinner tables.
Madame does not like round tables for any more than six people. Rounds inhibit conversation with anyone other than your dinner partner to the left and right while rectangular tables, she holds, invite conversation on either side as well as across the table.
The request for two lengthy rectangular tables for the River Oaks Country Club dinner threw staff into a tizzy. It isn't done, Herring was told. The table will be too narrow, catering said.
The seating chart
"You have to see that the guests have the best seats possible," Herring says, noting that arranging her guests around her tables is never easy. For one of her dinners in Washington D.C., it took two days to work the arrangement to her liking. For her recent dinner, several hours were consumed with just the right placement. And we're not talking merely one seating arrangement.
With the gents moving to new dinner partners with every course ("Take your wine glass and your napkin"), the seating has to be considered at least three times. It's a tradition that Herring began in the 1970s to assure that everyone has an interesting dinner partner for at least part of the night. "Seating is so important to people, which is one of the reasons to move them around."
Among those moving from place to place around the table were former Texas Secretary of State Geoff Connor, John Thrash and Dr. Aashish Shah.
"I think food is terribly important," Herring says. "You have to give this a lot of thought and I don't want anyone to come to Houston and not have a pecan ball." That vanilla ice cream delicacy rolled in chopped pecans and then topped with warm chocolate sauce was on the recent menu. It followed a first course of stuffed Texas quail and a main course of Chilean sea bass. Each course was accompanied by a French wine.
If a hostess gives enough thought to each of the elements, "things will work out," Herring says.
Applauding Herring's dinner party prowess and Yates' generosity as host were guests including philanthropists Sue Trammell Whitfield and Joan Lyons, plus international fundraiser Becca Cason Thrash, Tricia Dewhurst, Ford Hubbard III, Omana and Sam Abraham, Mary Ann and David McKeithan, Roseann Rogers, Robin King and Yates' date Madeline Feijóo.