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by kathy blackwell
photography by jay b. sauceda | December 1, 2014 | People
As we race toward the holiday season, Austin's premier hostess, Carla McDonald, is gearing up for her busiest—and best—time of year. Here, she shares why she’s so passionate about the power of parties. As she would say, “come on, dolls, and grab a gimlet!”
Carla McDonald (in a Donna Karan dress from Neiman Marcus) relaxes on the couch under a photograph by the famed Slim Aarons, while her husband, Jack, loosens up his Battistoni tuxedo. The two have relished this quiet, post-party ritual in their library for years.
At the end of every party in their beautifully appointed but inviting Westlake home, Carla McDonald pours a cocktail, slips off her heels, sinks into the sofa in her dark red lacquered library, and prepares to re-live the details of the evening with her husband, Jack. No matter how tired, they fill in each other on all the tidbits the other may have missed. After all, if everything has gone as planned, the husband and wife—known for their legendary parties as well for helping to raise more than $15 million for local charities since moving to Austin in 2001—wouldn’t have spoken to each other for hours.
“If we don’t see much of each other all night, it means that we’ve both been off spending time with our guests and having fun. I call it the divide-and-welcome approach,” McDonald says. “It’s important to me that at least one of us has had a chance to have a heartfelt conversation and a giggle or two with every guest.” It’s a ritual Jack, a technology entrepreneur, and Carla—one of the city’s preeminent hosts as well as a PR expert, entrepreneur, host of the weekly “On the Town” entertainment segment on Time Warner Cable News, and founder and editorial director of the rapidly growing Salonnière website (thesalonniere.com) devoted to all things entertaining—have enjoyed since their Manhattan apartment days in the 1990s. “If I’m lucky and I complain enough about my heels, he might even rub my feet,” she reveals.
The importance Carla places on the tête-à-tête—the art of intimate conversation, whether it’s with her husband in the cozy study or laughing with a friend in the corner of a crowded party—is evident to anyone who has attended her festive gatherings or has spent time on the sweeping Salonnière site, which gets its name from the 17th-and 18th century Parisian women who hosted salons and has a distinctive “come into my parlor” feel (readers are addressed playfully as “dolls” and “darlings”). “This need we have as humans to connect with one another is innate, and it’s psychologically necessary, even for the most introverted person,” says Carla. “Nobody can survive without human connections.”
In fact, we are all here because our ancestors were party animals—it’s in our genes, says Mark Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. Loners would have been eaten by predators, whereas the survivors who lived in and were supported by social groups survived and reproduced. McDonald recently interviewed Leary in her quest to find out more about how people are hardwired to connect. The gregarious extrovert—her idea of alone time is playing Words with Friends in her pajamas the day after a big fête—is fascinated by our need to interact.
“Parties are so important because it’s all about human connection and creating friendships and relationships that can last and become fruitful in other ways,” muses Carla. “My website is all about the parties and the details of parties, but the irony is that to me, parties are all about the people. I can look back and remember Texas Film Hall of Fame Award parties from eight or nine years ago that were just amazing, but I couldn’t tell you about the food they served or the cocktails or what the color scheme was. Those are not the things that people remember and are not what define the parties in the long-term.”
She lays white Cattleya orchids from David Kurio Designs at each place setting, which includes Legle and Bernardaud porcelain, Sferra linens, vintage silver, and place cards from The Printery.
Why then does Carla dedicate so much time to the art of the party? What motivates the businesswoman and mother of two active daughters to work on perfecting The Salonnière; to throw epic, detailed-to-the-last-favor parties with themes including the glory days of the Stork Club and the Pink Panther of the 1960s; and to dedicate time and money to fundraisers across the social calendar (upcoming highlights: the Hand to Hold Luncheon on November 15 and the Nobelity Dinner on February 15)?
“I’ve been planning parties since I was six years old,” Carla says with a deep, seductive laugh. Her father was a huge entertainer, and she looks back fondly on her visits to see him in South Africa after her parents divorced. He would take 13-year-old Carla on his party circuit, entrancing her as he circulated, laughing and hugging people—“That seemed like a fun way to live,” she recalls. “That interest in being social led me into the PR field and working with luxury brands because there was a lot of entertaining that went with that. In New York, when I was going to so many events, I learned a lot about what it takes to have a really effective party. I consider it a gift to give to people, to invite someone into your home and create a wonderful memory and introduce them to someone who might be a lifelong friend for them.”
Just before guests arrive, Carla lights ivory tapers in Reed & Barton candle holders, purchased from The Menagerie in central Austin.
For Carla, the details of a party— the all-important guest list, the food, the cocktails, the flowers—create the context for important connections. A friend once told her that she hosts parties like a director makes a movie, and she certainly embraces that description. When she hosts a catered event, she’ll lay out her vision to the staff beforehand. She has even cast roles, such as the Stork Club doorman who greeted guests on her front steps and the “cigarette girl” for the 2009 party, where guests were encouraged to wear vintage black-tie and were served Stork Club cocktails, made from the original recipes. At her Pink Panther party in 2011, Carla found magazines from the 1960s on eBay and scattered them on coffee tables. “Those are the details that add layers of interest and appeal to our senses,” she explains. “We all know our senses have connections to our brain, and they help form memories.”
This belief has powered the passion behind The Salonnière, a dizzying collection of tips and interviews with today’s global tastemakers (India Hicks, Peter Som, and Alexa Hampton); history lessons on “dames”—historic hostesses of the past, like the Marquise du Deffand and Madame Lespinasse; the Sally Awards, which honor the best party look of the week, such as the gown Lizzy Caplan wore to the Emmys; as well as seasonal and local information on galas and other events. Throw in lots of references to old Hollywood and add a mid-20th-century conversational tone, and you get the party picture. “Each of our stories is written to make our readers feel like they’re at a cocktail party having a conversation with their most fun, fabulous, and in-the-know friend who, yes, may have had a glass or two of wine,” Carla says.
“We ‘garnish’ our stories with imagery and wording from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s because there is no time in history that conjures up a sense of fun and frivolity like Hollywood’s Golden Age,” she says. “It has become almost mythic as a metaphor for revelry.” In less than a year, the site has garnered nearly 60,000 readers and landed Carla in the national spotlight in print and on television.
The florist David Kurio plays on the glamour of Carla’s dining room with centerpieces that feature white orchids and gold vintage ornaments in crystal bowls from The Menagerie. Baccarat green crystal water glasses and gold-rimmed Champagne flutes from Breed & Co. add a festive touch.
She and Jack have seen some changes in the Austin party scene over the past decade: First, she says, “There are a lot more of them, and that’s a good thing,” but she adds that the city’s full calendar requires communication and planning. “It’s sort of a high-class problem. People who are planning parties have to coordinate and be in touch with other organizations and know what’s on the calendar. Austin is such a friendly town, and it’s not in our DNA to ever cannibalize another organization’s event or fundraiser.”
The other big change? The expanding guest list. “We continue to attract so many innovative thinkers, people who are doing great things, whether it’s business entrepreneurs or people in the arts, music, or restaurants,” Carla explains. “The pool of potential invitees has grown so much, and that just makes the parties better.”
photography by Fulton Davenport (Clooney, stone); Carla’s hair by Danielle barr; makeup by laura martinez