In the 50s it was Elsa Maxwell, a famous hostess of that era, who declared a card party the easiest form of entertaining. And she meant bridge. In her 1956 book How to Do It or The Lively Art of Entertaining, she recommends for a bridge dinner, that you start at 6 PM with cocktails and playing bridge. Serve dinner at 8, followed by more bridge (with dessert and coffee) and ending at 10 PM.
My book’s sub-title is “An Affectionate Look Back at Sociable Bridge & Ladies Lunch.” Actually, however, playing bridge in those decades when bridge was a major fad wasn’t just about ladies lunch. It affected all aspects of entertaining from dinner parties to weekend house parties at country estates. House party hostesses back then claimed to love guests who played bridge–so easy to keep them entertained. They never get enough bridge! Just give them a deck of cards a bridge table and a few snacks or drinks.
At its height, bridge invaded debutante balls and dinner dances where upscale hostesses would provide a separate room and a few bridge tables for guests. I once read an article in an old magazine at the laundromat in Meredith, New Hampshire (I wish I’d swiped it!) of a dinner dance in the 1940s given by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor at their Paris suburb home. Even the Duchess set aside a separate room for bridge–sounds like at least some guests were so addicted, you’d better let them play bridge if you wanted them to come!
Etiquette books back then usually included good manners when playing bridge as a topic. I got such a kick out of Amy Vanderbilt’s advice in her 1958 etiquette book: Following dinner, says Amy, the will of the majority should prevail when it comes to playing bridge. If there are just a couple of uninterested guests in a roomful of bridge addicts “let them go read a book or the evening paper, go for a walk, play chess.” In short, Just go anywhere and let the rest of us play bridge! In our neighborhood we didn’t do that–for a dinner bridge we invited only couples who both played bridge.
Amy also had this bit of what I consider unrealistic advice.
If you attend a party where there’s an unexpected opportunity to play bridge, confess, she says if you are a good, bad or mid-level player. Don’t play if most are excellent players and you are not.
My life experience, however [and I believe I’ve mentioned this before in blogging] has been three addicted bridge players will insist you be the fourth no matter how badly you play. They’ll promise you anything–even to be polite and forgiving–if only you’ll play. What inadequate bridge players should do is threaten to quit if anybody gets mean–once in a while you’ll enjoy the satisfaction of beating a couple of experts just because they tend to overbid and us poorer players tend to underbid. Besides, they get confused by the sloppy bidding of poorer players.